The Dark Prints: The Baffling Mystery of the Devil’s Footprints

The Dark Prints: The Baffling Mystery of the Devil’s Footprints

Alexander Meddings - October 27, 2017

Even for England’s dreary standards, the winter of 1855 was particularly bleak. From January right through to March, temperatures hovered around freezing, creating colder conditions than anything experienced in living—and for that matter recorded—memory. While it was naturally worse in the North, the southwest, coastal region of Devon fared no better during the great freeze. Two of the region’s rivers—the Exe and the Teign—froze over entirely in parts; becoming the scenes of spur-of-the-moment children’s games and remarkably well-attended makeshift feasts.

But in spite of such festivities, there was still a palatable chill in the air, especially in early February when the region was inundated with some of the heaviest snowfall. Night after night the snow piled up, blanketing the usually lush countryside in a thin, powder coat. Eventually, the snowfall ceased, but its chill still lingered in the air. That is at least until the morning of February 9, when Devon’s residents woke up to find something far more chilling on the ground.

During the course of the night, an extraordinary trail of hoof prints appeared across the length and breadth of the county in a mysterious event known as the “Great Devon Mystery”. They were reported in over 30 settlements, particularly in the South and East of the region, and there were also accounts of mysterious hoof prints from a couple of villages in the neighboring county of Dorset.

The Dark Prints: The Baffling Mystery of the Devil’s Footprints
The stunning Devonshire Coast of today is much unchanged from that of the Victorian Era. Country Cottages.

In size, shape, and the direction they were traveling in, they defied the laws of nature and physics. Many of the prints were in the shape of a cloven hoof, a little like that of a donkey, and measured four inches long and three inches wide. What suggested that they weren’t the prints of a donkey was that they progressed in a straight, single line, one after another, with a distance of between eight to 16 inches between each.

The Dark Prints: The Baffling Mystery of the Devil’s Footprints
Contemporary illustration of the hoof prints. Wikimedia Commons

The prints weren’t just found trodden into the soft snow on the ground. In the countryside, they left their mark on the frozen lakes and rivers, clambered over haystacks, and vanished through small holes in thickets and hedges only to appear abruptly and impossibly on the other side. Still more disturbingly, in towns and villages, they crossed rooftops, leaped over walls—one as high as 14 feet (4.2 meters)—and made their way from door to door.

The fact that the prints went from door to door was particularly interesting. It mirrored a biblical story from the Book of Exodus (12:12-13) known commonly as the “Plague on the Firstborn.” In the story, God addresses Moses and tells him that on an appointed night he will visit Egypt and “strike down” every firstborn, be it human or animal. Yet for reasons unknown, God needs some help telling the Egyptians and the Israelites apart. So he tells Moses to paint the doors of Israelite houses with lambs’ blood, so when he does the night’s murderous rounds he’ll be sure to pass over them (or, this being the Old Testament God, pass them over).

The Dark Prints: The Baffling Mystery of the Devil’s Footprints
Theories ranged from a hopping field mouse and an errant kangaroo to satan himself. Pictured here is another candidate: Buer, a hooved demon with the head of a lion. Wikimedia Commons

Few, if any, of Devon’s population believed they had been visited by God, however. Far from considering themselves blessed, they organized an immediate, and quintessentially Victorian, local response to this baffling phenomenon: arming militias to track down and kill whatever might be the source. In the coastal town of Dawlish, tradesmen took up “guns and bludgeons” and set off across the moors in pursuit of this unimaginable beast. But though their tracks were clear as day, their pursuit was ultimately in vain.

By the time the first official reports were released on February 13, locals were already ascribing these footmarks to the Devil (I say footmarks because in 1855 “footprints” had not yet entered the English language). The belief that Satan had been among them drove townspeople across the county into a desperate, if not rather localised, panic. They implemented a self-imposed curfew, refusing to venture outdoors after nightfall.

