Every guido and guidette knows the story of the Jersey Devil. Mother Leeds was a promiscuous lady, pumping out twelve kids and finding herself heavy with child once again. Exhausted and exasperated, she exclaimed “Let it be the devil!” Mama learned the hard way to be careful what you wish for. Upon JD’s birth, he slaughtered his siblings, sparing Mother Leeds to mourn the rest of her days in a shack. Fratricide aside, he’s not all bad. Locals tell he’d come and visit mom in south Jersey on dark and stormy nights.
One of the latest theories behind the Jersey Devil comes from the skeptic camp, courtesy of Kean University’s Brian Regal. The long and short of his theory posits the Jersey Devil as the product of an 18th century flame war between Ben Franklin and Titan Leeds. The former needs no introduction, the latter hails from a royalist, loyalist family dabbling in ye olden analogue to blogs known as almanacs. Ben, posing as “Poor” Richard Saunders, accused Titan of engaging in sorcerous acts, echoing Quakers condemning Titan for including astrology in Titan’s New Almanack. Titan died in 1738, but the Leeds legend remains strong in the 21st century.
Brian, a historian, pimped his latest book at the Kearny Library last spring. Making some good points on the basis of the folklore, and showing his work. With every other breath, he shut down any discussion of cryptozoology by testily responding “It doesn’t exist” when people inevitably brought up Bigfoot and the possibility of a flesh and blood Devil. When pressed on hard evidence, footprints, hairs, and the rest, Brian’d retreat with the boilerplate “I’m not a biologist.” Can’t blame him for playing it safe, but why throw the 13th baby out with the bathwater? There are compelling arguments for the existence of the Jersey Devil.
From a blood and guts aspect, there are many popular suspects. South Jersey is a haven for birdwatchers and oft-sighted are sandhill cranes1. With the popular description of an elongated head, bipedal stance, and wings fits the bill, especially after taking exaggeration into account. Another possible specimen was photographed in Oklahoma, of all places, turning out as a hairless squirrel2. An African fruitbat, Hypsignathus monstrosus3, certainly resembles the Jersey Devil but there are no known sightings of this H. monstrosus in North America, plus it’s much smaller than the creature eyewitnesses claimed to encounter.
Yet another theory suggests it could be a macropod. Those are kangaroos and wallabies, to you and me. During the 1909 Jersey Devil flap around Philadelphia, canny carnies exhibited a poor, green-painted kangaroo with tin wings as the bona fide Jersey Devil. These critters meet the criteria for JD’s appearance, wings notwithstanding, and Americans tend to keep weird pets. 100 years after the devil scare, a woman claimed to have found kangaroo roadkill4 in Raritan Township. Considering the number of kangaroo sightings5 throughout North America, the odds are in our favor.
Many sightings throughout history attribute supernatural powers to the Jersey Devil, like running up walls, squeezing through tiny holes, or simply being bulletproof. These instances are just stories, and the best thing about writing is making shit up. But there’s an intersection between the supernatural and ‘real’ world. Take Slenderman, a meme gone wild, borne of Something Awful’s forums, included in many bricksworthy videos and stories. Ask anyone on or off the internet and they’ll acknowledge there’s no such thing as a Slenderman. A cursory Google search6 suggests a nascent trend in real world Slenderman sightings. Most likely these authors are attention whores looking to boost their post count or karma, but the stories are now out there. Being read late at night by bored netizens and the gullible. Seeds of myth will find fertile soil in active minds, spreading through families and friends, in ever-growing circles, eventually granting him form and agency as a tulpa. Just like the Jersey Devil.
As the mascot of a sports team and Weird NJ, star of comic books, video games, and some films, not to mention a Bruce Springsteen song7, Mother Leeds’s most notorious child is alive and well in popular consciousness. Like so many kids clapping their hands so Tinkerbell will live, the Jersey Devil finds strength in belief. As long as people love a good story, he’ll continue haunting the Pine Barrens.