(Left - Charley and Laura on the hunt, 19th January 2008)
In January 2008 I interviewed Laura Leuter, president of the New Jersey Devil Hunters, check out their website regarding the long-running mystery of one of cryptozoology's strangest creatures, the Jersey Devil, said to have roamed the dense Pine barrens for several centuries.
Laura gave me the lowdown on her investigations and theories, and with her kind permission allowed me to use some of her photo's from the 19th January hunt:
1) Laura, firstly, please can you explain a little about the legend of the Jersey Devil? According to legend, in 1735, a woman named Mrs. Leeds from Leeds Point was in labor with her 13th child. During a fit of pain, she cried out, “Let this child be a devil!” and when the infant was born, it morphed into a hideous creature. The creature then devoured everyone in the room, and fled through a chimney to the Pine Barrens, where it has haunted the area ever since.
That’s one variation of the legend, probably the most widely known. Other variations say that he did not eat the family, and instead used to visit them for many years, due to Mrs. Leeds feeding it. One day, she shooed it away, and it never returned.
Other variations say that Mrs. Leeds was cursed by a gypsy in the woods after refusing her food, or was cursed due to the fact that she was having an affair. Others say that it wasn’t Mrs. Leeds, but actually Mrs. Shrouds.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the legend is, as it is a tale that has traveled through generations and of course things were changed over the years.
2) Can you tell me a bit about the Devil Hunters, what made you start a group to investigate the sightings, how many members you have, your aims etc ? We are a group dedicated to the search for the truth about the Jersey Devil. We conduct research through written word as well as actual field work. We research the legend itself, and the history surrounding that, while also visiting witnesses and gathering their accounts.
At the current moment, we actually have 13 regular members, which is just a coincidence. We’re looking to continue expanding our regular member base. Regular members are the people we count on for conducting the research and going on hunts. We also offer a second membership option, which is known as Associates. We’ve got about a 100 or so associates, located around the world, who help with online research, theories, etc.
I was prompted to start this group back in 1999. I had been researching this creature when I was a little girl, and I had always had the hopes of going out to the house foundation where the Jersey Devil was supposedly born. But, at the time I was about 12, which meant there was no way it would be possible for me to even consider going out in the woods in search of a burnt down house. However, as I got older, and found myself in discussions about the Jersey Devil, the two original founders and I decided to put the group together and go do this. So here we are, almost 9 years later, still in search of the truth.
3) What evidence have you uncovered in the woods ? (photo right - strange pile of bird feathers discovered on 19th January 2008 hunt) It’s tough to say. What we have found is a lot of footprints that don’t make any sense. They will start and stop without a defined trail; there will be one print in the middle of nowhere, and no continuation. We’ll find them in hard to reach places that a deer couldn’t get into. We’re going to start casting these prints to see what we can find from them.
4) What is the general description of the Jersey Devil and has this identity altered over time ? It is usually described in simplest terms as a deer standing upright with wings. To get more specific, people usually say it has a deer or horse like face and torso, hair covering the body, bat like wings, hoofed feet, and a long tail. It is most often described as being within the 5-6 feet range in height, and has a large wingspan. Some describe its eyes as piercing, and claim that it has claws on its hands.
5) What, in your and the groups opinion, is the Jersey Devil ? Each member of the group basically has their own opinion, which is a great element to our team. I think it’s awesome that we each can hold our own beliefs, yet work together in search of the truth. Personally, I think it is an undiscovered creature that hides from humans really well. Others in the group have leaned towards supernatural explanations, others aren’t even convinced it actually exists. But the undiscovered creature theory is probably the one that is most common amongst us. We all keep an open mind though, since we’re only talking about opinions. Until the truth is known, we’ll never know for sure who is right and who is wrong.
6) This legend has spanned more than a century which surely suggests that we are not dealing with a flesh and blood creature, what are your opinions of this ? I actually disagree, I think that we are dealing with generations of a flesh and blood creature. I tend to live by Ockham’s Razor, the principle that, all things being equal, the simplest answer is the best answer. So, to explain, I think it is more likely that a creature has multiplied throughout the years in the Pine Barrens, than a supernatural entity. I think the idea of generations of ‘Jersey Devils’ would explain the variations in description, height, etc., and would account for the longevity of sightings over the years. However, again this is merely my opinion, so I can’t say for sure.
7) In May of 2007 I had a unique book published concerning 'zooform' creatures. In the book there are several creatures across the world which seem related or sharing the characteristics in legend and identity as the JD. Do you believe the JD to be unique to New Jersey or one of many strange, winged entities ? I think the Jersey Devil is most likely something found throughout the nation, perhaps the world. I think maybe we have a concentration of them here in our area, but I don’t think that New Jersey is the only place that the Jersey Devil could be. In fact, I get many reports of out of state sightings as well, so that right there suggests that it is found in many places, not just here. I think we just like to own it in New Jersey, that’s all. It’s our legend, and we’re proud!
