Transcript: The Jersey Devil

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There is a reason why the Pine Barrens of New Jersey exist.  They shouldn’t, really. Surrounded by Philadelphia, New York, Atlantic City ... the Pine Barrens should have disappeared into the suburbs long ago.  It’s not that people didn’t try. There were many developments—towns of thousands were built, in fact. And today, the Pine Barrens are dotted with their abandoned remains.  Amatol and Hampton Forge, Atsion and Belcoville, dozens of others—you can trace the remains of their roads on aerial maps or push through the undergrowth on foot to find the mossy outlines of their foundations.  All of them thrived for a time then, faltered… then failed. There’s nothing out there now, except...

Except that there is something out there, in the pines.  In certain places you can feel it. At night, shine your flashlight through the trees all around you and watch the shadows jump out of their hiding places.  Sometimes the trees cast shadows wider and much darker than they should … shadows that flicker even when you hold your flashlight perfectly still. The night sounds are few but … louder, sharper, more distinct.  You start to think of the stories people tell about the “Jersey Devil”. And you start to get that feeling...  

In certain places, on certain nights in the Pine Barrens, you will start to get that feeling.  The feeling that explains why the Pine Barrens still exist, why they aren’t a bunch of subdivisions and strip malls.  In the daytime you can laugh off the Jersey Devil, but at night, by yourself … If you’re smart, you’ll trust that feeling.  The car or the campfire, the cabin or the cozy tent is just through those trees, just around the next turn of the trail. There are places in the Pine Barrens that are best left alone.  Places that don’t want you there. If you’re smart, you’ll keep moving.

If you’re smart. But there are different kinds of smart.  And if you’re the wrong kind … the stubborn kind … then that black feeling of the Pine Barrens may turn into something more. Call it the Jersey Devil, call it whatever you want—the fact remains that in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas on earth sits a million acres of pine thickets and ghost towns and emptiness because… 

Because there’s something out there.  In the pines.

This is the Camp Monsters podcast.


If you’re sitting around this campfire with us tonight—the last campfire of our first season sharing these stories—then chances are you’ve been with us before. Chances are you’ve travelled the country with us, hearing different explanations of that thing you caught a glimpse of through the trees as you paddled downriver, or the feeling you got that made you push your canoe back out into the current to find a different spot to come ashore.  Every part of the country has its own legends that grow up around experiences like that. And every episode has found us gathered around a campfire, trying to scare each other with stories of the things that you catch in the corner of your eye—that are gone when you look right at them.

At least, they’re usually gone.  We base some of these stories on the testimony of people who say that the creature was still there when they looked at it.  That it didn’t disappear, but instead stood there looking back at them. Stood there… then started coming closer. Still, it’s important to remember that these are just stories, just interesting mysteries to tell around the campfire.  It’s up to you what you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t.

Some come up close to our last campfire of the season.  Let’s hear tonight’s legend.

There’s something special about a campsite like this, that you can only get to by water. It’s different than car camping or backpacking. It takes you back to those times when all the rivers were highways, and every river-- even this one—had little camps and towns and settlements every few miles.  Canoe camping makes you feel part of a past that’s faded-- floats you through the ages when the rivers were so central to human life that the ghosts of those gone millenia still seem to linger just below the surface.

Or just beyond the shoreline, in this case.  As we were coming downriver today you must have seen some of the signs of it—that old millrace a few miles upstream, or those ruined walls right along the river.  The Pine Barrens haven’t ever been entirely barren. At different times and places there were iron works and glass factories, lumber mills and paper mills and ammunition plants in these woods.  But for one reason or another they failed and faded away.

I’m glad they did.  There’s something about the Pine Barrens… like they’re polished by the loneliness that’s flowed over them so long.  When morning breaks cold and clear over that quiet river you’ll see what I mean, you’ll see the stark beauty and mystery of this place.  Come morning you’ll be glad we’re out here.

It’s a long time til morning, though.  And I will admit, the Pine Barrens by night are a strange place.  It’s one thing for a wilderness to snare itself a legend or two—I guess any place that can call itself a wilderness has that.  But these woods are so thick with stories and legends and myths and creatures… it’s inexplicable. Inexplicable… until you’ve spent a night like this, out here in these woods.  Until you’ve tried walking a little ways away from the campfire, blinking and testing your eyes among the trees as the flickering firelight gets dimmer and dimmer. It’s funny how quick the light fades back in those pines.  Like the shadows suck it right up. You’ll come back with a stronger appreciation for how all those stories got started—and you’ll come back quick, too. If you don’t come back quick… well, you might come back with a story of your own.  If you come back at all.

