Jersey Devil –The Origins
Over the last 250 years there have been several sightings of a creature that has become known as the Jersey Devil (or Leeds Devil). Described as being bipedal with hooves and wings, the Jersey Devil would apparently dry up the milk within cows by breathing upon them. It was also blamed the disappearance fish in local rivers, smaller livestock (goats, geese etc) and some domestic animals (dogs, cats etc).
There are many variations on the legend of the origins of the Jersey Devil. This is an often quoted story of the birth of the Jersey Devil (original source unknown):
“It was said that Mother Leeds had 12 children and, after giving birth to her 12th child, stated that if she had another, it would be the Devil. In 1735, Mother Leeds was in labor on a stormy night. Gathered around her were her friends. Mother Leeds was supposedly a witch and the child’s father was the Devil himself. The child was born normal, but then changed form. It changed from a normal baby to a creature with hooves, a horse’s head, bat wings and a forked tail. It growled and screamed, then killed the midwife before flying up the chimney. It circled the villages and headed toward the pines. In 1740 a clergy exorcised the demon for 100 years and it wasn’t seen again until 1890.”
The birth was said to have taken place at Shrouds House, Leeds Point, which is now a ruin. It has been suggested that ‘Mother Leeds’ may have been Mrs Deborah Leeds formerly Deborah Smith, though the name Jane Leeds is sometimes used. In some versions of the story Leeds places a curse on her thirteenth child as she gives birth to it. She offers the child to Satan so that she does not have to bring up yet another child. In other versions she is cursed by a gypsy who Leeds refused to offer shelter in a storm. Or she could have been cursed by the locals of Leeds Point when they found out the father was not her husband but actually a British soldier. Even this element of the story has different versions, with either Mother Leeds falling in love with a British soldier (putting the date during the American Revolutionary War of 1775 – 1783) or that she found a young British deserter, not much older than some of her own children, who she hid and then seduced. In yet another version the soldier was possessed by an Incubus and when he died the Incubus visited and seduced Mother Leeds, impregnating her.
Sometimes tales of the birth has the Jersey Devil being sent to Leeds Point as punishment for the way in which they mistreated their local minister.
Some tales of the Jersey Devil even have the mother with the surname of Shroud, not Leeds. The location also varies sometimes between Leeds Point, Estelville and Burlington.
In some cases the child once born kills the midwife/midwives and flies up the chimney. In others the child is deformed and cared for by the mother until finally sprouting wings and flying up the chimney. Some versions have the Devil child returning to the house each day and the mother shunning it, until it finally gets the message that it is not wanted and leaves her alone.
As for possible dates of the birth, they range from 1735 right through to 1857 depending upon which version of the tale you read.
So, is there any evidence supporting the folklore that has grown around the story of the birth of the Jersey Devil? It would appear that there were people in Leeds Point with both the surname of Leeds and Shroud. According to an Atlantic County Historian called Alfred Heston, a Daniel Leeds that came to Leeds Point in 1699. The Wikipedia entry for the Jersey Devil states that Japhet Leeds from Leeds Point, husband of Deborah Leeds, named twelve children in his will dated 1736 (citing ‘Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State Of New Jersey, 1st Ser., Vol. XXX Ed. A. Van Doren Honeyman, (Union-Gazette, Somerville, N.J.)1918.’) This would support the story in terms of the usual date of 1735, the number of children, location and family name if it is accurate.
There are also meant to be records of stories pertaining to a devil in Burlington (the area from Burlington to the coast, incorporating Leeds Point and Estelville) as early as 1735, so this would seem to rule out versions involving British soldiers from the American Revolutionary War 1775 – 1783 which may have been an attempt to demonize the British somewhat.