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.
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 Halloween, 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!”
He 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 Copernican, 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?”
“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 background.
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.”
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…”