Listen in Your Favorite Podcast App

What-Is-It?

there's an animal roaming round the town that is certainly gaining great renown

There’s an animal roaming round the town
That is certainly gaining great renown
It has a head resembling a dog
Wings on its back and legs like a frog
And it makes footprints just like a hog
And it dances up and down!

Wherever it pokes its ugly snout
Folks shiver indoors, afraid to go out
It looks like the ghost of the Pegasus
It stampedes folks like frightened asses
And it makes them run like thin molasses
Have you seen its tracks about?

Some say ’tis the devil, some say it ain’t
Some say that it comes from too much “nose paint”
But whatever it is, it keeps folks guessing
And guns receive a fond caressing
Men find business elsewhere pressing
And women proceed to faint

“What-Is-It” by James W. Farley

It Begins

On Friday, January 15, 1909 a winter storm battered the eastern seaboard of the United States, bringing several inches of snow to New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and Delaware. 

But snow wasn’t the only thing that came with the storm.

Shortly after midnight, Thack Cozzens wobbled out of a saloon in Woodbury, NJ. As he stumbled towards home, he suddenly became aware that he wasn’t alone. As he turned to see what was following him, it rushed him and knocked him over. Thack would later recall:

“I heard a hissing and something white flew across the street. I saw two spots of fire like phosphorous — the eyes of the beast. There was a white cloud like escaping steam from an engine. It moved as fast as an auto.”

He did not stick around to get a better look at whatever had knocked him over.

When the sun rose on the morning of January 16th, the residents of New Jersey were surprised by strange animal tracks in the fresh-fallen snow. They looked like hoof prints, but that couldn’t possibly be right. 

For starters, the tracks were too neat. They looked like they had been left by horseshoes, not an unshod animal. And they were single file, as if they were made by a creature walking on two legs and not four.

They also went places no horse could go. Sure, a horse might somehow clamber on top of a doghouse, but it’s hard to imagine one climbing up to the roof of a two story house or balancing nimbly on the ledge outside a third story window. And even the tiniest pony can’t squeeze under a fence, beneath a wheelbarrow, or through a pipe less than a foot in diameter.

And horse tracks wouldn’t just stop dead in the middle of the street or in an empty field with no warning. It was almost as if whatever made the tracks could fly.

Last but not least, the tracks could be found all over the state, from Perth Amboy to Deptford. Whatever had made them had covered a lot of ground in a single night.

And it wasn’t done. There were more tracks over the next few days, and the creature that made them was no longer content to just roam. It started knocking over trash cans. Rooting around in scraps. Prowling around livestock pens.

In Gloucester, two black men, Tom Hamilton and Hank White, followed the tracks for over twenty miles before they suddenly vanished. They told a curious reporter that the tracks had been made an “air hoss” like the ones that could be found in the coastal swamps of Georgia. Everyone had a good laugh at that.

The papers ran rife with speculation about the mysterious creature. They called it the Flying Hoof. The Flying Death. The Gazook. The Jabberwock. The Jersey Bombat. The Mystery from Mars. The Wogglebug. The Wozzlebug. The Wumpus. Eventually they settled on a name that was maybe a bit on the nose: “The What-Is-It.”

But in their heart of hearts, everyone in New Jersey already knew what had made the tracks.

It was the Leeds Devil.

The Leeds Devil

You know the story of the Leeds Devil, right? No? Then let me refresh your memory.

Now, way back in 1737 there was a young wife named Mrs. Leeds in Burlington who was none too happy that pregnancy was bringing an end to her party girl lifestyle. In her frustration she swore at her husband and shouted to the heavens, “I hope this baby will be a devil!” 

Well, ask and you shall receive. Mrs. Leeds gave birth to a misshapen monster, a veritable devil, which flew out the chimney and took up residence in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, where it lives to this day.

Well, that’s one version of the story, at least. 

There are versions that take place in 1735, 1787, 1808, 1832, and 1855.

Sometimes the Devil’s mother is isn’t Mrs. Leeds but Mrs. Shourds of Leeds Point. Sometimes the Devil just lives near Leeds Point but was born in Bordentown, or Estellville, or Pleasantville, or just about anywhere in New Jersey. 

Maybe the Leeds Devil’s mother is a witch who has an affair with the devil; or maybe she’s cursed by her parents for having an affair with a Hessian; or maybe she just kicked a gypsy and suffered the consequences. Or maybe it’s not actually a devil baby at all, but some sort of underworld spirit from Native American folklore.

