The Jersey Devil & I
edited: Thursday, February 09, 2006
By Robert Dunbar
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, February 09, 2006
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It's actually more humor than horror, more folklore than humor ...
A description of some of my experiences researching THE PINES.
The Jersey Devil and I are just good friends. Honest. But we have history. In fact, our relationship goes back quite a few years.
A friend of mine had read a lot of James Fenimore Cooper as a child, and it had affected his mind. He was forever planning camping trips and dragging a whole bunch of us with him. I hated everything, hated the bugs, the dirt, but we all had the kind of binding friendship that results from having done a lot of drugs together a long time ago, so I always tagged along, complaining with every step. We did The Appalachian Trail and the Delaware Water Gap, Walden Pond and Lake Champlain. Then came that fateful summer.
Knowing I was a sucker for spooky places, my friend kept hinting about the ghost towns and the ruins the of New Jersey Pine Barrens. Secretly intrigued, though with my usual vast show of reluctance, to agreed to yet another expedition.
Four of us ventured out, our backpacks crammed into a little Datsun. On the highway, I remember someone saying, “It’s like I’ve been looking at these trees all my life. I must’ve been down this road about a million times, you know? On the way to the shore and stuff? I guess I always figured, a few yards in, there had to be another road or some houses, something. But it’s just … woods.”
Once off the highway, we got lost. I imagine that’s the first thing most people do in the Pines. The road twisted and split into sand trails, and on cue, the sky darkened. (“Oh, good,” I’m thinking, “special effects.”) Suddenly, pine trees lashed in a thunderstorm, and line squalls swept the woods. The car shuddered and splashed.
A veritable lake enveloped the woods, and we were in the middle of it – in it – water sheeting up on either side of us. Everyone screamed. (Okay, maybe it was just me screaming.) An instant later, the storm slaked to a mere drizzle. But the car remained thoroughly bogged.
After much discussion, someone suggested we hike back to that old, deserted-looking farmhouse we’d passed about a mile or so down the road.
“Are you people nuts?” I politely inquired. “Haven’t you ever seen a horror movie?”
However, since my friends were accustomed to ignoring me, and since other options did not present themselves, we all started out for the farmhouse. I took about three steps when my foot sank in swampy muck and something clicked agonizingly in my ankle. I screamed. I tried to walk. I screamed some more.
“You wait with the car,” one of my friends advised. “We’ll go for help.”
Right. Now if you saw this in a horror movie, you’d think, “What kind of a moron would wait with the car?” Right?
The drizzle had become a steady, saturating mist. Windows rolled up, doors locked, I watched my friends go splashing off through the woods and tried to persuade myself that what I heard was only the wind. My shoulder pressed uncomfortably up against the door. I shifted position but a moment later was pressing against the door again. The car had developed a definite list to starboard. And my feet were getting wet. I checked the back seat: several inches of water and a frog. “That’s it,” I told the frog. As I climbed out the window onto the roof, the car lurched to the other side and sank about a foot.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Barrens possess something call an aquifer, a huge reservoir of water deep beneath the sand, one of several characteristics that combine to make the area ecologically unique. After a rain, water filters down and creates this percolating effect instant quicksand. Huddled there on the roof of the car, I listened to the wind pool and eddy around me through the forest. The breeze raised a wet keening through the branches of the dwarfish, misshapen conifers. It got dark quickly. Very quickly. I started to shiver.
Things I hadn’t thought of in years began to drift through my mind, campfire stories about the weird, inbred people who lived out here ... and tales of the demon who haunted these pines. Later I was to discover that the legend of the Leeds Devil was the oldest and most consistent oral myth tradition in America. But even then I could sense something. An aura. A presence. I understood why the myth had been born. I understood why people had always felt there to be something ungodly here.
Close by, a large animal thrashed through the brush.
Behind me, a jolting roar – I whirled around to confront two blazing orbs. Pines toppled. I fell off the car. Choking on two feet of water, I struggled to rise as a tractor mowed effortlessly through the trees, its headlights scything the woods.
