Monster Births, Flying Kangaroos and Benjamin Franklin: The Story of the Jersey Devil

The Jersey Devil in the film, The Barrens (2012).

The Jersey Devil has captured the imagination of Garden State residents and beyond for generations with sightings dating back to the 19th century. The Jersey Devil was kept alive with the rising popularity of cryptozoology. Docuseries such as MonsterQuest, Lost Tapes, and True Monsters have dedicated episodes to the Jersey Devil. Although not as widely popular as the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil was also featured on an episode of The X-Files and was the subject of two films, The Barrens (2012) and Dark Was The Night (2015). Bruce Springsteen dedicated a song to the Jersey Devil, “A Night with the Jersey Devil,”  which was released on Halloween 2008.  When the Colorado Rockies hockey team moved to New Jersey in 1984, a public vote decided to rename the team the Devils. [1]

Described as a bipedal, kangaroo-like creature with a horse or goat-like head and bat-like wings, the Jersey Devil ranges in height from four to six feet. The creature is known for its high-pitched screams and attacking animals and humans. According to folklore, the Jersey Devil makes its home in the Pine Barrens, a large, wooded area of Southern New Jersey. Like any other legend, there are variations in its origins.


A 2016 article, “13 times the Jersey Devil has been spotted in the Garden State,” by Kelly Roncace on, described sightings reported over the years:

  • Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, reported one of the first sightings of the Jersey Devil in 1812. He said that he saw the creature while hunting on his Bordentown estate. 
  • More than 1,000 South Jersey residents reported seeing the Jersey Devil in 1909. Navy Commander Steven Decatur claimed that he shot the creature while testing cannonballs at Hanover Mills in the Pine Barrens. Decatur said that the shot left a hole in the creature but that it seemed unaffected by it. Bloodhounds refused to follow the odd tracks allegedly left by the fleeing creature. This year stands out as having the most Jersey Devil reports.
  • In 1927, a taxi driver in Salem City, NJ reported that the Jersey Devil pounded on the roof of the cab as he was changing a tire.
  • In 1960, a $250,000 reward was offered for the capture of the Jersey Devil. A few residents in Mays Landing, NJ reported hearing blood-curdling screams in the middle of the night. Unable to identify the source, the residents were frightened. Police even took the time to distribute fliers assuring residents that the Jersey Devil was a hoax. 
  • A woman named Mary Ritzer Christianson told Weird NJ that she saw the Jersey Devil in 1972. Christianson said that as she was driving on the road one night, she saw a large creature, “[…] taller than the average man, with thick haunches like a goat and a huge, wooly head.” She said that the creature was walking across the road about 25 feet behind her car.
  • In 1980, Alan MacFairlane, chief ranger at Wharton State Forest, said that he found something that “stumped his wild animal knowledge.”  He found pigs with their bodies mutilated and the backs of their heads eaten on a South Jersey farm. No tracks or blood were found on the ground.
  • During the late 1980s, a group of campers reported hearing screams in the woods. Part of the group was riding dirt bikes in the Pine Barrens. They said that the bikes stalled and that they heard “inhuman” screams. When they got back to camp, the others said they heard it, too. Later that night, one camper went to a local bar and told the bartender about his experience. The bartender told him that the screams most likely were from the Jersey Devil.
  • In 1993, another forest ranger, John Irwin, said a large, black, horned furry creature blocked the path as he drove along the Mullica River. He said that the creature just stared at him for a few seconds before going into the woods.
  • In Galloway Township, Smithville Inn and Village owner, Fran Coppalo, was taking out the garbage when she saw the shadow of a winged creature. Coppalo said that the shadow wasn’t frightening but that she felt calm, Roncace writes that it was “as if the Jersey Devil was watching over her.”
  • The Jersey Devil also reportedly stopped traffic on Route 9 in Bayville, NJ. A ten-foot-tall creature “with a long head and short flat ears” reportedly ran across the road. Three motorists quickly slammed on their brakes. Roncace writes, “One witness reported that the creature emerged from a wooded area near a mini-mall and galloped out in front of traffic, disappearing into the woods on the other side of the street.”
  • In October of 2015 in Galloway Township, there were two sightings of the Jersey Devil. David Black of Little Egg Harbor, NJ said that, while driving on Route 9, he saw what looked like a llama on the side of the road walking in and out of the trees. He managed to take a picture with his cellphone as the creature spread its wings and flew away. The photo went viral. Two days later, in Leeds Point, 20 miles away, Emily Martin managed to film the same mysterious animal.

