Legend of the Jersey Devil still haunts Pine Barrens

Longtime New Jerseyans will no doubt be familiar with the impish creature fabled to periodically terrorize the Garden State. New Jersey-based storyteller Russell Juelg has the tale of the Jersey Devil.

Long before the European settlers invaded the rugged land we call the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the native people of the surrounding area, the Leni Lenape, were aware of a spirit being that inhabited the region. They called it “Mising” and understood it to be the mysterious and sometimes frightening force that gave the wild plants and animals their vitality.

The Leni Lenape never made villages in the Pine Barrens, but they had a ceremony to honor Mising. On a dark night, around a blazing fire, the people would dance and chant, while the drums echoed through the forest. A costumed character representing Mising would appear and dance among the people. The costume consisted of a dark furry cloak, a mask with horns and large eyes, wings, and a long tail.

When the Europeans arrived, they considered all this to be silly Indian superstition.

Soon, the native people all but died out, and these new settlers, little by little, ventured deeper and deeper into the Pine Barrens, establishing villages throughout. They quickly harvested the trees and wild game and iron ore, leaving scars on the land.

Then, they started seeing a bizarre creature. They said it stood upright and had a dark furry body about the size of a large dog. Its head resembled that of a horse. It had horns and large piercing eyes that glowed in the dark. It flew on bat-like wings, or ran quickly on its hind feet. It announced its presence with a snarling shriek that left onlookers paralyzed.

As time passed, more and more people saw this creature. They began to call him “The Jersey Devil,” and they hated him. They blamed him for stealing their chickens and piglets. They blamed him when their dogs and cats went missing. They blamed him when their wheat and barley didn’t grow, and when their milk soured. And they blamed him for the ferocious wildfires that raced across the landscape. They sternly warned their children to come inside at nightfall.

During the 1800s, there was relative peace, and few reports of the Jersey Devil surfaced. But in January of 1909, the horrific scream of the Jersey Devil was heard once again in the towns and villages of the Pine Barrens. He made hundreds of appearances. He cavorted on snow-covered rooftops in the middle of the night, flew alongside the trolley cars terrifying the travelers, or confronted citizens on city sidewalks.

People threw rocks and sticks at him. Policemen fired their pistols at him. Grim-faced townsmen formed posses to track him down and kill him. It was all to no avail. Then, after six days of rampaging, he abruptly disappeared, and, from then on, returned to his previous habits, appearing occasionally and unpredictably.

From that day, right up to the present time, residents and visitors to the Pine Barrens continue to report sightings. We are liable to meet him on a woodland trail, in a campsite, or on a narrow sandy road as we drive along at night. And whether we call him the Jersey Devil or Mising, one thing we can be sure of: he was here before we were.

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