by Eirik Gumeny
For those of you unfamiliar with the legend of the Jersey Devil, may I present to you the definitive myth, based upon two hours of research and twenty-something years of living in the Garden State.
But first, a little history lesson: In the 1700s there was no electricity. There was no California, no Texas. Music involved your family members singing at you from the other side of your one room cottage. Magic was still a valid excuse for teenage pregnancy, a farmer’s inability to harvest crops, lost luggage, and pretty much everything else.
Which is why, in 1730, none other than Benjamin “Motherfuckin’” Franklin published a story in the Pennsylvania Gazette on the witchcraft trials occurring near Mount Holly, N.J. And not in a “holy crap, you guys, you’re not gonna believe this” kind of way, either.
Okay. So. Onto the story.
In 1735, Deborah Leeds, wife of Japhet Leeds and mother of twelve, found herself knocked up yet again. Mrs. Leeds briefly considered her options—which, at the time, involved only birthing the baby and then either raising it or selling it for meat—before throwing up her hands and shouting, “The Devil take this child!” and then joining her husband for a drink.
Lest you judge Deborah too harshly, you need to realize that the Leeds were not a rich family. Japhet was a local surveyor and a drunk, and Deborah was a woman. They lived, at best, a modest life in the Burlington area of southern New Jersey, on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens, and weren’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of expanding their homestead.
The Pine Barrens, for those who aren’t in the know, is a forest. A dark, desolate, scary forest, where the trees grow out of sand instead of dirt and actually need to be set on fire to reproduce. To this day it remains a largely rural, undeveloped area, in no small part because the crazy-ass ecosystem bankrupted a number of industries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then actually, physically took back the areas that had been developed. That shit ain’t right, yo.
In any event, Deborah Leeds went into labor on an incredibly dark, violently stormy night. Tradition has it that Japhet and his twelve children were huddled in a corner of their tiny house, spooked by the crashing wind and rain and terrified of Deborah’s promise to the Devil. More likely, though, they were sitting at the table in the next room, playing cards and trying to stay out of the midwife’s way. The Leeds lived on a coastal town in the North Atlantic, near a forest straight out of The Lord of the Rings, with a woman who’d already fired a baby out a dozen times before. No part of this was new to them.
Well, not yet, anyway.
The midwife delivered the baby and, with strained enthusiasm, handed it to a yawning Deborah, saying, “Congratulations, it’s a… a… oh my God! Oh my God!”
The baby, born a completely normal boy, suddenly changed. It began growing in size in the midwife’s arms. Horns inched out from its forehead and wings sprouted from its back. The midwife dropped the child and stumbled backward, watching as the infant continued its metamorphosis. It landed deftly on two cloven hooves; talons tore through its fingers and its face became that of a horse with glowing red eyes.
The midwife screamed in terror. Mrs. Leeds joined her. The creature roared.
Japhet got up from the table, ushering the kids beneath it. He grabbed the metal stoker from the fireplace and ran toward his wife in the other room, only to be smacked upside the head with the midwife’s arm. Her torso soon followed. Japhet, a slow learner at best, made it all the way to the doorway before realizing that the beast had torn the woman to pieces. He stood terrified, staring at the unholy creature and trying to process what was happening. Then the monster lunged at Deborah. Japhet charged at the beast, brandishing his fire iron. The creature turned and bellowed at Mr. Leeds with an ear-piercing snarl, then threw him back into the other room and bounded after him. Seeing its brothers and sisters cowering in terror, it reared up before them, roaring and flapping its wings, before finally flying up the chimney and making its escape to the desolation of the Pine Barrens.
Again, as science hadn’t been invented at this point, the above may be a bit of an exaggeration. There are some who argue that Mrs. Leeds’ thirteenth child was, in fact, not a demon, but merely a disfigured, developmentally disabled baby, tossed out into the woods because people were assholes in 1735. Which may very well be true—and just as unsettling, in its own right—but it would make for one bullshit legend. And bullshit legends are simply not what New Jersey is about.
Since that fateful night, an untold number of stories about the Jersey Devil have been passed from generation to generation. Sightings of the beast have become almost as prolific as “What exit?” jokes and painful Italian stereotypes.
By far, though, the single most bitchin’ tale of the Jersey Devil involves its becoming drinking buddies with the headless ghost of a pirate previously in the employ of Captain Kidd.
You see, in Barnegat Bay, in the late 1600s, Kidd buried a shipload of stolen cargo along the shore and then, as was custom, beheaded one of his crew members so that his spirit could stand eternal guard over the treasure. His corpse was left on the beach to, presumably, scare the crap out of potential looters.
After a couple dozen years, the ghost pirate got bored and went for a walk. Being a homeless spirit, he was, of course, drawn to the supernatural creepiness that is the Pine Barrens. He was just kind of hanging out there one day when this weird, horse-faced fellow came barreling toward him. The creature yelled and snarled; the ghost raised an eyebrow. The beast stopped in front of the ghost and they both stared at one another for a moment or two. Then they started laughing. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
There are plenty of other stories about the Jersey Devil, as well, involving naval heroes of the Revolutionary War firing a cannon at it, the former King of Spain running into it on a hunting trip, the fabled spree of 1909 that shut down schools and businesses between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, and a Long Beach fisherman who says he saw the Jersey Devil flirting up a mermaid.
In New Jersey, everyone knows someone who knows this guy who’s totally seen the Leeds Devil. To this day, police in the vicinity of the Pine Barrens still receive the occasional phone call from drunken teenagers and lonely old ladies, claiming to have seen a winged creature with unearthly red eyes bounding through the forest. And to this day, police just laugh at them or politely assure them that they’ll “get right on it.”
Because they’re all just stories.