The Devil itself looks like a classic red gargoyle or imp right out of Dante’s Inferno. Unless it looks like a dragon or a wyvern. Or a horse or deer with bat wings and a big snake-like tail. Or a giant heron with a monkey’s face. (It always seems to have glowing red eyes and a tongue of flame, though.)

Its call is the most terrible shriek. Or maybe a hiss. Or maybe a laugh like hyena. Or maybe it says “hoodle-doodle.” Sometimes it speaks fluent English. Sometimes it makes no noise at all.

After being born the Devil usually just flies up the chimney and off to the Pine Barrens. Occasionally it hangs around town for a few years and eats babies and despoils young women. Frequently it gets banished to the Pine Barrens for a hundred years by a particularly pious young minister.

Mostly the Leeds Devil just wants to be alone. When it isn’t accompanied by a beautiful golden-haired ghost of a young woman in white. Or the scowling ghost of a grizzled old pirate. Or the Hoboken monkey-man. 

It never hurts people, except for the versions that definitely hurt people. Pretty much every version has no compunction about eating your livestock, souring your milk, and blighting your crops. It also appears as the harbinger of terrible tragedies, like the Civil War. And also for some reason the Spanish-American War.

Over the years it has reportedly been seen by such notables as Stephen Decatur, who hit the Devil with a cannonball and didn’t even faze it, and Joseph Bonaparte, who briefly found himself hunted by the beast during his American exile. 

Anyway, the point of all this is that the “Leeds Devil” is just an umbrella term for a monster that lives in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Where did it come from? What does it look like? What does it do? Who knows? Who cares? The important thing is that there is a monster. Fortunately, for you, it lives in the godforsaken Pine Barrens. So just stay out of the Pine Barrens and you should be safe.

Unless it’s 1909, and the Devil is making a social call.

Tuesday, January 19th

In the wee hours of Saturday, January 19th Mr. & Mrs. Nelson Evans of Gloucester were startled from their slumber by a hideous shriek just outside their bedroom window. It was the Leeds Devil, prowling on top of their woodshed. Later, they described it to the papers:

“We saw the strangest beast or bird, I don’t know which, you ever heard of. It was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horses’ hoofs. It walked on its back legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. It did not use the front legs at all while we were watching it.”

The Evanses tried hiding from the creature beneath their covers, but it would not go away. So Mr. Evans threw open the window and started shouting at it. That did the trick, and the creature flew off.

Wednesday, January 20th

The following day a group of farmers in Jacksonville decided to hunt the Devil. Their loyal hounds refused to follow the tracks, so they were forced to go it alone. They followed the beast’s trail for over four miles, only to be stymied when the tracks just vanished in the middle of an open field.

Apparently the Devil had flown to nearby Burlington, where it was spotted by a minister and two policemen. They threw together a search party and followed the beast to Moorestown, over ten miles away. There, in the Mt. Carmel Cemetery, they found more hoof prints… and a dead, partially devoured puppy.

While they puzzled over that, the Devil attacked a fisherman in nearby Maple Shade, who only managed to scramble to safety when the creature broke through the ice and fell into a pond.

Then the Devil made a quick jaunt over the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. It was spotted late morning prowling around chicken coops in Chester, and its prints were found by the train tracks in nearby Eddystone.

Apparently a quick jaunt into the Keystone State was all the beast needed. It made its way back to New Jersey — all the way across the state, in fact. That evening Molly Cronk of Asbury Park looked up from his dinner to spot a creature like “a huge bird, with long hoofed legs hanging down from the body” flying away from his window.

Thursday, January 21st

A few hours later, in the wee hours of January 21st, the Devil was spotted flying alongside a trolley in Haddon Heights. One of the passengers freaked out, screaming, “There’s that thing, take it away!” The conductor brought the trolley to a sudden stop, and the screeching of the brakes frightened the creature, which flew away.

In Riverside the Devil attacked a bulldog and ripped it apart. Then it took a quick jaunt up to Lawrenceville, where it playfully made a ruckus by jumping up and down on the tin roof of a shed.

