The Jersey Devil has been a staple of New Jersey culture before America had even become its own nation. As one of the most famous “residents” in history, the tale of the Jersey Devil has captivated the imaginations of New Jersey locals for centuries. Some say he’s real, other’s say he’s not, and even more just really like the hockey team that is named after his spooky moniker. Whatever the reality is behind the Jersey Devil, the fact is that no New Jersey website could be complete without a little bit of history on this tall tale.
Did The Lenni Lenape See The Devil?
Though the official legend began in the 18th century, the local Native American tribe of the Lenni Lenape may have seen a strange creature lurking about before the settlers even tried to move into the Pine Barrens. The area in which the Jersey Devil haunted was originally called Popuessing, which means “the place of the dragon.”
Judging by the strange name, it seems like they may have seen something that didn’t quite seem natural to them in the area. However, there are no historical accounts that describe legends involving a creature resembling the Jersey Devil by the Lenape. After the area was settled by Europeans, the name was soon changed to Leeds Point.
Leeds Point: A Dark And Foreboding Home, Even For A Devil
The area of Leeds Point never was known as a bright and sunshine-filled region. In fact, it was always known for being a bit strange – even for the Pine Barrens. For some strange reason, the Pine Barrens locale always seemed darker and slightly less lively than the rest of the woods around it. Odder still is the fact that very few plants actually are able to withstand the harsh soil of the area. It only seems a bit too natural that this particular part of New Jersey would become the setting for one of the most bizarre, scandalous, and fascinating stories associated with Jersey lore.
Most people also know that the Jersey Devil is also occasionally called Leeds Devil. This can be ascribed to both the name of his hometown (Leed’s Point) and the fact that the Jersey Devil is supposedly one of the children of the infamous Leeds family, who, at one point, owned much of the land in the Pine Barrens. In order to fully understand the ties that the location had to the Jersey Devil, you’ll need to know the background of the Leeds family.
The Leeds Family: The Beginning Of The Curse
As one of the first families to settle New Jersey, the Leeds family has had a history of being a part of New Jersey since the early 1620’s. Daniel Leeds, one of the more prominent members of the family, was both one of the earliest councilmen of New Jersey as well as a devout Quaker for many decades of his life.
A successful man in every right of the word, he married three times, had a grand total of nine children, and had secured a large plot of land in the Pine Barrens as the family seat. To make sure that future generations knew of his success and his family’s right to the land, he renamed the area Leeds Point. As a councilman, he worked directly under the infamous and often-maligned Lord Cornbury of England. In spite of his affiliation with Cornbury, he was generally well-liked for most of his life.
Had he not dabbled in the art of writing, Daniel Leeds would have just been another dot in history books, known only as a councilman and surveyor in pre-Revolutionary America. Luckily for folklore enthusiasts, one of his accomplishments was the true beginning to a terrifying legend involving blasphemy, a devil, and even political intrigue.
Paganism Versus Quaker Beliefs
At the time that Daniel Leeds was a councilman, the state of New Jersey was primarily populated by Quakers. These highly devout Christians, also known as the Society of Friends, often added a theological spin to both social expectations and actual laws that governed the state itself. For the majority of Daniel Leeds’s life, he was embraced by his Quaker brethren and had no issue with them at all. They were everywhere around him, and he was quite fine with having them as neighbors, friends, associates, and political allies.
Along with his political and social achievements, Daniel Leeds was known for publishing an almanac as part of a collaboration with William Bradford. Unfortunately for Leeds, the almanac became a source of scandal among the New Jersey Quaker society that he was a part of. The scandalous part of the almanac consisted of an astrological guide. Unlike today’s guides, which supposedly tell your fortune based on your star sign, the astrological guide in the almanac really only just predicted the movement of the stars throughout the year.
Even so, the Quakers saw this part of the almanac as inappropriate and just a wee bit too pagan for Christian ideals. Leeds capitulated and offered a public apology, but the Quakers were nonplussed. An order was put out to confiscate and burn every single almanac published by Leeds. Seeing his hard work destroyed hurt Leeds in a way that he could not forgive the Quakers for. As such, he began to work to distance himself from the ubiquitous sect.
Leeds’s Religious Rebellion
Leeds was furious with the Quakers’ intolerance, and had quickly begun to notice the hypocrisy in the early Jersey society that he had once loved. Partly doubting the version of Christianity that he had once knew, and partly as a way to buck the stranglehold of power that the Quaker church held over the area, Leeds had decided to publish his own book.
The book was called The Book of Wisdom, and it was the very epitome of what blasphemy was. Instead of sticking to classic Quaker ideals, the book heavily discussed magic, astrology, and the behavior of devils – alongside stories of God and Angels. Sources that he used in the creation of his own book include Jacob Boheme, a well-known heretic of the 17th century. Word has it that Leeds often cited Boheme as a “kindred spirit,” and quickly became known as a Christian occultist.
Though it may sound Satanic upon first glance, The Book of Wisdom was really anything but. In the book, Leeds encouraged people to use astrology and magic as a way to learn more about God, get closer to him, and enlighten oneself. This kind of thinking, which is known today as occultism, was known back then as witchcraft and heresy.
Obviously, most people who had read his book never really got to read his almanac, so Leeds quickly appeared more of a heretic than a Christian. The reaction that his former group of Friends had to the book was just as one would expect.
The War Begins
As soon as word got out about Leeds’s occultist, sacrilegious book, New Jersey society went berserk. The Quakers immediately made a motion to stop the publication and distribution of his book, and people who were caught reading it were almost immediately excluded from social gatherings. Many of the more devout Quakers even called for Leeds’s excommunication from the church, citing the book as a grave heretical sin against God. He soon became a stranger among Friends, and a persona non grata of Quaker society.
