Perhaps the most enduring piece of folklore to emanate from the desolate Pine Barrens, a swatch of sandy roads and pine trees that stretches across more than seven counties in Southern Jersey, is that of the Jersey Devil. Characterized over the years by witnesses as having the face of a horse, the head of a dog adorned with deer antlers, the body of a kangaroo, expansive leathery wings, a forked tail, and razor-like talons, the Jersey Devil stands over six-feet tall and has struck fear in the hearts of many a South Jerseyan since 1735.
According to the legend, which has some slight variations depending upon the storyteller, an Estellville resident known as Mother Leeds learned that she was expecting her thirteenth child and out of sheer exasperation exclaimed, "Let this one be the devil!" Months later, Mother Leeds went into labor on an unusually stormy night complete with howling winds, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts illuminating the dark skies. The baby boy she delivered appeared normal at first, but within minutes began to grow at an accelerated rate while sprouting horns, talons, and large leathery wings. The monster child brutally attacked its family members and the midwives attending to Mother Leeds and those that survived claimed it flew up the chimney, leaving a pile of rubble in its wake. The creature took the skies and has been haunting the Pine Barrens ever since.
In the years since, reports of odd looking tracks, raided chicken coops, and mysteriously murdered farm animals have been attributed to the Jersey Devil. During one particularly infamous week in January 1909, the Jersey Devil expanded his stomping grounds and wreaked havoc all over the Delaware Valley. Per newspaper reports at the time, he was spotted in Haddon Heights, Collingswood, and Camden. He also made his away across the Delaware River and terrorized sections of Philadelphia and Bristol, Pennsylvania.
The Jersey Devil has kept a relatively low profile since that 1909 rampage, but sightings continue to this day. The next time you take a late-night drive through the Pine Barrens on the Garden State Parkway or Atlantic City Expressway, be on the lookout for glowing eyes amongst the trees and listen closely for unearthly howling. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to encounter Mother Leeds thirteenth child.