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home >> Events and Announcements >> Botkin Lecture Series >> Botkin Lecture Series Archives >> 2005 Botkin Lectures >> Botkin Flyers: Winick Lecture

Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series: Texts from the Event Flyers

Tales of the Jersey Devil

by Stephen Winick, American Folklife Center

Image: Jersey Devil (sculpture)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005 at Noon
West Dining Room
6th Floor, James Madison Building
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave., SE
Washington, DC
Thea Austen contact (202-707-1743)
Closest metro station is Capitol South on the Orange/Blue lines.

In October, 1790, a woodsman named Vance Larner saw a horrible apparition in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Describing it in his diary, he wrote:

It was neither beast nor man nor spirit, but a hellish brew of all three. It was beside a pond when I came upon it. I stopped and did not move. Nay, I could not move. It was dashing its tail to and fro in the pond and rubbing its horns against a tree trunk. It was as large as a moose with leather wings. It had cloven hooves as big around as an oak’s trunk. After it was through with the tree, it yielded an awful scream as if it were a pained man, and then flew across the pond until I could see it no more.

Two hundred and fifteen years later, this is recognized as the first sighting of what has come to be known as The Jersey Devil. It is far from the last. In November 2004, a young man in the region reported:

We saw this huge shadow go over us and then we saw it land in front of our path. Now it was only a few feet away from us. The creature looked like it was going to start walking towards us when out of the corner of my eye I saw something else move. I turned in fear thinking it was another one but it was deer running past. The creature also turned to look at them. I then felt my brother tug on my arm and yelled run. We ran. The creature was about six feet tall, with a wingspan of about 8 feet. It was a grayish brownish color with hooved feet and had horns like a ram. The head looked horse or dog like and it had arms like a gorilla.

Stories about the Jersey Devil, also known as the Leeds Devil, are a typical feature of south Jersey folklore. The meaning of these stories differs according to different hearers. To some, the Jersey Devil is an unknown beast, a cryptozoological specimen living in a remote area. To others, he is a supernatural monster, the product of a curse by a mother on an unwanted baby, or of a priest on a wicked family. Some think he is a pure hoax, and others think he is the product of overwrought imaginations. To still others, he is a campfire tale, a spooky feature of camping trips to the New Jersey Pines.

Tales of the Jersey Devil was a traveling exhibit curated and toured by Stephen D. Winick as the regional folklorist for the Delaware Valley area of southern New Jersey. Winick will present a lecture and slide show covering many facets of this remarkable regional legend. We’ll discuss the unexplained sightings that have occurred for more than two hundred years, as well as the well-known hoaxes. We’ll examine the “Phenomenal Week” of January 1909, when hundreds of people claimed to have seen the beast, and the 1929 coda—when a huckster claimed it was all a hoax. We’ll look at the story of the Jersey Devil’s birth, and find its roots in medieval European morality tales. We’ll see how stories originally independent of the monster have come to be associated with this famous legend.

We’ll also take a look at the Jersey Devil in South Jersey’s popular culture. Jersey Devil imagery is everywhere in the region, from a fighter group in the US Air Force to a bar and grill in Smithville, and from a tattoo parlor in Blackwood to the State’s NHL hockey team. T-shirts, paperweights, Boy Scout patches, posters, prints, comics, postcards, books, and even Hollywood movies have been made to celebrate this regional tale.
A significant feature of this talk will be brand-new oral versions of Jersey Devil stories, many never before published. As the former curator of the Camden Folklore Archives in New Jersey, and as a current employee of the Library of Congress, Winick has had access to unpublished oral accounts of the Jersey Devil taken down by both student researchers and professional folklorists.

Stephen D. Winick received his PhD. in Folklore in 1998 from the University of Pennsylvania. He founded and for five years directed the Delaware Valley Folklife Center in Camden, NJ. Currently he works as the writer and editor in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

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