Earlier this week a blogger for NJ.com shared a photo of a bizarre, somewhat goatlike silhouetted winged form in the sky. Despite several obvious signs that the anonymously submitted photo is faked, it went viral and has been widely shared on social media as long-sought evidence of the mysterious Jersey Devil.
The website DoubtfulNews.com deemed it "Laugh out loud fake," noting that "The object is too stiff to be alive and clearly not a real creature. Also we can tell the silly-shaped and small-sized wings aren't moving since the shutter speed was low in this light and movement would have resulted in a blur. For this alone we can call fake."
If the photo were real, it would be among the first images of a bizarre beast claimed to roam the wooded Pine Barren of southern New Jersey. The Jersey Devil has appeared in dozens of books, films, and television shows including "The X-Files."
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Most accounts suggest that the creature has a horse-like face with horns sprouting from the top of its head. It's often said to walk on two legs and have hooves. The overall body shape resembles a kangaroo, or a goat, or an ape, though it also has wings like a bat.
The Jersey Devil legend is said to date back to the 1700s. There are several variations of the legend, but the most common version recounts how a woman named Mother Leeds - believed to have been the wife of an almanac publisher named Daniel Leeds - gave birth to her 13th child on - wait for it - a dark and stormy night.
Some said she practiced witchcraft, and that on that night she bore the unholy fruit of a Satanic tryst. It emerged like an ordinary baby but soon changed form, growing wings, hooves and an equine head.
It flew into the air with a bloodcurdling shriek, killing a midwife in the process, and headed toward the woods. To this day, it is said with mostly-straight faces around campfires, the horrible monster still lurks in the woods....
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Professor Brian Regal of New Jersey's Kean University researched the origins of the Jersey Devil legend in an article in "Skeptical Inquirer" magazine. Regal notes that the true story stems not from a blaspheming maternal witch but instead from complex colonial-era politics that even involved a Leeds family feud with rival almanac publisher Benjamin Franklin.
Nearly two centuries would pass before anyone reported or even thought of the Jersey Devil. As Regal notes, "References to the Jersey Devil do not appear in newspapers or other printed material until the twentieth century. The first major flap came in 1909. It is from these sightings that the popular image of the creature - batlike wings, horse head, claws, and general air of a dragon-became standardized."
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The new Jersey Devil photo is only the latest in a long line of hoaxes hyping the mystery. In 1909, for example, a Philadelphia businessman claimed to have captured the monster and put it on display. He charged admission to see the creature, which was in fact a kangaroo he purchased and painted green, attaching rabbit-fur covered "wings" to its back.
It's likely that not all reports are hoaxes, but even sincere eyewitnesses can be spooked or startled by an unknown animal in the woods. The Jersey Devil, though a product of folklore and legend, might still be seen by imaginative people walking through the forest at night.