Now things start to get strange. By evening the Devil had made its way back to Asbury Park, where it strolled into the back yard of Dan Possack and casually asked where he kept the garbage can. Possack tried to run, but the creature slithered around him like a boa constrictor and tried to squeeze the life out of him. So Possack fought back with his hatchet and chopped out the Devil’s eye, which caused it to inflate like a balloon and float off into outer space.

Well, maybe not outer space. Maybe just Camden, where the Devil showed up on the windowsill of Dr. Alex DeWees, seeking his dental expertise to remove a damaged tooth. Alas, when Dr. DeWees got out his dental instruments the Devil freaked out and flew away in a hurry.

The Devil made its way to the nearby yard of Mary Sorbiski, who had just let her dog out to do its business. The beast fell upon the poor pup with a noise described as “the hoot of an owl and the snarl of a hyena.” Mrs. Sorbiski rushed out, beat the creature off with a broom, and called the police. A huge crowd began to gather outside her home, which then suddenly heard the creature calling out from the top of nearby Kaign Hill. They chased after it, firing wildly, but it escaped undamaged.

An hour later, it was spotted licking its wounds on top of the Toone & Holinshed Department Store.

Friday, January 22nd

At 1:00 in the morning January 22nd, the Devil had made its way to the alley behind the Black Hawk Social Club. It was spotted by one inebriated member, who chased after it with a billy club while everyone else fled in terror.

At 2:00 AM the Devil was spotted on a rooftop by another resident, who ran to get his shotgun but could not find the beast when he returned.

At 4:00 AM Patrolman Louis Stehr spotted the Devil taking a drink from a water trough in front of a nearby saloon. He described it as having “the body of a kangaroo, antlers like a deer, and wings like a bat.” He took a few shots at it, but the beast few off.

Shoftly afterwoords, the Devil made its way to the fire station in Collingswood. Captain Amadee Middleton woke with a start to see the beast clawing at his window, and threw his pillow at it. The pillow shattered the window (that’s some pillow!) and Captain Middleton had a furious tussle with the creature, which was eventually driven off with a few blasts from the firehose.

Apparently looking to cool off with a harmless prank, the Devil was next spotted boarding a trolley in Somerdale, where it rang up sixty-five fares, winked at the other passengers, and then disappeared in a flash of bright light.

But by 6:00 AM the Devil was back up to more sinister tricks in Burlington. It terrified Mrs. Michael Ryan by hiding in her bushes and stalking her. She hid in bed and called for her sun, but by the time he arrived the creature had fled.

An hour later the Devil had made its way to Pennsauken, where John Burbage spotted the creature in the light of dawn. He described it as having the head of a horse, four eyes, and wings like an ostrich. A few hours later it was spotted chasing cows at the farm of Benjamin Osler.

Then the Devil decided to make a jaunt over the river to Philadelphia. At 3:00 PM it was spotted hovering over the Taggart School at South Fifth and West Porter in South Philly. It swooped down and tried to grab the children as they played in the schoolyard, only to be frightened away by the teachers. It stole a chicken out of a nearby yard, and then flew over the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the marines took a few potshots at it. They missed, and the beast retreated to the relative safety of New Jersey.

At this point experts came crawling out of the woodwork to calm the public, because there were a lot of shots being fired wildly into the air and if that didn’t stop soon things were going to take a sour turn fast.

Professor Leopold Bachman of Griggstown claimed the Devil was the “missing link” but refused to disclose anything more until he had caught it. (Not exactly helpful there, prof.)

Leon Cubberly of Yardville declared that it was the last of New Jersey’s flying squirrels, which had disappeared around 1885. Cubberly had no explanation as to why a flying squirrel would have cloven hooves and bat wings, or how it had grown to be almost five feet tall at the shoulder. 

Francis B. Lee of Trenton declared that it was a rare crossbreed of three different dinosaurs, the hespiro-dinosaur-rorinis. Of course, he also noted that “descendants of this pecularly constructed animal have been known to appear at times, even in recent years, in the homes of Jersey’s manufacturers of bug juice.”

W.S. Reed of Haddonfield explained the only thing stalking New Jersey was specter of mass hysteria. The footprints, he claimed, were ordinary animal tracks changed by precipitation, thawing, and refreezing. He explained the process to reporters in tedious detail. The rest he attributed to “mild but general idiocy on the part of the public.” Needless to say, no one liked W.S. Reed because he was a smarty-pants party pooper.

