The Pine Barrens span 1.1 million acres across South Jersey, where visitors can explore hiking trails, canoe, camp, and ride horses. The Pines are even home to many abandoned or forgotten towns, which may entice explorers in search of an eerie atmosphere. However, while guidebooks may rave about the many interesting aspects of the heavily wooded region, they often leave out one important detail–the Pine Barrens may be haunted by the Jersey Devil.
Between the sandy, quiet roads and the abandoned towns strewn throughout, the folklore behind the region’s hauntings may seem scarily believable. Some residents today still believe the tales. Yet, as with most folklore, there’s debate as to how the hauntings began. One devilish recount of the haunting’s origin does, however, overshadow the rest.
The Jersey Devil’s Origin Story
The year was 1735; a horrible storm was crashing over Leeds Point in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. Winds howled, whipping the trees as thunder crashed over a small, quaint home in the rural community. A woman by the name of Mrs. Leeds cried as the storm raged, giving birth to her 13th child. Distraught by her pregnancy, she cursed him.
“Oh, let this one be the devil!” she yelled.
The legend claims that, upon cursing the child, he was born a devil. The creature was said to release a horrifying screech, unfold its wings, and escape through the chimney. From that point forward, the Leeds Devil, now infamously known as the Jersey Devil, was born.
Its alleged appearance is rather disturbing. According to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the Jersey Devil is described as “a kangaroo-like creature with the face of a horse, the head of a dog, bat-like wings, horns and a tail,” roaming the Pines’ marshes for 250 years.
The Devil’s presence has been noted in over 50 towns.
A First Encounter
Around the start of the 19th century, several residents reported sightings of the Devil. In 1812, the former King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, reported seeing the Jersey Devil while out hunting. Though this particular claim lacked sufficient detail, it was the start of numerous encounters with the creature.
Following this incident, in 1909, Commodore Stephen Decatur was practicing shooting cannonballs with other members of the Navy. According to his reports, a cannonball struck the Jersey Devil but didn’t damage the creature at all. Some witnesses claim there were tracks in the snow, the shape of hoofprints. However, the bloodhounds refused to track the trail.
Since the report came from Navy officials, the public was sent into a state of panic. Over 1,000 reports were made by residents claiming encounters. As a result of the mayhem, schools surrounding the Pine Barrens were closed out of fear of the Jersey Devil.
All Tired Out
Events calmed for almost 20 years, with hardly any mention of the creature. However, in 1927, someone suddenly reported another sighting.
In the middle of the night in Salem City, NJ, a cab driver reportedly pulled over for a flat tire. During this time, there weren’t any street lights to illuminate the tree-surrounded roads. It was pitch dark.
As the taxi driver left his vehicle to fix the tire, he heard terrifying screeches. Suddenly, a large creature appeared from the woods and attacked him. Though the driver rushed back into his vehicle, the being continued to pound on his car, as though it were trying to reach him. The man reported the incident to police, but nobody could determine what animal attacked him.
Reports of the Devil once again died down, this time for nearly 50 years. Although artists released songs and books describing the folklore tales of the Jersey Devil, mainstream media eased their panic.
That was until 1972.
Mary Ritzer Christianson was driving alone down Greentree Road in Southern New Jersey, heading towards Glassboro. The road is lengthy and, at times, largely isolated.
As she drove, Christianson reported seeing a creature cross the street behind her, appearing in her rearview mirror. The beast had the head of a horse, standing upright like a man, with large haunches and a set of wings.
Although the area doesn’t technically pass through the Pine Barrens, her description matches that of the Jersey Devil. This story sparked new beliefs that the creature could fly to various areas of New Jersey, outside of the Pines.
A Horrifying Hog
The next encounter was in 1980 at Wharton State Forest, which is in the direct center of the Pine Barrens. This forest is also home to Batsto Village, established in the 1700s.
At the time, chief forest ranger Alan MacFarlane received an urgent call to visit a farm in the area. The sight was otherworldly.
All of the farmer’s pigs had been slaughtered during the night. Most alarming, however, was that something had eaten the back of each pig’s head. History Collection described the scene as if “something perched on their backs and ate their brains,” especially given that their backs were all scratched. The rest of their bodies remained untouched.
The mystery has never been solved, though locals attribute the attack to the Jersey Devil.
The Roaring ‘80s
Several more incidents occurred in the 1980s, including an Asbury Park Press reporter claiming to encounter the Jersey Devil several years ago. He provided a full description of the creature, which matched that of the folklore depiction.
In the late 1980s, a group of friends rode dirt bikes around the Pine Barrens a few miles from their camp. Suddenly, all their bikes and ATVs simultaneously stalled. Then, they all reported hearing horrible screams of an unknown origin. Many dropped their bikes and fled, but the few who stayed behind continued to hear the screeching into the night.
On their way home, the bikers paused at a bar, describing their incident to the workers. The bartender explained that they likely encountered the Jersey Devil.
The most recent story was reported by David Black, who in 2015 alleged he saw the Jersey Devil on Route 9 in Egg Harbor Township, near a golf course. Black claimed he saw a llama suddenly spread wings and take flight, capturing the below photo as proof of his encounter.
Though many people have refuted his photo and claims, another person, Emily Martin, shared a video taken nine miles from Black’s encounter, which depicts a similar creature. However, since both incidents took place around the time of Halloween, many have regarded their allegations as pranks.
So, is the Jersey Devil Real?
While its origin story is shrouded in mystery and folklore, encounters with the Jersey Devil are quite legitimate. Stories are recorded through police records from reliable sources, including prominent businessmen, government officials, and police themselves. Given the claims derived from reliable sources, fears of the Jersey Devil in the Pine Barrens solidified. Even today, many people believe the Devil continues to plague the region.
Whether or not the tales are true, the Jersey Devil has certainly made its way into New Jersey culture. The New Jersey Devils hockey team derived its name from the legend, and many locals still hold true to the tales.
If nothing else, the Jersey Devil remains a mascot that details New Jersey’s rich history and remarkable community. However, should the legend prove true, it’s a good thing New Jersey now has streetlights.
Have you ever spotted the Jersey Devil in the Pine Barrens? Let us know in the comments below.
Main image by Imat Bagja Gumilar