How Ben Franklin Helped Ignite the Jersey Devil Hysteria

By: Mark Mancini  | 

Jersey Devil
The Jersey Devil is said to stalk the Pine Barrens by night. The creature has a goat's (or horse's) head, a snakelike tail, hoofed legs and the wings of a great bat. Daniel Eskridge and Doug Rose/Shutterstock/HowStuffWorks

In 1982, the National Hockey League landed in New Jersey. A Denver-based team, the hapless Colorado Rockies, had been purchased by new ownership and relocated to the Garden State at a cost of roughly $32 million (more than $96 million in today's dollars).

The Rockies were — get this — named after the Rocky Mountains range, which lies more than 1,800 miles (2,896 kilometers) west of New Jersey. Obviously, a rechristening was in order. A statewide "Name the Team" contest drew more than 10,000 votes. Some of the most popular names included the "New Jersey Gulls" and the "New Jersey Meadowlanders."

But in the end, fans chose a name that sounds way more sinister (at least, to the uninitiated): the New Jersey Devils. Hockey buffs didn't just pick this at random. Like the Colorado Rockies, the new name had a distinctly local flavor; it pays tribute to regional folklore.

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The Pine Barrens

With more than 1,195 residents per square mile (1 square mile is equal to 2.6 square kilometers, FYI), New Jersey is the most densely-populated state in the U.S. And yet 22 percent of its total land area, representing a huge chunk of South Jersey, is covered by an expanse of sandy, swampy forests.

Known as the Pine Barrens, this place is an outdoorsman's paradise, with winding trails, campgrounds aplenty, rustic blueberry farms — and its own answer to Bigfoot.

Legend says there's a winged creature who stalks the Barrens by night. The hellish beast is an all-American cryptid, a species whose very existence remains unproven by scientists (think sasquatches or the Loch Ness Monster). Believers call it the Jersey Devil. Skeptics call it a smear campaign.

More precisely, some scholars see the Jersey Devil as the folkloric offspring of an old political feud, one that involved Benjamin Franklin of all people. Here's the story.

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Friends and Foes

Today, there's a friendly north-south rivalry inside New Jersey's borders — see the great "Taylor Ham/Pork Roll" debate.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, things were different. The British-held colony that became the modern state of New Jersey was split somewhat vertically into "East Jersey" and "West Jersey."

The latter was the adopted home of Daniel Leeds (1651-1720). Born in England, he was a Quaker and pamphlet-writer who emigrated to the town of Burlington in what's now southwestern New Jersey.

In 1687, Leeds published the first edition of his very own almanac. This became a lightning rod for controversy; many Quakers who read the text objected to its use of astrology and "heathen" Greco-Roman planet names.

When Quaker leadership turned against Leeds, he went on the offensive. The pamphleteer befriended anti-Quaker politicians and wrote a 1699 manifesto denouncing Quaker theology titled "A Trumpet Sounded Out of the Wilderness of America."

Bridges were burned. One prominent Quaker, Caleb Pusey, took aim at Leeds by writing a pamphlet that called him "Satan's harbinger."

It wouldn't be the last time someone associated Leeds' family with the devil.

Almanacs
Titan Leeds and Benjamin Franklin "trolled" each other in their 18th-century almanacs. Franklin implied the Leeds family was linked to Satan, and the story got worse from there.
Library of Congress

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The Wrath of Poor Richard

Daniel Leeds died in 1720, but despite all the notoriety, his almanac lived on. Later editions were overseen by his son, Titan Leeds.

This is where the man on the U.S. $100 bill comes in. Benjamin Franklin owned a rival publication, "Poor Richard's Almanack," which jokingly predicted — by way of astrology — that Titan Leeds would die Oct. 17, 1733.

He didn't. Leeds punched back by calling Franklin "a fool and a lyar [sic]" in print. Then, tongue planted firmly in cheek, Franklin suggested that Titan Leeds must surely be dead — and that his ghost was writing nasty things about him from beyond the grave; 18th-century trolling at its finest.

Details of the feud are explored in Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito's 2018 book, "The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster."

"[Franklin's] clever statements about Leeds were, in reality, an attempt to discredit his almanac competitor by linking him to Satan," write the authors. "In that age it was not unusual to paint one's enemies as stargazing agents of the devil. The fact that Leeds promoted a belief in astrology in his popular almanac made perfect fodder for the clever Franklin."

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A Monstrous Birth

By clashing with Franklin, Titan Leeds (who died for real in 1738) hurt his family's public reputation. That Daniel Leeds had been a counselor of Edward Hyde, Lord Conbury — an unpopular governor of New York and New Jersey — worsened their public relations troubles during the American Revolution.

Over the years, insinuations that the Leeds were somehow linked with Satan morphed into an East Coast horror story. An 1859 Atlantic Monthly article contains the first unambiguous written reference to the character we now call the "Jersey Devil."

Its author, W.F. Mayer, had been exploring the Pine Barrens where he met a resident who told him she'd once seen "the Leeds Devil." Mayer's guide informed him this was part of an old superstition. Supposedly, a woman known as "Mother Leeds" had long ago given birth to a deformed monster still at large in the Barrens.

After Mayer's piece ran in Atlantic Monthly, more retellings were published. Some of them added gory details.

In contemporary versions of the narrative, Mother Leeds is usually cited as an 18th-century witch who gave birth to a dozen perfectly normal children. But her 13th pregnancy ended in disaster. Writhing in agony during a painful childbirth, poor Leeds hollered "Oh, make it a Devil!" (or something like that).

Be careful what you wish for, kids.

The rumor was that Mother Leeds bore a hideous beast who stood upright like a man. But this was no Homo sapiens; her offspring had a goat's (or horse's) head, a snakelike tail, hoofed legs and the wings of a great bat.

There's a high body count in some iterations of the tale. The newborn creature may or may not have killed Mother Leeds, her midwife and/or its own siblings before flying up the chimney and escaping into the wilderness.

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Terror on Hooves

Reported Jersey Devil sightings made great headline fodder. In the first decade of the 20th century, several Philadelphia newspapers ran stories about "curious hoof-prints" dotting snowy corners of the Pine Barrens. A few of these prints had supposedly turned up on rooftops.

Other accounts sounded more harrowing. One taxi driver in Salem City, New Jersey, said the devil attacked his vehicle in 1927.

Across state lines, publicity hound Norman Jeffries caused quite a stir in 1909, when he announced the Leeds Devil had been captured alive "after a terrific struggle" and would be displayed at a Philadelphia museum.

Jeffries' "monster" turned out to be a live kangaroo wearing painted stripes and a set of artificial wings.

When it comes to dramatizing the Jersey Devil, nobody can top the Garden State's one and only Bruce Springsteen. As a tribute to NJ's favorite cryptid, the rock star wrote a bluesy ballad called "A Night With the Jersey Devil" back in 2007.

"Dear Friends and Fans," wrote Springsteen at the time, "if you grew up in central or south Jersey, you grew up with the 'Jersey Devil.' Here's a little musical Halloween treat. Have fun!"

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