8) How many reports a year do you receive of the JD ? Every year is different, but we still get quite a few. So far, none yet in 2008, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. I would say we average about 10 sightings a year, but that really depends.
9) Did the films 'The Blair Witch Project' and 'The Last Broadcast' attract more people to the mystery of the JD ? Interestingly enough, right around the time that we started the group was when Blair Witch came out. We all went and saw it together, and we were completely surprised by it. We didn’t realize that it was faked, either, until afterwards. I think some of those movies have attracted people towards Jersey Devil a little, but none of them have really done any justice to the legend, so it’s not always a direct connection.
10) I saw an episode of 'Scariest Places On Earth' in which the team was put in a 'Blair Witch...' situation. Did you find this frustrating? Unfortunately that was done via some editing tricks on the producer’s side. That experience for us was definitely frustrating in the beginning. I received 800 e-mails in a week, all wanting to know what I had seen and why I wouldn’t talk about it. It’s hard to explain that I wasn’t hiding anything, and that it was a Hollywood trick! At first, we were frustrated about it, but now that all of these years have passed, we all look back at it a little and laugh. It definitely brought some fame and notoriety to the Jersey Devil, so in that sense, it helped project the Jersey Devil back into the mainstream when it comes to creepy cryptos. But it wasn’t the easiest event for us to straighten out!
11) People often describe hearing the screams of the JD. Is it possible that what the people are hearing is in fact cougars? Yes, there is a possibility of that. Cougars do exist in small levels throughout New Jersey, though in all of these years, we’ve never come across one, or even evidence of one. But I don’t deny the possibility that some people have confused a cougar’s scream with the Jersey Devil. However, this doesn’t negate the descriptions from eye witness encounters, so I’m sure in some cases they are not confused by a cougar.
12) Do you think the JD has somehow melted into UFO, ghost and Bigfoot folklore, making it an unfathomable mystery? I think the Jersey Devil has some characteristics that are common amongst the unexplained, but I also think it has its own uniqueness too. I don’t think it’s that unfathomable. I think the legend of a woman giving birth to a devil is probably a stretch, but I’ve met too many people who have had encounters for me to dismiss this as nothing.
13) Have any of your team experienced anything weird in the Pine Barrens? Sure, we experience some weird stuff on most of our hunts, actually. We’ll have weird sounds following us around, we’ll find strange footprints. Our cars will be subtly scratched up when we return to them. We frequently experience battery drainage - just the other day, on Hunt #33, we had some full batteries go completely dead while we approached a known Jersey Devil ‘hotspot’. We’ve heard screams in the distance, we’ve had strange things appear on our pictures… None of which is conclusive evidence at all. So, at this point, we just take this stuff as it comes, and until we have a conclusive picture of the Jersey Devil, we’ll just keep on researching.
14) What truth is there in the legend of Mother Leeds and the Leeds House? Well, there definitely was a Mrs. Leeds back then, that’s for sure. The town of Leeds Point was founded by a man named Daniel Leeds, who came over in the 1600’s on a land grant to develop the area. The Leeds name is very common in South Jersey, especially around the towns of Smithville and (obviously) Leeds Point. We’ve even found records of a woman named Mrs. Leeds throughout the years who had 12 children, and the 13th is listed simply as “Unknown” or “Bastard” Leeds. But, as far as proof of a woman giving birth to a demon, I’m sure we’ll never prove that to be true. If that actually could happen, then it’s likely that many more people would be born a devil, as not too many women are fond of labor!
15) Has the JD ever harmed anyone? No. In all the reports I have received, I have never found anything that made me believe the Jersey Devil actually harmed someone. It has charged people before, and it has attacked livestock and pets, but not humans.
16) What would you do if you filmed the Jersey Devil ? It would depend on the reliability of the film. We would want to make sure that whatever we release to the public is bullet-proof. So even if we did capture footage of the Jersey Devil, if it could be argued as a fake, then we probably would hang on to it. We want to be a team that the world respects and trusts, so we wouldn’t release something questionable. If we did get good, solid film of it, however, we’d probably broadcast it on our website first, and then continue our research into finding out what it is. I think the circumstances of our filming would have a lot to do with what our following actions would be.
17) Do you get many hoaxes? Here and there, we’ll get people reporting false sightings, and there’s not much we can do about that. But in terms of people trying to fool us with a hoax, not really. They’d have to be pretty elaborate. We never release the details of our hunts beforehand, so we do things like that to limit the possibility of people planting themselves in an attempt to spook us with a false sighting or something.
18) Books on the JD are few and far between and there's been no recent updates except on websites. Have you considered writing a book ? Yes, as a matter of fact we have considered writing a book! Our research has taken us to some interesting places with some interesting experiences. For now, though, we find the website to be a better means of publishing Jersey Devil information, as it is a fluid living document that can be changed. Once we put something to print on paper, you have to release a new edition to update it. For example, we’ve had our sightings timeline running for 9 years now, and with the frequency that we update it, we’d be publishing a new book every few months. But, we might write a memoir of our experiences on the hunt… discuss some of the stuff we don’t talk about on the website.