The most promising explanation came from J.F. Hope, proprietor of the Ninth and Arch Dime Museum in Philadelphia. His explanation was simple: the Devil was an “Australian vampire devil,” a rare hybrid of kangaroo and vampire bat, which had escaped from his menagerie on January 11th.  He had kept its escape under wraps, hoping to recapture the beast quietly, but had chosen to speak up and reassure the public after three days of utter panic. He promised the beast would soon be safely back in custody, alongside other great attractions like Alerto the Egyptian Magician, Colorado Charley the sharpshooter, Alphonso the Human Ostrich, and the blackface comedy of John Healey.

On January 23rd Hope hired a team of expert hunters, who tracked the beast into the Pine Barrens. Shots were heard, and a blanket-covered cage was wheeled back out of the forest. And that was the end of it.

The Truth

So, let’s be honest: almost everything I just talked about for the last ten minutes was a hoax, orchestrated by J.F. Hope to sell tickets to his Dime Museum.

It started innocently enough. There really were mysterious tracks in the snow back on January 16th. It was such a slow news day that the tracks made it into the newspapers, where it was spotted by Hope, who thought he could use them to drum up business. So he brought it to his press agent, journalist Norman Jeffries.

Jeffries concocted a story about the escaped vampire devil. He approached his friends at newspapers in Philadelphia and Camden, who were all too happy to plant fake stories in exchange for few bucks and a round of free drinks. (So, maybe remember that next time someone starts talking about journalism being a bastion of honesty and integrity.)

Of course, once the story was out there, others were free to pick up the ball and run with it. Which they did. Reporters who weren’t in on the hoax published their own stories, both serious and parodic. The general public was all too happy to contribute their own two cents as well, turning Leeds Devil sightings into 1909’s version of “everyone who seen the leprechaun say yeah!”

As new bits were grafted on to the hoax, it started to spiral out of control and create mass hysteria. (Though admittedly it’s hard to tell how much of that hysteria was real, and how much was fake, given that most of the newspapers in the area were clearly happy to publish outright fiction.) Fearing a backlash, Hope and Jeffries brought the hoax to an early end and arranged for the beast to be captured.

A few weeks later the “Australian vampire devil” went on display. It was a kangaroo with some stripes painted on, with paper mache bat wings attached by a rather obvious harness. It was vaguely disappointing. But then again, your admission also got you a chance to see the German comedy of Morgan and Chester, so who cared?

The Aftermath

Still, the end of Hope’s hoax didn’t mean an end to the Leeds Devil.

First, the sightings migrated. The papers in northern New Jersey were late to the party and they weren’t going to stop until they had their fun. On January 24th and 25th the Devil was spotted in Rahway terrifying a milkman, in West Orange sullenly brooding, and in Piscataway where it chased a drunk across a cow pasture. Fortunately, on January 26th a Patterson saloon keeper blasted the Devil as it flew across the Falls Basin and put an end to all that nonsense. It was gone for good.

At least in New Jersey. By February the beast had had made its way to north central Pennsylvania, where it picked up the unfortunate new nickname of the “Williamsport Wop.” In March and April sightings spread south to Delaware, Virginia, and South Carolina. By now the beast had strayed so far from its original stomping grounds that the name “Leeds Devil” didn’t seem to suffice. From this point on it would be known as the “Jersey Devil.”

New Jersey was happy to sea the beast go, because by this time it had bigger problems to worry about. Turns out rats in Mercer County had been eating unsecured cases of dynamite and spontaneously combusting. Workers feared that if the rats exploded all at once the damage would be terrible. They tried to disperse the rodents by scaring them off with gunfire, but they had only succeeded in stampeding a horde of them in the general direction of Trenton. So the Jersey Devil was hardly priority number one.

Until May, that is, when the Devil resurfaced near Atlantic City… only this time, it was a fish.

But that’s a story for another day.

strange tracks in the snow

Connections

In a similar incident, the Devil (the actual Devil this time) left a trail of hoof prints when rambled all over Devon, England in February 1855. That story was recounted in the anthology Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, which was the subject of our very first episode.

