The Devil Went Down To Georgia…
We all know the braggadocious song and how it ended. Charlie Daniels said he was the best fiddle player there ever was. He certainly knew he was good enough to take on the challenge. Johnny, (Daniels) won that shiny fiddle made of gold, and the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance that year in 1979. And in October of 2016, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Charlie Daniels was versed in multiple genres: Bluegrass, Country, Country Rock, Country Gospel, Outlaw Country, Pop/Rock, and Urban Cowboy, just to name a few. He grew up among the longleaf pines of North Carolina and it no doubt was his love of Christian and Gospel Country music that inspired him to write that song. Well, the devil lost that bet and must have come to New Jersey, because there’s a legend here that’s hard to forget!
Jersey’s Home Grown
New Jersey has its own version of Charlie’s story: the Jersey Devil. We even have a hockey team named after it. Back in 1982, the team known as the Colorado Rockies was sold and the franchise moved to New Jersey. A contest was held to select the name and over 10,000 people voted. The team became the Jersey Devils, named after the legendary creature that allegedly inhabits the Pine Barrens of South Jersey.
The tale of the Jersey Devil has a sordid and murky past. Much like typical folklore that has been passed down through the centuries of time, details get muddled, embellished, or added later on. There are several versions of the story. Some say it goes as far back as the 1600s, but the most consistent detail is what the creature looks like, with only slight variation. The Jersey Devil, also known as the Leed’s Devil, is described as a cryptic animal that was allegedly born human and then morphed into a dragon-like creature after its birth. Many witness accounts say it walks upright on two legs with cloven hooves, has a head like a horse, nasty claws, a forked tail, and leathery, bat-like wings. According to legend, long before European settlers encountered the devil, the local Native American tribes referred to the Pine Barrens as “the place of the dragon.”
The tale originates in Atlantic County, New Jersey back in the 17th Century with a woman known as Mother Leeds, possibly the wife of a man named Daniel Leeds. The legend states that Mother Leeds had twelve children and, after finding she was pregnant for the thirteenth time, cursed the child in frustration saying, “May it be a devil.” Mother Leeds was in labor on a stormy night while her friends gathered around her. Born as a normal child, the thirteenth child changed to a creature with hooves, a goat’s head, bat wings, and a forked tail. Growling and screaming, it killed the midwife before flying up the chimney and heading into the pines.
As with many folktales and legends, there are believers and non-believers. Like Brian Regal, who writes for The Skeptical Inquirer, and teaches the history of science at Kean University.
“The story of the Jersey Devil has become layered with myths and variations, obscuring the original events that gave rise to it. Not surprising considering the story comes from colonial-era political intrigue, Quaker religious infighting, and a future Founding Father. ”
According to Regal, much like the Mother Leeds of the Jersey Devil myth, Daniel Leeds’ third wife had given birth to nine children, a large number of children even for the time. Leeds’ second wife and first daughter had both died during childbirth. As a royal surveyor with a strong allegiance to the British Crown, Leeds had also surveyed and acquired land in the Egg Harbor area, located within the Pine Barrens. The land was inherited by Leeds’ sons and family and is now known as Leeds Point, one of the areas in the Pine Barrens currently most associated with alleged Jersey Devil sightings.
* * * * Side note: Mother Leeds has been identified as potentially two different people; Jane Leeds, who was the wife of Daniel Leeds and Deborah Leeds, on grounds that Deborah Leeds’ husband, Japhet Leeds, named twelve children in the will he wrote during 1736. Japhet most likely was the son of Daniel Leeds.
Battle of the Almanacs
Starting in the 17th century, English Quakers established settlements in southern New Jersey, the region in which the Pine Barrens are located. Daniel Leeds, a Quaker and a prominent person of pre-Revolution colonial southern New Jersey, became ostracized by his Quaker congregation after his 1687 publication of almanacs containing astrological symbols and writings. During 1716, Daniel Leeds’ son, Titan Leeds, inherited his father’s almanac business, which competed with Benjamin Franklin’s popular Poor Richards Almanac. Franklin satirically used astrology in his almanac to predict Titan Leeds’ death in October of that same year. Though Franklin’s prediction was intended as a joke at his competitor’s expense and a means to boost almanac sales, Titan Leeds was apparently offended at the death prediction and it began one of the most notorious almanac feuds of all time.
In 1728, Titan Leeds began to include the Leeds family crest on the masthead of his almanacs. The Leeds family crest depicted a wyvern, a bat-winged dragon-like legendary creature that stands upright on two clawed feet. Regal notes that the wyvern on the Leeds family crest is reminiscent of the popular descriptions of the Jersey Devil.
Seeing is Believing
Over the past 200 years, there have been many claims of sightings and the occurrences of eerie noises involving the Jersey Devil. Here are just a few.
According to legend, while visiting the Hanover Mill Works to inspect his cannonballs being forged, Commodore Stephen Decatur sighted a flying creature flapping its wings and fired a cannonball directly upon it, to no effect.
