The Jersey Devil has worked its way into the pop culture of the area, even lending its name to New Jersey's team in the National Hockey League.
According to one version of the tale, the Jersey Devil was the thirteenth child born to a Mrs. Leeds, a resident of the Pine Barrens during the mid-17th century. Mrs. Leeds was so upset at yet another pregnancy that after giving birth she exclaimed, "I am tired of children! Let the devil take this one!" What was once a human child immediately transformed into a winged monstrosity; he ate all the other children and flew out through the chimney. There are many versions of this legend, differing in date of the birth and the degree of the Devil's disfigurement. In some stories, the Devil is merely a human child which Mrs. Leeds confined to her cellar or attic, only to have it escape into the woods. Another legend attributes the Devil's birth to a Gypsy curse placed upon a selfish young woman who refused to give the Gypsy food and shelter. There are other tales that suggest Leeds herself was a witch or that she was cursed by locals for having an affair with a British soldier. The Shourds House, a log cabin within the Pine Barrens, was reputed to be the birthplace of the Devil. Only ruins of the foundation of the house and a few other parts still exist today.
The Jersey Devil has been said to be companion to a headless pirate, a ghostly woman, and a mermaid. In certain parts of South Jersey, the Devil is rumored to live in an apocryphal Agent Orange plant near Chatsworth, a very small town surrounded by forest and sand.
There is another description on the New Jersey devil that is well-known by local people in South Jersey. A woman in South Jersey was having her first baby and she wanted him to be perfect. When the baby was born, it was the most ugly looking baby that anyone had ever seen at that time. The mother was so upset that she said "This isn't my son. This is the devil's son. May God give the thing back to him!" After saying this, she threw her son into the river. The son died. Now that river is said to be haunted by the devil. Many people have died there. It is said that there is an unknown source which sucks air to it from under a rock. When people swim near there, they are sucked under the rock; they are then held there until they die. Once they are dead, the body is let go so that it floats to the top for everyone to see.
In 1840, the Devil was blamed for livestock killings. 1841 saw a similar attack, accompanied by strange tracks and screams. The Devil made an 1859 appearance in Haddonfield. Bridgeton witnessed a flurry of sightings during the winter of 1873.
Joseph Bonaparte (eldest brother of Emperor Napoleon) is said to have seen the Devil while hunting on his Bordentown, New Jersey, estate. Commodore Stephen Decatur is claimed to have fired upon the Devil while testing ammunition on a New Jersey firing range. He and his audience were dumbfounded to watch the Devil continue its flight apparently untouched.
January 1909, however, saw the most widespread period of sightings ever recorded. Thousands of people claimed to have seen the Devil during the week of January 16 – 23. Newspapers nationwide followed the story and published eyewitness reports. Hysteria gripped the entire state during this terrible week.
- 16th (Saturday) — The Devil was sighted flying over Woodbury.
- 17th (Sunday) — In Bristol, Pennsylvania, several people saw the creature and tracks were found in the snow the following day.
- 18th (Monday) — Burlington was covered in strange tracks that seemed to defy logic; some were found on rooftops; others seemed to disappear completely. Several other towns found similar footprints.
- 19th (Tuesday) — Nelson Evans and his wife, of Gloucester, found the Devil outside their window at 2:30 AM .
- Mr. Evans gave the following account: "It was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse's hooves. It walked on its back legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. It didn't use the front legs at all while we were watching. My wife and I were scared, I tell you, but I managed to open the window and say, 'Shoo!' and it turned around, barked at me, and flew away".
- Two Gloucester hunters tracked the Devil's seemingly impossible trail for 20 miles. The trail appeared to jump fences and squeeze under eight-inch gaps. Sightings were reported in several other towns.
- 20th (Wednesday) — In Haddonfield and Collingswood, posses were formed to find the Devil. They watched him fly off toward Moorestown, where he was later sighted by at least two people.