Where did this creature or the idea of it come from?

A day time shot of a forest.
“Pine Barrens Tracks 2” by mswern is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The 13th Child of a Witch?

According to Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito, authors of The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster (2018), the story of the Jersey Devil begins in 1735. A woman simply referred to as Mother Leeds was giving birth to her 13th child when she called out, “Oh, let this one be a devil!” Her child was born with a horse-like head, bat-like wings, claws, and hooves. The creature let out a high-pitched scream and fled up the chimney. It allegedly lived in the nearby wooded area known as the Pine Barrens and tormented the locals. 

Regal and Esposito cite folklorist John McPhee as providing a different version of the tale. According to McPhee, Mother Leeds, who was allegedly a witch, cursed a preacher who tried to convert her. In turn, the preacher put a curse on her that her next child would be the spawn of the Devil. [2] 

Growing up in New Jersey, I heard the story many times. The most often repeated story is the first version of Mother Leeds’ alleged cry and the creature flying up the chimney. 

All That’s Interesting provides more versions of the story in a 2021article “The Chilling Legend Of The Jersey Devil, The Horse-Headed Beast With Wings.”

Also known as the Leeds Devil, here are some variations of its origins:

  • Married to the town drunk, Mother Leeds was unable to support the 12 children that they already had. When Mother Leeds became pregnant for the 13th time, she cried out: “Let this child be the devil!” She gave birth to a human baby that transformed into a winged creature. Mother Leeds kept the creature for as long as she could before it killed her and escaped.
  • Mother Leeds was a witch who claimed that the Devil got her pregnant.
  •  A young woman from Leeds Point, NJ became pregnant by a British soldier. The townspeople cursed her, and she gave birth to the Jersey Devil.
  •  The Jersey Devil is the child of a woman cursed by a Romani after she refused to give them money.

Monster Tales and Hoaxes

Many sources point to a series of newspaper articles that ran in 1909 as a huge factor in spreading the story about the Jersey Devil. As mentioned in the Roncace article, the most reports of Jersey Devil sightings were in 1909. Regal and Esposito cite two other reports from that year. One report, from Burlington, NJ referred to the Jersey Devil as a “Jabberwock,” from Lewis Carroll’s poem, “Jabberwocky.” The other report was published in the Asbury Park Press.  After a typical New Jersey winter snowfall, residents in the Pine Barrens area found mysterious animal tracks, described as “curious hoof-prints”  in the snow. Some of these prints were allegedly found on rooftops. The 1909 reports collectively inspired a well-publicized, elaborate Jersey Devil hoax. 

Regal and Esposito point out that “hoax” stories were a huge part of entertainment and the media at the time. Hoax stories are the 19th and early 20th-century precursor to tabloid TV. Many of these hoaxes were monster tales including mermaids and giants. These hoaxes even included elaborately constructed remains put on display for the public to view for a fee. Regal and Esposito’s research pointed me in the direction of two examples of cryptid hoaxes.

During the 1840s, P.T. Barnum, one of the creators of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus,  exhibited an alleged cryptid called the Feejee Mermaid in New York, Boston, and London. According to a 2017 Live Science article, “The Feejee Mermaid: Early Barnum Hoax,” writer Jessica Szalay, these mermaid carcasses were fish and ape torsos sewn together. The exhibit was very popular and played a huge role in establishing Barnum’s reputation as a master showman.

The Cardiff Giant is another elaborate hoax, which was supposedly the petrified remains of a 10-foot tall humanoid being. It was a very detailed 3,000-pound statue carved out of gypsum, treated with sulfuric acid to make it look aged, and even poked with needles to create pores in the skin.  

According to the 2016 article “The Cardiff Giant Fools the Nation, 145 Years Ago” by Evan Andrews, staunch atheist George Hull created the giant to fool the faithful and make some money. He was inspired by a debate with a preacher over the preacher’s literal interpretation of the Bible. Hull was specifically thinking of a passage in the Book of Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”  Needless to say, it created the stir Hull intended.

