Category Archives: New Jersey

The rise of the Jersey Devil-PR stunt or a Mad Hatters tale?

We all know the first rule of PR is to get the public’s attention. Few things are quite as intoxicating (especially this time of year) as a good old fashioned urban legend to spawn a thriving industry of websites, books,videos, films, reality shows and TV specials.

Like Big Foot, The Yeti and the Lochness Monster, The Jersey Devil has amassed a culture of obsessive monster hunting groups, regular “sightings”, and story telling. The amount of buzz and staying power ol’ JD can boast from over the past 250 years or so goes far beyond what any marketing team could ever hope to pull off. But while some monster tales have intentionally been started to attract business, The Jersey Devil may have been born of unfortunate circumstances more than anything.
The story, according to legend, goes something like this. The Jersey Devil, aka the Leeds Devil, is a legendary creature said to inhabit the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. The creature is often drawn or described in folklore as a cloven hoofed flying dragon with blood red eyes.
According to the most popular legend, the Jersey Devil was spawned in the 18th century when Deborah Smith an English immigrant wound up in the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey married to a peculiar Mr. Leeds, a rather vain man who wanted many heirs to continue the family name. Consequently, the new wife was continually pregnant. After bearing twelve healthy children, she was dismayed to be pregnant with her thirteenth. She cursed the unborn child, declaring a preference to bear the Devil’s child rather than another Leeds. (source: wikipedia).
Apparently, her wish was granted as the new child had cloven hooves, claws, and a tail. The horrific newborn proceeded to eat the other Leeds children and the parents, before escaping through the chimney to begin its reign of terror.
To this day, Jersey Devil sightings have been rampant. In 1909, the Philadelphia Zoo posted a $10,000 reward for the creature’s capture. Not surprisingly the offer resulted in a myriad of hoaxes, including a winged kangaroo. The reward remains available to this day.
However the rise of the Jersey Devil may have more to do with a bad mixture of indigenous animals and mercury poisoning than real monsters in the mist.

During the Revolutionary war era – the time in which we see the first written accounts of the Jersey Devil, the Pine Barrens was an industrial area in which its inhabitants were subjected to many dangerous chemicals and elements,”. “For example, the use of lead was very commonplace in their water pipes, utensils and even makeup. We now know that lead damages the brain, lowering IQ and causing learning disabilities and behavioral problems”.
“In addition to a proliferation of lead, the Pine Barrens was home to a thriving hat making business during the 1700’s,” Wiese continues. “Unfortunately, the furriers who made beaver skin hats made use of the chemical Mercury in the process to turn fur into felt. Mercury can cause pronounced mind altering effects. You may have heard the term as crazy as a Mad Hatter – and this is where it evolved from.”

“It can also be said that early settlers to the Pine Barrens may well have not been accustomed to wolves, bears, bobcats, badgers, flying squirrels, mountain lions, and bison that inhabited the area at the time. Due to the close proximity to the ocean, the large marshy areas of the barrens is also known to be a somewhat foggy location (which would have been exacerbated due to coal burning and other particulate in the air from the industrial plants). All these details could easily lead to hallucinations that spawned an industry of urban legend.

In conclusion as the tale is related to Mrs. Leeds, a poverty-stricken woman living in isolation with her 12 starving children – when she had a horribly deformed child, which was most likely due to the chemicals mentioned above, superstitious tales were probably started by local townspeople. Couple these with a few mercury infused hallucinations and a star is born.
The post originally appeared on October 2008 on Leber PR’s website

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Filed under Born to Explore, Jersey Devil, myth, Mythology, New Jersey, Richard Wiese