- 21st (Thursday) — The Devil attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights, but was chased off. Trolley cars in several other towns began to maintain armed guards. Several poultry farmers found their chickens dead. The Devil was reported to have walked into an electric rail in Clayton, but if this did happen, it did not kill the beast. A telegraph worker near Atlantic City claimed to have shot the Devil and watched him limp into the woods. If so, he was not fazed much because he continued his assault, visiting Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and West Collingswood, New Jersey (where he was hosed by the local fire department). The Devil prepared to attack nearby people, who threw whatever they could find at it. Right as he was about to strike, the Devil flew away. He emerged later in Camden and injured a dog, ripping a chunk of flesh as the dog's horrified owner looked on. This is the first Devil attack on a living creature that was witnessed.
- 22nd (Friday) — Last day of sightings. By now many towns were in a panic, with businesses and schools closed for fear of the creature. It was, however, only seen a few times that day and did not attack anything.
In addition to the number of major attacks and sightings, the Devil was sighted flying over many other towns. Since the week of terror in 1909, sightings have slowed considerably, but by no means did they end. In 1951 there was another panic in Gibbstown, New Jersey, after local boys claimed to have seen a humanoid monster and heard screams. As recently as 1991, a pizza delivery driver in Edison, New Jersey, described a night encounter with a white, horse-like creature. There today exist many websites and magazines (such as Weird NJ) which catalog sightings of the Devil.
Many different descriptions have been by those who have seen the creature. Several eyewitness accounts follow.
- "I looked out upon the Delaware and saw flying diagonally across what appeared to be a large crane, but which was emitting a glow like a fire-fly. Its head resembled that of a ram, with curled horns, and its long thick neck was thrust forward in flight. It had long thin wings and short legs, the front legs shorter than the hind." — E.W. Minster, Bristol, PA. Sighted on January 16, 1909.
- "It was three feet high... long black hair over its entire body, arms and hands like a monkey, face like a dog, split hooves [...] and a tail a foot long". — George Snyder, Moorestown, NJ. Sighted on January 20, 1909.
- "In general appearance it resembled a kangaroo... It has a long neck and from what glimpse I got of its head its features are hideous. It has wings of a fairly good size and of course in the darkness looked black. Its legs are long and somewhat slender and were held in just such a position as a swan's when it is flying...It looked to be about four feet high". — Lewis Boeger, Haddon Heights, NJ. Sighted on January 21, 1909.
- "As nearly as I can describe the terror, it had the head of a horse, the wings of a bat and a tail like a rat's, only longer". — Howard Campbell, who claimed to have shot the devil near Atlantic City (see above). Sighted on January 21, 1909.
While the descriptions vary, several factors remain fairly constant. It is commonly described as having a long neck, with wings and hooves. It is often said to have a horse-like head and a tail. The height of the creature varies among sightings from about three feet to more than seven feet. Most sightings also report that the creature has glowing bright red eyes and emits a high, human-like scream.
There are many possible roots of the Jersey Devil legends. The Pine Barrens, as their name suggests, were avoided by early settlers as a desolate, threatening area. The barrens provided a natural refuge for those who wished to remain hidden, starting with religious dissenters, loyalists, fugitives and deserting soldiers in colonial times. These people, cut off from much of the outside world, formed their own solitary groups and were pejoratively referred to as "pineys". Some of the pineys included notorious bandits known as Pine Robbers. Pineys were further demonized after two eugenics studies at the turn of the century depicted them as congenital idiots and criminals. It is easy to imagine early tales of terrible monsters arising from a combination of sightings of genuine animals such as bears, the activities of pineys, and fear of the imposing barrens themselves.
Outdoorsman and author Tom Brown, Jr. spent several seasons living entirely within the wilderness of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. He recounts several occasions when terrified hikers mistook him for the Jersey Devil, particularly after he covered his whole body in mud to repel mosquitoes.
Of course, the most influential, and probably most important, roots of the tales of the Jersey Devil are the testimonials of people who have come into contact with the creature, from before the European settlers arrived to the present day.