How Local Merchants Kept The Jersey Devil Alive

Posted by on August 21st, 2009

skitched-20090821-085319.jpgFollowing a horrified statewide fascination with the Jersey Devil that peaked in 1909 with a week of non-stop sightings, general panic and even a statement from the Philadelphia Zoo theorizing that the devil was actually a kangaroo fitted with artificial wings, reports of the monster died down and New Jersey’s focus turned to the lawless, bandit-bred Pineys and, of course, World War I. The devil was sighted on and off throughout the 1920s and ‘30s without much regularity and certainly without the mass hysteria that had followed prior encounters.

As years passed, sightings began to dwindle; the legend itself seemed to be quietly nestling down into the annals of folklore, allowing a new generation of anthropomorphized paranoia, from biggie-sized irradiated wildlife to probe-happy telepathic saucer men, to terrify the nation. Eventually, in 1957, an unidentifiable animal carcass was discovered in a burned out section of the Pine Barrens by the Department of Conservation. The charred, mostly skeletal remains were declared to be those of the Jersey Devil, and slowly word spread that the monster was deceased.

In 1960, however, a story that had manifested out of fear, persisted out of the Piney’s cunning and quieted in the wake of modernity and the resultant demystification of America’s wilderness, was suddenly resurrected out of local pride. Recognizing that a bankable hallmark of New Jersey culture had flat-lined in the national consciousness, a group of merchants in Camden, NJ, offered a $10,000 reward for the devil’s capture and promised to construct a paddock for the creature to scream and clop and fly around in. Though the reward was never claimed, stories of the creature persisted, and by the end of 1990s, film, television, hockey and toys had all tipped their hats to the devil.

Even as the 20th century dragged its belly across New Jersey, leaving new highways and the virulent culs de sac of suburban sprawl in its wake, the Pine Barrens remained largely untouched. In 1978, they were declared the country’s first National Preserve and remain under the protection of the Federal government, as do the secrets they contain. With the forest intact and the story of the Jersey Devil laced into the byzantine braid of history, the immortality often ascribed to the creature has been made a reality, turning an agent of death into an icon of tradition through the inadvertent alchemy of fiction.

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