Today in Tedium: Recently, some random people stole a statue in New Jersey. You may be thinking to yourself, “Hey, people steal statues all the time, especially in New Jersey!” But this was no regular statue. It is the statue of the Jersey Devil, perhaps the mid-Atlantic’s most infamous example of a cryptid. This statue, which sat outside a diner called Lucille’s Luncheonette on Route 539, meant a lot to the people fascinated in the history of this creature, whose legend has only grown in the last century. The Jersey Devil is more than Bruce Springsteen’s idea of the Loch Ness monster. It’s a phenomenon that has in some ways shaped the state’s cultural image. And today’s Tedium is going to talk all about the Jersey Devil’s unusual cultural status. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes from What We Do in the Shadows, specifically this scene.
“Hear me now!/I was born 13th child, neath the 13th moon/Spit out all hungry and born anew/Daddy drag me to the river tie me in rocks/Throw me in where it’s deep and wide/I go down, I don’t die”
— Bruce Springsteen, in his song “A Night With the Jersey Devil,” a song he didn’t get to writing until 2008, nearly 40 years into his career as New Jersey’s most famous living mascot. The song, a quite bluesy number that evokes Tom Waits much more than it evokes Springsteen, was originally released on Halloween as a download-only single.
How an almanac rivalry involving Ben Franklin created the roots of the Jersey Devil
As you might remember, the last time we talked about a cryptid—the jackalope—the creature was a point of pride for the state that popularized it.
And you better believe that people in New Jersey love their Jersey Devil. They love it like pork roll and Wawa.
Rumored to be hiding out in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, this animal was said to carry the head of a goat, the wings of a bat, the cloven hooves of a deer, and a forked, pointed tail. Like a kangaroo, it stands—and it moves fast.
Originally, this monster was called the Leeds Devil, rather than the Jersey Devil, but the original name faded over time, falling into legend. The tale, as it originally emerged, was that the Devil was the unlucky 13th child of a woman named Jane Leeds, who lived in the southern New Jersey Pine Barrens.
One suggested reason for the situation that came to light has been something of a hoax involving an American colonial legend. As recalled by Star-Ledger contributor and Kean University historian Brian Regal, the legend emerged when a man named Daniel Leeds came to the United States in the late 17th century. Leeds published an almanac that ruffled a few feathers by including astrological information. The use of astrology in the almanac angered the Quakers in the region, at set the stage for a conflict between that dogged Leeds, himself a Quaker, for decades. Leeds responded by writing satirical literature, which led to him earning the nickname “Satan’s Harbinger.”
Daniel Leeds wasn’t the Jersey Devil, but it did create the vibe that led his family to gradually carry around that name. After he died, his son Titan Leeds went on to run the almanac business in Philadelphia, and he ran into conflict with another famous almanac publisher, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin, clearly aiming to win people over to his almanac, boldly predicted, using astrology and his Richard Saunders persona, that Titan Leeds would die in October 1733. As he put it:
He dies, by my Calculation made at his Request, on Oct. 17, 1733, 3:29 P.M., at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury: By his own Calculation he will survive till the 26th of the same Month. This small difference between us, we have disputed whenever we have met these 9 Years past; but at length he is inclinable to agree with my Judgment; Which of us is most exact, a little Time will now determine.
He included this prediction in there as a clear attempt to get people to buy Poor Richard’s Almanack … to see if he was right. That’s right, it was a marketing scheme.
Titan Leeds did not die then, which Leeds pointed out in the 1734 edition of his American Almanack, writing: “But notwithstanding his false Prediction, I have by the Mercy of God lived to write a Diary for the Year 1734, and to publish the Folly and Ignorance of this presumptuous Author.”
But Franklin somehow used this to his advantage, suggesting that the Titan Leeds that attacked him was a ghost:
I had resolved to keep the Peace on my own part, and affront none of them; and I shall persist in that Resolution: But having received much Abuse from Titan Leeds deceased, (Titan Leeds when living would not have used me so!) I say, having received much Abuse from the Ghost of Titan Leeds, who pretends to be still living, and to write Almanacks in spite of me and my Predictions, I cannot help saying, that tho’ I take it patiently, I take it very unkindly. And whatever he may pretend, ’tis undoubtedly true that he is really defunct and dead.