Something like that happened recently, on one of the rivers that winds its way through these woods...  But before we tell that story we’d better start by telling the most famous story of these parts. The story of the Jersey Devil.

You’ve probably heard something about it before.  This was supposed to have happened centuries ago, long before America was a country.  Back then, the Pine Barrens were mostly deserted for the simple reason that the soil was so poor no one would try to farm it if they had any other options.  A family named Leeds were one of those dirt-poor few that didn’t have any. So they scratched out what they could from the Barrens’ stingy soil. Then on a dark and stormy night, the story goes, Mother Leeds cursed her unborn child to the devil.

To be fair to Mother Leeds, a little background is needed here.  She almost certainly had a first name, but is remembered simply as “Mother” Leeds because by the time the cursed child came along she already had twelve living children.  Faced with raising a thirteenth child in grinding poverty in the middle of an unforgiving wilderness, it seems that Mother Leeds should have been forgiven a little grumble.  And when the child was born at the stroke of midnight on the last day of October, it appeared that she would be. Ten fingers, ten toes, a good head of hair—as healthy and plump a baby as the attending midwives had ever birthed.  

But no sooner had they ceased examining the child by the fireplace and begun to carry it back to Mother Leeds to nurse, then the midwife holding the baby felt something strange begin to happen within the bundle of blankets.  The baby started kicking with more strength than a baby should possess, and with each kick seemed to grow longer, and leaner. The midwife turned back to the fire and reached to push the blanket back where it had covered the baby’s face—but before she could, something from within the bundle snapped onto her fingers with needle-like teeth that cut her to the bone.  

As she cried out and struggled to free her hand, the blankets fell back from the baby’s face, and all the women in attendance swore that the thing within the bundle was jet black and leathery, with eyes the color of blood and a lipless mouth filled with long grey daggers for teeth.  The stricken midwife screamed, dropped the blankets, and shook the creature off her maimed fingers. It fell directly into the fire, but instead of crying out or trying to escape the flames it stood up and began to walk around as if fire was its natural element, murmuring to itself and stretching its leathery, bat-like wings.  

Amidst the panic and confusion that filled the little room, someone decided to douse the flames with the water that had been brought in for the birth.  The water soaked the creature and quenched most of the fire, and the thing let out an ungodly cry—higher-pitched and louder than anything anyone had heard before—and began to scramble up the rough interior of the chimney.  That was the last anyone saw, as the final hissing flame guttered out and the room was thrown into darkness. But the men who were rushing over from the little shed that passed for a barn, where they were relegated during births, saw a great black form launch itself from the chimney top and fly screaming over the moonlit Barrens.

Or so the story goes.  Of course it can’t possibly be true, right?  Just another local myth, a colorful legend of the distant past.  But one with staying power. And true or not, the popularity of the gruesome story illustrates the wariness that local people had for the Pine Barrens—populating these woods not just with animals to be respected or avoided, but with a supernatural creature of unlimited malevolence, something to be feared and hated.  A good reason to avoid the deeper sections of the woods… especially by night. Even the most important traditional tool of protection against night creatures failed with the Jersey Devil, as it was said to be attracted to lonely campfires, craving the heat of the flames.

Couldn’t resist a glance over your shoulder, could you?  I guess our campfire is pretty lonely tonight, out here away from everything.  But don’t worry, I’m facing the woods. If I see any blood-red eyes creeping toward us… I’ll have a head start on the sprint to the canoes.  You know how kids say “Last one there is a rotten egg!”? Around here there’s an old phrase that’s used about the same way: “Let the Devil take the hindmost.”

Speak of the Devil—the Jersey Devil, that is.  Nowadays no serious person can believe in it. It’s too obviously an old smugglers’ tale, something to keep nosey kids from exploring the Pine Barrens and stumbling on the various shady activities that have always found a home among the pines.

Catherine didn’t believe it.  She had barely heard of the legend, had closed her ears to it.  She was the rational, studious, highly intelligent type—she dismissed all such stories out of hand.  And anyway, she knew the Pine Barrens backwards and forwards. For years she’d spent every free weekend in them, having always been borderline obsessed with birdwatching.  

