Daniel Leeds: The Real Jersey Devil
Most people with at least a passing interest in cryptozoology have heard of the Jersey Devil, and probably know at least one of the many variations of the legend surrounding it. The most basic version of the legend boils down to a woman, generally referred to as "Mother Leeds," who cursed her thirteenth child to be a devil. It was, and after its birth, it flew away and has been terrorizing people in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey ever since.
As might be expected by anyone with any shred of common sense, that legend has no basis in historical fact. But what most people don't realize is that there is historical basis for the Jersey Devil that has been mostly overlooked, if not outright forgotten and erased, by most accounts of the creature's legend.
Daniel Leeds' Philosophy
There once was a man named Daniel Leeds. He was a devout Quaker who came from England to settle in Burlington in the colony now known as New Jersey. Daniel Leeds was a bit of an oddball among the Quakers. In 1687, he began publishing The American Almanack, which contained astrological data, among other things.
Leeds' almanac was accused by the Quaker Meeting of using inappropriate language, as well as symbols and names that were too pagan for their liking. At their next gathering, Leeds made a public apology, but still an order was sent out to collect and destroy all copies. This made Leeds resentful, and he broke with the group and continued publishing his almanac.
Daniel Leeds continued to go his own way. In 1688, he published a book called The Temple of Wisdom, which put together various writings from other authors in order to form his own personal theory on the origins of the universe. The Temple of Wisdom touched on various subjects, including angels, astrology, and devils. Much of his writing drew upon the work of Jacob Boehme, a German mystic who focused much of his writing on the nature of sin and redemption.
Not surprisingly, the Quaker Philadelphia Meeting suppressed Leeds' book, which prompted him to release another piece of work. In 1699, Leeds published The Trumpet Sounded Out of the Wilderness of America, which was outright anti-Quaker.
Daniel Leeds claimed in this work that the Quaker theology denied Christ was divine and accused them of being against the English monarchy, claiming, "They formerly exclaimed against the government of England."
Beginning in 1702, Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury became the governor of New Jersey, and he would later become deeply unpopular. Daniel Leeds became a councilor to him.
Leeds was a loyalist to England and the monarchy, and thus convinced Lord Cornbury to not swear in members appointed to the assembly through a local election on the basis that he believed they were not loyal. Leeds' siding with Cornbury and the monarchy caused the Quakers to view him as a traitor, further cementing the rift between them and him.
Daniel Leeds continued to print anti-Quaker pamphlets throughout his life, prompting George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, to respond with his own pamphlets. One of these, Satan's Harbinger Encountered...Being Something by Way of Answer to Daniel Leeds published in 1700, accused Leeds of working for the devil.
The Feud with Franklin
In 1716, Daniel Leeds retired and turned over the almanac to his son Titan. Titan Leeds redesigned the front page to include the family crest, which featured Wyverns, creatures that, incidentally, resemble what would later be given as descriptions of the Jersey Devil.
At a certain point, Titan entered into a feud with none other than Benjamin Franklin, who, after beginning to print his Poor Richard's Almanac, wanted to get rid of some of his competition. During this feud, Franklin predicted Titan's death, then joked that Titan had died and returned as a ghost to haunt him. He wrote of Titan during this period, "Honest Titan, deceased, was raised [from the dead] and made to abuse his old friend [Franklin]."
It is probably not a coincidence that this feud and Titan Leeds' actual death in 1738 closely mirrors the time period of the supposed birth of the Jersey Devil.
Disproving the Legend
It should probably be noted that although there are some variations of the Jersey Devil's legend that have been linked directly to Daniel Leeds, there is no basis for this in the historical record.
This particular version of the legend claims that Leeds' wife was Mother Leeds, real name Deborah Smith (prior to her marriage, of course), and that the birth of the Jersey Devil took place in 1735. This isn't possible, as Daniel Leeds died in 1720, and the Deborah Smith of this story is not the name of any of his recorded wives.
In addition to this, Professor Fred R. MacFadden, Jr. of Coppin State University in Baltimore found that the 1735 date likely comes from the earliest printed reference to a "devil" he could find. The location of this "devil" was given only as Burlington, with no connection to Leeds otherwise. (Burlington, New Jersey, it should be noted, is one of many cities that claims to be the birthplace of the Jersey Devil.)
Evolution of the Legend
MacFadden has also shared his theory of how Daniel Leeds' name came to be associated with the Jersey Devil. He mentions that Leeds' connection with Lord Cornbury caused him to withdraw from politics and the public eye, and additionally claims that several of his children were mentally disabled. These combined caused him to suffer public ridicule. By the time reports of the "Leeds Devil" began to appear, it seems that these were likely the result of new Americans happy to paint Leeds, a British loyalist, as a monster.
Brian Regal, a history professor at Keans University who has researched this subject extensively, also has much to say on the matter. In The Guardian article "Jersey Devil 'sighting' reignites excitement but experts pour cold water," he said, "This starts off as a kind of political thing rather than as a witchcraft occult thing. At the time to accuse someone of being a devil was the worst thing you could do."
Regal claims that the Leeds family, namely Daniel and Titan, were portrayed as "political and religious monsters," which would eventually lead to the portrayal of the "Leeds Devil" and spawn the legend of the Jersey Devil much farther down the line.
Regal also takes issue with the lack of evidence surrounding reports of the Jersey Devil, such as children being killed by it or the famous claim that a minister attempted to exorcise it in 1740. He says there is no historical documentation to support this.
Regal was also interviewed for Vice's article "Why the Urban Legend of the Jersey Devil Won't Die." He told them, "I think the actual origins are far more interesting than some monster story. It has more historical importance. It says a lot about fear over new ways of thinking in early America, and the dawn of the scientific revolution. All of that is more interesting than a flying dragon."
I'm not sure I agree with Regal on that sentiment, but the story of Daniel Leeds is certainly an interesting one that should not be allowed to be forgotten.