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Halloween’s Timeless Terror – the Tale of the Jersey Devil

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As urban legends go, you will not find anything in North America even approaching the enduring terror of the “Jersey Devil” – the supposedly demonic 13th child of the evil Mrs. Leeds, the former Deborah Smith, who, the story goes, placed a curse on her own offspring the moment he was born, offering the child to Satan, in exchange for escaping the responsibility of raising yet another baby.

The variations of this tale are myriad. But, certain historical clues (it’s questionable whether they rise to the level of fact) have been passed down with an eerie accuracy, from generation to generation: the date of the child’s birth was 1735; the place is an ancient ruins not far from the South Jersey shore called the “Shroud House” (and, yes, I have been there more than once), and the setting was the night of a howling, October Nor’easter during Halloween Week, not unlike the one recently experienced by all the drenched people who attended the Phillies World Series game last Monday night.

The Jersey Devil is an evil presence, of some kind, that has been variously described as a feral son of Satan, complete with wings, horns and the fearsome face of “the beast.”

Other generations have identified it as a “bipedal flying creature with hooves” and a decidedly malicious intent. Dragons; huge, ill-tempered Sandhill Cranes; an unidentified wetlands creature overlooked by evolution, but flourishing in the misty Pine Barrens; and even supposedly extinct pterodactyls have all been linked with the Jersey Devil.

The Leeds Curse

From there, it becomes murky. The curse may have been the work of a wandering gypsy to whom the beautiful, but the mean-spirited, Deborah Leeds denied food and shelter in the storm. The child’s father was definitely not Mr. Leeds, but very possibly a frightened young British soldier, barely older than Mrs. Leeds’s own eldest children, who had deserted into the wilds of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, only to be hidden and then seduced by Deborah Leeds, the woman who had become a surrogate mother to him. From there, the variations become even creepier.

The exact nature of the legendary temptress, Mother Leeds, is also hard to fix. That she was an early and provocative version of what we like to call a hyper-sexed “cougar” is beyond dispute. However, the extent of Mrs. Leeds’ indoctrination into the “craft”, or the black arts of witchcraft, is open to conjecture.

The inhabitants of the Jersey Pine Barrens have always been thought of as an odd and menacing mix of pirates, pioneer survivalists, deserters from both sides during the Revolutionary War, ex-patriots from Imperial Russia to Napoleonic France, and simple, nature-worshipping plain folks who preferred the isolation of the bogs, and tar pits and grist mills to the relative sophistication of places like Philadelphia.

We have the great explorer Henry Hudson to thank for the initial discovery of this vast, forest-covered sweep of woodlands and open space. He sailed in from Raritan and Delaware Bays in the year 1609.

Large encampments of Leni Lenape Indian tribes greeted Captain Hudson initially. By the colonial era, the Pine Barrens were busy and semi-industrial, thanks to lumber, farming and iron smelting. The pig iron ore found in the Pine Barrens soon became a rich and coveted source of raw materials for many implements of war, including cannonballs and grape-shot.

That era ended during the 19th century largely through the introduction of short-haul rail lines, linking places like Philadelphia to the rapidly emerging of shore resorts, from Atlantic City to Cape May. At that point, the mysterious, hostile Pine Barrens – and the ubiquitous Jersey Devil, in all of its manifestations – were best avoided, if possible.

The span between Halloween and late January every year is the Jersey Devil’s traditional time to shine. In fact, no less an authority than this newspaper’s forebearer, The Evening Bulletin, even published a picture of the alleged creature back in 1909. It was during the week of January 16 to the 23 that year that the Jersey Devil made his most audacious and destructive forays into the Greater Philadelphia area, devouring livestock, setting fires (more on that later), destroying property of all kinds and threatening humans, from downtown Philadelphia to the Jersey shore towns.

Jersey Devil Lore

As part of the native mythology of the South Jersey and Philadelphia region, the Jersey Devil has withstood the test of time, skepticism and post-modern disbelief. He is intricately intermingled within the larger fabric of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. This huge expanse of land (well over 1.1 million square acres) encompasses 22 percent of New Jersey, including seven counties and 56 small cities and towns. The Pine Barrens represent the largest preserve of protected open space on the Middle Atlantic coast, from Boston to Richmond.

Today, the mystical creature has spawned not only thousands of carefully recorded sightings, included those made by police, firefighters and park rangers, but an impressive body of literature, many movies and television shows (including Episode #5 of the X-Files), dozens of clubs and state-sponsored “hunts”, a cottage industry of tourist items, from T-Shirts to videos, one National Hockey League team, the New Jersey Devils, too many web sites and blogs to list, and a small, but steady stream of scholarly articles and graduate school theses.

Among the most recent sightings of the creature are several by firefighters engaged in battling the massive forest fires that regularly lay waste the vast acreage of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. These descriptions report a striking similarity: an enormous demonic face, complete with horns, blazing eyes and a shrieking voice, with the creature appearing to rise out of the flames and feed on them.

Now, before you begin attributing these reports to the same kind of people who believe whole-heartedly in UFO abductions, here’s a 1993 account from an on-duty Park Ranger in the Wharton State Forest who was patrolling the Mullica River area: “It was approximately six feet tall, with horns on its head and matted black fur.”

History as Witness

Over time, Jersey Devil sightings have been reported by many credible witnesses and prominent figures.

Commodore Stephen Decatur, the naval hero of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 was stationed in the Pine Barrens shortly after hostilities with England ended. The Hanover Iron Works, in the Pineys, was a major center for manufacturing cannonballs and other ammunition during much of the 19th century. In fact, today, the Pine Barrens are sill home to several, classified military buildings and ranges, beginning with the Lakehurst Naval Air Station.

Commodore Decatur’s Jersey Devil experience involved the testing of cannonballs and shot that was enroute to the war against the Barbary Pirates. While on the firing range, Decatur and is party reported being attacked by a creature fitting the description of the Jersey Devil. In that instance, the creature was driven off by cannon fire, but not at all injured.

Folklorists also point to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Emperor Napoleon and the former King of Spain, who had been offered safe haven by the United States. He lived in Bordentown, New Jersey, for 15 years. During a hunting expedition into the Pine Barrens, Bonaparte’s people were also attacked and held at bay by a creature matching Decatur’s description and all the other early sightings of the Jersey Devil.

Additional witnesses abound, from Captain Kidd, the pirate, to a team working for the Federal Writers’ Project in New Jersey, during the Depression.

John McPhee’s Pine Barrens

New Yorker writer, John McPhee, was also fascinated by the Pine Barrens and the Jersey Devil. His 1967 bestseller, The Pine Barrens gloried in the ecological uniqueness of these dense forests of oak, pine, cedar and bog berries. He fought to preserve this invaluable open space and the 17 trillions of gallons of pure water under them in the East Coast’s largest untouched aquifer.

In part through his efforts, the Pine Barrens and the Jersey Devil were both included in the creation of the Pinelands National Reserve, in 1978. This act has safeguarded the pygmy forests of the Pineys, its 700,000 residents and the misty, mysterious wetlands where the Jersey Devil is still said to roam the unspoiled land. Major development is prohibited, although builders and municipalities still manage to gouge out Piney land on the fringes, here and here.

As John McPhee explained, the one thing still standing in their way is the myth and lore of the Jersey Devil, the unearthly protector of the Pine Barrens.

Blessed Be the child of Mother Leeds.

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