My friends were back. It seems the deserted-looking farmhouse had indeed been deserted. After wandering a bit, they’d found a shack where he owner held a shotgun on them and laughed as they ran. Eventually, they’d found a farm and somebody who knew somebody who had a tractor and could give us a tow. They’d met some good people, Pineys, several of whom expressed concern because the back road where they’d left me was notorious for its use by a vicious gang of car thieves.
On the damp ride to the medical center to get my ankle looked at, we all kept our eyes on the trees. They didn’t seem familiar anymore. They never would again.
“It is a region aboriginal in savagery.”
~ Atlantic Magazine, 1858
The squat monstrosity tried to kill me. I stood there waving my arms and shouting, but it just stared with passive malignity. Perhaps I was rendered somewhat less than intimidating by the fact that, once again, I was stuck in quicksand.
In the months following my introduction to the Barrens, I’d become obsessed with the place. I’d begun to research every aspect, geography, history, folklore, and as soon as my ankle had healed, I’d come out again, first canoeing, then backpacking.
The quicksand was well past my knees now. As the mire slurped obscenely, I tried everything – twisting, jerking and, oh yes, shrieking. All this proved about equally effective, and I continued to sink. Somewhat hysterical, I began trying to bargain with the woods. I would write a book, I really would. And the Pines could be so much more than just the setting – they could be the main character. Of course, I could hardly be expected to accomplish any of this is the stupid woods insisted on killing me.
The giant toad inched closer, creeping amongst shattered bricks.
The bricks had fallen from the walls all around me. The surrounding ruin had been a Colonial slitting mill, the main buildings constructed of bricks brought over as ballast in the hulls of English ships. When problems with the homeland had resulted in the collapse of the industry, the workers had drifted away, and soon the town of Harrisville had been deserted ... except for Mr. Harris. The owner became a famous recluse, living alone in the old mill. While the forest rapidly encroached, he haunted his town, year after year, never seeing another living soul. They say he went quite mad in the end.
As though under a compulsion, I’d spent days searching the woods.
At last, here it was. Of the village itself, little remained, everything wooden having rotted away. But the central building loomed like the House of Usher after the Fall. Slime dripped from crumbling mortar. Snakes basked on ledges. The largest intact section of brick tilted over a creek that oozed up out of nowhere, and as I’d approached, a toad had emerged from the sodden underbrush. Startled, I’d stumbled back and ...
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m the sort of person who’s nervous around slimy critters. Nothing could be further from the truth – I quite like newts and eels, also spiders and bats. In fact, I have often been struck by the fact that many of my closest acquaintances qualify as vermin. But this was no ordinary amphibian. For one thing, it was huge. I mean, it looked like it ate rabbits. Regularly.
Gloating, it remained just out of reach, watching me struggle.
Everything was out of reach.
I’d been warned about coming out her alone, warned about a lot of things. But most to the little towns I’d heard about had been long since swallowed by the woods, towns with tantalizing names like Double Trouble or Bear Swamp or Ong’s Hat (a suburb of Hog Wallow). Hours at the library had revealed that the residents of these woods had been christened “Pineys” by Elizabeth Kite, a turn-of-the-century anthropologist. In the introduction to her book about “the feeble-minded people of New Jersey,” she described these people as being like the descendants of castaways, so cut off as to have “little or no understanding of the civilization that surrounds them.” Her book, with its twin themes of inbreeding and retardation, became a national scandal.
In 1914, largely in response to the continuing furor over the Kite book, Governor of New Jersey James T. Fielder complete a much-publicized tour of the region, announcing he’d been “shocked by the conditions I have found. Evidently, these people are a serious menace to the state of New Jersey. They have inbred till they have become a race of imbeciles, criminals and defectives.”
Talk about bad press.
By now I was waist deep in vomitous sludge. My voice hoarse, the names I was calling my warty companion had grown quite inventive when a couple of backpackers showed up, soldiers on leave from Fort Dix. After they’d yanked me free, I told them about the monster toad – by then nowhere to be seen of course – and they exchanged one of those glances. You know those glances? (I get them all the time.) They mentioned having heard me a good quarter of a mile away and that it sounded as though I were yelling at the trees.
What could I say?