After his first book became banned material among Quakers, Leeds felt that he had nothing to lose by actually stating his thoughts on Quaker society – especially considering that his political ties in England often looked down upon Quakers. Knowing that his hatred of Quaker society would not harm his political standing, he quickly began to publish anti-Quaker pamphlets in rapid succession.
To ensure that he would keep his political power intact, Leeds made a point to paint Quakers as antimonarchist religious nuts who often didn’t see the true divinity in God. In order to further solidify his power and keep Quakers from removing him from his role as councilman, Leeds advised Lord Cornbury to avoid appointing anyone from the Society of Friends to a position of power.
Many people who were on the state assembly at the time complained to Cornbury that the accusations Leeds had made were completely false. Cornbury, as a high ranking official of the British government, was a member of the Anglican church. As such, he often regarded Quakers and other sects of Christianity as untrustworthy or disloyal to the king. This meant good news for Daniel Leeds, since he knew that Cornbury would believe him over those who remained loyal to American religions.
As the years passed, Leeds became more and more hateful of the Quaker church. Each pamphlet became filled with anger-fueled vitriol against the church. By the year 1700, he had called Quaker meetings “evil,” and even publically accused them of “doing the Devil’s work.” After much arguing and quarreling with the Quakers, he handed over his family’s business to his son, Titan.
Titan’s Foreshadowing Work
One can only imagine how much of society purposefully avoided the Leeds family by the time that Titan became its patriarch. To hopefully rebrand the Leeds name as a family of power, he also created a family crest. Ironically enough, it featured a dragon that loosely resembled a winged, snake-like devil.
Much like his father, Titan quickly became embroiled in local politics due to his desire to publish an almanac. Titan Leeds followed in his fathers footsteps and continued to publish Leeds Almanac year after year. Unfortunately, Titan quickly found himself competing against the granddaddy of all almanac writers – Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and writer of Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Franklin’s genius was not only limited to politics, and he used his brain to engineer a way of getting more word of mouth advertising than Leeds. Franklin took a note from the massive controversy started by Daniel Leeds and began to post astrological predictions into his almanac. Unlike Leeds, who was only interested in finding out where stars would be in a month or two, Franklin used astrological symbols to predict peoples’ futures.
To boost gossip, rumors, and sales, Franklin predicted that Titan would die in 1733. The jab and prediction were meant by Franklin as a humorous and somewhat friendly rivalry joke. Titan, on the other hand, didn’t take it as a joke. He took it as a grave insult, and quickly lambasted Franklin, calling him both a liar and a fool in his latest publication.
The rivalry was no longer a friendly one after that.
Using his infamous wit, his wry sense of humor, and his ability to offer a controlled image-friendly way of speaking through text, Benjamin Franklin made Leeds look like a complete fool. Franklin sarcastically wrote that it couldn’t possibly have been Leeds who said such things, since Leeds was so well-born and bred from good stock. Then, with the same super sarcastic tone of voice, he wrote that he assumed that it was the ghost of Leeds who had decided to torment him. Needless to say, Leeds’ ridiculous outburst and Franklin’s even-keel response made Titan look like the laughingstock of New Jersey.
He died in 1738, and that’s about the time that the Jersey Devil was said to be born.
The Jersey Devil Arises
What’s interesting about the Jersey Devil is that the first written account mentioning such a creature was found linked to Burlington County, and was written shortly after 1735. As a result, many people believe that the legend of the Jersey Devil was born from Titan and his wife.
By the early 1730’s, the Leeds family had cemented their reputation as heretics and occultists due to their struggles with the local Quaker church. The almanacs, which continued to use astrological symbols that offended locals, were considered as much proof as the reinvention of the family crest.
It was this reputation as a blasphemous, hateful family that seemed to cement their reputation as devil-makers. There are two common myths that tie the Jersey Devil to the Leeds family, and both are filled with juicy 18th century gossip.
During this time, Mother Leeds, who possibly was Titan’s wife, had managed to give birth to 12 children. Childbirth had hurt her body considerably, and between having to raise children and cook meals, life was very difficult for Mother Leeds. Upon realizing that she was pregnant yet a 13th time, Leeds had had enough.
She was furious, frustrated, and in a world of pain. Legend has it that she began to curse god for giving her so many children, and wished that her next child would be a devil. Because both she and her husband had been heretics, and because she dabbled in witchcraft, legend has it that she got her wish.
Only she, the midwife, and her husband were in the room as she gave birth. According to the legend, the three witnessed Mother Leeds give birth to a health baby boy. Within a matter of seconds, the body began to change shape and transform into a hideous monster. The monster supposedly had the head of a horse, cloven hoofs of a goat, batlike wings, and a long tail. The child let out a screech, and flew out the chimney.
Another less popular rumor that was swirling around the time that the Jersey Devil first got its mention is that Titan was cheating on his wife with a woman by the name of Mrs. Shrouds. Word had it that Mrs. Shrouds was the mother of the Jersey Devil, partly due to her philandering, partly due to who the father was, and partly because she said that she wished the baby to be a devil.
Unlike the Mother Leeds version, in the Mrs. Shrouds version, the baby was born deformed. Despite its ugly appearance, Mrs. Shrouds hid her baby and nurtured him, giving him all the motherly love he needed. It was only upon the neighbor’s discovery of the demon boy that the creature fled into the forest.
Since then, the Jersey Devil has been seen on and off for hundreds of years. Who knows what the true origin behind this famous Jerseyan could be?