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The Devil's Footprints

I must admit that sometimes I regret being an engineer. When watching the last episode of the TV show Futurama, in which a young man trades his hands to the Robot Devil in exchange for robot hands, so that he may master a complicated instrument and win the heart of the girl he has a crush on, I could only dwell on how if I’d majored in theatre, I could turn it into an awesome play. I had it all planned out: I would play the Robot Devil, and I’d have a red zoot suit. It was brilliant.

You know who else is fascinated with the Devil? By which of course, I mean the ordinary human devil? The British. Especially the British of the 19th century. That’s why anytime anything weird happened, they’d blame it on the Prince of Darkness. Thus I introduce to you: the Devil’s Footprints.

February 16th, 1855. A snow had fallen on south Devon that night, ending around midnight and leaving a fresh coat of winter white on the ground. Little did the residents know that when they woke up that morning, they’d be stepping out their doors not to shovel away snow, but to shovel away pure terror.

During the night some mysterious force had created U-shaped impressions in the snow. They seemed to be everywhere; a common claim that later surfaced was that the tracks zigzagged over the course of some hundred miles. Newspapers reported that the tracks led directly up to a 12-foot high garden wall, and then reappeared on the other side. The snow on top of the wall was undisturbed. They also led to a two-mile wide river, only to reappear on the other bank, as though whatever made the tracks just walked across or through the river at its’ leisure. There’s also a report that the tracks led up to a drainage pipe a few inches in diameter and came out of the other end, as though whatever created the tracks had gone through it.

At the time, newspapers ran general descriptions, and therefore the only first-hand accounts that are available came from letters to the editor in some papers. It’s interesting to note that, at the time, the tracks were described as being “more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous…”

I note this because, as time has gone by, the common UFO enthusiast will now claim that the footprints were precisely eight inches apart, and exactly two and a half inches across. This is because they’d have you believe that if it wasn’t the Devil himself out and about on that night, it was either some manner of space creature, a ghost, or what have you. To their credit, the newspapers reported that only the ‘superstitious’ believed in such things. Of course, as with so many cases, the government never undertook any sort of investigation because, let’s face it: the government has better things to do. If the Devil’s cruising around the backwoods, fine, just as long as he’s no importing foreign vegetables without going through customs.

Before I say what I think happened, let’s look at the case itself. The only proof that we have about it comes from newspapers. If you have heard about the mystery airships of the 1890s, you’ll remember that at the time, newspapers had only one goal: to sell newspapers. If the facts got in the way, or if exaggeration helped, they didn’t care. Newspapers were not in the business of telling the truth, they were in the business of making a profit. (If you think anything is different today, read more about the roles of newspapers in the Zoot Suit Riots in L.A.) That being said, I can read these newspaper reports only with a skeptical eye. Hundreds of miles worth of prints, leading to every door in the country? Mass hysteria gripping rural regions? Maybe. Maybe not.

But surely, you say, those eyewitness accounts wouldn’t lie! Maybe they wouldn’t. On the other hand, after the Columbine massacre, a guy went on TV and said that he had sold Mac10s to Harris and Klebold. People do a lot of insane things for attention, and that was just as true in the 1800s as it is today. The other issue with accepting these letters to the editor at face value is what I call the Crop Circle Effect; everyone knows that about a million billion gazillion crop circles are reported all over the world annually. The reason for this is that everyone knows that if they find a crop circle, they’ll get a few minutes of fame. 99% of them turn out to be gopher holes or something: anything even slightly odd about a field, and people call it in as a crop circle. The same almost certainly happened here: the slightest indent in the snow, and people thought the Devil was about.

Suffice it to say that I think the reports were exaggerated. Did something weird happen? Surely. Was all of England covered in identical footprints belonging to a spaceman? Of course not.

At the time, there were all sorts of crazy explanations. It turned out that a man was missing a pair of Kangaroos, and that was the explanation until it was laughed down. UFOlogists love to bring that up as an example of skeptics proposing silly explanations for mysterious events. On the other hand, a pair of escaped Aussie monsters are a lot more likely of an explanation than either the Devil or space people.

Let’s look at another thing. According to what dubious evidence we have, the tracks were found most often in fields and gardens, seemed too numerous to have been created by one person acting alone, and were able to do superhuman things, such as enter tiny drain pipes. They were also about eight inches apart and a few inches wide, shaped like a U.

The description of the footprints matches exactly with the shape that would be created by a type of rodent called the Hopping Mouse. True to it’s name, the hopping mouse leaps into the air and comes down about half a foot to a foot away, leaving a U-shaped imprint. Am I saying that’s what happened? No. Am I saying that it’s curious that this so-called paranormal phenomenon has a direct corollary that we see even to this day, created by perfectly normal means? Am I saying that England has mice? Am I saying there’s no reason to involve spaceships or metaphysical boogiemen? Am I saying that the smug opening ‘ what really happened will never be known,’ which you can find in every article written by a paranormal enthusiast, is unnecessarily sensationalistic? The answer to all of these questions is yes. The Devil was not abroad in Devon, but if he loves lies and misinformation, you can find his footprints all over the internet.

Be seeing you.

First published in The Triangle on 5 August 2005.