August 26, 2010
An expedition to find the legendary Jersey Devil—an elusive entity said to inhabit the South Jersey Pine Barrens—has failed. Organized by the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT) and led by guide Don Nigroni and me (accompanied by a TV crew), the expedition took place on May 16, 2010, in the vicinity of Batso, New Jersey. It involved several PhACT members, including president Eric Krieg (who accompanied me earlier in the day on an investigation at Grovers Mill, the setting for the Martian invasion in Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" panic radio broadcast of 1938).
The Jersey Devil is also known as the Leeds' Devil, taking its name, supposedly, from a Mother Leeds who gave birth to it in 1735. One version of the tale says that the woman had too many children (twelve by one count) and remarked that if she had another it should be a devil. It was: the offspring was reportedly born with the hooves and head of a horse (or ram or dog), batlike wings, and a long forked tail. It became a bogeyman of the southeastern New Jersey area known as "the Pine Barrens." Occasionally there were sightings of the alleged creature or its footprints.
In January 1909 the monster was revived by a hoax. Displayed in a private museum in Philadelphia, the creature was actually a kangaroo outfitted with fake wings affixed by a harness. To make it leap at spectators when the curtain was drawn, a boy hidden at the rear of the cage prodded the unfortunate animal with a stick.
Interest in the Jersey Devil has continued, and I have written and spoken about it in my persona as monsterologist (e.g., see my Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings , 1995, 243-244). But I had never been on an actual expedition into the phantom monster's reputed lair. PhACT member Bob Clark had brought the bait—a supply of soft Philly pretzels—but we ended up eating the treats when the Jersey Devil was a no-show.
Possibly we were using the wrong bait. Or maybe the creature is camera shy. PhACT's newsletter, Phactum (July/August 2010), suggested the possibility "that it being a Sunday, the Devil was in Church." The expedition was not a waste, however. It took us to a number of ghost towns, mostly remnants of communities from the iron and glassmaking industries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and proved most enjoyable and educational.
I have been on many expeditions into monster country (ranging as far as the Blue Mountains of Australia in search of the fabled Yowie). However, I have been unsuccessful each time, unless one counts the lessons learned about folklore and fakelore, popular culture, hoaxes, eyewitness misperceptions, the will to believe, and so on—often finding, with others, that the object of our quest seems to be ourselves.