A close up of a sculpture of a grimacing red devil head.
“Devil” by CGP Grey is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In 1909, there was a similar Jersey Devil hoax. Regal and Esposito credit Norman Jeffries for getting the idea from reading reports of the Jersey Devil in the newspapers. Jeffries worked for the Ninth and Arch Street Dime Museum in Philadelphia. Dime museums served as an affordable source of entertainment for the working and middle classes and featured  singers and musicians as well as oddities and unusual performers such as “living skeletons.” [3] 

The Ninth and Arch Museum experienced a decline in revenue. Stories about the Jersey Devil circulated from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to as far as Minnesota. Jeffries saw these reports and began to plant his own stories in the Philadelphia press. [4] 

According to Regal and Esposito, Philadelphia newspapers collaborated with the museum to create the hoax. They first contacted a taxidermist who referred them to an animal trainer and exhibitor in Buffalo, NY, known only as “Professor Edwards.” Professor Edwards sent a kangaroo painted with stripes and wings attached. The group staged a  “devil hunt.” The kangaroo was set loose in a wooded area and clowns hired from a circus were sent in to hunt it. The clowns returned from the woods with a covered cage and the press announced that the Leeds Devil (as the Jersey Devil was known then) was caught. Of course, the Leeds Devil was immediately put on display at the Ninth and Arch Dime Museum. The exhibit was a huge success and the kangaroo was eventually sent back to Edwards. [5]

This exhibit was based on an already established legend. Do all legends, no matter how bizarre, have their basis in fact? In the case of the Jersey Devil, the origins can be traced back to colonial New Jersey, the European settlers and their interaction with Native Americans, and two families named Leeds. As the title of Regal and Esposito’s book suggests, Benjamin Franklin is also credited with having a hand in creating the Jersey Devil.

The Settlers and the Lenape

According to Regal and Esposito, evidence unearthed by archeologists John Carvallo and Richard Regensburg indicates that there was a large settlement of Lenape. The Lenape performed ceremonies to honor their gods in the Pine Barrens. Like many polytheistic religions, the Lenape worshipped many nature spirits. They believed in the existence of both good and evil spirits. The ceremonies in the Pine Barrens were usually dedicated to Kishelemukong, the creator god.

According to Regal and Esposito, the Christian settlers saw these ceremonies as devil worship. The authors speculate that this would create an association between evil and the wooded area of the Pine Barrens. [6] 

This area also had a large Quaker community. The Quakers came to the new world fleeing religious persecution themselves. Labeled heretics by other Christian denominations, Quakers were the most tolerant of indigenous people out of any of the other groups of settlers. Quakers questioned traditional Christian teachings and believed in both racial and gender equality. However, all residents who lived in the area believed in witches including the Lenape. Europeans believe that witches lived in the forest, cast evil spells, and could fly. The Lenape believed in Kimochene or nightwalkers, humans who traveled long distances at night in the bodies of evil creatures. [7]

A close up of the yellow pages of a very old book.
“IMG_9487” by lblanchard is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Leeds Devil

In the area of the Pine Barrens that became known as Leeds Point, lived a man named Daniel Leeds. Leeds was a controversial figure in the Quaker community. Raised in the Quaker faith, he would eventually be rejected and outcast among them. 

Born in Leeds, England in 1652, Leeds arrived in New Jersey in 1677. Leeds served in many prominent positions. He helped to establish the first Quaker meeting house in Burlington, located in Western New Jersey. He also served as a member of the assembly in 1682 and justice of the peace in 1692-1698. He eventually became surveyor-general and built his first home in Egg Harbor in Southern New Jersey. [8]  

Leeds was also a mystic who claimed to have had visions of Jesus Christ. He began to explore his interests with an independent study of science, theology, and the occult. Leeds believed that science, astrology, and math were the keys to understanding the universe. Leeds wanted to share his views and began to write books that met with disapproval in the Quaker community. [9] 

His first book was an almanac published in 1687. In his book, Leeds drew astrological connections between body parts and star signs (i.e., Aries and the head/face). The Quaker Burlington Monthly meeting said that Leeds’ almanac was “too pagan.” They specifically objected to Leeds’ use of astrological symbols and used Greco-Roman gods’ names for planets. Leeds was forced to apologize to the Quaker elders while the group decided to destroy as many copies of the almanac as they could find. [10] 

