All of the stories agree, at least, on the origins of the story. It was allegedly “birthed” in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The Pine Barrens, also known simply as the Pinelands, is a heavily forested area of coastal plains in the southern part of the state. The area came to be known as the “pine barrens” due to the area’s sandy, acidic, nutrient-poor soil which couldn’t support the crops brought over by the Europeans. Despite not being able to grow much food within the Barrens, industries managed to flourish, if only for a time. Bog mining occurred in the area and the ore was worked in furnaces nearby. Papermills, sawmills and gristmills all saw their heyday in the Barrens, but each one rose to prominence and quickly fell again, leaving the forest to reclaim its land.
So we have the geographic setting for our story: a difficult place to live, at best. The actual date of the “birth” of the Devil is one of the many conflicts. Some stories put its “birth” as early as 1735 while others put it as late as 1857 and cover the many options in between. If you’re really enthusiastic, you might consider joining The Devil Hunters – a group dedicated to learning all they can about the infamous Jersey Devil.
The family in question has a long history with the state of New Jersey. The Leeds family’s presence in the state reaches back to the earliest days of discovery and settlement. There are even some versions of the story who refer to the location of the events within the Pine Barrens as Leeds Point. One would think with a long family history in one location (their decendants are spread around the state to this day) and having a specific settlement named after your family that this is indicative of a family that’s well off, but you would be wrong. The Leeds family that the Devil was “born” into was likely a branch that had fallen on hard times. Then again, with a stand-up citizen like the patriarch of this family spending most of his days in a drunken stupor providing little for the family, it’s not difficult to see how the family could fall on hard times. Since they had no problems in the reproductive area, I’m guessing that the Leeds were a staunchly Catholic family as there were already twelve extra mouths to feed when the Devil came into the picture. With a husband who did nothing around the house and a dozen brats running around under foot, it’s enough to drive any sane woman completely over the edge.
So there she was, Jane Leeds, pregnant yet again with what would be her thirteenth child. Is it any wonder that she would curse yet another infant brought screaming into the world? Devout Catholic or no, if your husband is quite literally good for nothing, I can easily imagine a woman cursing the latest pregnancy. One version of the story claim that the curse came as soon as she discovered a thirteenth child lay growing within her womb, another version claimed it was mid-pregnancy when the curse was uttered (and quickly forgotten), yet another version states that the curse came as she was birthing the infant. Whatever the time the curse was uttered, it is believed that Mother Leeds cursed her unborn child with something to this effect: “Let this one be a devil.” (variations exist here as well)
Darkness fell on a turbulently stormy night and Mrs. Leeds went into labour. I imagine this might’ve been a night in which her husband was relatively sober because it is stated that he kept the entire brood in one room of their tiny cabin, while midwives of the area were with Jane in the other as she gave birth. Whether you believe the birth was normal and everything went south rather quickly after a healthy baby boy was born, or you believe that the devil himself came forth from Jane’s womb in lieu of a human infant, the fact remains that the night was doomed. Either way, the being which was birthed slaughtered everyone in the house before making its escape. It has lived out its existence (of more than 200 years I might point out) in the forest of the Pine Barrens ever since.
Not long after this tragic events, neighbouring homesteads lost large dogs, geese, small livestock and even an occasional child. Even grown men were unwilling to venture outside after sunset. While the remains of the animals were often found, the children simply vanished. Even cows whose milk dried up were said to be visited by the Devil who breathed on them, causing their udders to dry up. The townsfolk got so desperate that they begged a local minister to exorcise the creature and he did so with an exorcism that was said to last 100 years. The Devil missed the memo on that, though, because he made an appearance at least two times before the century was up. The first sighting was by the naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur as he was testing cannon balls produced by the Hanover Iron Works. He allegedly shot at the creature, but missed. The second sighting was by Joseph Bonaparte, former King of Spain and brother of Napoleon. He reported seeing the creature while out hunting.
As promised by the minister, the protection from the exorcism lasted only 100 years and by 1840, the creature reappeared, snatching sheep and preying on children who lingered outside after sunset. Though there were no further reports of actual sitings, just the merest possibility was enough to keep people locked indoors.
In 1909, the Devil made its grandest appearance yet as thousands witnessed, if not its full form, then at least its footprints. Things were so bad at this point that schools closed and people adamantly refused to leave their homes.
The most recent sighting was in 1993 by a forest ranger named John Irwin. He was driving along a road that ran beside the Mullica River when he discovered the roadway blocked by the Jersey Devil. It is said that Irwin and the creature stared at each other for several minutes before the creature turned and bound from the road.
Though there haven’t been any additional sightings in the 21st century, if you find yourself in southern New Jersey near the Pine Barrens and fancy trying to find the Devil, it seems January is your best bet. According to one website 21 January seems the most likely night for a sighting, which leads me to wonder if that’s not when the child/creature was born.