The Jersey Devil is the stuff of legend, and everyone and their mother knows about this legendary beast. In case you need a refresher, like most folklore you can find many versions of the infamous story. Many agree that the creature was the thirteenth child of a woman who, when giving birth, cried out “Let it be the devil!” Some say the child was normal at first and then turned into a horrific monster, while others say that it was a monster from the moment it was born, but both agree that it flew around the room before flying up the chimney and disappearing into the night. For close to three hundred years now, Jerseyans have told tales of this mythical beast that stalks the Pine Barrens and terrorizes local residents. The recurring nature of this story begs a few questions: Why have New Jerseyans embraced this legend so earnestly? Is there actually some sort of creature roaming the Pine Barrens of Southern NJ, and if so, then what in God’s name is it? Perhaps we’ll never know, but one thing is for sure: running into the Jersey Devil would be the last thing anyone would want. Who, then, would have thought that one of Pemberton’s favorite sandal wearing English teachers would have a connection to the infamous Jersey Devil? I am talking about none other than Mr. Leeds.
The Jersey Devil, originally known as the Leeds Devil, is Mr. Leeds great, great, great, great, great, great-uncle, allegedly born of Japhet and Deborah Leeds. Interestingly, Leeds has a family tree of sorts made by his grandmother, documenting his family’s lineage. These documents show that his great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandmother did indeed have twelve children, but there is no record of a thirteenth. During this time religion was very important, and even today you can still see how religion influenced this infamous story. The number thirteen has always long been associated with evil and the devil, as the number twelve is God’s number: Jesus had twelve disciples; there are twelve tribes of Israel; and there are twelve months in the year. The number thirteen surpasses God’s number, just like the devil wants to surpass God, so thirteen was deemed an evil number. Thirteen is also considered unlucky and evil because at the Last Supper, Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th to sit at the table. When Mother Leeds learned she was to bear a thirteenth child, she was understandably terribly frightened about having the child.
Leeds’ explanation is as follows. Daniel Leeds, Japhet Leeds’ father, was first surveyor general of West Jersey and is the namesake of Leeds Point, NJ. His granddaughter, Deborah Smith Leeds, had twelve children at a time when child mortality was high. These circumstances likely both caused conflict as mirrored in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, wherein the men fight over land rights and the women are envious of those who have healthy children. The culture was overwhelmingly Christian at the time, and an anomaly such as Deborah Leeds’ consistent healthy births easily would have been attributed to witchcraft, given that all of the citizens were God-fearing Christians, all of whom would be “deserving” of such a blessing. Therefore, Deborah Leeds would have been marked as a witch for simply by deviating from the physiological norm of the time, through no fault of her own. Moreover, it did not help that Daniel Leeds was at political loggerheads with the population, and that his son, Titan Leeds, became embroiled in a battle with Benjamin Franklin over their publishing competition. Franklin disparaged the Leeds name, and these socio-political conflicts made the Leeds family an easy target for the gossip and disparagement that led to this outrageous claim against the family.
Perhaps the child really was a monster or perhaps it was just malformed; and as the rumors started to circulate people kept changing and adding details that simply weren’t true. Like most tales that have been passed around, it’s just a big game of telephone. Over the countless years, sightings are still continuing to occur even in today’s skeptical society. Whether a monster is truly wandering the New Jersey Pine Barrens or the story simply isn’t true, or was over exaggerated, the Jersey Devil has certainly made his mark on Jersey folklore.