What Was the Jersey Devil?

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JOHN ANGELILLO/UPI /Landov

Last night the New Jersey Devils defeated the New York Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they'll face the Los Angeles Kings. In case you were wondering what exactly a New Jersey Devil is, here's a look at the legend.

As the story goes, in the early 18th century a poor woman named Mother Leeds proclaimed, “Let this one be a devil,” while giving birth to her 13th child, only to have the curse come true. The “child” emerged with hooves, leathery wings, horns, and sharp claws, killed the midwives, and began flying around wreaking havoc.

The legend has certainly had staying power. Nearly 200 years later, the Devil became a big deal again in 1909. That January, reports of odd footprints being found in the snow on the roofs of houses caused such a panic that the devil was up to no good that mills and schools closed after workers and students were too terrified to leave their homes.

Since then, the Jersey Devil has received the credit and blame for all sorts of strange happenings around the Garden State. Lose a cow? The devil probably flew off with it. Hear a weird noise? The devil, naturally. In 1960, Camden’s merchants even offered a $10,000 bounty to anyone who could capture the mischievous flying devil, but they never found any takers.

What Does the Jersey Devil Have to Do With Napoleon?

Well, nothing, really. But Napoleon had a brother who lived in New Jersey (seriously!) and Joseph Bonaparte believed he once had a run-in with the Devil.

As Bonaparte recounted the story, he was hunting alone in the woods near his estate when he saw some peculiar tracks on the ground. They looked like they belonged to a horse or a donkey, but one that was walking only on its hind legs. He followed the tracks until they ended abruptly, as if the animal had jumped into the air and flown off. He stopped and stared at them.

A strange hissing noise came from behind him. He whirled around and came face to face with an animal he had never seen before. It had a long neck, wings, legs like a crane with horse’s hooves at the end, stumpy arms with paws, and a face like a horse or a camel. He froze, and for a minute neither he nor the creature moved or even breathed. Then the Devil hissed again and flew away.

Bonaparte later told his friends what happened, and they filled him in on the local legend. Until he returned to Europe, Bonaparte is said to have kept a sharp eye out for the Devil whenever he was in the woods, hoping to kill it and take the body as a trophy.

Devils Hockey

Given that New Jersey has never been known for its mountains, the team needed a new nickname after the Colorado Rockies relocated to the Garden State in 1982. The New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority sponsored a statewide newspaper contest to determine the new nickname, and some of the other finalists included Americans, Blades, Coastals, Colonials, Gulls, Jaguars, Meadowlanders, and Meadowlarks. The franchise struggled in its early seasons — in 1984, Wayne Gretzky said, "They're putting a Mickey Mouse operation on the ice," and added New Jersey was "ruining hockey." But the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003.

Matt Soniak and Scott Allen contributed to this story.

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May 26, 2012 - 12:17pm
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