19) I'm of the opinion that the Jersey Devil is in a cultural way related to the Chupacabras of Puerto Rico, as the cases bear striking resemblances. Both cases describe a winged, levitating creature that leaves exsanguinated carcasses in its wake, but could quite simply be more of a cultural phenomenon, meaning it's more of a manifestation. What are your opinions on this ? I’m not as convinced that the Jersey Devil and Chupacabra are closely related. The Jersey Devil isn’t known to leave bloodless victims strewn about, like the Chupacabra is. From what I have read, chupa descriptions tend to be more four-legged, and smaller. The Jersey Devil is known a bit more for its upright stance, and large size. Tough to say. There are definitely similarities, of course, but I think the two stand alone. There are other creatures that I would say are more closely related to the Jersey Devil than the chupa.
20) How long do you think the Jersey Devil legend will persist? I think it has the potential to be endless, as long as there are residents of New Jersey who are still interested in hearing and sharing the story. It’s already been 270+ years that we’ve shared this story, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.
21) Your group is becoming more active again, what are aims for the future? We definitely are. Over the years, we’ve had to let our lives take the forefront, and weren’t able to get out there as often as we had wanted. However, we’ve all renewed our interest, and we’re excited about coming back. We just conducted our first hunt in over 3 years yesterday, and it was such a thrill! We are looking forward to continuing our research, and just keep the group going until we can prove something, one way or another. There’s still a lot to be learned!
22) The JD has remained a mysterious monster for years, what is the viewpoint of the cryptozoologist on the legend and what you guys do ? Unfortunately, the Jersey Devil gets a bad reputation in the cryptozoology world. Many cryptozoologists see it as a ‘catch-all’ term for any mysterious creature in New Jersey. And I do agree, that some sightings are probably caused by a few different things. But I definitely think there is a specific creature that people witness, which we all refer to as the Jersey Devil. I have had the opportunity to speak with many other cryptozoologists, however, and most of them are very supportive about our team. They’re usually out there with their own teams doing the same thing, so we all like to share some ‘war stories’ on what we’ve done, as well as tips and such.
23) Do you get pestered often by people wanting to join your group? We do get a lot of interest in joining the group, and due to the nature of what we do, we have to be somewhat selective. Obviously you have to watch who you decide to go into the woods with late at night! But I wouldn’t say that it’s pestering, we’re all very flattered by the public interest. Usually we’ll offer associate membership if we can’t accommodate regular membership.
24) Can you tell me of any other strange creatures said to roam the Pine Barrens? There is a creature known as “Big Red Eye”, which is basically the New Jersey version of Bigfoot. There are also a lot of ghost stories of the area, as well as a supposed White Stag, known to be a warning sign of imminent doom. There’s also a pirate and a girl in white that are said to roam the coastlines on occasion.
25) Is it difficult doing investigations knowing other people could be flocking to the places you are tending ? We haven’t had too many problems with that, luckily. On occasion we have run into some hunters in the woods, but not people in search of the Jersey Devil. What upsets me is that we’ll find litter and such around some of these sites, which I consider to be completely disrespectful. It bothers us to see how horribly people can treat these areas.
26) If the JD is an unknown species of animal, what do you think it is? I don’t know, but I would lean towards something related to a deer, perhaps. I actually just read an article that states a link between today’s whales and the deer family, which I found pretty interesting, and also a good reassurance that anything is possible, so it’s not all that far fetched to think that we could be dealing with something similar in this case too.
27) In the UK, legends of dragons have existed for centuries do you believe that such creatures could have been similar to the JD ? I do think that there could be a link between dragon stories and the Jersey Devil. Many people have talked about dragon and dragon like creatures, and I think perhaps there might be a connection between the dragon stories and the tales of the Jersey Devil.
28) If the JD is a winged animal, why would it be confined to the Pine Barrens? I don’t think it is confined. I think it might be likely that it has found the Pine Barrens to be a safe harbor, so it probably stays around this area. But I’m sure it could wander off if it wanted to, and I am sure it has happened in the past.
29) Across Texas there have been numerous reports of leather-winged Pterodactyl critters. Have you considered the JD may be one of these prehistoric survivors ? There was actually a mini-competition between Texas and New Jersey back in the day, which some believe spawned the act of New Jersey naming the Jersey Devil as the state’s official demon. This is also around the time that the Jersey Devil took on the name “Jersey” Devil - prior to that, it was more commonly referred to as the “Leeds” Devil. I do think it’s possible that both states have these creatures roaming around, and that it’s possible that they originated from the same source.
30) Anything else you'd like to add ? Thanks for the opportunity to share some thoughts on the subject! (below left, still from August 15th 2000 'hunt' filmed for 'Scariest Places On Earth'.
Laura K. Leuter Devil Hunters President