Wednesday, November 4, 2015

HGB Podcast, Ep. 80 - Legend of the Jersey Devil

Moment in Oddity - Black Blizzards

There was a time in the 1930s when blizzards blew across the heartland that were not the typical white snow blizzards. These storms were called black blizzards. Droughts had ravaged the country since 1931 and the topsoil had eroded and there was no moisture to hold it down. The results were what we commonly call the Dust Bowl. In 1934, a storm rose out of the Great Plains. It was a wall of dirt and dust and it gained strength as it traveled east. The wall rose to 10,000 feet high. The sun was completely blotted out and the air was suffocating. Three hundred and fifty million tons of dirt were captured in the cloud. Even the lights of New York were dimmed by this black blizzard for five hours. The storm had traveled 1500 miles. Ships out to sea even found dirt on their decks. Black blizzards are a meteorological phenomenon and a definite weather oddity.

This Day in History - The Cash Register Patented

On this day, November 4th, in 1879 James Ritty, a saloon owner, patents the first cash register. James was born on October 29, 1836, in Dayton, Ohio and had been a first lieutenant during the Civil War with the Fourth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. After attaining the rank of Captain, he left to pursue other options and finally settled on saloon owner in 1871. Business was great, but James soon found that his employees were not honorable and they were stealing for him. He desired to find a way to keep them honest. He remembered seeing a machine on board a ship that counted how many times the propeller went around and he was convinced that this same type of machine could keep track of his sales. He asked his brother, who was a mechanic, to help him and by the time they were done, they had invented the first cash register. James called the machine "Ritty's Incorruptible Cashier." This original cash register did not have a cash drawer. It basically kept track of the sales and how much each sale was worth and thus he knew for sure if any employees were dipping into the cash. He started a company manufacturing the registers, but it was unsuccessful. Not many business owners were interested. James sold the patent and John H. Patterson turned James' invention into a fortune. In 1884, Patterson founded the National Cash Register Company. James went back to the bar business never knowing the impact his machine would have in merchandising.

Legend of the Jersey Devil (Research Assistant Philip Childers)

Many people, particularly those that live in New England, have heard the story about the Jersey Devil. The tale about a mother giving birth to a devil baby is not totally unique in history. Even in our modern era, we have had movies like Rosemary's Baby. Is this just another urban legend or is there some real history behind this tale of the Jersey Devil? Was this really more of a religious dispute that spawned a story to destroy a family name? We'll explore the superstitions that existed in the area around the idea that devil babies could be born and cover the various sightings that have continued far past what would be a reasonable life span. Come with us as we look at the legend of the Jersey Devil.

This legend begins with the Leeds family who lived in New Jersey in an area known today as Atlantic County. Atlantic County was once called Egg Harbor Township and its boundaries were mostly water: The Little Egg Harbor River to the north, the Great Egg Harbor River to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The district was established in 1693. It was in this area that Daniel Leeds bought a piece of land that came to be known as Leeds Point and continues to have that name to this day. The Pine Barrens are also a part of this area that is today still a largely undeveloped forested area. Daniel Leeds had been born in 1651 in Stansted Mountfitchet, Uttlesford, Essex, England. His father immigrated to America and Daniel followed him in 1676, landing in Burlington, New Jersey. He had married a woman in England before he immigrated and it is believed that she died before he came. We were unable to identify any records about her.

After moving to Burlington, he married Ann Stacey in 1681. It is believed that Daniel worked as a councilor to Lord Cornbury during this time. Lord Cornbury was Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon. He became the Governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701-1708 and apparently had a penchant for cross dressing. Some of Daniels' duties included surveying the land. In the same year that they married, the Leeds had a daughter that they named for his wife Ann. It was shortly after the birth of baby Ann that Daniel lost his second wife. The baby soon followed her in death. It would take only a year for Daniel's heart to be stolen again and he married Dorothy Young in 1683. The two had eight children together. It was at this point that Daniel bought the future Leeds Point, which was considered the highest point of land between the Highlands and Capes of Virginia.

In 1687, Daniel began publishing an almanac. He was a Quaker and so came from a religious background that had broken away from the Church of England and believed in a more personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Quakers considered themselves all to be of the priesthood and at this time were very pious and not open to other belief systems, particularly if they were intermingled with their own. Daniel had found that astrology was an asset to his writing for the almanac, so he included it in his almanac. Most of his friends were Quakers and they heartily disagreed with Daniel going this route. When William Bradford published the almanac, the Quakers began to call it pagan and destroyed all the copies that were not already in circulation. Daniel took this very hard, left the religion and began more extensive work on his almanac. He continued publishing almanacs until 1716 and then he turned over the operation to his sons Felix and Titan.

In 1688, Daniel published the Temple of Wisdom. The book dealt with topics ranging from angels to natural magic to astrology to the behavior of devils. Rumors were widespread that the Leeds family were dealing with things of the Devil and they themselves could be cursed. Things get so bad that George Fox, who founded Quakerism, wrote an answer to the Temple of Wisdom called "Satan's Harbinger Encountered." The pamphlet actually accuses Daniel Leeds of  working with the Devil. Daniel's third wife, Dorothy, passed away in 1699. Daniel married a fourth woman, Jane Abbot-Smout, who had been twice widowed herself.