Joseph Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon, is also claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Bordentown estate around 1820. During 1840, the devil was blamed for several livestock killings. Similar attacks were reported during 1841, accompanied by tracks on the ground and screams in the night.
The best-known sightings, however, were in January 1909 when Councilman E.P. Weeden of Trenton claimed to have been awoken by flapping wings outside his bedroom window. The Councilman said he found cloven footprints in the snow and several other instances of similar footprints were reported in Trenton at the time. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people also claimed to have seen the Devil within a week or so of the Councilman’s “sighting” and news of the multiple sightings were reported in local papers. The January 1909 sightings were not limited to New Jersey either. There were reported sightings across the river in Pennsylvania and some sightings in Delaware as well.
In 1978 two teenage boys were ice-skating near Chatsworth in the Barrens. They smelled an odor like dead fish and saw two red eyes staring at them. They didn’t stick around to investigate but claimed they had encountered the Jersey Devil.
In the years since 1909 reported sightings of the Jersey Devil have continued on a consistent basis. It’s clear that people are seeing something strange in southern New Jersey. Could the Jersey Devil be a real animal?
The Jersey Devil Comes To Asbury Park
On April 6th & 7th The very first Jersey Devil Festival will be held in Asbury Park. It’s a small homegrown festival created by Asbury Park’s own Paranormal Books and Curiosities. The festival will be dedicated to folklore, storytelling, and film of this legendary creature. The festivities will begin on Friday, April 6th with a Jersey Devil Film Festival at The Showroom Cinema with the following schedule:
7:30 PM – Officially selected shorts.
8:00 PM – The 20th Anniversary Screening of The Last Broadcast.
The release of this film in 1998 is largely considered to be the first feature-length film shot on handheld cameras and edited completely on a desktop editing suite. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, both from NJ, chose the state’s favorite beast, The Jersey Devil as a premise for their film. They join the festival on April 6th to talk about their inspirations and the challenges they faced.
Similar to Paranormal’s Krampus Festival that’s held in December, The Jersey Devil Festival should prove to be a lot of fun and family friendly, with tons of activities and contests: Poster Contest, Tattoo Contest, Best Story Contest, as well as Jersey Devil Art and Music.
On Saturday, April 7th, the festival runs from 1-6 pm. It will include storytelling tours through the downtown featuring tales of the Jersey Devil. These are FREE, however registration is required. In addition, the stories will be available in the shop windows for a self-guided tour for people who miss the walking tours. Authors of stories relating to NJ Folklore and The Jersey Devil will be placed in businesses throughout the downtown.
The Guided Tours are at 1 PM and 3 PM and you can register for the tours at Tales of the Jersey Devil Walking Tour.
Also at 1 PM, Dr. Angus Kress Gillespie of Rutgers University will give a lecture on the Jersey Devil in The Salon at Paranormal Tower. This event is also free. Again, registration is required. Along with storytelling and lectures, there will be a small display of Jersey Devil Artifacts and historic Images at Paranormal.
The town crier will read out the names of the honorary descendants of the Jersey Devil. (If you’d like to be part of the Jersey Devil family tree you can sign up at paranormalbooksnj.com). And at 5 PM attendees will line up at Paranormal for the march to the Summoning, in Kennedy Park where people will be encouraged to howl and growl for the Jersey Devil, with the winner being chosen by the crowd.
For questions about the event, you can contact Paranormal directly at (732) 455-3188.
When my very first blog about Asbury Park posted on April 6th 2016, it was originally titled Like a Virgin.” Not that I’m a huge Madonna fan, but I was likening my new writing endeavor to the newness and rebirth of Asbury Park. At the time, I wanted all of my blogs to be named after songs because of Asbury Park’s rich music history. I later renamed it We’re Back!. I was wet behind the ears then and maybe even a bit overzealous. I told a writer from the New York Times, who printed a story about Asbury Park the summer before, to “check his facts.” That was ballsy. A lot of people in town felt offended by that story. They didn’t think it portrayed Asbury Park in an accurate light, or at least in its current light, and I agreed. Insiders can be protective of their little city by the sea. I always say, “Life is like a boomerang.” Everything you throw out there comes right back to you. And it definitely did! As more stories posted I had to check, and correct, a few of my own facts.
The first couple of stories stayed true to my vision with titles like Everyday People in May, and 500 Miles in July. But the story about the opening of The Asbury Hotel, titled The Salvation in June 2016, was my most read blog to this day. The title was never a song, although unbeknownst to me it was a western ‘revival’ movie that came out the year before. I ditched the song title idea.
Interestingly, last month in What’s Your Passion? I wrote about saints, religion, and Jesus. This month I’m writing about their rival. It’s kind of funny how that worked out. There is no doubt a push and pull between those two forces.
Next month will be the two year anniversary of writing my blogs (minus the gap during the last part of 2017 – I blame it on the Devil). I have some interesting things planned for this coming year: a series, some new topics, as well as new writers. So stay tuned. And tell your friends to sign up.
As for the Jersey Devil, I hope he enjoys his visit to Asbury Park. Come Sunday he’d better start packing, because Salvation is Asbury Park.