Run with the Devil: The Evil in Jersey's Pines

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Run with the Devil

    The Monster in Jersey's Pines South of Asbury Park, the Garden State Pkwy. skirts the eastern edge of the Pine Barrens as it stretches down to Cape May, a quiet Jersey shore community very nearly untouched by the passage of time. A traveler with an interest in mysteries might be inclined to leave the parkway at Exit 48 and follow Rte. 9 south to Moss Mill Rd. There are numerous variations on the story, but the way it is usually told goes like this: In 1735, Mother Leeds, barely scraping a living out of the harsh, sandy soil of the Pines, became pregnant with her 13th child. Exhausted, impoverished and livid with rage at the notion of yet another mouth to feed, she cursed the child, saying, "Let it be a devil!" In the midst of an horrific thunderstorm, she gave birth to what appeared to be a normal baby boy. Within hours of his delivery the boy metamorphosed into a fabulous creature described as having a long serpentine body and tail, hooves and claws, giant bat wings and a horned equine skull. It trashed the house, attacked its siblings and the attending midwives, then flew up the chimney and into the storm, beginning a reign of terror that continues to this very day. The Jersey Devil just won't go away.

    It seems fitting that the New Jersey Pine Barrens should have a resident demon. The Pine Barrens are almost as big as Yellowstone, nearly a million and a half acres of densely packed pitch pine, Pygmy pine and white cedar growing out of an acidic, nitrogen-poor sandy soil streaked with running streams of what the locals call "cedar water." This water is the color of tea as a result of the mix of tannins and other organic waste from cedar trees and rusted bog-iron deposits scattered throughout the aquifer. The lush plant growth includes 23 varieties of orchids and a wide range of carnivorous plants. There are beavers, far too many deer, coyote, foxes, owls, eagles, hawks, crows and ravens. There are snakes, both poisonous and nonpoisonous. Rattlesnakes I don't mind; they're kind enough to give warning. The snake I most despise is the water moccasin: a tricky, evil thing easily mistaken for a branch in the water.

    In the early 70s I was profoundly affected by a newspaper story regarding the death of a young woman who had been water skiing on one of the many manmade lakes that dot the Pines. She had swung wide on a turn and skied into what she must have thought were some twigs in the water. Her screams were reported to have been "horrible" and "unforgettable" as she was bitten more than 300 times by a huge nest of water moccasins. The people who pulled her from the water said that her body was puffed up like a balloon, skin taut and shiny, from all the venom.

    The Pines are quiet and serene, a deep and profound serenity tinged with an undercurrent of menace, the certainty that at any moment the perfect tranquillity of the place could be shattered by shrieking, nerve-ripping terror. For some reason I can't quite pin down, I've been drawn back there recently after not visiting the place for more than 25 years. I'm looking for something, I don't know what.

    Any decent exploration of the Pines should begin in Chatsworth. You pull off the parkway at Exit 67 and head west until you get to the junction of Rtes. 532 and 563. If you're smart you'll stop off at the Steamed Crab in Barnegat for a pound of stone crab claws and an ear of corn, just 16 bucks with a large iced tea and in every way perfect. There's an old general store in Chatsworth known as Buzby's; it's been there forever.

    R. Marilyn Schmidt runs the place now, operating a little cafe called the Cheshire Cat. She says, "I called it that because sometimes I'm here, and sometimes I'm not." She says she finished it "when I was coming up on 70."

    Marilyn doesn't look a day over 60. She also runs a small bookstore and press, publishing and carrying works related to the Pines. She is arguably the world's foremost authority on the history, customs and cuisine of the Pine Barrens, with a wide range of titles to her credit, including the definitive guide to the Barrens and the only detailed map of the region. I hung out with her for a little while, bought a few books and cut out, heading south on 539 to Tuckerton and New Gretna.

    The backroads branch off through the woods, and dirt roads are more frequent than paved ones as you drive through the soft gray canopy of stunted pines. I took a little detour and drove deep into the forest to smoke a joint. This was some kind of atavistic impulse. I wanted to get naked in the forest, to be embraced in a carnal way by this haunted wood. I wanted to change into a fabulous monster and fly once and for all up and out the chimney of dreary asphalt civilization and into the raging storm and the Pines. Maybe I'm looking for my roots, out here. Maybe I'm looking for wings.

    I stood there, alone in the twilight of the pines and random cedars, barefoot on the forest floor of sand and pine needles, brain kicked into alpha rhythm cycles, completely tranquil and still, beyond the world. I was fully cognizant of the fact that I'd come here more or less pursuing a notoriously frightening cryptozoological anomaly capable of appearing at any moment. It usually arrives with a piercing scream, described as "somewhere between a frightened woman and a screech owl" by one articulate witness. It's often described as looking like a bat-winged kangaroo. I want it. I want to meet this thing.

    I stood there for a while. I pulled a tick off my ankle, thought better of the whole nature boy fantasy and got back in the car.