Being a large stretch of wilderness in the midst of a heavily urbanized coast, the Pine Barrens host an incredible variety of birds.  Especially during the spring and fall migrations, the area is a peaceful piece of heaven to anyone who enjoys birdwatching. Catherine was a member of several birdwatching excursion groups, and most weekends would find her somewhere in the Barrens, on foot or on the water, enjoying the lives of the common birds and swapping stories of rare sightings with the other birders in her group.

The day of Halloween a couple of years ago was no exception.  Halloween fell on a Saturday that year—of course Catherine barely remembered that there was such a thing as Halloween, having outgrown silliness like that sometime in middle school.  For her it was just the last day of October, and a beautiful day for birding: crisp, clear, with the woods and water filled with birds of every description.

Her group had decided on a canoe trip, a leisurely two-day drift down one of the many waterways that run through the Barrens.  The first day had been fantastic—Catherine wasn’t sure whether her arms were more sore from paddling or from holding binoculars to her face to get a better look at the birds that teemed everywhere in the crisp autumn woods.

The day had been so good, in fact, that Catherine couldn’t help but try to prolong it.  After the tents had been set up and dinner eaten, while the others were sitting around the fire telling stories of birds seen and almost seen, Catherine slipped off with her binoculars to the edge of a marshy field that she’d found behind the screen of pines that backed the campsite.  The sun was just setting behind her, and the colors of the marsh in front grew more and more muted as she gazed across it, occasionally raising her binoculars to focus more closely on some movement among the reeds.

She had been there sometime and had seen almost no birds at all—she seemed to have found the least-promising spot of the day, and smiled at herself for getting greedy. She was about to turn back to camp when a ripple of movement far across the marshy field caught her eye.  She raised her binoculars and fiddled with the focus—and what snapped into sudden clarity through the lenses almost made her drop them. She only saw it for an instant, just an indistinct flash as it hopped and flew into the trees opposite... but a full minute later she had to force herself to take a breath, and realized that her hands were shaking as she pressed the binoculars so hard into her eyes they ached, searching for a second glimpse to confirm what she thought she’d seen.

That flash of black wing, those red, red-ringed eyes… could it be…?  She was certain she’d seen… she was almost certain… if only she could spot it again amongst the trees over there…

A Southern Lapwing.  She could almost swear that she’d glimpsed a Southern Lapwing.  Black flight feathers, red eyes… but native to South America, rarely even seen in the Caribbean much less this far north.  She knew that there had been confirmed sightings of one in Maryland back in 2006—what a coup it would be to strut back to the campfire confident that she had actually seen a Southern Lapwing.  If only… if only she could spot it again.

She forced her eyes away from the binoculars and glanced at the evening around her.  Still plenty of light… well, enough light anyway. The field ahead of her was marshy, but her eyes could trace a path along the drier spots that would get her safely to the woods on the other side.  She took a deep breath, admitted that she’d probably been imagining things, but set off across the field just the same. The chance, however slim, was too good to pass up. If there was a Southern Lapwing in those woods, she was going to see it.

Fate did not hold a Southern Lapwing in store for Catherine that evening.  As she pulled her boot one more time from the deceptively deep mud of the marsh and entered the pine forest on the other side, all she’d seen were a few common, run-of-the-mill Black-Bellied Plovers.  She must have dreamed the whole thing, she decided in disgust. She looked back across the marshy field and sighed. Camp was back that way, on the wrong side of a hundred yards of persistent mud. She’d have just enough time to squelch her way back.  Unless…

She knew that a loop of the river was in front of her, downstream from where they had made camp.  Looking through the scraggly pine trees around her, she detected a narrow trail that ran from left to right through them.  The path showed faint wheel ruts off to her right—an old road. It almost certainly followed the river, and it looked much drier than the field had been.  She would follow it for aways and see if she could loop her way around the marshy clearing and back to camp. She could always back track if she had to.

The road stayed true to the course Catherine expected, following the inside loop of the river.  It was the river that let her down, for the loop took much longer to walk than it did to float around.  Still, by the time the very last of the evening’s light threatened to fail, she knew she must be close to the camp.  She yelled a few times and waited for a response—but the only reply were the quiet sounds of night in the Barrens. That was unsettling.  She had a very good sense of direction, she was certain that her route should have led her almost back to camp, yet she yelled again and got nothing to reward her but more quiet.

