Halloween with the “Jersey Devil”

It’s that time of year! Silly stories of ghosts and monsters are everywhere. We are happy to bring you a Halloween treat by Dr. Brian Regal who shares with us an imaginative meet up with a devilish figure from history. 

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I stopped in at O’Bryan’s Pour House the other night for a drink and ran into my old friend Daniel Leeds. Sitting at the bar we got to talking about Hallowedealwiththedevilen, monsters, and the importance of history.

The place was festooned with cardboard witches and ghosts.

Daniel Leeds is the guy some people think is the Jersey Devil of monster lore. That’s a long story I have told elsewhere about the origins of the United States, political scapegoats, religious persecutions, and the birth of the Scientific Revolution in North America. He hates hearing about it.

I’ve been writing Daniel’s biography for about two years so I have come to know him as well as anybody can. He didn’t give up his secrets easily and often grew annoyed by all my questions regarding his life and family especially his role in the Jersey Devil legend, but I think we have a good rapport. He had long since grown tired of monster and ghost hunters prowling around the property he owned out on Leeds Point on the Atlantic coast. He groused about it all the time.

“These people,” he said with a mixture of disgust and genuine puzzlement, “come stomping around what’s left of Japheth’s house taking stones and bits of wood as souvenirs. The house is a wreck because of it. And at Halloween it’s the worst!”

JimBeamHe doesn’t go out there anymore. “The real history is so much more interesting and important than some stupid monster story,” he said into his now empty glass.

I bought him another drink: he’s a big ale aficionado. “You don’t like Halloween much then?”

“No,” he said, “people dressing their kids up in funny costumes, sending them out to beg for candy. That has nothing to do with the original pagan holiday. And don’t get me started on Christmas.”

We agree that poor understanding of history can have serious consequences. It can ruin cultures and individual lives. Daniel Leeds knows a thing or two about the effects of twisting history.

Daniel’s life has been co-opted and falsified over the years to the point where few know the reality. He tried to bring the Scientific Revolution to seventeenth-century New Jersey, but became caught up in a political/religious feud. For his efforts he was labelled ‘evil’ and ‘Satan’s Harbinger’ by his fellow Quakers. It is all but forgotten now that Leeds was the first person south of Boston to publicly support the JD honeywineCopernican, Heliocentric view of the universe in 1696. He promoted literacy, education, and the learning of history. Now he’s pictured as an emaciated flying horse with bat-wings and claws.

I looked for a way to cheer him up. “You don’t care for Mother’s Day either, do you?” I said with a grin.

“Oh, ha, ha, very funny, how long did it take you to think that one up?” In the Jersey Devil mythos, you see, ‘Mother’ Leeds abandons her child.

After telling the barmaid what I wanted to eat I put the menu down. “Hey, did you know…?” I said, but he cut me off.

“I hate “did you know” sorts of questions. Just tell me what you have on your mind.”

I drew my frosty Old Speckled Hen towards me on the bar then continued, “When the first Quakers came up the Delaware River on the ship called Shield in 1667, they sang the song The Sloop John B?”

He turned to me incredulously, “The Beach Boys song?”jerseydevilale

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s an old Quaker ballad and The Beach Boys covered it.”

He let out a long sigh, “Why do you tell me these foolish things? I thought you were an historian.”

“I am,” I replied, “I thought you’d enjoy such an interesting tidbit.”

After another sip of his drink he said, “You made that up didn’t you?”

I paused for a moment, “Yes.” I said it the way a little kid says “yes” when they get caught doing something they weren’t supposed to and admit it.

Springsteen’s Gotta Get That Feeling was playing on the Jukebox in the baJD redwineckground.

Finally I said enthusiastically, “It is kind of a cool idea though, isn’t it?”

He gave in and smiled a little, “Yes, it is actually.” Then he chuckled, “that would be a great story if it were true.”