The story’s dissemination in the London Illustrated News quickly captured the attention (and imagination) of readers throughout the country. It even attracted an editorial suggestion from a reader in the German university town of Heidelberg the following month. The contributor wrote that exactly the same prints often appeared on the hill of Piaskowa Göra (in modern-day Poland, near the Czech border). Nor would they appear only in winter; they occasionally manifested themselves in the soft sand that dusted the hill during the warmer months.

Theories put forward at the time ranged from the rational to the ridiculous, with the occasional bizarre one thrown in for good measure. At the bottom end of the scale were suggestions they were made by the “poor, despised, and insignificant rat”, or the hindfoot of a hopping badger. At the upper end are theories that the footprints were the work of a Great Bustard, a (presumably hoof-shaped?) hopping frog, a geographically challenged Kangaroo (or “colonial hopping dog” as they were actually not known at the time [fake news]) that had escaped a local zoo, or an errant, mischievous otter.

Others suggested that they might have been left by a badger or a bird. But it’s hard to imagine that a badger could travel that far in a single night, especially if it was expending so much energy hopping. A bird would struggle less. But as journalist in the London Illustrated Times was quick to point out: a) birds didn’t have hooves and b) birds were extremely unlikely to confine their directional path to a single line. If not a wild animal, some proposed that it could have been an escapee from the travelling menagerie. But again, no evidence was forthcoming.

One person even wrote in to suggest the marks had been left by a Unipede; an astonishingly rare mammal, the last recorded sighting of which had been made in Labrador by the Icelandic explorer Biom Herjolfsson in 1001 AD. Disappointingly, nobody posited a one-legged hopping donkey—both the most logical explanation as a combination of the mystery’s most likely elements, and— by the power of its imagery—by far the most entertaining. Then again, these were the days when you had to actually write into a newspaper to have your say rather than just fire off barely constructed insanity from the comfort of your laptop, so the editors were hardly inundated.

The Dark Prints: The Baffling Mystery of the Devil’s Footprints
Prints found in Jill Wade’s garden in Woolsery, North Devon. APEX

So what caused the Devil’s Prints? One hundred and sixty-two years on, we are no more enlightened. One recent theory suggested that they came from an “experimental weather balloon”, released across the county from Devonport Dockyard. Dragging either shackles or an anchor behind it, it would have left in the snow a bizarre impression that accurately matched the given description. What deflates this theory, however, is the logical assumption that at some point the balloon would have got itself tangled (and that there are official records).

The most likely theory—though not necessarily the kindest to the collective intellect of the mid-nineteenth century population of Devon—is that the whole affair was a case of overblown mass hysteria. According to this theory, the tracks were caused by a number of different animals, probably including field mice, donkeys, horses, and ponies. And the failure—amongst all the excitement—of Devon’s community to differentiate between them while they were there led to the creation of a confused local legend after they disappeared.

Regretfully, the lack of photographic evidence from 1855 makes the whole episode impossible to resolve. But all is not lost. As recently as 2009, a resident of the North Devon town of Woolsery woke up to find that overnight her snow-covered back garden had been inexplicably imprinted by hoof prints. What’s more, they ran for some 60 to 70 feet in a single, linear direction, and in shape and size, they were eerily similar to those of just over 150 years before.

The homeowner, Jill Wade, reported her discovery to the Centre for Fortean Zoology, which sent over zoologist Graham Ingils to check them out. Ingils agreed that they matched descriptions from the Great Devon Mystery. He disagreed, however, that they were the prints of the Antichrist who had chosen to stop of at this sleepy, rural village during his annual winter walking holiday. In Ingils’s academic opinion they were probably caused by field mice, though he had to admit: he’d never seen anything like it before.

The story of the “Devil’s Prints” is just one of a series of folk-tales set in Devon. Most famously, though admittedly fictitiously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose Dartmoor, one of vastest national parks in this largely rural county, as the setting of one of his best-known Sherlock Holmes adventures “The Hound of the Baskervilles“. But there are others: many of which, like the Devil’s Prints, will in all likelihood never be solved. But while we’ll never know what caused the footprints that appeared across Devon in 1855, we can say that they have continued to be imprinted on the memory of the county, long after the melting of the winter snow.