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The Jersey Devil

Often, when writing this column, I get the urge to call people names or use an excessive amount of vulgarity. Most of the time, I don’t give in to that urge. Today is going to have to be one of those occasions, because I know that if I make one joke about the subject at hand, they’ll just come pouring out.

The subject at hand is the Jersey Devil. Jokes about New Jersey are like beer: it’s hard to have just one, they’re delicious, and eventually people will get offended. So, brave denizens of out nation’s only state with traffic goddam circles, take heart.

The Jersey Devil occupies sort of an odd place in history: it’s mostly folklore, but there’s still a handful of people that insist it exists and go out searching for it. Like all things paranormal, the tale of the Jersey Devil is marked by uncertainty, confusion, and contradiction.

Most people claim that the Jersey Devil was born to a young woman who already had 12 children by the name of Mrs. Shrouds. She was, and quite rightly so, tired of giving birth, and declared that if she had a thirteenth child, she’d be more than happy to let the Satan have it. Well, people being who they are, she eventually got pregnant again, and after giving birth the hideous monster that had emerged from her womb flew out the chimney, never to be clearly seen again. A different story goes that a young woman fell in love with a British soldier and nearby townsfolk cursed her, causing her firstborn to be a bloodthirsty monster.

Now, mind you, if you believe that the Jersey Devil is an actual, factual monster, you believe either that townsfolk’s malicious prayers are strong enough to curse an innocent woman, or that the Devil amuses himself by making freaky monsters out of fetuses.

But wait, there’s more! Burlington also claims to be the birthplace of this flying freakshow. So basically, the Jersey Devil is a paranormal story just like the Chupacabra, Bigfoot, or UFOs: no one can agree on anything. Not even the slightest detail.

The best that can be said about the Jersey Devil is that the stories all have two common roots: the names Leeds and Shroud. There were families named Shroud that lived in Leeds Point, New Jersey, so perhaps these stories are a little less discordant that it looks at first glance. Historically speaking, at one point or another, most towns in New Jersey were called Burlington, so maybe the two stories overlap. Whether the mother was the victim of a curse, was granted her wish by the Devil, or was a witch who consummated an unholy union with nefarious powers is up in the air.

So, what does the Jersey Devil look like? Most artist’s renditions make it looks sort of like a flying giraffe, with a long neck and horses’ head. Others make it look like a fat, flying toad. Others yet appear as a dragon, some as a flying cow smoking a cigar. Personally, I hope that if this monster exists, it looks like the toad. So cool.

Just like UFOs, lots of people have seen the Jersey Devil, though few of them seem to have any name. At one point a telephone repairman was scared up a telephone pole by the Jersey Devil. How that would protect him against a flying monster is unclear, as is his identity. In the 1700s a priest, name unknown, was so vexed by the flying beastie that he said a prayer that banned the Jersey Devil from the area for a hundred years. The interesting thing is that this hundred year period lasted from 1740 to 1890, and plenty of people still saw it. In fact, during this time a rash of chicken killings was blamed on the Jersey Devil.

Look, farmers, I’m on your side, but believe me: if your chickens start kicking off, chances are there’s no flying demon responsible. Chickens are fragile, delicious little creatures, and they die just as easily as they live. No monster needed. Not only is the Jersey Devil responsible for such second-hand evidence as killing chickens, but he seems to be an aficionado of leaving footprints and tracks scattered about. In fact, if you see an odd impression in the mud, why bother figuring out what it is when you could just blame it on the Jersey Devil?

Some famous people have been rumored to have spotted the Jersey Devil. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother saw it cavorting on his estate in New Jersey, and Commodore Stephen Decatur, naval hero and all around great guy, once shot a cannonball through it. It flew away, uninjured, with a cannonball-shaped hole in its’ gut. On the other hand, we have the report of two unnamed teens who said that the Jersey Devil had cornered one of them in a forest, and was scared off only when the other shot it through the wing.

So the legend itself is confused, the appearance of the monster varies, and the stories about it are contradictory and, to be honest, about as reliable as an early-model M16. (The government awarded the contract to make M16 rifles to one company, and the contract for making bullets for it to another; the two were incompatible with each other and the burning gunpowder from the bullets ate away at the breach, causing bullets to jam and earning the rifle a strong reputation for unreliability. The problem was eventually solved by treating the metal in the breech with a metal alloy, thus making it more corrosion resistant.)

Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that these stories are not credible. Not by a long shot. And yet, people believe them. At various points in history, the government of New Jersey had to take time out of its busy schedule of being corrupt to go on public relations campaigns to convince people the thing was just a hoax.

I’ve been to New Jersey. That’s where I buy most of my discount liquor and waste hours of my life trying to make a simple left-hand turn. Trust me when I say that the tax money of the people of that fine state could be spent on a whole lot better things than having the police hang up thousands of signs that say “the Jersey Devil is a Hoax!” Imagine what a fine place New Jersey would be today if all that money and energy had gone into something constructive, as opposed to a chump education program. Well, it’s for the better perhaps. The money just would have ended up slushing the governor’s funds, so to speak.

Be seeing you.

First published in The Triangle on 14 October 2005.