Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

DALE DRINNON: Attempting a Composite Jersey Devil Profile

The Jersey Devil, sometimes called the Leeds Devil, is a legendary creature or cryptid said to inhabit the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. The creature is often described as a flying biped with hooves, but there are many variations. [1] The Jersey Devil has worked its way into the pop culture of the area, even lending its name to New Jersey's team in the National Hockey League.

...Throughout the 1800s, the Jersey Devil was blamed for livestock killings, strange tracks, and reported sounds. In the early 1900s, a number of people in New Jersey and neighboring states claimed to witness the Jersey Devil or see its tracks. Claims of a corpse matching the Jersey Devil's description arose in 1957[Generallysaid to be a hoax]. In 1960, the merchants around Camden offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of the Jersey Devil, even offering to build a private zoo to house the creature if captured.[3]

[1,3] McCrann, Grace-Ellen (26 October 2000). "Legend of the New Jersey Devil". The New Jersey Historical Society. http://www.jerseyhistory.org/legend_jerseydevil.html. Retrieved 16 February 2010.


As many readers might know, I was at one time a major contributor to the SITU and had full access to Ivan Sanderson's library and archives before they were broken up and sent away to various other institutions (I am currently in contact with an organisation that has retrieved most of the files).

After an initial survey of Jersey Devil reports subitted by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark in the early 1970s, Ivan Sanderson sent them a letter (which I have seen) explaining that he considered the Jersey Devil sightings to be based on a large condor-like bird or 'Thunderbird' and he explained why. He also said that there was a secret society at work in New Jersey that would attack undesirable neighbours with acts of terrorism, framing the Jersey Devil as the cause (something out of Scooby Doo, but more deadly serious: the perpetrators would destroy livestock and leave faked tracks among other things). This secret society had been in existance since colonial times and was largely perpetrated by certain member families, operating along similar lines to the Ku Klux Klan.

However, once the obvious hoaxes and mistakes are sorted out, there are still any number of alleged Jersey Devil sightings, particularly in the 'Flying Horrible' category. There is something generally like a huge eagle that leaves large three-toed footprints and then again assorted other 'devils', which include trails of 'Devil's Footprints' such as seen in Devonshire in 1855 and 2009 (these would seem to have a natural origin not requiring the invention of a 'devil' to explain them). It seems that anything out of the ordinary in New Jersey gets slapped with the 'Jersey Devil' tag, and this includes sightings of bears, pumas, kangaroos and even a possible 'Mothman' or two, and unfortunately the inevitable bald dogs more recently. But most of the sightings are 'Jabberwocks' seen just once apiece for any sort of detailed description given.

In January 1909 came the most impressive series of Jersey Devil sightings when about a hundred individuals in Northern New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania claimed to have seen it. The only scientific opinion advanced was that it could have been a relic pterodactyl that people were describing. Any or all of the sightings during this 'flap' period could be lies or hallucinations based on fear aroused by the 'Devil's Hoofprints' that were appearing at the same time. No single blanket explanation would cover all of the 'Devil' experiences at the time, unless it really was an outbreak of amorphous demons, since all the sightings described something different.

The following is a sampler of the reported traits: large crane-like bird; glowing head (eyes?); ram-like horns curling around the back of the head (this may have been an appearance caused by wrinkled and warty skin rather than actual horns); long thin legs and long thin wings; short useless forelegs pressed to the chest (which might be imaginary); squawking and whistling; red glowing eyes; bird legs and horse's head; bat wings; long tail with barb at the end; forked tail; alligator skin; breathed fire; one horn on the head; tail like an ostrich; monkey-like face; dogface; 3 feet high; 11 foot wingspan; winged kangaroo; head like (the size of?) a collie dog and face like a horse; long neck; 3 1/2 feet high; legs like a crane; horse's hoofs (probably to match the alleged footprints); split hoofs; human-like feet; 3-toed bird-like feet; wings about 2 feet long folded up (which meant possibly about a 10-12 foot wingspan with wings spread); 6 feet tall; 6-foot-long bird (beak to tail); feet hanging down as it flew; hopping on the ground; awkward flight close to the ground; effortless soaring high in the sky; hair and feathers; scales; red head; black, brown or grey colour on the rest of the body-occasionally reported as green or some other colour.