    Driving down 539 to Tuckerton, I got to thinking about my own absence of roots and the rich traditions of the Pine people. In her introduction to Exploring the Pine Barrens of New Jersey?A Guide (Pine Barrens Press, paper, 168 pages, $14.95), R. Marilyn Schmidt points out that the Pines are home to nearly 500,000 people. These people have a unique culture, oddly resonant of Louisiana Cajun culture. "Piney" became a pejorative for a while on the heels of a bogus study of criminality and retardation spearheaded by one H.H. Goddard, director of the research laboratory at the Vineland Training School, an institution for the mentally impaired. He came out with a pro-eugenics tract purporting to be a case history of a Pines family he named "Kallikak," from the Greek "kalos" (good) and "kakos" (bad). He said that he masked the true family name to protect his subjects, but lately it's widely believed that he made the whole family line up. His work was essentially a genetic jeremiad vilifying the Pineys as inbred subhumans. It was pure crap, but it sold big on the academic circuit with the Margaret Sanger crowd, the pre-Hitlerite liberals who built Planned Parenthood. It has a very distinct H.P. Lovecraft feel about it, with all its shock and horror at the notion of rural whites inbreeding.

    Tuckerton has the look of a little town on the move. They've taken a 40-acre site there and transformed it into the Tuckerton Seaport, an ambitious recreation of old Tuckerton, in the days when it was the third point of entry for new American colonists. A little farther on down Rte. 9 South, Win Allen's Clam Bar still thrives in New Gretna. Win passed away in Florida some years back, but he is remembered fondly and his namesake is still one of the best seafood restaurants anywhere. I had a spectacular bowl of their famous Manhattan clam chowder and a shrimp cocktail consisting of nine shrimp the size of lobster tails with a large iced tea for eight dollars and change. You have to get there no later than 5 o'clock if you don't want to wait for a table, and they are smoker-friendly, as are nearly all businesses in the Pines.

    I continued south on Rte. 9 into Galloway Township as the sun began its descent. It was near twilight when I turned onto Moss Mill Rd. There's a church there with a little graveyard. I stopped to examine the headstones. Many of them are so old that they can no longer be read, but there are plenty of members of the Leeds family buried there. Perhaps Mother Leeds herself lies somewhere under that grass.

    I drove down to Scott's Landing Rd. and idled down to the boat launch. Atlantic City glittered in the distance, steel and glass painted pink by the setting sun. Civilization, such as it is: the big casino. The woods lining the road are thoroughly posted with "No Trespassing" signs, and I am disinclined to be shot at, so I contented myself with smoking a ceremonial joint in close proximity to the birthplace of a wonderful enigma.

    The majority of sightings of the Jersey Devil are isolated incidents, easily explained away as pranks, owls, buzzards, the occasional feral human and other decidedly nonsupernatural phenomena. The definitive works on the subject are two books by James F. McCloy and Ray Miller Jr., The Jersey Devil and Phantom of the Pines, both published by Middle Atlantic Press and both well worth reading. The most noteworthy and puzzling Jersey Devil manifestation took place during the week of Jan. 16-23, 1909, when it roared out of the Pines and terrorized thousands of people all over the Delaware Valley.

    From Jan. 16 to Jan. 18 it was sighted in Woodbury; Bristol, PA; Burlington; Gloucester; Hamilton Township; Camden; and again in Gloucester. Patrolman James Sackville of Bristol got a very good look at it. He said it was winged and hopped like a bird, but had the features of some peculiar animal. He described its voice as a horrible scream. He chased it up the street and popped off a couple of shots at it, whereupon it flew away. The local postmaster also saw it. Here's the testimony of E.W. Minster, as cited by McCloy and Miller in The Jersey Devil:

    I awoke about 2 o'clock in the morning, and finding myself unable to sleep, I arose and wet my head with cold water as a cure for insomnia.

    As I got up I heard an eerie, almost supernatural sound from the direction of the river. I looked out upon the Delaware and saw flying diagonally across what appeared to be a large crane, but which was emitting a glow like a firefly.

    Its head resembled that of a ram, with curled horns, and its long thick neck was thrust forward in flight. It had long thin wings and short legs, the front legs shorter than the hind. Again it uttered its mournful and awful call?a combination of a squawk and a whistle, the beginning very high and piercing and ending very low and hoarse.

    At 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, it apparently decided to dance a little jig on the roof of a shed owned by Nelson Evans, a Gloucester paperhanger. For 10 minutes Evans and his wife watched the thing dance around in their yard before they chased it away.

    Evans said, "It was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its back legs were like those of a crane, and it had horse's hooves. It walked on its back legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. It didn't use the front legs at all while we were watching. My wife and I were scared, I tell you, but I managed to open the window and say Shoo! and it turned around, barked at me, and flew away."

    It was a very busy monster that day, with sightings in Burlington, Pemberton, Haddonfield, Collingswood, Moorestown and Riverside. It buzzed a trolley car passing through Springside, just south of Burlington, and a Burlington cop was quoted as saying, "It is a Jabberwock."