Eventually, my rescuers hiked away down the trail, and as I stood there scraping muck off my legs with a penknife, one of them called back, “You be careful a them Pineys now. Used to a Insane Asylum out this way. Lots of them escaped over the years. Now I hear there’s like a whole crazy village.”
Undaunted by my experiences, I continued my ...
Okay, so maybe I was a little daunted. The point is I kept at it. For months, I prowled ghost towns, sketched collapsing houses, hung out at trailer parks. I interviewed anybody who would talk to me. Most of the people were decent rural folk but a few ...
I began to travel armed.
And the legend of the Jersey Devil was everywhere!
Everyone I met had a story about strange doings in the woods. People really believed. Everybody had an aunt or a neighbor or a grandfather who’d met the Devil. And a frightened few had even seen it themselves.
Always drawn to Horror, in recent years I’d gotten a little fed up with the endless recycling of European myths. “Oh goody,” I’d mutter in bookstores, “another book about vampires in Duluth.” But there didn’t seem to be much in the way of alternative source material handy, nothing intrinsically American … or at any rate, nothing that really evoked a delicious chill. I mean, let’s face it, Bigfoot couldn’t scare Bambi.
But now I’d found something. It was authentic and indigenous, and no novel or story had ever been written about it.
And it was old, very old.
I became an expert.
To understand the legend, one must first have some sense of the nearly forgotten world that gave birth to it. Over a million acres, the Pine Barrens have never been like anyplace else on the planet. The terrain stays flat and featureless because eighty million years ago it all lay at the bottom of the ocean, the soil a fine white sand, pulverized by millennia of tidal activity, hard packed by ocean pressure. When the wind stirs the trees, it makes a sound like the surf, as though the vanished sea still haunts the place. Because the soil lacks the usual nutrients, even the vegetation seems bizarre. A dwarf pine forest, starved and stark, stretches from Monmouth Count to Cape May. Other plants, aside from the occasional swamp elm or catalpa, rely on their insect trapping abilities to compensate for the bleak soil. And parasite vines abound. Sort of a vegetable vampire, they wrap around a tree and sucks the sap. Never could I get comfortable seeping near one. And don’t even get me started on the bird-eating spiders.
Before the coming of white settlers, Leni Lanape Indians sensibly avoided the swamps and deep Barrens. It’s with the European colonist that the savage history of the Pines really begins. The outskirts of the woods quickly became home to pirates who preyed on English ships, but deep within the woods lurked another, and worse, kind of killer. These highwaymen were known as the Pine Bandits, and they slaughtered scores of innocent victims.
For decades, the woods belonged to them, and eventually their hidden villages grew so large that the bandits took to ravaging communities on the edges of the forest, coming in hordes at night to murder and loot and burn. It’s during this bloody period that the legend of the Leeds Devil (also known as the Leeds Ghost and The Pine Phantom) first comes to light. Many variants exist, but all versions of the myth retain certain basic elements. This earliest form dates from 1735.
Mrs. Jane Leeds Johnson lived in a shack deep within the pines. She had twelve children. Pregnant with her thirteenth, she cursed the baby, saying, “Let it belong to the Devil.” (Another vision insists she actually said the child did belong to Satan, otherwise known as Old Horny.) When the infant was born, its little body twisted into terrible shapes, growing tiny claws and cloven hooves. The horrified mother locked away the monstrosity, feeding and caring for it, but never letting it see the light of day. Years passed. It grew and grew. And when the old woman finally died, the starving creature broke loose and escaped into the woods.
A star is born!
Eventually, tales circulated about the monster. One-legged, it had the wigs of a bat, and it screamed like a woman in the twilight woods. It was said to break into houses and devour babies in their beds or to snatch away small children. In 1750, the actual disappearances of several youngsters led to a well-documented attempt by a local religious leader to exorcise the demon from the forest. It took days, but in the end, he and his followers believed they had successfully banished the creature from the woods for one hundred years.
Exactly a century later, the tale surfaces again, virtually unchanged, except that this time the mother is given as Mrs. Jane Shourds. (Over the years, the birthplace also shifts with the telling from Burlington to Leeds Point to Estelville.) From this time on, Jersey Devil hysteria becomes a very real and recurrent phenomenon, with attacks and sightings reported from all corners of the Pines.