Some of the traits are possibly only imaginary or remembered incorrectly and exaggerated in the retelling. But there is no internal sorting criteria by which it could be guessed, which traits are more likely to be real and which ones might be false, as measured by the consensus of opinion. There is very little consensus of opinion.

This being in January with snow-covered ground, the 'fire-breathing' probably means no more than its breath made condensation or 'steam.' If it actually was a large condor-like bird, many of the reported traits would fit. These include the regularly-reported bird legs, feathers on the body and scales on the legs but a bald head and a ruff that looks like hair around the neck, the tail like an ostrich's, and even the different flight patters at different altitudes, even including the feet hanging down when it is flying at low level (this was a bird report but it was also the one that said 'human-like feet').

The comparison of the head to that of a horse or collie dog means that the head is an elongated oval, but the hooked beak is only very rarely mentioned. The size is also consistent if we take 3 to 3 and a half feet as the height and about ten feet as the wingspan: stretched out head to tail might be estimated as six feet long but probably that would be exaggerated.

This is, however, only after digging out the details. The reports as they stand sound nothing like condors at face value. Perhaps witnesses were so unnerved at seeing THE DEVIL at night that they all freaked out and were all confused about it afterwards. Perhaps some journalists took liberties with recording the reports afterwards

But basically all that can be said in summary is that if most of the witnesses are describing the same thing and that thing is a sort of a condor, then most of the reports that we have on record are remarkably bad reports.

  • Bord, Janet and Bord, Colin. Alien Animals. Harrisburg, PA, Stackpoole books, 1981

  • Clark, Jerome. UNEXPLAINED! Washington, DC, Visible Ink,1993

  • MacDougall, Curtis D. Hoaxes. New York, Dover Books, 1958


borky said...

Dale: "No single blanket explanation would cover all of the "Devil" experiences at the time, unless it really was an outbreak of amorphous demons".

Funny y'should say that, Dale...

...cause our old/new chum Krishna was apparently always going up against these demons called rakshasas, who were variously said to be humanoids capable of taking on normal/fantastical animal forms, 'animals' who could assume human form, or forces of nature such as tornadoes who could assume animal/human/supernatural forms.

And one of them, Bakasura, ('lightning flash demon', a child swallower whose various descriptions, though chimerical, sound somewhat pterodactyl like), is generally referred to as a demonic crane!

And even though Ivan Sanderson's story might sound a touch screwy, Bakasura too had his own horde of secret but reluctant devotees who were required to feed themselves to him if they couldn't come up with the kids of outsiders as substitutes.

Then again maybe Sanderson was aware of the Bakasura story.

Then again, you probably are, but others out there reading this may not be.


Dale Drinnon said...

Bakasura? Does that mean something like "The Bad God" or "The God of Nightmares?"

No actually I would have been more prone to drop the name of Nyarlethotep. However, I should also say they sound about equivalent: Nyarly was also supposed to take the form of a hideous bird and Lovecraft said he was the same as Thoth. But that would not have pleased the Egyptians at all.

"Asura" at the end of "Bakasura" is a reference to the gods of the Persians (Iranians): the Gods of the Indians were the Devils of the Persians and vice versa. "Asura" is related to the "Ases" or Scandinavian Gods, and we get the name "Asmodeus" as a demon out of what was apparently the local version of Odin. And we have the class of "Devils" which comes from the name of the Gods of India (Devas)
Abraham (Abram) seems linguistically related to Brahma, by the way, and his wife Sarah is Saraswati. The names came from the ancestors of the Indo-Iranians while they were wandering over the mid-East. The older books called them Aryans, a name related to Iran as well. (Erin has also been suggested as similar-sounding) Yahweh could have started out as a Vedic concept. Except that he is using the name of an older local GODDESS in the region.