New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes, and the schlock MTV reality program “Jersey Shore” didn’t help the state’s reputation any. New Jersey is dubbed “The Garden State” for reasons no one can seem to agree on. Abraham Browning, while attorney general of New Jersey, apparently gave the state that moniker in 1876 during a speech in Philadelphia, although it seems he may have stolen the term from Benjamin Franklin. By the 1950s, the state had so little farmland the governor didn’t think it was a garden of anything, and unsuccessfully attempted to keep the words “Garden State” off vehicle license plates. But New Jersey does have things to offer, like 130 miles of ocean coastline, the distinction of being part of the New York City metropolitan area (the stadium used by the American football teams the New York Giants and New York Jets is in New Jersey), and the state is the launching spot for ferries that take visitors to the Statue of Liberty – also in New Jersey. Famous people from New Jersey include Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, basketball greats Shaquille O’Neal and Dennis Rodman, “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, and “Game of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage, musicians Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Whitney Houston, actors Abbott and Costello (yes, both of them), Jerry Lewis, and Jack Nicholson, along with magician David Copperfield. And that’s the short list. Then there’s that little pesky thing called the Jersey Devil.
The Jersey Devil
The Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The name is simply ominous. That area is called the Barrens because this costal plain of pine forest that juts from sandy, acidic soil is barren of any plant life humans can survive on. The Barrens is home to a wide variety of plants, like orchids, vines, and the carnivorous pitcher plant, bladderwort, and sundew. The Pine Barrens slogan, “A place so dangerous even the plants will eat you.”
Dead communities dot the Barrens, some with crumbling buildings, others with brick foundations peeking from amongst the foliage (foliage that wants you dead). The people who once tried to conquer the Pine Barrens are long gone. It’s the most rural spot in New Jersey, and home to the state’s greatest legend.
The legend of the Devil goes something like this… No. Wait. It goes exactly like this.
In 1735 a pregnant woman named “Mother Leeds” cursed her soon-to-be born thirteenth child as a “devil.” Legend has it the baby was born looking like any other child, but almost immediately its head stretched into the semblance of a goat, its hands and feet turned to hooves, bat-like wings sprung from its side, and a barbed tail grew as the horrified parents watched. The newly born monster slaughtered the midwife that had just helped it into this world, and disappeared up the chimney.
Plenty of people have reported seeing the devil during the past 280 years, including Joseph Bonaparte (yep, Napoleon’s brother), and plenty of farmers with dead livestock. Unidentified noises, and strange animal tracks have kept the Devil’s legacy alive.
The biggest week for the Jersey Devil was in January 1909 when it appeared throughout the state, and into neighboring Pennsylvania. A strange, bat-winged creature attacked a trolley car in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. In Bristol, Pennsylvania (just across the Delaware River), police officers attempted to shoot a monster that fit the description of the Jersey Devil, although the policemen either missed the Devil, or the bullets had no effect. More sightings of the Devil across New Jersey caused widespread panic. Schools closed, and men stayed home from work.
Although over the years people have tried to prove the Jersey Devil a hoax, the winged, demonic spawn of Mother Leeds continues to be a staple in New Jersey folklore.
The Lenape (also known as the Delaware Indians) tell of the Wemategunis, the little people of their mythology. These dwarves are about three feet tall and much like little people legends from around the globe, you don’t want to make them angry. Although usually benevolent, if upset the Wemategunis will use their unnatural strength and ability to become invisible to prank unsuspecting people, sometimes painfully.
One legend tells of a group of hunters that experience the Wemategunis after a hunter wandered off. The lost hunter killed a deer and, while looking for his companions, a mocking voice called to him. The hunter criss-crossed a valley, trying to find the person calling to him, but the voice was just beyond his search. He finally threw the deer down in anger, and rushed toward the voice. He came face-to-face with a Wemategunis who laughed, and said he only called because he wanted to see how long the hunter could run carrying the deer.
Big Red Eye
Back in the 1970s, Residents of the mountainous, wooded area of northwest New Jersey became aware of something strange in the forest. Something big, something hairy, something loud.
According to a report by CBS2 in New York, this beast has a reputation. “It comes out at night time with big red eyes,” Alex Zenerovitz of Newtown told CBS2.
People call it Big Red Eye.
Witnesses claim this creature – the New Jersey Bigfoot – is well over six feet tall, weighs about 400 pounds, and can emit a scream that will freeze your blood. In the CBS2 report, Tom Card, a retired forest ranger, heard the shriek while in the woods more than forty years ago. The scream sent him and two other rangers – both armed – running from the trees.
“It was a wailing, howling kind of a scream,” Card said in the report. “They were a little unnerved because they had never heard anything like this either.”
Neither Card, nor the other two rangers returned to that section of the forest.
Can Bigfoot be hiding in New Jersey? With more than 2 million acres of forestland, you betcha.
The White Stag
Although the Pine Barrens have the reputation of being dangerous, not all stories of strange creatures lurking there are wicked.
In the days when people relied on horses for transportation, a stagecoach traveling through the Pine Barrens near dusk was caught up in a rainstorm. The driver, making his way toward a tavern on the other side of the well-used Quaker Bridge, pulled the stage to a stop, which didn’t help the mood of his already tired, and frustrated passengers. The coach driver stopped because an enormous white stag blocked the way.
The stagecoach horses, frightened to almost the point of panic, were nearly too much for the driver to handle, and he grabbed his rifle to be rid of the deer. When the driver’s feet hit the muddy road, and he approached the deer, it turned and disappeared into trees.
At closer inspection of where the deer stood, the driver discovered it had blocked the coach’s passage onto the bridge – that had been washed away by the swollen river.
To this day, if a hunter sees a white stag in the Barrens, he lets it be.
Next up: New Mexico.