    On Jan. 20, it seemed to have gone quite berserk. It attacked the Black Hawk Social Club in Camden and a trolley full of passengers in Haddon Heights. Then it headed up to Trenton and scared the living daylights out of several people, including a city councilman. The trolley operators in the area were issued guns. It put in no fewer than 13 appearances that Wednesday, ranging over an area stretching from Pleasantville to Trenton to Leiperville, PA.

    On Thursday, the 21st, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, it attacked a woman in South Philadelphia as she was taking her laundry off the clothesline in her yard. Mrs. J.H. White of the 1500 block of Ellsworth St. was frightened into a swoon by the beast, which she described as 6 feet tall, bat-winged, with alligator skin. Hearing her screams, her husband, an insurance agent, chased it away with a clothesprop. It was nearly run over by a trolley on Washington Ave. and was pelted with stones by a mob in Germantown.

    On Friday it returned to Camden, where it was observed drinking water from a horse trough in front of a bar by Camden policeman Louis Strehr, who also described it as "a Jabberwock."

    People were starting to freak out, not leaving their homes, even in broad daylight. Schools and factories closed and theatrical performances were canceled. It hid until after sunset, then exploded out of a boxcar in Chester, PA, terrorizing a small group of women before flying on to Morrisville where it was briefly trapped in a barn by some plucky farmers. It was seen in Trenton and Salem that night, and then it vanished back into the Pines. The beast has reappeared periodically throughout the years since, but the rampage of 1909 was by far its most spectacular manifestation.

    The idea of a bat-winged kangaroo zooming around in the Pines is weird enough, but the strangest thing about it is its behavior. There is no evidence that it has ever actually harmed anyone. It has killed dogs and snatched livestock, and it is known to have a fondness for corn. There are tales of it stealing pies left on windowsills to cool. But its interactions with people are entirely limited to scaring the bejesus out of them and flying away. It's a very odd monster indeed that can be warded off by an insurance agent wielding a clothesprop.

    It was getting dark, the throbbing menace that lurks behind the Pines slowly overtaking the serenity of daylight. I decided to go get a room for the night and maybe stop by a certain bar just outside of Leeds Point. I drove farther south on Rte. 9 and took a room at the Ten Acres Motel in Galloway. The Ten Acres looks like what the Bates Motel would have been if Norman and his mother had been acid-gobbling hippies instead of homicidal wackos. The motel itself is overshadowed by a colorful Victorian house surrounded by every type of lawn ornament known to man. I paid $45 cash for a single room for the night, no ID check, no phone, no cable tv. A room off the grid just three hours from New York.

    I lit out for this down-home biker bar I favor, which I cannot name. You'll find it if you look hard enough. I sat there swilling down a series of perfect bloody marys and listening to a couple of grizzled old independents swap stories with a member of the Breed. They were talking about various crashes and near misses they've had, and one fellow told how he was nearly wiped out by a huge buzzard that was picking at a dead chicken in the road on a curve.

    "The thing just sorta hopped up and flew right at me, damn near killed me," he said.

    I suggested that maybe buzzards and owls had a lot to do with the Jersey Devil business. He got real quiet, and so did his friends. He looked me dead in the eye and stirred his drink.

    "That ain't no buzzard," he said, "and it ain't no owl, either. We were camping out up by Chatsworth one night a couple of years ago. We'd set up camp and we were gettin' to drinkin' and smokin' and just generally having a good old time out there. There was one of those little lulls in the conversation, ya know? And then we heard the most godawful noise I ever heard in my life. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. It wasn't no more than a few feet away, and it wasn't no screech owl, and it definitely wasn't human."

    He took a sip of his drink.

    "I been to Nam. I been a biker since I was old enough to ride one. I ain't scared of much, but we tore outta that campsite in a hurry, I'll tell ya. I don't know what that thing is, but it's still out there, and I ain't fuckin' with it."

    It is an enduring mystery with a great deal of charm, this ridiculous thing flying around over the cranberry bogs, lurking in the mist among the stunted pines, terrorizing people for sport. It's apparently harmless, but the mere sound of its awful scream is enough to send hardened bikers fleeing for their lives to the nearest motel. In a world of cellphones and genetic engineering, in a time when information overload and time deprivation are driving people completely nuts, it is extremely reassuring to me to think that there might be a dragon loose in the heart of New Jersey. It gives me a sense of continuity, a direct link to a time of fairies and more colorful horrors than corporate predators and serial killers. It can't possibly be real, but standing alone at the end of Scott's Landing Rd. as the sun goes down and the moon rises, reality seems to get just a little too loose for comfort, and the rational world of dot-coms and career anxiety seems very far away indeed.

    The Pine Barrens are about as far away from New York City as you can get. You can waste your time trying to get to the Hamptons, fight your way through traffic just to fight your way through a hideous throng of petite bourgeoisie to get a spot on an overcrowded beach, wind up getting bumped at some overpriced and overhyped restaurant to make way for fat-ass Alec Baldwin or the execrable Sean Combs, or you can go to Coney Island or Jones Beach and get shoved around by mobs resting up for their next riot. I'll be spending my weekends this summer running with the Devil.

    The Pines are beautiful, unique and indescribably serene by day. At night, you'd be well advised to get a room.