Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Leeds Devil, Pt. 1

This bit of American folklore is often confused (in my estimation) with what is indisputably (again, in my estimation) an eyewitness account of an actual, paranormal event. In fact, I was not even aware of the connection between the Leeds Devil and the Jersey Devil until researching the folklore of the former. From what I can tell, the tales are only interchangeable amongst the New Jersey citizenry; everyone else seems to consider the Leeds Devil and the Jersey Devil not only as two separate accounts, but in completely different lights.

First, let us dispense with the folklore of the Leeds Devil. Since there are numerous variations on the story, I will pass along the account most often traded, as it is disputably the oldest of the bunch (published):

Mother Leeds of Burlington was a sober Quaker highly suspected of practicing witchcraft. In 1735, she bore a child during a terrible storm 1. As the women of the time crowded around whenever there was a death, marriage, or birth, they were all present, and before their very eyes, the shape and demeanor of the child did change: it grew long and brown with a snake-like body, a horse's head, cloven-hoofed feet, bat's wings, and a long, leathery, forked tail. It increased in strength and size until it was the bulk of a full-grown man, whereupon it emitted savage screams and "fell on the assemblage," beating them all - even its own mother - severely with its wings and tail before escaping through the chimney.

That night, several children disappeared - eaten by the dragon. While it seldom did much harm afterward, it was glimpsed in the woods of the Pine Barrens many times. Wherever milk soured, cows dried-up, or corn was seared, the Leeds Devil was said to have been. On still nights, farmers could follow its trail by the howling of dogs, hoots of owls, and squawks of birds - but few did.

At this point, the account gets a little blurry, connecting the Leeds Devil to the shoreline, where it portended shipwrecks (and was sometimes "seen in the company of the spectres that haunt the shore: the golden-haired woman in white, the black-muzzled pirate, and the robber, whose head being cut-off at Barnegat by Captain Kidd, stumps about the sands without it, guarding a treasure buried nearby." - American Myths & Legends, Charles M. Skinner). It was blamed for the deaths of the fish in the ponds and creeks in the cedar swamps - as it wanted a "change of diet" and breathed upon them - as they whitened and decayed and floated in such numbers as to threaten illness to all the neighborhood 2.

The legend of the Leeds Devil then comes full-circle when, in 1740, a pious and exemplary clergyman is secured - one who "had dominion over many of the fiends that plagued New Jersey" (including applejack, "which some declared to be a worse fiend than any other") - who banned the Leeds Devil for 100 years. And for a century, the area was unmolested by the creature.

The Leeds Devil was all but forgotten by 1840 when, as if on cue, it once again began stealing sheep and clutching at children after twilight. Sightings were rare and spotty, but it was reported in Vincetown and Burrville in 1899, which was its last, great raid - at least at the time this account was published. The Leeds Devil's lifespan was thought to have run its course and the fiend was seen no more again forever...

...unless you link it to the strange events which occurred in the very region in January, 1909. While this seems plausible, given this regional folklore, it becomes more difficult, once we include the events of 1885 in Devonshire, England. And I feel this necessary, given that these events actually occurred - whereas the Leeds Devil legend is almost certainly just that. Like all verifiable legends, it has many variations, little to no solid evidence backing it, and is completely far-fetched in nature...

Except that there is some evidence backing it. And the same could be said of the strange events occurring in 1885 and again in 1909, were it not for the photographs and multitude of eyewitnesses.

Note also the inclusion of other New Jersey legends. This co-mingling is somewhat unusual and must be noted when considering the intersection of the folklore concerning the Leeds Devil and the very real account of the Jersey Devil, which occurred in 1909. After all, the lore of the Leeds Devil was already present in the region, and the last "great raid" attributed it was a mere decade before, so - faced with such an inexplicable event - it was quickly associated. The legend told here, from the source cited, was published in 1903. Kind of early for the author's insistence on the finality of the Leeds Devil, but this is a folklorist's tale, which demands an end.

In the second part of this study, we will delve into the lore surrounding the Leeds Devil - independent of the events which occurred in and around the area in 1909.
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1 Leeds' impregnation alone is considered "proof" of her witchcraft in this published account - why, I cannot say, except to note that she is referred to as "Mother" Leeds, which denotes an advanced age. This particular account - passed-on in several books, at least - does not mention a husband or father, which may also be the reason.

2 This suggests an historical event, possibly due to a massive turnover - the mixing of upper and lower layers of a freshwater body, which occurs in the fall and can kill fish, especially bottomfeeders, such as catfish - though this does not explain the deaths of the livery in the creeks, unless they are slow-moving. Disease is also a possibility - and, given the account, more probable - but as I have personally seen the effects of a turnover, and the condition of the fish as described is similar, I included it.

© C Harris Lynn, 2008

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