img src=”http://weirdthings.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/skitched-20090818-194920.jpg” alt=”skitched-20090818-194920.jpg” border=”1″ width=”212″ height=”286″ align=”right” hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″/>While families and merchants kept their distance from the sandy, devil-beleaguered expanse of New Jersey forest known as the Pine Barrens, deserting soldiers, runaway slaves, moonshiners and fugitives adopted the land as sort of a misanthrope’s Eden.
Along with the motley assortment of local outcasts and reprobates, the American Revolution found rogue British loyalists, known as Pine Robbers, taking up residence in the Barrens and banding together with other social malcontents to conduct violent, fiery raids on surrounding towns.
To civilians, the criminal element alone was enough of a reason to avoid the shadowy bowers and acidic sands of the area, but law enforcement wasn’t discouraged that easily.
Cue the Jersey Devil.
Once the criminals and recluses began to understand the enduring power the folktale still held over New Jersey, they began to actively propagate the legend, spreading horror stories about bizarre disappearances, grisly murders and repeated devil sightings whenever they encountered outsiders. As the image of the devil became clearer, and its existence realer, to the people of New Jersey, its wings and hooves manifesting out of the fir needles and sand like some hysteric collective fever dream, the odd patchwork of wanted outlaws and undesired tramps also began to solidify into its own insular community, surviving on fish and the sale of sphagnum moss and pine cones. Among regular society, these bucolic, devil-guarded misfits became known derogatorily as “Pineys,” a moniker they soon came to embrace and, like the stories of their unholy protector, whisper proudly out into the American air.
In the early 20th century, after years of spreading tales of the Jersey Devil, the Pineys themselves became a fixture of New Jersey lore. Dr. Henry Goddard used the genealogy of a Piney family as the basis for a massive eugenics study, concluding that the Pine Barrens’ checkered history had led to a genetic line of feeble-minded idiots, proving that (according to Goddard) idiocy is, in fact, a hereditary trait. Using the study, which, after being published in book form, became immensely popular among the public, Goddard campaigned for the forced isolation of people shown to have the supposed idiot gene.
Eugenics would go on to die an ignoble death, regarded as a misguided pseudoscience, while, among the fir trees and cedar water marshes of the Pine Barrens, the Jersey Devil still stalked and snorted and flexed his leathery wings.
Friday: The devil today