The New Jersey Pinelands, also known as the Pine Barrens, is a section of New Jersey that is still pretty rural, and in many places undeveloped. Located at the southern end of the state, there are beautiful historic parks, villages, and cedar forests (yep that’s what turns your bathing suit that weird rust color when you swim in cedar water).
But as you head closer to the shore the fertile soil, that made New Jersey the “Garden State”, becomes sandy and not very rich in nutrients. This part of the state is home to the rare form of pitch pine, called pygmy for the way it grows.
Short and gnarled, these trees grow in the Pine Barrens and are a familiar site as you drive down the sandy back roads.
The Pine Barrens are quite beautiful, and a popular place for hiking and camping in the summer. Unfortunately though, the area has had more than it’s share of fires. Driving down the road after a fire it’s hard to remember the beauty of the pygmy pines and cedars, with the white sand covered in ash.
An area so rich in early American history, with it’s bog iron and glass making, it’s only natural that it would be rich in ghost towns, ghost stories and legends as well.
Some of the more popular legends are:
The ghost boy in Atco. On the fringes of the Pine Barrens, he haunts the road where he was killed by a drunk driver.
Captain Kidd in Barnegat Bay, where it’s believed the Pirate still searches for his buried treasure.
The ghostly Black Dog, that was owned by a cabin boy on a ship, and was killed by pirates around Absecon Island.
The Ghost of the White Stag, a ghostly deer that prevented a stagecoach from crashing into the Batsto River. Legend has it that if you see the ghost of the White Stag it’s good luck.
Then there is the story of Dr. James Still, known as the Black Doctor. African Americans were prohibited from practicing medicine in the 19th century so, according to legend, Dr. Still hid himself away in the Pine Barrens, where he continued his medical practice for the locals. The story then goes on to say that he was caught and unjustly lynched, and now his ghost haunts the Pine Barrens. But the ghost of Dr. Still is not a malevolent spirit, and he has been seen when injured or stranded travelers in the Pine Barrens need help.
And then there is the granddaddy of them all! It took me awhile to get to it here – but I defy any one living in South Jersey to not get just a little bit creeped out when hearing about the Jersey Devil – the most famous and popular legend of the Pine Barrens.
As spooky stories go, there’s nothing that scared the bejesus out of us more when we were kids than stories of Jersey Devil sightings. I first heard the story of the Jersey Devil when I was about nine or ten years old. We were on a school field trip to the historic town of Batsto. As we drove down a long road that led to farms and cranberry bogs, we saw an old broken down shack of a house. One of my classmates made the announcement that it was the house of the Jersey Devil.
She was wrong, by the way, the house where the legend took place was a few miles away, but at the time we didn’t know that – we were spooked and the story stayed with us. Of course we passed the story down to our younger siblings and friends. No reason why we should be the only ones frightened by this infamous creature.
Even as an adult, driving with friends through the Pine Barrens at night, when there was a chill in the air and a little bit of a foggy mist, we would tell the stories – and it would still freak us out. “Look out for JD”, we’d say as we were the lone car on the road heading to the historic town of Smithville. Every deer that we saw alongside the road, eyes glowing in the dark from the car’s headlights, made us twitch.
So who is the Jersey Devil? Over they years I’ve heard many different versions of the story, but the main gist of the story goes like this:
In the early 1700s there was a woman, Mother Leeds, who was thought to be a witch. When she realized that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, she cried out that she wished it would be the Devil. On a stormy night she went into labor, and gave birth to a normal child. But almost immediately following the birth, the child transformed and changed to a creature described as having hooves, the head of a goat, and large bat wings. It killed the midwife, and with a blood curdling scream, flew up the chimney and disappeared – but not before poor Mother Leeds saw that it also had a forked tail.
That night it flew over the village of Leeds Point and then disappeared into the Pine Barrens. There was a spattering of sightings for a short while, but then nothing until the late 1880s.
It really wasn’t until early 1909, however, when it seemed that the Jersey Devil was most active. Hundreds of sightings, and even some attacks were reported, not just in the area of the Pine Barrens, but across the state in Haddon Heights, Camden, and even as far away as Bristol, Pennsylvania and parts of Delaware. There was such panic that schools closed and workers stayed home. Throughout these reports one thing was constant, the large bat wings, forked tail and hooves. After this batch of multiple sightings it seemed that the creature was gone, for awhile anyway. Although rare, the sightings continued sporadically as late as the 1960s.
As for me, I’ve never had the pleasure (or more like the horror) of seeing the Jersey Devil, but maybe, someday….
If you’re interested in learning more about the Jersey Devil. I highly recommend the book “The Jersey Devil” by James F. McCloy and Ray Miller (1976, Middle Atlantic Press). It’s my favorite, and I believe the most popular among Jersey Devil enthusiasts. As a native of New Jersey – born and raised in South Jersey – I have to admit I’m just a little proud of our famous legend.
There are a ton of resources on the Internet to learn more, not only about JD, but of the NJ Pinelands and it’s wonderful history. I’ve added some links below.
So, what do you think? Is the Jersey Devil just a legend, or did Mother Leeds really give birth to a devil child? Feel free to leave your comments below.
Edit – So after I hit publish, I realized I forgot something very important – Thank you to Jonathan and Aaron Ferrara for giving me the idea to do a little digging into some ghostly haunts here in my home state. You can find their blog at: http://husbandandhusband.net