This weekend, as Shore-bound travelers zip
through the Pine Barrens, more than few will peer into the vast repository of gargoyle-y evergreens and wonder:
Is there, or was there ever, a Jersey Devil
lurking in those wierdo woods?
One hundred years ago, thousands of people
"WHAT-IS-IT VISITS ALL SOUTH JERSEY" declared
the front page of The Inquirer on Jan. 21, 1909 - above a photograph of "actual proof-prints of the strange creature."
"Hooflike tracks" could be seen in the snow
"in practically every block in Burlington city" - including rooftops - throwing "this section into a state bordering on panic."
Even dogs were scared.
"Hounds put on the trail refused to follow
the tracks, and, with bristling hair and the picture of terror, ran home," the article stated.
Armed with shotguns, a party of young farmers
near Jacksonville in Springfield Township followed the tracks for almost four miles - when they "mysteriously disappeared."
The tracks, not the farmers.
A Gloucester man said the creature had wings
two-and-a-half-feet long, four legs, a neck like a crane, a head like a collie and a horse's face.
Two Maple Shade men agreed with the doglike
head, but said it had long black hair and feet and hands like a monkey.
Some folks called the creature "the Flying
Not that any people died. Though some chickens
and pets reportedly did.
Then, on Jan. 22, men with nets bagged the
"docile" creature not in South Jersey, but in "the wilds of Fairmount Park," according to a Jan. 23 Inquirer story.
A reporter coined the term "kangowing" for
the creature, saying it seemed to be a cross between a kangaroo and an Australian water bird.
Soon, for 10 cents each admission, the public
could see the caged "Leeds Devil . . . more fearsome than the fabled monsters of mythology!" at a museum at Ninth and Arch
The "fearsome" beast, though, looked like
a happy dragon in a cartoony illustration on a handbill.
"Leeds Devil" was a reference to the legend
that the monster was the 13th child born to Deborah Leeds in the early 1700s. Legends differ as to how humanlike the offspring
was, and whether it fled into the Atlantic County woods when she died.
The "capture" was later declared a hoax
- a kangaroo with fake wings, according to the Philadelphia Record.
But the sightings were so numerous, especially
of mysterious hoofprints, that people still wonder if real creatures were afoot in late January and early Februrary of 1909.
Perhaps a flock of wild fowl was forced
down by a weekend snowstorm, and their tracks were altered by subsquent rain, the Jan. 21 Inquirer article theorized.
An artist's rendering published in the Philadelphia
Bulletin showed a winged critter with jutting jaws.
Some have since seen a resemblance to a
hammer-headed bat. Experts have discounted that idea, since these large fruit-eating bats live in Africa, and would have trouble
surviving a South Jersey winter.
Maybe the Mr. Hope behind the hoax used
bats fitted with funny shoes.
No one knows.
Animal authorities at the time said they
could think of no winged species that matched the bizarre descriptions.
Great horned owls, which could attack other
animals, and sandhill cranes, which have large wingspans and can make loud noises, also have been suggested over the years
as possible explanations.
Since 1909, sightings have been sporadic.
Did "What-Is-It" disappear?
Perhaps, but the legend refuses to die.
As recently as two summers ago, a weird
winged creature was spotted in Central Jersey, according to some accounts.
So as you're driving by, keep looking.
And have that cellphone camera ready.
Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or email@example.com.