Rejected and angry with the Quaker community, Leeds published The Temple of Wisdom in 1688 which included sections on angels, devil’s, natural magic, astrology, theology, and philosophy. Leeds also promoted the controversial idea of the “centrality of women in religion and the feminine aspect of God.” Quaker communities in both Philadelphia and Burlington suppressed the book and wanted to destroy copies of it. Copies were even destroyed in England. According to Regal and Esposito, only one copy of The Temple of Wisdom survives today. Leeds was seen as evil in the eyes of the Quaker community. He became openly critical of the community that sought to suppress his ideas and destroy his work. [11]  

As far as Daniel Leeds is concerned, there was no 13th devil child. However, he did have a son, Titus, who would grow up to continue his father’s work. He took over publishing editions of his father’s almanac after Daniel Leeds’ death in 1720.

Leeds vs. Franklin

Titus Leeds developed an interesting rivalry with Benjamin Franklin. It was a war of words ignited by Franklin’s macabre joke. In his rival publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin used astrology to predict Titus Leeds’ death on October 17, 1733. 

Regal and Esposito write that Franklin published his almanac, Poor Richard’s Almanack, under a pseudonym taken from medical astrologer Richard Saunders. Like Leeds’ almanac, Franklin included agricultural and astrological data and added inspirational quotes. However, Poor Richard’s Almanack was written in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek style in contrast to the more serious tone of the Leeds almanac. [12] 

In a 2021 article, “How Ben Franklin Helped Ignite the Jersey Devil Hysteria,” for How Stuff Works, Mark Mancini writes that Leeds called Franklin a fool in response. Franklin’s response was to suggest that Leeds must be dead and it must be his ghost writing horrible things about him.  Leeds’ rivalry with Benjamin Franklin further damaged his family’s reputation. 

Regal and Esposito write: “Franklin wanted to make all astrologers look like fools, this being a frequent theme in some of his satirical writing. Benjamin Franklin had cast his rival almanac publisher as a ghost, a reanimated sorcerer who haunted his enemies. The traditional ‘birth’ of the Jersey Devil coincides roughly with the death of Titus Leeds, as well as with the Franklin-Leeds almanac war.”  [13]

A face in black and white skull makeup grimaces next to an orange flamelike glow.
“Self portrait – Flamethrowers, facepaint and fantoms” by MattysFlicks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Monster Births”

According to Regal and Esposito, tales of monster births circulated during the 18th century in pamphlets complete with illustrations. These stories may have been cases of children with physical abnormalities. In others, these may have been hoax tales used by Christians as cautionary tales or perhaps a combination of both. [14]  

A famous example is the story of Anne Hutchinson, who was a controversial figure during the 1630s and 1640s in Boston. Hutchinson challenged the status quo and was considered a political and religious radical. Hutchinson was eventually arrested, tried for heresy, and banned from Boston. Hutchinson and her followers went to Providence, Rhode Island where she gave birth to her 16th child who was born with severe physical abnormalities. Mary Dyer, an associate of Hutchinson, reportedly also gave birth to a child with birth defects. The opposition used these births as examples of God’s wrath against heretics. [15] 

Just like with any folktales, the undercurrent of truth behind mythology is becoming clear. The controversy Daniel Leeds’ writings caused in the Quaker community linked the Leeds name with the occult. His son, Titus, published his father’s almanac, sparking a public feud with Franklin. Benjamin Franklin’s jokes further linked the Leeds family with the occult. No matter how strange our 21st-century minds think Franklin’s quips when viewed through an 18th-century lens, tie the Leeds family to witchcraft. Take into consideration the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts during the 17th century plus the New England Vampire Panic during the 19th century. In 18th century New Jersey, the Leeds family’s reputation would possibly put them in league with Satan himself.

Add popular tales of “monster births” and the elaborate hoax of 1909, and a clearer picture of how the legend of the Jersey Devil evolved over the years. 

The Other Leeds Family

There is another tie to the name Leeds. Writer S.P. Sullivan interviewed Bill Sprouse, author of The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil, released on Halloween 2013. In the 2019 article, “My uncle, the Jersey Devil: One man’s quest to set the record straight on a NJ legend,” Sprouse said that his grandmother told him that he was a descendant of the Jersey Devil, or actually a woman named Deborah Leeds who lived in Leeds Point and gave birth to 12 children. 

