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The Devil’s in the details

Dr. Brian Regal

Dr. Brian Regal

 

By Karen Zautyk
Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

Damn historians. They take the fun out of everything.

You have a cherished (semi)belief that you have held since childhood, and then one day some historian comes along with his Ph.D. and his documented research and his facts vs. fiction, and it all goes POOF!

It happened to me last week at the Kearny Public Library, where Dr. Brian Regal, Assistant Professor of the History of Science, Department of History at Kean University, gave an (I must admit) informative and entertaining lecture on the Jersey Devil, the Garden State’s own native monster.

Observer readers might remember that a couple of years ago, I interviewed the creature (the Devil, not Regal), who was annoyed that too many hockey fans were unaware that the Jersey Devils team was named for him and not for Satan.

The Jersey Devil was kind enough to drive all the way up to Kearny from his lifelong home in the Pine Barrens (yes, he can fly, but it’s more fun to drive when you’ve got a Lamborghini). The oddest thing was that when we went for a stroll along Kearny Ave., no one blinked — despite his having the head of a horse (or a goat, depending on your perspective), a kangaroo-like body, the wings of a bat, and the requisite devil horns, forked tail and cloven hooves. People must have thought he was just my latest blind date.

Also, he emitted his famous “blood-curdling scream” only once, when he returned to his car and found a parking ticket on it. I don’t know if he appealed it, but he had a case. You can’t feed coins into a parking meter if you’ve got hooves for hands.

I had first read about the Jersey Devil in a weekly newspaper called The Ironbound Crier when I was 5 or 6. The story made quite an impression. If I were walking though the playground at night, I would scrutinize the tree branches and even the jungle gym to see if the monster might be perched there. pleased about that, and cursed the unborn babe. When she gave birth, the child was normal, but it immediately morphed into the being described above.

Portrait of a N.J. governor in drag that really isn’t him at all

Portrait of a N.J. governor in drag that really isn’t him at all

 

Supposedly, it killed the midwife (I don’t believe that) and then flew either up the chimney or out the window and into the Barrens, which it has terrorized ever since. Or as Dr. Regal described it, “where it has spent the next 300 years basically being annoying.”

When I was doing some pre-lecture research, I gathered some Jersey Devil info I had not come across before. According to Wikipedia (more about that later):

“The earliest legends date back to Native American folklore. The Lenni Lenape tribes called the area around Pine Barrens ‘Popuessing,’ meaning ‘place of the dragon.’ Swedish explorers later named it ‘Drake Kill,’ ‘drake’ being a Swedish word for dragon, and ‘kil’ meaning channel or arm of the sea (river, stream, etc.).”

Aha, I thought. The legend is even older than I had been told.

Last Wednesday evening, I settled into my chair at the library, ready to learn more, and the first thing Regal tells the audience is:

“There is no such thing as the Jersey Devil, and everything you think you know about the Jersey Devil is wrong.”

Muttered grumblings from the back row, where some apparent true believers are seated.

The traditional story, or so I thought, dated to the 1700s, when a Pine Barrens dweller named Mother Leeds found herself pregnant for the 13th time, was not too pleased about that, and cursed the unborn babe. When she gave birth, the child was normal, but it immediately morphed into the being described above.

Supposedly, it killed the midwife (I don’t believe that) and then flew either up the chimney or out the window and into the Barrens, which it has terrorized ever since. Or as Dr. Regal described it, “where it has spent the next 300 years basically being annoying.”

When I was doing some pre-lecture research, I gathered some Jersey Devil info I had not come across before. According to Wikipedia (more about that later):

“The earliest legends date back to Native American folklore. The Lenni Lenape tribes called the area around Pine Barrens ‘Popuessing,’ meaning ‘place of the dragon.’ Swedish explorers later named it ‘Drake Kill,’ ‘drake’ being a Swedish word for dragon, and ‘kil’ meaning channel or arm of the sea (river, stream, etc.).”

Regal then recounted the history of the Pine Barrens, where settlement began in 1620, many of the pioneers being members of the Society of Friends (a.k.a. Quakers).

