Unless you count the stars of the billion or so reality shows set in New Jersey, the Garden State’s strangest and most famous creature is the Jersey Devil. As Benjamin Radford of Live Science tells us, tales of this legendary cryptid have been reported since the 18th century, and its origin story is the stuff of horror movies: supposedly, on the requisite dark and stormy night, a lady (and possible witch) known as Mother Leeds was giving birth to her thirteenth child. It was whispered that the baby’s father was the devil himself, and the fact that the child soon sprouted wings and turned into a demonic creature certainly supported that theory. The newborn Jersey Devil slew its midwife, let out a horrible scream and flew into the woods of Pine Barrens, where it has been occasionally sighted and continues to haunt people’s imagination even today.
Of course, historical sources make no mention of a screeching demon child flying around, except when recounting the legend. With no solid proof to support the story, we can probably assume that it has been at least somewhat embellished over time. After all, who could believe that Pine Barrens is actually haunted by a long-legged, cloven-hooved, bat-winged monster with a long, goat-like face and a body like a kangaroo?
Well, that’s the thing. There’s actually a chance that at least some version of the Jersey Devil might actually have existed. Here’s why!
The Jersey Devil might be a hammerhead bat or a sandhill crane
Much like the Chupacabra, the Mothman, and even the Hydra, the Jersey Devil’s true origins may be found in the animal kingdom. According to Cape Bay Magazine, skeptic, author and Skeptoid producer Brian Dunning certainly believes this: “In most cases like this, some of the sightings turn out to be mistaken identifications of everyday animals or something else,” he has said. Dunning notes that there’s one particular animal in the New Jersey area that might be responsible for at least a few Jersey Devil stories: the sandhill crane. While this bird might not be a particularly horrifying sight, it does tick all the usual Jersey Devil boxes with its long head, thin, long legs and massive wings that could seem a bit bat-like when the bird spreads them and stands tall.
As Dan Evon of Snopes reports, though, there’s another possible culprit for Jersey Devil sightings. Some have suggested that the strange-looking, long-faced hammerhead bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus), which can have a wingspan of almost 40 inches, looks a lot like the traditional depiction of the cryptid. Of course, there’s the minor issue that the hammerhead bat is native to Africa, not North America. But hey, who knows where these guys or their cousins hung out a few centuries ago?
Quakers, feuds and Benjamin Franklin
The Jersey Devil sightings might be cranes and whatnot, but where did the legend come from in the first place?
As Cape Bay Magazine explains, it may have its roots in a simple historical feud. In the early 18th century, a New Jersey Quaker called Daniel Leeds started drifting away from local Quaker leaders, who disliked his political views. Allegedly, Leeds was also a big mysticism guy, and had published a text called The Temple of Wisdom, where he discussed things like sorcery and devils. Leeds eventually converted to the Anglican Church, and the Quakers reacted to this affront by labeling him evil and releasing an official anti-Leeds tract called Satan’s Harbinger Encountered. Ouch.
In 1718, Leeds retired and his son, the amazingly named Titan Leeds, took over both the family affairs and their penchant for feuding. He doubled down on their street cred by redesigning the Leeds family crest to include monsters that looked suspiciously like the future Jersey Devil. Leeds, meanwhile, published an almanac which directly competed with the one published by Benjamin Franklin: the future founding father was all-too-aware of the Leeds family’s reputation, and started insinuating that the very much alive Titan was actually a ghost that was haunting Franklin from beyond the grave.
It’s probably just a coincidence that the Jersey Devil story started going around at that exact time, and that it was originally known as the Leeds Devil. Probably juuuust a coincidence.
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