In 1855, there’s a wonderful incident. The Hanover Iron Foundry shut its doors because the workers – in fear of the Leeds Devil – were barricaded in their huts. The state militia had to be called out to force terrified workers from their homes, escort them to the mill, then stand guard over them while they worked ... all to prevent the local economy from collapsing.
This was a monster with clout.
As early as 1905, articles with titles like “On the Trail of Leed’s Devil” and “The Dread Monster of Jersey’s Big Forest” began to appear in the national press. But it’s in the newspapers of the Depression era that we really strike gold. In the twenties and thirties, New Jersey was swept by sightings.
There are numerous reports of people being attacked. Rewards were offered for the creature’s capture, and armed vigilantes patrolled the borders of the woods. Farmhouses were ravaged, dead animals strewn everywhere. In one famous incident, two ninety-pound German Shepherds were torn limb from limb by something that proceeded to slaughter cows, horses and sheep, even ducks and geese while the farmer and his family huddled in terror, unable to see anything in the darkness outside their shack, hearing only the screams of their livestock. IN all, eighty-two animals were killed.
That one really got to me. I mean, what kind of a monster is mean to ducks?
All over the state, mills, factories, even theaters closed in the ensuing panic. Even in broad daylight, people feared to leave their homes. They refused to send their children to school. State troopers mounted repeated hunts, following “human-like” tracks deep into the Barrens ... always losing them in the dismal cedar swamps.
“Scattered over widely separated huts, exists today a group of human beings as distinct as to incite curiosity and wonder in the mind of any outsider brought into contact with them.”
~ Elizabeth Kite, author of “The Pineys” (1905)
I kept searching.
Over the course of a year, I was stranded by storms, menaced by poisonous snakes and chased by wild dogs, while my novel grew, assuming strange shapes of its own.
Little did I suspect the true horrors still to come. Remember the quicksand? Be warned. Giant toads and feral dogs are nothing compared to an editor with an axe.
Various mutilations to the text notwithstanding, the reviews have been fabulous ... except for the Jersey papers. Front-page editorials have denounced me as a “Jersey-basher” and accused me of “fostering negative stereotypes about New Jersey resident.” I have to wonder whether Bram Stoker had this kind of problem with the Carpathian press.
Fortunately, none of this has prevented the book from being popular with Jersey readers, especially at shore points and campgrounds. And now there's this wonderful restored version from Delirium Books.
Recently, after giving a talk in a small town in the barrens, I was approached by a woman who insisted that her mother had been the original midwife who delivered the Leeds baby. I thought it impolite to mention that the lady in question would have to be nearly 300 years old, but you can see what I mean – this legend is still very much alive. In fact, at book signings or on talk shows, people invariably ask me if I believe in the Jersey Devil myself, and I always give them the same, perfectly honest answer.
Not while the sun is up.
However, when the shadows begin to grow solid, and the wind whispers through the pines ...
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|Reviewed by Birgit and Roger Pratcher
|A very informative and well penned article. And you are righ, what kind of monster would be mean to ducks? Very much enjoyed it!
Birgit and Roger
|Reviewed by Ed Matlack
|“the feeble-minded people of New Jersey,”
Okay, I admit it, I'm feeble, but unlike you and your friends I know better than to go into the barrens in a Datsun(Nissan to you young folks)...I go in with my Jeep and try to steer clear of those "puddles" that are in fact LAKES...! No amount of 4 wheel drive helps when you are sinking like a boulder in snow... An excellent article, wish I was able to attend one of your lectures/talks, would be the highlight of my old life...As I said in another review, I have already read "The Pines", the first incarnation, and found it to be scary as hell, as it held my attention like a stripper down to her last few pieces of clothing... It does not so much speak of the Devil him/herself, but its innuendo is what makes this book so much fun and spooky to read...Good Luck, Mr. Dunbar...Yours in feeble mindedness,
Ed & Rufuz (w00f) [don't tell my dog, rufuz, that I included him in the feeble mindedness part, thanks]