The battle between the Quakers and the Leeds continued until 1716 when Daniel handed everything over to his sons. And then something peculiar happened that might have helped fuel the legend further. Titan redesigned the almanac and added the Leeds Family crest, which was a dragon-like creature with bat wings and claws. Daniel died in 1720 and there is no record that he and his fourth wife had any children. Titan gets into a feud with Benjamin Franklin in the 1730s. Most likely because each man produced a competing almanac. Franklin claimed that he had a premonition that Titan would die on October 17th in 1733. Titan actually died in 1738, but Franklin continued to mock him even after his death. It was after Titan's death that the legend of the Jersey Devil was born.

The Pine Barrens that we mentioned earlier are the home for the Jersey Devil tales and sightings. The Little Egg Harbor River is known today as the Mullica River. The cedars that line the river stain it a blood red, giving it an eerie tinge. The area is full of bogs from which iron has been harvested. This helped in the production of ammunition during the Revolutionary War. It's easy to believe that a bizarre creature could be inhabiting these woods that also play home to the legendary White Stag.

The common tale that is told about the birth of the Jersey Devil is that a woman named Mother Leeds gave birth to the Jersey Devil in 1735. To match this with the true history we know, this would be a grandchild to Daniel Leeds. Japhet Leeds was married to a woman named Deborah and he named twelve children in his will. Possibly, they were the parents of the child of legend. Mother Leeds already had twelve children and this would be her thirteenth. She was not pleased. She was poor and couldn't feed the children she already had, so she declared, "Let it be a devil!" When the child was born, it was horribly deformed or became horribly deformed before several witnesses and actually crawled away from the womb and up the chimney. Some accounts claim the creature attacked a couple of people before escaping.

The Jersey Devil is described as looking like a horse with huge leathery bat wings, horns, forked tail and clawed front legs that are very short. Its eyes glow red. The creature gives off a blood curdling scream. Sightings of the Jersey Devil foretell bad things coming. Shipwrecks and storms follow sightings. The first documented sighting occurred in 1859. There was another in 1873 and another in 1880. Even Napoleon's brother claimed to have seen the creature while hunting. In 1909, sightings took off and thousands were reported, many of them landing in the Philadelphia Record. The reports started in January when a man named Zack Cozzens reported seeing it on a roadside. He described the experience by saying: "I first heard a hissing sound. Then, something white flew across the street. I saw two spots of phosphorus--the eyes of the beast.... It was as fast as an auto." Animal mutilations followed sightings.

After that year, no one reported seeing the Jersey Devil until 1927 and then the tale seemed to go dead until 1951 when a young boy claimed to see the monster outside his window, dripping in blood. After that, people claimed to hear unearthly cries coming from the forest. In 1966, Steven Silkotch's farm was apparently visited by the Jersey Devil and his animals were torn apart. People venture to Leeds Point to catch a glimpse of the creature and there are still claims that something is living in those woods that is not a common woodland animal.

Devil babies have cropped up in many legends. The Jersey Devil is not unique. In New Orleans, there was the Devil Baby of Bourbon Street and there was the Devil Baby of Hull House, which we visited in Chicago and talked about on that podcast. Stories abound of the Devil impregnating women and giving birth to his spawn. Popular culture has given us Rosemary's Baby and Damien of the Omen. But is there any truth to these stories and why did people believe that the Devil could impregnate women. The theories would have to originate in the Bible with the Nephilim. In the Bible, the fallen angels that took sides with Lucifer are believed to have desired women and taken them as wives before the Great Flood. Those women gave birth to the Nephilim, who were the giants and men of renown. So they would have basically been devil babies. So they could be very real depending on your belief system. The Great Flood was mainly meant to destroy these creatures. The Christians in New England would be familiar with these stories and so superstitions and legends would easily be started. Most of these legends about devil babies seem to have taken hold in the 1800s when so many other beliefs and ideas about the spirit world began.

Then there is the very real possibility of birth defects. In our current era, we have seen everything and know about all the various medical conditions that could make a baby appear to be some kind of monster. Could it be that children that were accused of being the Devil's spawn were really just normal human beings who got a bad break in the gene pool? Eugenics was taking root during this same time and there was a very popular call to get rid of those that were less than perfect. America has a very dark history, just as most of the world does, when it comes to people who were born different. Freak shows cropped up everywhere, giving these people who were different in some way, a place to call home and be gawked at by those who didn't understand genetics. The Jersey Devil could very well have been a deformed child that was hidden away and rumors were started.

Was the Jersey Devil just a tall tale? Was the Jersey Devil just a hoax? Is this just yet another urban legend? Was this story spawned by a group of people out to ruin the good name of the Leeds family? We may never know, but we wouldn't recommend walking through the Pine Barrens alone. Does the Jersey Devil exist? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
Sources on Daniel Leeds:

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