The Jersey Devil

The informant is middle-aged family friend who grew up in New Jersey. I asked him about local legends, and he told me about the legend of the Jersey Devil, which he heard as a child.

Note: The initials DW denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.


DW: So, I grew up in South Jersey, outside of Philadelphia, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River.

A: Okay.

DW: And, so, one of the local folklore…folk tales [sic] was about the Jersey Devil. You have to know also that the geography of South Jersey, you know, it’s very urban towards the Delaware River and Philadelphia, but then there’s this huge area that goes to the ocean from the middle of Jersey called the Pine Barrens. So these are like pine forests, and these pine forests are based in really sandy soil, so it’s, like, a unique ecosystem, and it’s protected, I think it’s, like, federal park lands, or state park lands. But the Jersey Devil is supposed to be the devil that hangs out in the Pine Barrens and goes around terrorizing people.

A: He’s the devil? Like, the Biblical devil?

DW: Yeah, like the Biblical devil, yeah, described as, like, a cloven-hoofed, bipedal figure. I don’t know if he’s supposed to have horns. So this tale became, like, really fever-pitched, I believe it was, like, in the teens or the 20s, there were these pictures taken after a snowstorm of some sort of cloven creature on two legs–

A: 20s? Like, the 1920s?

DW: Yeah. That had walked and made, like, prints in the snow, gone over roofs of houses …

A: Really?

DW: Yeah. It garnered a lot of attention and sort of reinforced this idea that the devil was hanging out in South Jersey. [laughs]

A: [laughs] That’s cool.

DW: Yeah, it’s cool! Except for when I was, like, in tenth or eleventh grade as a whole class we did like a four or five-day canoeing/camping thing in the Pine Barrens, which was really awesome…but really scary. [laughs]

A: How often did you hear about this when you were a kid? When do you hear it for the first time?

DW: I think a lot, actually. But, you know, I think it was like fourth or fifth grade, the whole year we did was, like, on New Jersey. So I think even at that early age we had talked about the Jersey Devil at school.

A: Do you think the photos were manipulated? Did they know how to do that back then?

DW: Probably. But, I mean, I think the story goes back before then. And I think there are probably, like, stories all over … even the colonies, like, the American colonies, about the devil manifesting.


The informant noted that this legend was likely not specific to only his state, which I found compelling, because although versions of this story might exist in other states, it is still told–and taught!–within his state as a piece of New Jersey folklore. The fact that this was taught in elementary school as part of a larger unit on the state suggests that this legend is a way for people growing up in New Jersey to feel a sense of community and pride in their identity as New Jerseyans. I also looked up the Pine Barrens, the area in which this legend is set, and found that in the 1700s and 1800s, the people who lived there were basically the outcasts of society: the poor, criminals, fugitives, deserting soldiers, runaway slaves, etc. As a bad part of town, it makes sense that this is the place that the devil would choose to manifest. Perhaps the legend was used as a story to scare people away from the Pine Barrens.