Titan Leeds did not actually die until 1738, a full five years after Saunders’ incorrect prediction, but it nonetheless created a media moment that allowed Poor Richard’s Almanack to become a sensation of the time. Franklin kept up the hoax, claiming that Leeds actually died in 1733, but stating:
But W.B. and A.B. have continued to publish Almanacks in his Name ever since; asserting for some Years that he was still living; At length when the Truth could no longer be concealed from the World, they confess his Death in their Almanack for 1739, but pretend that he died not till last Year, and that before his Departure he had furnished them with Calculations for 7 Years to come.
Ben Franklin had created a ghost, and thanks to the American Revolution, the ghost began to turn into a devil. See, on top of their status as almanac-publishing pariahs, the Leeds family also favored the British Empire, which made them solid scapegoats when the American Revolution surfaced. According to Regal, that led to the first emergence of the Leeds Devil legend.
But it would take another century for the legend to stick more permanently, in the form that it’s better known for today.
Jersey Devil Decaf Coffee: A cryptid-themed jolt, no caffeine needed
Decaf is decaf, they say. Well, that is, until you’ve had a flavor creep up on you like a mysterious creature out of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
Mountain Town Coffee Roasting’s Jersey Devil Decaf, a dedicated decaf flavor made with Brazilian beans and sporting a rich, nutty flavor, is an effective medium roast that may not have the caffeine of a traditional coffee brew, but still comes with plenty of surprises, like the little hint of sweetness as it goes down. (No word on whether the actual Jersey Devil has such a hint of sweetness.)
And in case you want to try this brew in its natural habitat, it’s sold at a real coffee shop, Ellijay Coffeehouse in Ellijay, Georgia. That’s far enough away from Jersey that you don’t have to worry about any cryptids—at least any cryptids from New Jersey.
Give Jersey Devil Decaf a try—and take a chance to savor Mountain Town Coffee Roasting’s other cryptid-themed coffees as well.
Did a loose-with-facts New York Herald set the modern Jersey Devil story into motion?
In 1874, the New York Herald published a wild story implying that the New York Zoo’s animals had gotten out and had started attacking random people on the street. It was 100% an absolute hoax.
That’s some important context to keep in mind when you read the 1899 story that revived the Leeds Devil legend, published in The Jersey City News and syndicated nationwide, as I’m sure you’ll see:
Leeds’ devil has reappeared in New Jersey for the first time since it warned the pioneers of the approach of the civil war. Buck in the middle colonial days, says the New York Herald, there lived in Burlington, on the Delaware, the pioneer Quaker settlement of the county, a woman known as Leeds, accused of amateur witchcraft, and witchcraft was at its height thereabouts at that time.
In 1735 Mother Leeds gave birth to a male child, whose father was later said to have been none other than the prince of darkness. The child was normal at birth, but before the termination of the tempestuous night of its arrival horrified several old crones gathered about the bedside of Mother Leeds by assuming an elongated, serpent like body, cloven hoofs, the bead of a horse, the wings of a bat and the forked tail of a dragon. The coloring of the horrible creature turned to a dusky brown, and after bepummeling its mother and her terrified companions it flew up the chimney, uttering loud, raucous cries.
The Herald, like other major New York newspapers, was known for publishing works that didn’t ring entirely true in its pages, in part because it was easier to mix truth and fiction (intentionally or not) at a time that there were no telephones, radios, or other communication methods. Fact checking was going to be tough for mere mortals.
As the 2014 book Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, which dug deep into historical hoaxes, put it:
Since the eighteenth century, newspapers regularly mixed factual reports with fictional stories, but this changed by the early 1900s. Advances in communication technologies and shifts in journalistic norms put the brakes on older, more frisky journalistic traditions.
James Gordon Bennett Jr., who operated the Herald during the era, had a reputation for creating spectacle—the zoo thing, after all, happened on his watch. So, in this sense, the story of the Jersey Devil as we know it today was maybe rooted in some truth somewhere, but it was also folklore that was presented in a format that was as interested in attracting readers as it was informing the public.
Standards would soon change—they were deep into the yellow journalism era at this point, and the response would be stricter journalistic standards—but the Jersey Devil’s legend benefited from the journalism of 19th century New York.
Of course, that wasn’t the only part of the Leeds Devil legend that morphed into the Jersey Devil’s folklore.
More sketchy journalism, this time in Philly, turned a hoax into a phenomenon
The existing Leeds Devil legend, already primed a decade prior by stories in the media, was well positioned to become an all-out phenomenon—it just needed a push.