She looked around her and saw that if she had to spend a night lost in the woods, this was a good place to do it.  The ground was littered with small sticks and branches with which she could easily start a fire, and there were the remains of an old stone wall or building that she could camp beside for a little protection from the wind.  If she moved quickly she could have a fire gathered and going before she lost the light.

Still, she felt a strong desire to press on.  An irrational desire, she decided. There was something about the place that spooked her—the ruined old building, or the way the trees seemed to lean in all around it.  She was scared. And the realization that she was scared made her ashamed, so she immediately decided to make camp right where she was.

She hurriedly gathered sticks, then found a shallow depression in the ground near the ruined wall that might have been an old fire pit—or would make a perfect one.  She had some tinder and a lighter in her fanny pack, and it wasn’t long before she had a good fire going. She ate a few granola bars from the pocket of her jacket, drank from her canteen and allowed herself a well-earned doze leaning back against the rough old wall.  Sitting up like that she could rest her eyes, but if she fell too deep asleep she would start to topple over and awaken, then feed a few more sticks into the fire and lean back against the wall again.

This process repeated itself deep into the small hours of the night, when suddenly she found herself awakened by something else.  What it was she couldn’t at first be sure, but then she remembered having heard a voice. Nearby, it had sounded, though she didn’t know what it had said.  She spoke a “hello” into the night … and got nothing but night in reply. She shouted “hello!” Nothing happened. The voice must have just been the tail end of a dream, she decided, like when you fall from a height and then gasp awake in your own bed.

But she couldn’t go back to sleep after that.  She fed more sticks onto the fire, then more... than a few more.  Every time the flames leapt the shadows in the trees leapt too, and every time the shadows leapt her heart followed.  Her eyes began to trick her into glimpsing something dark and unnatural moving through the pines. She started wrestling with herself, with the Fear that kept pushing its way into her heart as she stared across the fire and tried not to look with dread at every shifting shadow.  

Fear.  The feeling that she shouldn’t be there.  The desire to get up and run through the black night to the river or down the dark tunnel of the old road.  Basic, primal, ugly, unreasoning fear. There was no justification, nothing real to be afraid of, and she was angry at herself for feeling it.  She wasn’t going to fall victim to it, though. There wasn’t anything in those woods—anyway, no living thing moved like the things she thought she saw, moved like a shadow of fire.  She was going to master her fear. There was nothing out there—nothing moving closer-- there was nothing there at all. When the fire started to burn down and the circle of light dimmed, she clenched her teeth and defied the temptation to feed it again.  A little fire was all she needed—a little fire was all she’d have. She was congratulating herself on her self-discipline when the Jersey Devil stepped clear of the shadows and into the light on the other side of the fire.

It wasn’t like it is in the drawings, not like other people had imagined it.  Her mind locked up in shock and terror so that later it was the little details she remembered better than the whole: a long, sloping, leathery head; round, blood-red eyes without pupils, not shiny but rough and grainy looking, with bloody bags beneath each one; too-thin legs ending in dirty hooves.

It walked toward her, this impossibility, this thing that she knew couldn’t exist.  It came straight toward her until it was standing in the very middle of the fire, making small sounds to itself like the murmur of a wicked language.  As it came closer Catherine couldn’t blink, couldn’t un-clench her jaw, couldn’t move at all except to press herself so hard against the wall behind her that she began to shake and to rise unconsciously into a crouch.  She knew she couldn’t be seeing what she saw. She felt like she was losing her mind.

Then the blood-red eyes widened, and the thing took another step, beyond the edge of the fire closest to her, just feet away from her face.  And the sharp grey teeth began to pull apart, and the hideous mouth began to widen. And then the creature convulsed like it was retching, and when it did a sound came out, quiet and distinct but without apparent meaning, like the muttered mimicry of a parrot: “Curse ye!”

And then she bolted, past the thing in the fire, running into the darkness toward the river with no idea what she’d do if she got there and no expectation that she would.  And she didn’t. She hadn’t covered more than ten or fifteen yards when her foot dropped into another depression in the ground like the one she’d built the fire in—dropped and caught on a stone or a root, and the rush of her running body strained against the two bones in her twisted lower leg until that awful sound filled the night, that wet explosive “pop!” that you never forget if you’ve heard it.  She toppled over and rolled groaning onto her back, struggled up on her elbows with a red and black tunnel of pain narrowing her field of vision and threatening to overwhelm her.  

There was the Jersey Devil, standing calmly in the middle of the fire, looking at her with blank blood eyes.  All she could hear was her own breathing: ragged, panicked, hurt. There was the Devil, stalking slowly out of the fire in her direction.  There it came, closer and closer, slowly, slowly. It tucked its leathery wings more tightly over its back. Catherine fought to hold onto her narrowing consciousness, fought against the instinct to let go, to drop away from this world so suddenly filled with pain and terror.  Just as the Devil reached her, a dark silhouette blocking out the flickering light from the fire behind, she slipped away, and sank back onto the cold ground. With her eyes open only to blackness, her ears stayed awake just long enough to hear the terrible, high-pitched scream of the Jersey Devil before she faded away entirely.

But it isn’t really fair to the Pine Barrens, the way people fixate on the Jersey Devil.  These woods have so many legends associated with them, and most of them are benign or even helpful.  There’s the White Stag, that appears to warn travelers of danger, and the Black Dog that helps the lost find their way.  The Golden-Haired Girl is one of those countless sad but harmless ghosts still waiting for a lover lost at sea. And the spirit of the pirate Captain Kidd walks the night shores of the area, doing no worse than teasing the living with the prospect of buried treasure.

And then there’s the Black Doctor of the Pines, the ghost of a man named James Still.  In the 1830s he was barred from studying medicine because of his race, but having taught himself to read he studied every medical book he could find while apprenticing with practicing doctors and herbalist healers alike.  He served the poor of every race in the Pine Barrens, accepting gifts when people could afford it and quietly returning payment when he saw that they could not. His ghost is one of those rare ones created by popular demand—he was so beloved by the people of the Barrens that when he died they willed his spirit on a never-ending round, and he appears even today to the sick and hurt and hopeless of the Pine Barrens, though they rarely recognize him as a ghost.

Catherine had never heard of James Still, the Black Doctor of the Pines.  But that night she had a vivid, fractured dream of someone frightening the Jersey Devil away from her injured body.  She dreamt a face that she could barely see in the night, with a quiet voice and gentle hands that calmed and helped her, stayed with her until the light of dawn was in the sky and the calling voices of her friends approached.  The doctor who examined Catherine in the hospital said that she’d never seen anyone so expertly set and splint their own fracture—but Catherine had never learned to set a bone, and had no memory of doing so. She read about James Still while she recovered—his remarkable life and his rumored afterlife.  And she appreciated for the first time that there are more things out there—in the pines and everywhere—than we can explain. And that not every unexplainable thing is evil… though some of them certainly are.

Like the spot where Catherine was found.  There was something about it— none of her rescuers wanted to linger there, even in the daytime.  They came in a group and left the same way, with the last person to leave stumbling half into the water in their hurry to be in the canoe and away.  The place was nothing remarkable, just the last broken remains of an old stone farmhouse, with the tell-tale depressions in the ground beside it marking a little family burying-plot.  What gravestones there had been were all toppled and shattered with age, totally illegible except for a single piece that had been pressed face-down into the ground for centuries before the boot of one of Catherine’s rescuers kicked it out.  The piece had a single word carved deep in the soft old stone—a name in fact. Yeah. The name was “Leeds”.

Brrr.  It’s getting cold out here, isn’t it?  I guess we’re coming to the end of camping season.  This will be the last campfire for awhile, until next year at least.  So let’s just sit here and watch the last of the coals glow down. I’m tired, and it’s late, and anyway a roaring fire at this hour might attract more company.  The kind we don’t want. Let’s roast some marshmallows instead.

Camp Monsters podcast is a part of the REI podcast network.  It is written and performed by yours truly, Weston Davis, and recorded and edited by Nick Patri in the very cozy and campfire-like confines of Cloud Studios in Seattle, Washington.  

This is the last episode of this season of Camp Monsters, but if you haven’t heard all of our episodes, please stream or download them from you preferred podcast source.  If you have heard all of the episodes, well, go back and listen again. There’s more than one scare to be had from them all, I think.

And if you haven’t already, please subscribe, rate, and spread the word about our Camp Monsters podcast.  It is your support that keeps us recording. Thank you. And goodnight.

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