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HISTORY

What Is the Jersey Devil?

Ethan Trex
The New Jersey Devil mascot steals the show during a game against the Montreal Canadiens.
The New Jersey Devil mascot steals the show during a game against the Montreal Canadiens. / Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
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As the story goes, in the early 18th century, a poor woman named Mother Leeds from southern New Jersey 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 certainly had staying power, and 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 Jersey 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 creature, but they never found any takers.

What does the Jersey Devil have to do with Napoleon?

A sketch of the Jersey Devil from the Philadelphia Bulletin in January 1909.
A sketch of the Jersey Devil from the Philadelphia Bulletin in January 1909. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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 Jersey 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.

How the New Jersey Devils hockey team chose their name.

The Colorado Rockies of the National Hockey League relocated to the Garden State in 1982, but since New Jersey isn't exactly known for its mountain ranges, the team decided it needed a new name. 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 contest attracted 10,000 votes from fans, and though the New Jersey Devils won out, it wasn't without its fair share of controversy. John McMullen, who was part of the group responsible for bringing the team from Colorado to New Jersey, questioned the choice after an angry caller accused a reporter of being an ''an agent of Satan" for merely writing about the contest. (For the record, McMullen preferred the name "Meadowlanders" but said, "that's not too popular with the rest of my family.")

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—so the team has found some success over the years.

Matt Soniak and Scott Allen contributed to this story.

A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2021.

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