Let this one be a Devil’s biography (Book Review)

The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster
Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito
Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2018

Only in very recent years, thanks to Bill Sprouse and Brian Regal, has the connection to Daniel Leeds been made to the Leeds Devil which later became the Jersey Devil – the official demon of New Jersey. The story about Leeds’ alliances, his nasty break with his Quaker neighbors, the production of a controversial almanac, and his family’s feud with Benjamin Franklin has been colorfully described primarily by Regal, a science historian. The premise of this volume is that the Jersey Devil is a beast spawned not from a demon seed but from freethinking, politics, a hoax, and the media.

I’m sold on the idea that the legend of this devil was formed from these threads that reached far back to pre-USA times. But it’s not the story most people have heard. There was no Mother Leeds, no devil child, no cryptid lurking in the Pine Barrens. But there was a notable and chastised family, probably some monstrous births, some Native folklore, and a climate of susceptibility that nurtured the myth we have today.

The story of the Leeds family and all that transpired during their time in New Jersey was lost as Daniel’s writings were almost entirely discarded and forgotten. Regal went looking for the original sources, some of which were still in England. Esposito, from what I understand, pulled from the Leni-Lenape tradition that has also been mostly buried in the sandy soils of this forsaken landscape.  The sections on colonial history are solid, sandwiched between an introduction to the topic and the Jersey Devil as a monster of modern times seen as a zoological or supernatural mystery. The book presents several gems that I hadn’t heard described so far so it is essential for the cryptid-keepers library.

To understand cryptozoology, it’s crucial to go beyond the “zoology” part and comprehend the folklore, history, psychology, and sociology. Modern self-styled cryptozoologists regularly skip over engaging with the foundations and facts of the monster tales and jump straight to hunting for physical evidence of an unknown creature. Thus, as with ghost and UFO research, all objectivity is discarded, belief is reinforced, not challenged, and every anomaly becomes evidence to support the preconception. On page 1 of the book is the key line: “Everything you think you know about the Jersey Devil is wrong”. Based on reactions to several prior scholarly books about cryptids, many cryptozoologists will not even acknowledge this book by Regal & Esposito because it is a challenge. It does not reinforce their preferred narrative, not even close, and they will hate that it ruins their idea of the mystery. Not me. I don’t have much tolerance for researchers who don’t value the best evidence and sound conclusions but continue to cling to a transparent fiction for their own edification. That’s not researching, it’s indulging a fantasy. If you want to be an expert in a field, and thoroughly know your subject, you must examine all angles presented, even those that are difficult.

Most famous depiction of the Jersey Devil from the Philadelphia Bulletin, January 1909.

This book is the best modern view of the Leeds/Jersey Devil legend so far. That’s not a high bar, though, since there are not many volumes on the legend. And, those that have been produced are not good, cobbled together from unreliable sources. The main gist of this book is that the Jersey Devil is a misattributed monster because no one cared to check the sources of the stories before repeating them. The legend went rogue. Or, they didn’t care about the sourcing because the dramatic tales were too good to not share. Ironically, there are a few places where this book trips up in the same manner by perpetuating a claim left unverified.

There were also a number of places where the writing left me confused. The parts about Mother Leeds as a witch were fascinating but underdeveloped. I was not quite clear what role Anne Hutchinson or Polly Baker played in forming of the legend. More framing would have been helpful. The story of astrologer John Partridge was puzzling as I couldn’t tell if he actually did die in a perpetrated hoax (p 54). Titan Leeds’ intriguing quote about a “Devil’s emissary” is left unsourced (p 51) as was Franklin’s linking of Titan to Satan (p 55). I would have liked to have known more about the other Leeds who lived in Leeds Point to confirm their part in the story, or not, but this was touched on only lightly. The “Image takes Shape” section is disjointed. I finished the book unsatisfied. At only 160 pages, it needed at least another 50 to flesh out the narrative.

The Devil’s history is a muddled one. The components were slow to merge into the tale we know now. The mid-1800s saw a rise in incredible tales marketed to the public – mermaids, wall-leaping tricksters, and a “devil kid” in Cleveland. As the authors say, the Jersey Devil was not without predecessors. I was pleased to see a tracing of these antecedents to the modern view. I wanted more.

Context is everything when understanding a legend and this is unfortunately overlooked in contemporary popular cryptozoological books. The media reported on the Leeds beast as real and so people said they saw it. The 1909 dustup follows the same pattern of contagion as other flaps. “The Jersey Devil is a product of media rather than genuine folklore,” the authors say (p 78). Even hoaxes that still happen today strengthen the story in the public eye instead of diminishing it.

Those who picked up early on the history of the Devil were amateur historians or folklorists who never looked too far into the forest for the roots of the story. With Leeds forgotten (or lost) except in the place name, the canonical Jersey Devil became a child-eating dragon, a flying kangaroo, and a Jabberwock, with a new location-oriented catchy name that stuck.

It’s common for modern cryptid books to lack solid sources. Careful sourcing of your work is difficult and amateurs often don’t bother tracking down primary sources as they are too hard to access. Many pop cryptid books often don’t have any useful references and take their content from unverified web pages. This book does a decent job of driving that important point home. However, I did find a few times where that very mistake was made in this volume. The most egregious error is the mention of “Tarsus Pterodactyl” on page 12: “Tarsus Pterodactyl” is an “Ice Age impala-like animal… that became extinct 11,000 years ago”. The same name is mentioned again on page 98. The reference for this is O.C. Marsh’s “Principal Characteristics [should be ‘Characters’] of American Pterodactyls.” Am J Sci, June 1876, a very short paper. The reference, which I obtained, is about pterodactyls but does not contain the name Tarsus and makes no mention of any Pleistocene mammals. The title error is repeated several times. I can’t find results anywhere on the web for “Tarsus Pterodactyl”. There is no genus, Tarsus, for any animal. An “impala-like” animal makes no sense in terms of pterosaurs. Pterodactyloids are a suborder of pterosaurs with short tails and usually no teeth. With the Devil sporting a tail and probably teeth (the better to eat you with) it would not resemble a pterodactyl but a Rhamphorychoid. Although a popular (but absurd) speculation about the Jersey Devil is that it’s a living pterosaur, looking at this bit in the book from several angles, it’s completely bungled.

Pterodactyloid Ningchengopterus_liuae By Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19459598

An impala.

Another point which caught my attention was the mention of an unidentified carcass found after a 1957 fire in the forestland. The reference is just “Newark News, 1967”. Why 10 years later? What day was it printed? Where was the body found? Where’s the picture? Basically, this is a hollow reference no better than a link to one of the several unsourced blog posts that mention it. Another dropped ball. I’m still curious about these two items so if anyone knows of the actual sources for them please contact me.

The book zips lightly through the description of the modern monster – now used by the public as a catch-all for widely varying descriptions ranging from a Bigfoot-like creature to a bird. Besides the shows mentioned, the TV show Paranormal State captured what was obviously a hoax or a deer on infrared camera and called it the Jersey Devil. There are a few witness stories that appear to describe a swooping owl. But no one will admit that’s what they saw, it doesn’t fit the terrifying legend.

There are a few modern cryptid hunters who still think the Jersey Devil is some sort of real-life dragon. That idea sounds sillier by the year. The truth is, though this secret history is a welcome and necessary text on the historicity of the Leeds/Jersey Devil, it is not nearly the definitive chronical. There remains a complete social history of the Devil to be written from way back then to right now. That tome would be a challenge to do well. It would be brillig’ though, to cut through the gyre and gimble in the wabe and give this beast, one of my favorites, a factual and frabjous full biography.

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