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5.6.2010 Jersey Devil: Horrific Fantasy or Genetic Mutant?

By Lee Speigel

It prowls desolate, forested parts of southern New Jersey, killing livestock, leaving behind odd footprints and filling the night air with chilling sounds.

At least that's how legend and folklore describe the creature known as the Jersey Devil. (Not to be confused, by the way, with the New Jersey Devils, the professional hockey franchise named after the legendary creature.)

At the Paranormal Museum in Asbury Park, N.J., a recently opened exhibit features a variety of artifacts, including reproductions of a Jersey Devil skull, drawings and relics.

Museum owner Kathy Kelly says the story most associated with the Jersey Devil involved a woman who, in the 1700s, prayed for her 13th child to be born a devil. "Shortly after the child was born," says Kelly, "he transformed into a creature that was twice the size of a full-grown man, with cloven feet, wings and talons for hands, and he killed the midwife and then flew off into the Pinelands, where he has terrorized people ever since," according to the story.

The Pinelands area of New Jersey, according to the National Park Service, was established in 1978 as the country's first national reserve, covering more than a million acres of farms, forests and wetlands -- a perfect environment for an unknown animal to hide in.

Archaeologist Paula Perrault has seen alleged Jersey Devil skulls with both straight and curved horns, and says the Pinelands has a history of "genetic malformations, even in mammals, serpents and humans. A lot of the portrayals in any culture seem to define evil as a serpent crossed with something else -- it's never just a serpent."

Some animals of this Garden State location have been found with abnormalities, including odd colorations, extra appendages and even lizards with extra heads.

From an archaeological perspective, Perrault speculates that there is "some kind of mineral deposit in the area, made up of heavy metal that could be one thing that might cause genetic differences."

Later this year, Perrault plans to trace the various trails along New Jersey's Route 30, where "supposedly there are many petroglyphs [rock carvings dating back thousands of years], and some of them lost over time, where Native Americans depicted an entity that has reptilian features."

"There may or may not be a Jersey Devil creature," says Angus Gillespie, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "But from a folkloristic standpoint, it's a fact that the story exists -- this story has been in oral circulation in south Jersey ever since 1735," making it possibly the oldest reported "monster" in America.

Gillespie says many people are reluctant to step forward with their belief for fear of ridicule. He cites a 1909 episode of a number of sightings in the Camden County area.

"Strange tracks were found in the snow, and as a result of these sightings, teams of illustrators and reporters were sent out from various Philadelphia newspapers -- no photographers, just illustrators.

"Apparently, these urbanized city-slicker reporters took a satirical and patronizing attitude and wrote disparagingly of it and illustrated it with cartoon-like characters," Gillespie says. "The New Jersey residents reacted, saying, 'Well, if we're going to be ridiculed, we're just not going to talk about it to outsiders.'"

So what exactly are we dealing with here? It kind of depends on a combination of legendary stories, science and your personal point of view.

Kelly, who also owns Paranormal Books & Curiosities in Asbury Park, says there are two schools of thought about the creature. "You have the kind of paranormal, supernatural idea, which suggests that this is actually the son of the devil. And the other possibility is that this is some sort of mutated animal that has not yet been identified by science."

Perrault agrees, saying, "I think it's an animal that's been deformed in some way. There's a lot of things we haven't seen -- just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not there."

As she tries to piece together the puzzle of what this particular animal may turn out to be, Perrault doesn't rule out the possibility that it could be an aberration of a quite normal animal.

"From the size, and from the reported physical appearances throughout the ages, I would say it might be a deer, based on the reported skulls, the hooves and the bone structure," she says.

The archaeologist adds that if the Jersey Devil is, in fact, a family of deformed deer that has terrorized New Jersey citizens for centuries, there's a simple answer to why it's been reported as standing up to 8 feet tall on two legs.

"If you go into the woods and come across deer and startle them, they'll stand up on their back feet and get ready to run, and if you find a deer that's injured, he will paw at you and try to attack you," Perrault says.

So if you happen to see a deer in the dark and are frightened by its curved or spiked horns, you may just be misinterpreting something in the shadows or moonlight.

Folklorist Gillespie acknowledges that one of the problems of trying to prove the existence of the Jersey Devil is the lack of any photographic evidence.

"We don't have a photograph, bones, fur, droppings -- there's an absence of hard data," he says. "But the absence of positive proof does not prove the lack of existence of the creature, philosophically. It's just that we may have missed him."