Sources

  • Mahnke, Aaron. The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures. New York: Del Ray, 2017.
  • Regal, Brian and Esposito, Frank J. The Secret History of the Jersey Devil. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
  • Sceurman, Mark and Moran, Mark. Weird N.J. New York: Sterling, 2005.
  • Stansfield, Charles A. Jr. Haunted Jersey Shore. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006.
  • Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, 1976.
  • “In the Pines.” Atlantic Monthly, Volume III (1859).
  • “The Leeds Devil.” New York Sun, 2 Oct 1887.
  • “The engineer quit his run.” New York Sun, 22 Jan 1893.
  • Watkins, John Elfreth Jr. “Leeds Devil is seen again.” Louisville Courier-Journal, 16 Jul 1899.
  • “Story of the Leeds Devil” Camden Morning Post, 2 May 1905.
  • “Fly rival of ‘Leeds Devil’ has Jersey people frightened.” Trenton Evening Times, 20 Jan 1909.
  • “The ‘Leeds Devil.'” Delaware County Times, 20 Jan 1909.
  • “Alarm in South Jersey.” Patterson (NJ) Morning Call, 21 Jan 1909.
  • “Burlington under arms.” Perth Amboy Evening News, 21 Jan 1909.
  • “Flying Hoof” leaves proof of visit here.” Trenton Evening Times. 21 Jan 1909.
  • “Merchantville notes.” Camden Morning Post, 21 Jan 1909.
  • “What-is-it visits all South Jersey.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Jan 1909.
  • “Claim they have seen ‘Leeds Devil.'” Asbury Park Press, 22 Jan 1909.
  • “Francis B. Lee finds name for ‘Flying Hoof.'” Trenton Evening Times, 22 Jan 1909.
  • “Jersey Devil vampire bat.” Princeton Morning Call, 22 Jan 1909.
  • “Knows history of Leeds Devil.” Camden Courier-Post, 22 Jan 1909.
  • “Policeman fire shots at terrorizing freak.” Camden Morning Post, 22 Jan 1909.
  • “Citizens want lights returned.” Camden Courier-Post, 23 Jan 1909.
  • “Dispute view of scientists.” Camden Morning Post, 23 Jan 1909.
  • “‘Terror’ now in captivity.” Camden Morning Post, 23 Jan 1909.
  • “The milkman scared.” Bridgewater Courier-News. 25 Jan 1909.
  • “Editorial comments.” Patterson (NJ) Morning Call, 26 Jan 1909.
  • “Mysterious beast at the museum.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 Jan 1909.
  • “Trying day for the ‘What-Is-It?'” Patterson (NJ) Morning Call, 27 Jan 1909.
  • “Hornerstown.” Allentown Messenger, 28 Jan 1909.
  • “Strange beast in Piscataway Township.” Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News, 28 Jan 1909.
  • “Is Jersey Devil in our region?” Lewisburg (PA) Journal, 29 Jan 1909.
  • “Gable believes in ‘Jersey Devil.'” Trenton Evening Times, 4 Feb 1909.
  • “Again the Wop.” Williamsport (PA) Sun-Gazette, 13 Mar 1909.
  • “Rats eat dynamite; bang.” Des Moines Register, 28 Mar 1909.
  • “Captain captures the Jersey Devil.” Detroit Free Press, 6 May 1909.
  • “Hot pursuit of Jersey Bombat.” Honesdale (PA) Citizen, 4 Jun 1909.
  • “Body of ‘Jersey Devil’ found in woods.” Richmond (IN) Palladium-Item, 20 Oct 1909.
  • “Jersey Devil proves a cat.” Camden Courier-Post, 23 Oct 1909.
  • “Strange animal makes raid on farmer’s chicken house.” Harrisburg Telegraph, 13 Oct 1910
  • “Thought odd fish was Jersey Devil.” Camden Courier-Post, 18 May 1912.
  • “‘Jersey Devil’ in again.” Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, 8 Jan 1919.
  • “Fowl, reptile, or animal? ‘Jersey Devil’ flies into temple window; captured.” Camden Courier-Post, 13 Nov 1920.
  • “Origin of Jersey Devil was in fertile mine of theatrical press agent.” Baltimore Sun, 19 Oct 1924.
  • “New Jersey loyal to ‘devil’ legend despite exposure.” Princeton (IN) Clarion-News, 3 Nov 1924.
  • “Famed ‘Jersey Devil’ has nine offspring.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 Jun 1926.
  • Woods, Barbara Allen. “Jersey Devil.” Western Folklore, Vol 16. No. 1 (January 1957).

Categories

Tags

First Published

Published:
Edited: