Monday, January 21, 2019

The Jersey Devil Hoax of 1909


On January 21, 1909 the Trenton Times used those words to describe the alleged creature that was bringing a scare to the residents of New Jersey, Philadelphia & Delaware. I've gathered various newspaper articles that appeared locally during the week of January 18th - 24th, 1909. Click on any to enlarge

The beginnings of the great Jersey Devil hoax of 1909 was three days earlier on Tuesday January 18th when articles appeared in several local newspapers reporting strange and unexplained tracks in the snow. By Thursday, all hell had broken loose. There were scores of reports of a flying creature terrorizing neighborhoods throughout the tri-state area. Mass hysteria had taken hold. 

Witnesses said it was 6 feet tall with a tail, horns, skin like a alligator, and cloven hoofs. Its body was bird-like, but its face was like a  horse. It had four feet but stood and walked on its hind legs. So said it breathed fire. It was reported to have killed chickens, and attacked and killed pet dogs. It would rampage around people’s homes, upset their garbage cans and make attempts to get inside, all the while screeching and howling. Dozens of sets of track and footprints were discovered that many an “expert” could not identify.

It was called a “jabberwock” “air-hoss” , “wozzle bug” , the “jersey terror” , “flying devil” and an”Australian waif”. Many old timers recalled the legend of the “Leeds Devil” that described a similar beast. Soon many newspapers nationwide picked up the story and became calling it Jersey’s Devil, and that is that name that eventually became common.

Tales and stories about a creature living in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey had been circulating for at least 100 years. It first appeared in print about 1860 and was repeated every few years in mostly out-of-state newspapers. The Pineys were usually portrayed as uneducated, backwards, superstitious people who were prone to exaggeration and reporters suggested that their devil sighting were like the result of drinking too much locally distilled “Jersey Lighting”. Most South Jerseyians dismissed the myth.

So why the big scare in 1909?
  Was there really something out there?

There had been a three inch snowfall a couple days before and then a thaw. The melting snow caused any small tracks to look larger and strange and become unidentifiable. What happened next was totally man made with a financial motive.
A Philadelphia publicity agent, by the name of Norman Jefferies, saw an opportunity to capitalize.
He was well known and friendly with many newspaper reporters. He was familiar with the legend of the Leeds Devil and decided to plant a few stories with his buddies in the press. Some of the newspapermen were only too happy to go along. Some had reputations to exaggerate and sensationalize in order to increase readership and in an effort to win their sometime bitter competition with rival newspapers.

They were alleged to have helped the story along by going out faking and obtaining photographs of footprints. Many of their so-called witnesses were fictions. Others who had seen or heard some wild animal now thought it was this devil animal and didn’t mind getting their name in the paper. There were a few jokesters who made up sighting to scare their gullible friends and neighbors.

This went on for a few days. Some of the papers devoted lots of space to the story while others almost ignored it. Still the
 result was almost mass hysteria and panic. Dozens of arms hunting parties were organized to track down the beast. Meetings and church services were cancelled. School attendance was down 50%. A few manufacturing plants had to cancel night shifts when woman employees weren’t showing up of work. People weren’t venturing out of their houses, especially at night


The newspapers began getting backlash and by the end of the week all the stories had disappeared from their publication. A few papers even printed stories that it had been killed. But it was too late. Dozens of national newspapers had already picked up the story and Jersey’s Devil was added to list that included Big Foot, the Abdominal Snowman and the Chupacaba.


Norman Jefferies had a better idea. He decided to stage the devils capture, cage it and put it on display at the 9th & Arch Museum, a kind of indoor circus and freak show in Philadelphia. He was able to acquire a tame kangaroo and fitted it with copper wings, feathers and added green whiskers and a belt of rabbit fur around its middle. He staged the capture in Hunting Park, taking the animal there in a moving van and chaining it to a tree and surrounding it with a group dressed as farmers. The next day it was reported that the devil had been captured on a New Jersey farm and that it would be on display at the Arch Street museum.

The following Monday, large crowds paid 10 cents each to view the animal. It had been put in a cage that was boarded up on all sides with a draw curtain in the front. In 1918, Jefferies confessed to his role in the great Jersey Devil hoax of 1909 and it was printed in several newspapers:

“The curtain was drawn, a boy poked it with his stick, the devil uttered a yell and leaped at the bars, but was brought up with a jerk by its clanking chains. The crowd swayed back against the wall and the curtain was quickly drawn to again. This attraction was good for two weeks of crowded houses”


The Jersey Devil - 
The thirteenth child Mrs. Leeds, who at birth was cursed by his mother and flew up the chimney to forever roam the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

Here are a few more articles from the 3rd week of January 1909 - click to enlarge

A Wilmington Paper was not having any of it and thought it was all foolish and the result to too much liquor


  1. Interesting seeing all the old articles. I just did a research paper for my Super Natural History class at Penn State last semester on the Jersey Devil that included the 1909 hoax. The origin story is just as interesting and has ties to Ben Franklin.. Funny though, as a kid, I never knew of 1909 hoax or the Ben Franklin connection.

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