Thunderbird Totem
Thunderbird Totem

The idea of winged monsters has historically created an almost primal fear in many cultures.  Several native American tribes have legends of what we tend to collectively call Thunderbirds; large winged monsters that sometimes had supernatural qualities.

In Arabic legend, the Roc is a giant bird that could carry off humans.  All over the world legends of dragon like monsters flood the subconscious mind of societies and hint at something evil lost to the mists of time.  Theories abound as to what causes these legends to be so prevalent around the world.  One thing we do know is that these monsters COULD exist.  Unlike some cryptids, we can see almost exactly what a Thunderbird would have looked like by going to a Museum of Natural History.  Just check out the Pterosaurs like the amazing Quetzalcaotlus

Quetzalcoatlus - image source dinosaurfact.com
Quetzalcoatlus – image source dinosaurfact.com

with a wingspan of up to 40 feet.  Seeing that in the sky would have most likely have caused a sense of terror and awe that would have become a tale told around many a campfire.  Of course we all assume that unless something is hiding deep in some long forgotten cavern or deep wilderness, Pterosaurs have not roamed the Earth for millions of years.

That kind of blanket assumption might be one of many that brings cryptozoology out of the realm of natural science and into the world of fringe science.

As a cryptozoologist, I am not quite offended by the way our studies are generally viewed as the obsessions of someone half mad who hears monsters in every breaking twig.  As a whole, we deserve it.  A lot of our brethren have thrown the scientific method out the window and post fake images and pictures of fallen logs as proof of whatever their pet monster happens to be.

Quetzalcoatlus - image source broadinstitute.org
Coelacanth – image source broadinstitute.org

Now for the sake of argument, let’s keep an open mind for a bit.  What if some of the things that once existed still did?  That idea is not as far fetched as you might think.  Until 1938 a type of fish known as Coelacanth had been thought to be extinct since the time of the dinosaurs.  We now know about 1000 still exist.  It went from extinct to endangered almost over night.  My point to that is that the world is a vast place.  To this day we keep finding new species of animals every year.  It is POSSIBLE that several hundred years ago things thought of as prehistoric still roamed the Earth.  That would explain many of the legends of winged monsters throughout the world.  The problems come when we give them supernatural qualities.  That being said, let us take a look at a legendary monster that involves cryptozoology, an occult legend, con men, witchcraft, and Benjamin Franklin.  Yeah, hang on, this is out there…

Jersey Devil
Jersey Devil

The stories abound in the New Jersey pine barrens of the Jersey Devil, a winged monster said to inhabit the dark hidden places of the famous Pine Barrens up in the garden state.  Descriptions vary from winged kangaroo like creature to something looking more like an actual Devil.  The best known tales of the the monster goes back at least as far as the 1730’s.  One story tells of a Mrs. Deborah Leeds from Leeds Point, N. J. who wile giving birth to her 13th child, invoked the devil during the pain of childbirth.  The story says the child was born a winged beast with hooves and a tail.  As soon as the beast was born, it flew outside and started terrorizing the pine barrens.  (Myself; kind of doubts that one.)

The Leeds House - image source channel.nationalgeographic.org
The Leeds House – image source channel.nationalgeographic.org

The variations on the Mother Leeds curse story are many.  Some say as soon as she found out she was pregnant she said something like “may the devil take this one” and it caused it.  Some stories say that she was a Quaker and that a clergyman trying to get her to convert to a more mainstream religion said “unless you convert, the next child will be a devil.’  Chances are that if there was a child involved , it was probably a sad case of a birth defect treated as the ‘work of the devil’ by the superstitious folk of the time.  Several accounts suggest that the story came into widespread circulation around 1735… just 5 years before in 1730 the “Pennsylvania Gazette” had published a satire piece supposedly written by Ben Franklin that told a story of a witchcraft trial in Mt. Holly that was taken as a factual article by the majority of readers.  It was NOT an age on enlightened reason.

Now with it being said that the supernatural aspects of the Jersey Devil are hard to swallow, it is quite hard to dismiss this story as superstition alone.  Too many documented sightings have occurred over the years for this to be simply written off as a fable born from unsophisticated ideas of childhood birth defects.  Some of the more famous examples:

Commodore Stephen Decatur
Commodore Stephen Decatur

Commodore Stephen Decatur – 1800: While visiting the Hanover iron works, the good Commodore was test firing some of the cannonballs made at the plant.  Legend says the Devil flew by and he actually shot it with a cannon.

Joseph Bonaparte - image source napoleon-empire.net
Joseph Bonaparte – image source napoleon-empire.net

Joseph Bonaparte – around 1830: The beast was reported by Napoleon’s brother and the former King of Spain, who settled in Bordentown, New Jersey after his forced abdication of the Throne following his defeat to England in the Peninsular Wars.  One day while out hunting, he discovered some unusual tracks.  Following the tracks he claimed to spot the Jersey Devil and heard it give out a horrible roar.

James Sackville – 1909: A police officer saw the beast and fired at it while on patrol.  Around the same time, 1000’s of people reported seeing the beast all over New Jersey and even over in parts of Pennsylvania.

There was another rise in sightings in the 1930’s and many modern sightings are reported on an almost monthly basis.

If you are in the area, try to find the Blue Hole.  If you get there on a weekend, ask the drunken teenage locals what they have seen.. good for a laugh at least… a scare at best.

While the Jersey Devil is the most famous winged monster in the area, it is not the only one.  A few hours drive from the Pine Barrens will take you to the little town of Burkettsville, Maryland.  Yep, the one of Blair Witch fame. The town is a very quiet, sleepy place with only one store in its main drag.  The store is a relic from another time, selling powder horns and Civil War souvenirs.  The place seems so old it seems strange to see cars on the cobblestone streets and as you probably noticed in the movie the most prominent landmark in the town is the cemetery on the hill.  Asking the locals anything about the Blair Witch Project will not meet with good results. The movie was complete fiction and the town was overrun by people who did not understand that right after it came out, 100’s of fans descended on the town to help find the lost filmmakers who never existed.

Snallygaster
Snallygaster

However, if you ask the right person about a legend of a critter known as a Snallygaster, you will hear all kinds of tales of it swooping down and stealing away children.  Locals remember seeing a large winged monster flying overhead when they were young, and tales are told of a long ago expedition that recovered an egg from the monster nest… (its description?)

Newspaper accounts throughout February and March 1909 describe encounters between local residents and a beast with “enormous wings, a long pointed bill. claws like steel hooks, and an eye in the center of its forehead.”  It was described as making screeches “like a locomotive whistle.”

Pretty much a one eyed Jersey Devil… but this guy was taken very seriously in his time.  Teddy Roosevelt himself planned a hunt for the Snallygaster.  The Smithsonian sent some folks down and newspapers all around the country reported on the goings on in Frederick County, Maryland.

I, myself, lead a short expedition into the area a few years back.  We did not find any evidence of a monster, but we did find some unusual stone structures, oddly stacked piles of wood, and an interesting gravity hill in the area.  My thoughts?  Perhaps the Devil winters in the hills of Maryland… and spends summer over in Jersey…

– Doug Ward

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