Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 10th, 2006
One January night in 1909, E. P. Weeden of the Trenton, New Jersey City Council bolted upright in bed when he heard someone trying to break down his door. It was a most unusual “someone,” apparently, because Weeden also heard distinctly the sound of flapping wings. Councilman Weeden rushed to his second-floor window and looked outside. He did not see the intruder, but the sight that greeted his eyes chilled him far more than the icy temperature ever could: In the snow on the roof of his house something had left a line of tracks. And whatever that “something” was, it had hoofs.
(To see the Jersey Devil, please go here.)
On the same night, “it” left hoof prints in the snow at the State Arsenal in Trenton. And shortly afterwards John Hartman of Center Street caught a full view of it as it circled his yard and then vanished into the night. Trenton residents living near the Delaware River were shaken by loud screeching sounds, like the cries of a giant cat, and stayed in their homes that night too frightened to venture out.
“It” reappeared in Bristol during the early morning hours of January 17th. The first person to observe it, a police officer named Sackville, was patrolling along Buckley Street around 2:00 a.m. Officer Sackville was alerted by the barking of dogs in the neighborhood that something was amiss. Feeling increasingly uneasy, he reached the race bridge when a sudden movement from the path below caught his eye. Carefully he turned his head. When he saw it, he was so stunned that, for a moment, he could not move.
Gathering his wits, Sackville drew his revolver and plunged toward “it.” It let out an eerie cry and hopped rapidly away, with the officer in hot pursuit. Suddenly it raised its wings and flew above the path, and Sackville, afraid that it would get away, fired his gun. He missed. By the time he got off a second shot, the thing was gone.
The second witness was Bristol postmaster E. W. Minster, who the next day told this story to reporters:
I awoke about two o’clock in the morning … and finding myself unable to sleep, I arose and wet my head with cold water as a cure for insomnia.
As I got up I heard an eerie, almost supernatural sound from the direction of the river…I looked out upon the Delaware and saw flying diagonally across what appeared to be a large crane but which was emitting a glow like a firefly.
Its head resembled that of a ram, with curled horns, and its long thin neck was thrust forward in flight. It had long thin wings and short legs, the front legs shorter than the hind. Again, it uttered its mournful and awful call—a combination of a squawk and a whistle, the beginning very high and piercing and ending very low and hoarse….
John McOwen, a liquor dealer who lived on Bath Street with the back of his house facing the Delaware Division Canal, heard his infant daughter crying and went into her room to see what was wrong. It was about 2:00 a.m. A “strange noise” brought him to the window, which overlooked the canal.
“It sounded like the scratching of a phonograph before the music begins,” he said later, “and yet it also had something of a whistle to it. You know how the factory whistle sounds? Well, it was something like that. I looked from the window and was astonished to see a large creature standing on the banks of the canal. It looked something like an eagle…and it hopped along the tow path.”
The next day Mrs. Thomas Holland discovered hoofmarks in her snow-covered yard, as did other residents of Buckley and Bath Streets.
And Trenton and Bristol were not the only places where the creature was seen. At Camden twelve men at work in the Hilltown clay bank took one glance at the thing as it descended toward them, and then, as one account wryly notes, they “were off to set an unofficial record for the three-mile run in working clothes.”
Other New Jersey towns and cities reporting visitations were Wycombe, Swedesboro, Huffville, Mantua, Woodbury, Mount Ephraim, Haddonfield, and Mount Holly. Said a contemporary news story, “Hoofprints have been noticed in hundreds of places over a strip of country at least 16 miles long and three miles wide.”
But the 1909 reports are very suspect….
The episode has been dubbed the Jersey Devil’s “finest hour.” In the course of five January days, more than 100 persons across eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey swore they had seen the beast. All over the region, accounts of such a creature or creatures were heard, as well as the discoveries of bizarre, unidentifiable hoof-prints in the snow. Schools and businesses closed. Newspaper articles where written and read.
A climax to the events took place on January 21, 1909, in West Collingswood, when the town’s fire department supposedly confronted the monster and sprayed it with fire hoses as it swooped menacingly overhead.
The next morning, a Camden woman said the Jersey Devil attacked her pet dog. This report marked the end of the 1909 flap, although another solo sighting occurred in February.
But years later, information provided to me by Ivan T. Sanderson offered a likely explanation for the scare: apparently an elaborate real estate hoax*. Sanderson even found the fake feet [in an old barn] used to make the footprints in the snow. Hoofprints and other evidence were faked or misidentified.
The stories of sightings seem to have been a combination of planted stories, hoaxes, and imaginations fueled by fear.
*I will write more about this “real estate hoax” in-depth some day, but in essence, crafty tricksters-purchasers wanted to buy up rural property that speculators had identified as soon to have increased values due to planned development. The thought was that the ill-informed and those scared of the Jersey Devil activities would gladly sell their land to “fools” who wanted to take their “worthless” real estate off their hands.
…from Mysterious America, copyright 1983, 2001, 2006 – Loren Coleman. P.S. If you ordered a discounted hardcopy for your cryptozoology library, look for yours in the next week to ten days, via media mail. Thank you.