The Quakers, Benjamin Franklin, and the Jersey Devil
"Mephistopheles in the Sky" by Eugène Delacroix, 1828, a possible inspiration for the Jersey Devil
For centuries, stories of a devilish winged horse have circulated across southern New Jersey, the beast supposedly stalking the vast Pine Barrens. The Jersey Devil is an unusually persistent bit of folklore, not because the creature is real but because of the complex chain of influence that gave rise to the monster’s story. The Jersey Devil is more than the usual tall tale; it is the story of political and religious schisms of the United States’ colonial period, much of the drama centering around a Quaker writer named Daniel Leeds. It was Leeds’ conflict with the wider Quaker community that set off a chain of events that spawned the Jersey Devil.
Leeds was a community member in Burlington, a Quaker enclave; he was devout in his faith but was also given to more esoteric pursuits. An astrological almanac Leeds wrote in 1687 and a sprawling theological and scientific book called The Temple of Wisdom angered the church leaders and much of his work was destroyed. Leeds turned to writing anti-Quaker diatribes and was soon accused of being a harbinger of the devil. After his death, his son Titan took over publishing his almanac, feuding with Benjamin Franklin who would jokily depict the younger Leeds as a pawn of Satan. Slowly, the Leeds name came to be associated with demonic evil.
A zodiac man. Daniel Leeds depicted a similar figure in his almanac, angering the Quaker community who linked him with the devil
This association with the devil intermingled with preexisting folklore in the area. The indigenous Lenape people had many stories of forest spirits inhabiting the Pine Barrens. The so-called “monstrous births” of women like Puritan reformer Anne Hutchinson served as proof of her angering God. When the witch hunt hysteria took hold, a story circulated of “Mother Leeds” who gave birth to a hooved, winged creature. Leeds’ name comes from Leed Points, which was named for Daniel Leeds’ family, further linking his family and what was then called the Leeds Devil.
The appearance of the Leeds Devil was partially influenced by the demon Mephistopheles, often invoked in depicting an enemy as a monster, a means of character assassination used against the Leeds. Long after both men were dead, interest in the Leeds Devil was elevated by con men who attached wings to a kangaroo and claimed it was the creature, while a spate of sightings in 1909 cemented the creature’s place in modern cryptid lore. Sightings continue to this day, but the creature is not flesh and blood. The Jersey Devil is an amalgamation of America’s colonial history, a strange product of religious feuds and political spats at the dawn of the country.
Regal B, Esposito FJ. The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster. Johns Hopkins paperback edition. Johns Hopkins University Press; 2019.