Classic image of Jersey Devil, from 1909 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

Classic image of Jersey Devil, from 1909 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

 

At the time, the area that would become New Jersey was divided into two provinces, East Jersey and West Jersey. These were unified into one British colony in 1702 under its first governor, Lord Cornbury, who, Regal said, became “one of the most vilified governors ever, which is a pretty hard thing to do considering modern experience.”

In Regal’s judgment, Cornbury was actually “not that a bad guy,” but was a victim of propaganda. A famous portrait of Cornbury, ostensibly in drag, is not of him at all, Regal said. (Another fun ‘fact’ crushed under the weight of research.) But now enters the Leeds family.

Daniel Leeds was a surveyor who owned land at Leeds Point near Little Egg Harbor and who was predeceased by several wives, none of them, however, known as “Mother Leeds.”

Leeds was an aide to the hated Cornbury and managed to become hated in his own right — by publishing an almanac.

In those days, almanacs were full of astrological and occult-like data, which did not sit well with the Quakers, even though Leeds was a Quaker, too. They bought up all the copies of the first Leeds Almanac and burned them.

Leeds, undeterred, published a second edition, a book the Quakers termed “evil.” Leeds became known as “Satan’s harbinger.” The Quakers started printing pamphlets citing all his flaws, and by the early 1700s, he is at war with them (at least in print).

Almanacs, Regal noted, were “the Google of the times” and very popular, and in 1714, Daniel Leeds turned his over to his son Titan, who designed a new masthead.

It featured the Leeds family crest, which incorporated three dragonlike creatures known as wyvern. They had the head of a horse, batlike wings, and hooves for feet. (Sound familiar?)

Meanwhile, along comes Benjamin Franklin with his own Poor Richard’s Almanac, and to boost sales, begins to attack his rival Titan Leeds in print.

He had used astrological data to predict Titan’s death in 1733, so when Titan starts calling Franklin a fraud, Franklin responds that, since Titan should have died already, the person attacking him must be a ghost. Or a devil risen from the grave.

To Franklin, Regal said, the whole thing was funny, but Titan took it seriously and was livid.

In any case, now both Titan and dad Daniel Leeds have been labeled “devils.” Toss in the pre-Revolutionary fervor that had begun, and accusations that the Leeds family was pro-British (as well as being “sorcerers”), and the notion of a Leeds Devil begins floating around.

The first references to the Jersey Devil, though, don’t appear until the end of the 19th century. Then, in 1905, a Philadelphia publicist started spreading rumors of the Jersey Devil, and in 1909, Trenton papers reported horselike footprints in the snow near Leeds Point.

Posses were sent out to hunt the Jersey Devil, a futile quest. But the story just continued to grow.

Even now, you can go on Jersey Devil Hunts in the Pine Barrens.

Regal dismisses the idea that the Jersey Devil legend is, at it is often described, “folklore.” “It is nothing like that,” he said. “There is no story that has been handed down (from the 1700s, the time of the supposed birth). It all came from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

In the Q&A session, some in the audience obviously remained skeptical, and one or two stalked out after Regal dismissed the reality of Sasquatch.

He has done research into cryptozoology, but, he states, “As a historian, I have no choice but to go with the evidence.”

For a professional historian, collecting evidence goes far beyond the amateur historian’s gleaning information from the Internet.

“Stay away from Wikipedia,” Regal warned. “Wikipedia is evil.”

Regal has impressive credentials. He is the author of five books, the first of which, “Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the Search for the Origins of Man” was nominated for the 2003 History of Science Society Pfizer Award and won the Bela Kornitzer Award.

He has lectured and presented papers at Columbia, Princeton and Oxford.

His recent work on cryptozoology and the study of monsters led to his newest book, “Searching for Sasquatch,” and he has also published articles on sea serpents, werewolves and Bigfoot.

At the library lecture, noting that there is no plausible evolutionary evidence for certain creatures, he commented, “There have been no werewolf fossils found, no Bigfoot fossils.”

I raised my hand. “But, could it be that no werewolf fossils have ever been found because they all transformed back into their human forms before death?”

Regal just shook his head.

But I think I made a good point.

Anyway, armed with the real story of the Jersey Devil, and the knowledge there never was a Mother Leeds and a monstrous birth and a curse, I headed off to meet up with a friend. I had been rather discouraged, but my companion cheered me up. And so did the ride in the Lamborghini.

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