My informant grew up in Hudson County, New Jersey, in the 1960s and 1970s, spending most of his childhood in Secaucus. He remembers having friends whose family members had ties to the mob, and in fact his own father worked as a Teamster (a cement mixer driver, specifically) for the Teamsters local 560, the chapter of the Teamsters union run by notorious Italian mob boss Tony Provenzano. He does not recall that living in such a mob run area ever caused him or his family any anxiety, it was simply a fact of life in Hudson County.
Though my informant lived for almost twenty years in Ohio during and after college, and now resides in California, his New Jersey accent slips back into his voice when he tells stories about New Jersey. This story was recorded at a family gathering in California when some of my informant’s family from the east coast were visiting.
The Jersey Devil
The Jersey Devil is a mythic creature that reportedly roams the Pine Barrens (a stretch of undeveloped wilderness) in New Jersey. My informant related to me the tale he heard as a kid of how the devil came to be.
During the Revolutionary War days, the Pine Barrens were a place that the outcasts of society, those too poor to afford better, lived. The tale goes that a poor couple with many children lived there, and they were so poor they could barely feed the family. With another child on the way, the husband decided to make a deal with the Devil (as in Satan of Christian lore, not the Jersey devil) that if he performed certain tasks the Devil would grant them enough wealth to feed the family and allow them to move out of the Pine Barrens to a better place.
My informant couldn’t remember the tasks the Devil gave the man exactly, only that instead of doing them, the husband tried to fake that he had done them somehow. The Devil was, naturally, not fooled. So he cursed the couple’s unborn child. The wife gave birth to a hideous beast with cloven hooves and leathery wings, and as soon as it was born it flew up the chimney and out into the Pine Barrens.
The beast was given the name “the Jersey devil,” and it is rumored to prowl the Pine Barrens to this day, attacking people and eating children, as such beasties will do. It is well known in New Jersey that one should never go into the Pine Barrens alone, or at night, because the Jersey devil might get you.
What would appear to me to be a scary story that could be told to children to keep them from wandering off into dangerous woods and getting lost, actually has a more important message for the residents of Hudson County, New Jersey, where my informant was from. He explained that the Pine Barrens are nowhere near Hudson County, so to him the tale is a parable for not double-crossing the mob. Replace Satan in the story with the mob, and you see the warning: that if one doesn’t fulfill their side of a bargain with the mob, they may not take it out on you, they might take it out on your loved ones; your family.
Appearances in Authored Literature
The Jersey devil has become such a beloved part of New Jersey popular culture that it has most famously become the mascot for the New Jersey Devils Hockey Team. Reported sightings of the creature, and even people who claim it attacked them, keeps the story alive and in the public consciousness. A piece on the Jersey devil appears in the popular travel book Weird NJ, where a different version of the tale tells of a woman who, after having 13 children by a jobless drunk, in a fit of rage asked the heavens to turn her next child into a devil.
The devil even made it into an episode of the X-Files, a popular show during the 1990s that featured two FBI agents who exclusively investigated reports of paranormal phenomena. In that episode, sightings of the devil were attributed to a Neanderthal-like creature that may have been the product of an evolutionary mutation.
Carter, Chris, prod. The X-Files: The Jersey Devil. Perf. David Duchovney and Gillian Anderson. 1993. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <www.netflix.com>.
Moran, Mark, and Mark Sceurman. Weird N.J.: Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Sterling Publishers, 2009. Print.
New Jersey Devils Team Site. National Hockey League, 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://devils.nhl.com/>.