Not wanting to seem like I was seriously making things up, committing that sin I so often scold others for particularly in this age of the reality TV based approach to history, I added, “Though they did cannibalize the Shield to build their first Meeting House, did you know that?”

“Uh, yeah,” he shot back suddenly, sarcastically, “everyone knows that!” He stretched out the ‘evvhher–eeee–one.’ He stuttered as a child, but overcame it mostly.

We talked about the weather a bit, about the Pine Barrens, and other flotsam and jetsam of small talk. After a brief comfortable silence as I ate and he drank he looked at me in the bar mirror and said, “I hope this book of yours straightens out the history, so people stop snooping around my house on Halloween.”

“I think it will,” I replied. “That’s my job.”devildrink

Secretly I feared the prowling would only increase. I didn’t tell him that.

He was right of course about one thing; while historians do a good bit of this, we need to do more to address the public understanding and appreciation of history so people don’t go off half-cocked following some spurious view of the past. Even when it comes to Halloween, monsters, and folklore.

I finished my meal, downed what was left of my beer, slapped him on the back and stood up. “Catch you later,” I said.

“Sure,” he replied, “bring me some more cool stories about the past.”

As I left I heard him singing to himself, “We come on the Sloop John B, me grandfather and me…”

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Brian Regal teaches the history of Science, Technology, and Medicine at Kean University. He is the author of Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology (Palgrave, 2013), and appears in the History Channel series True Monsters talking about the Jersey Devil.

  6 comments for “Halloween with the “Jersey Devil”

  1. Brian Regal
    October 25, 2015 at 4:56 PM

    “As if anyone would know what I was talking about…”

  2. Dan Beach
    October 26, 2015 at 10:17 AM

    I grew up being terrified of the Jersey Devil. Living near the pine barrens helps make it a little more real. Never heard the real story of the myth until very recently.

  3. Asha
    October 30, 2015 at 9:03 PM

    I just wanted to say that I absolutely love this piece! I’ve read it at least half a dozen times now, I made my husband read it, (but I strongly encourage him to read pretty much everything on doubtful news) and I’ve forwarded it to quite a few people.
    I’d love to see Dr. Regal expand this into a short story or series of short stories, or, dare I say it, a full-blown novel! I’m hungry for more of your tales of drinking with the late, great Daniel Leeds, (I’d love to hear what he has to say about how many of his wives and children died in childbirth, and what he thinks of marriage and having kids in the 21st century as compared to the 17th century, and I suppose how the 21st century in general has changed his view of the world, and how he might explain his ecstatic visions in this day and age) and Quakers singing Beach Boys tunes, or maybe that’s the other way around…
    I can’t get Sloop John B out of my head, and I’m okay with that, because I’m still trying to create the perfect mental image of it as an old, old Quaker ballad.
    As I already said, I’m hungry for more!
    (I love your piece in the Skeptical Inquirer from the end of 2013 on the life and times of Daniel Leeds and the eventual birth of the Leeds/Jersey Devil mythos.)
    Sorry for going all spazzy fan girl here. Sometimes I simply can’t help myself…

  4. October 31, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    Thank you very much! Flattery will get you everywhere. If you like the Skeptical Inquirer article check out the one from New Jersey Studies. https://drive.google.com/a/kean.edu/file/d/0Bwk9AVZFXx4aMzlmalZYNnJOWWc/view

  5. Asha
    October 31, 2015 at 7:04 PM

    Thanks so much for the link! Daniel Leeds really seems to have been a fascinating person. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the New Jersey Studies piece. Have a great Hallowe’en!

  6. Asha
    October 31, 2015 at 7:13 PM

    I think all this talk of the Leeds/Jersey Devil mythos has rekindled my desire for a pair of heelless hoof print boots. But do I go with a cloven hoof style or a horse hoof style, and even then, there are so very many options! (Now I’m wondering if anyone out there makes Bigfoot snowshoes…)

    https://www.google.com/search?q=heelless+hoof+print+boots&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-us&client=safari

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