In the Southern part of New Jersey, there is a huge 1,700-mile forest called The Pine Barrens. Even today, being in the Pine Barrens can feel like becoming a character in a horror movie. Cell phone reception is blocked, and one wrong step could lead to being lost in the woods forever. Even though it is close to Philadelphia, the forest may as well be thousands of miles from civilization. If it’s scary in modern times, one can only imagine what it was like living there hundreds of years ago.
The Leeds family was blessed with twelve children. At the time, it was extremely rare for a couple to have so many kids that actually survived. Rumors began to spread that Jane Leeds had sold her soul to Satan in exchange for all of those children. But all magic comes at a price, because on unlucky number thirteen, there were complications with the pregnancy. It was a dark and stormy night in 1735, and Jane Leeds was screaming out in frustration that this baby may as well be a demon. Finally, her bouncing baby boy was delivered, and the family gathered to see the child. At first, the child seemed as though it was a perfectly healthy normal baby, but that quickly changed. Right before their eyes, it transformed into a beast. It had the wings of a bat, the face of a horse, hooves, and horns. The devil screeched, attacking the midwife, and killing her. The baby flew into the fireplace and went out the chimney to live in the forest.
While this clearly sounds like an old folktale, and Mrs. Leeds seems to be the victim of a witch hunt from neighbors who were jealous that she never had to experience any of her kids dying. But the weirdest part of the story is that there have been actual witnesses who claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil for hundreds of years. Even to this day, there are people who believe that the legend is real. So, where did this story actually come from? And how much, if any truth, is behind it?
The Real Leeds Family Were Nothing Like The Legend
The first generation of the Leeds family settled in the South-Western part of New Jersey in the 1600s. Daniel Leeds became one of the first men to begin publishing books and almanacs in the New World colonies. They had been so successful, that their family became very rich and powerful. Today, there is even a town outside of Atlantic City called Leeds Point.
Fast forward a few generations to the late 1700’s. Benjamin Franklin opened up a printing press in Philadelphia, and he became a direct competitor of Titan Leeds, the ancestor who took over the family business. Since they were competitors, Ben Franklin started to talk trash about the so-called “Leeds Devil”. They both published nasty things about one another, including an accusation or joke that Franklin made that Daniel Leeds was actually a ghost who came back from the dead. In the end, Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” ended up being more popular. Leed’s Almanac’s sales began to dwindle, so they tried to make them more popular by adding astrological signs. There were plenty of people who thought horoscopes were fun, but since the Leeds were Quakers, his religion associated any astrological content to be part of “the occult”. Rumors began to circulate in his community that he was working with the devil.
To make matters worse, the Leeds family crest had dragons on it. In the minds of the Quakers, this was almost proof that they were somehow working with the Devil. The family began to be ostracized from their community.
If he was alive today, Benjamin Franklin would probably find it hilarious that his mocking of Titan Leeds eventually lead people to take the joke of “Devil Leeds” seriously, to the point where people were beginning to actually see this so-called monster in the Pine Barrens.
So, where did the story about Mother Leeds come from? One of the Leeds family members, Japhet Leeds, was married to his wife, Deborah. She had 9 children of her own, and Japhet had 4 children from a previous marriage. This made her a mother of 12 children, just like the legend says. At this point, their family was having such a bad reputation among the Quaker community with accusations of being involved in the occult, it’s really not that surprising that a story was invented about their 13th child that became a demon.
As we mentioned earlier, the Pine Barrens are not joke, and it’s easy to get lost. Parents began to tell this story of the Jersey Devil to their kids in order to keep them from running into the woods alone. Even though it was at the expense of the poor Leeds family, the legend was retold for another 250 years.