That push came about thanks to a PR man in nearby Philadelphia who saw an opportunity to leverage the Jersey Devil story for his own PR needs. Norman Jeffries, a former newspaperman himself, is said to have set the cryptid into focus by staging a hoax that started with a set of tracks laid in South Jersey.
First appearing in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the headline “What-Is-It Visits All South Jersey,” the hoof-like tracks created a bit of a media frenzy. Jersey residents immediately connected the story to the existing Leeds Devil legend, which then found its way into later coverage.
Having found success with the first part of the hoax, the second part appeared in the newspaper just a few days later, under the headline Vampire Missing, Look Out Jersey!. The story implied a creature that was a “cross between kangaroo and bat.” As the story states:
The freak that is making so much disturbance in New Jersey just now is said to be an Australian waif.
Its other name is vampire. As a matter of fact, zest has been given to the search by the fact that there are only two Australian vampires in this country, and one of them is missing.
The waif from our National History’s realm has been seen repeatedly in the last two or three days. He has appeared in many New Jersey towns, and in each one of these towns he has performed stunts that might not have been considered conventional.
The myth-making was strong, of course, and the goal of all of this hype … was to promote a museum that had seen hard times, and that had hired Jeffries to do his promotion.
As the Inquirer noted back in 2019:
On Jan. 24, an ad for the struggling Dime Museum at Ninth and Arch Streets, which Jeffries had represented for years, appeared in the paper announcing that the captured Leeds Devil would be on display.
Why a vampire kangaroo bat? Well, because it was actually a kangaroo that was dressed up for the purpose of fooling the public.
Some were not buying it, but the story nonetheless stuck around for years. And now we’re talking about it here.
The Jersey Devil inspired the first major-league team named after a cryptid
Not every cryptid becomes well-known enough that it becomes the inspiration for a big-name sports team. But in 1982, a National Hockey League team moved to New Jersey, and decided to embrace the devil that has bedeviled the state since at least the 1890s.
The team, formerly known as the Colorado Rockies, received the name in a fan vote, with around a quarter of the 10,000 entries going to the Devils, versus choices that might have favored certain images of the state that, admittedly, might have gotten the league in trouble over time. (There were jokes about calling the team the “Gangsters” or the “Hitmen,” which would have been funny mob-themed names. But alas, they didn’t make the list for the fan vote.)
In a piece for the Daily Record, sports writer Mark Di Ionno complimented the fans for choosing an interesting name, citing the folklore that came with it.
“I’m glad the fans showed good taste,” he wrote.
While the team’s majority owner John J. McMullen had a different name preference, he came to peace with what the fans gave him.
“My first choice was the Meadowlanders,” McMullen told the Courier-Post. “But I went to Webster’s Dictionary and saw a definition of devil I really liked: a person with noted energy, recklessness, and dashing spirit.”
The New Jersey Devils became perhaps the first major sports team to be named after a mythical animal. While other teams have mythological roots—the Tennessee Titans of the NFL and Toronto Argonauts of the CFL come to mind—not many cryptids are found in the major leagues.
Surprisingly, cryptids are relatively rare choices for sports team names, at least in the major leagues—but the Devils were recently joined by another cryptid-themed NHL team, the Seattle Kraken. The Devils actually pointed this out earlier this season by holding a “#CryptidCup,” complete with trophy. (The Devils held onto it.)
As NJ Spotlight News notes, the Devils name has occasionally faced controversy. Craig Stanley, a former state Assembly member and a Baptist deacon, attempted to get the name removed from the team in the mid-2000s—not for its cryptid roots, but because of its demonic roots.
As you might imagine, his concern—he was quoted as saying that he “cringed” whenever he heard the name brought up—was a relatively uncommon one, and it went nowhere.
Is the Jersey Devil a glorified hoax? A product of a cultural moment in which journalism was more focused on myth-making than facts? Benjamin Franklin’s lasting example of getting one over on a dude who needed to be taken down a peg?
In some ways, it’s honestly all of those things. The power of a cryptid legend is often built from lies, misconceptions, misremembered details, and attempts to get one over on the public.
Now, whether a Jersey Devil is a vampire kangaroo bat or a devil-themed mascot that upsets a prudish state legislator, the truth of the matter is that the legend it has created is larger than South Jersey can hold.
Even Bruce Springsteen had reason to notice.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
And thanks again to Mountain Town Coffee Roasting for supporting this series. We’ll be back with another one soon!