Sprouse told Sullivan, “My grandmother didn’t actually think that Deborah Leeds had given birth to a monster, of course, but she did think maybe there was some reason why the neighbors told this story about her. So a lot of my book started out as a kind of investigation into what can be discovered about Deborah Smith and her husband, Japheth Leeds.” Sprouse added that his book was “really an excuse for me to write about myself, my family and the place where I grew up.”

WikiTree has a page on Deborah Leeds (née Smith) that lists her as a Quaker married to Japheth Leeds and lists each of her 12 children with the Jersey Devil as her 13th with a question mark. It also says that Deborah was born in Burlington County, NJ in 1685 and died in Atlantic County in 1748.

According to WikiTree: “Deborah is the only known ‘Mother Leeds’ of Leeds Point, New Jersey that had 12 children, and was also in the right time frame of sightings, so she’s the one most people ascribe to the legend of the ‘Jersey Devil,’ or the ’13th child.'”

Colt Shaw, a staff writer for The Press of Atlantic City, interviewed more of Deborah Leeds’ descendants in a 2019 article “The Devil You Know: How Leeds descendants see their Jersey Devil relative.” It sounds as if her descendants have fun with it.

Jane Miller Glenn and her daughter, Marcia McCulley both dressed up as the Jersey Devil for Halloween as children and continued the tradition with their children. McCulley told Shaw, “Every one of the grandchildren when they were little kids, it was kind of a customary thing that you had to do.”

Besides Halloween costumes, the Jersey Devil is treated as “tongue-in-cheek family lore” and a conversation starter. It was also used in a joking sense when children misbehave. Glenn told Shaw that her father would say that “the devil’s coming out” of her. Another Deborah Leeds descendant, Norman Goos, 75, a historian with the Atlantic County Historical Society, said that his grandfather wouldn’t say anything but make devil horns in his head with his fingers. Kelly Leeds Billings, 40, told Shaw a much different anecdote. Her father didn’t talk about the Jersey Devil as a horrible and frightening creature. Instead, he used it as a way to ease her fear. He told her that the devil couldn’t hurt her since they were related. She went on to tell her children the same thing. 

Shaw writes that Deborah Leeds’ family emigrated to New Jersey in the 1670s. In 1785, Jeremiah Leeds, Deborah’s grandson, made his home on Absecon Island, a barrier island located in Atlantic County, NJ. Jeremiah is credited with building the first permanent structure in what is now Atlantic City and owned 1,000 acres of the island at the time of his death. Jeremiah’s son, Robert, served as Atlantic City’s first postmaster. Robert’s son, Chalkey (Glenn’s great-grandfather), was the first mayor.

Another of Deborah’s descendants, Harry Leeds, is the former mayor of Galloway Township. Described as the most visible descendant of the Jersey Devil, he has made many appearances on TV documentaries about the Jersey Devil.

While not as famous as Bigfoot or Nessie, the Jersey Devil has earned a place beside them. Officially dubbed New Jersey’s state devil in 1938, the Jersey Devil has gone on to be immortalized in television, movies, pop music, and sports. Born in 1735, the legend of the Jersey Devil has survived in the Garden State and beyond for over 200 years and will probably continue for many years to come.

Works Cited

[1] Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito. The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster. John Hopkins Univesity Press, pp. 111-112

[2] Regal and Esposito, p. 5

[3] Regal and Esposito, pp. 76-78

[4] Regal and Esposito, pp. 76-78

[5] Regal and Esposito, pp. 79-80

[6] Regal and Esposito, pp. 8-12

[7] Regal and Esposito, pp. 12-14

[8] Regal and Esposito, pp. 18-24

[9] Regal and Esposito, pp. 25-29

[10] Regal and Esposito, pp. 25-29

[11] Regal and Esposito, pp. 29-41

[12] Regal and Esposito, p  53

[13] Regal and Esposito, p. 55

[14] Regal and Esposito, p. 15

[15] Regal and Esposito, p. 15

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Written by MD Bastek

Just a person who loves horror and writes about unusual things

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