Jersey Devil legend continues to fascinate in Pine Barrens

Associated Press Writer

November 29, 2003, 8:38 AM EST

PEMBERTON, N.J. -- As Russ Juelg guides groups through the Pine Barrens by the light of the moon, he always instructs them to keep their eyes up in the trees. They're watchful for a strange form crouching from a tree limb or a pair of glowing eyes emerging from the shadows.

The search for the legendary Jersey Devil may include plenty of skeptics, but Juelg says curiosity still draws dozens of thrill-seekers to southern New Jersey each month to go on "hunts."

"Being out in the wilderness at night and hearing and seeing strange things that you can't account for is kind of a thrill, and it kind of puts you in touch with the mysterious side of nature," said Juelg, who leads the outings for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

The tale of the cloven-hoofed creature with the wings of a bat remains one of the best known examples of a New Jersey legend, according to Angus Kress Gillespie, a professor of American studies at Rutgers University and director of the New Jersey Folk Festival. It's also become a popular culture figure, even lending its name to the state's professional hockey team.

There are multiple versions of the tale familiar to most New Jersey schoolchildren, but a popular version describes the creature as being born to a woman named Mother Leeds, who already had 12 children and cursed the baby.

"It's a powerful story so it has a grip on our imagination," Gillespie said. "It's been in oral circulation ever since 1735 so that's a pretty hardy story."

It's also a tale that's seen a resurgence in part because of two books about it that were written by James F. McCloy and Ray Miller Jr. That heightened interest in the Jersey Devil has drawn curious visitors and hard-core investigative types alike into the woods.

McCloy attributes some of its current popularity to New Jersey's distinction as the most densely populated state in the country.

"I think the legend's going to keep on going," he said. "It's been around since 1735 and we're getting sightings all the way into the present day. I think people want it to be there."

The tale's roots in southern New Jersey culture also set it apart from fearsome creatures in movies and popular culture, said Abbie Mylod, who opened the Jersey Devil Cafe in Medford last year.

"It's local townspeople who pass it around," she said. "Many people have claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil out in the woods. It's almost a pastime to search for the Jersey Devil. There's a lot of things that people have said the Jersey Devil is responsible for and we haven't been able to prove it otherwise."

Still, Mylod comes across plenty of skeptics at her cafe, which serves up Jersey Jabberwocky salads and Leeds BLT sandwiches, along with Jersey Devil T-shirts and books.

"People come in and say it's like our own little Loch Ness monster. I guess it's hard unless you live here and you're with your peers as far as people who believe."

Some have truly turned the search for proof into a full-time interest.

The Devil Hunters, started almost five years ago by Laura Leuter, now has more than a dozen members who go out on weekends to locations of reported sightings and do research _ complete with a night vision camera and boom mike in tow.

Leuter, 25, of Old Bridge, says she and her colleagues approach their interest in a scientific way and are willing to accept that the legend may be nothing more than a tale passed down through the generations.

"We get people every once in a while who e-mail us and tell us, 'You need to get a life, you need a job' and we're like whatever," concedes Leuter, who works for a major financial institution. "What are you doing on my Web site? If I'm the one who needs a life, why are you looking up things you don't believe in?"

The legend likely began by playing a rule in childrearing or by discouraging outsiders, Gillespie said.

"It's not too terribly helpful to get too hung up on whether or not the Jersey Devil exists," he said. "From a folkloristic standpoint, a more important question is what role did the telling of the story play in south Piney culture?

Juelg agrees that most remain doubtful that the creature ever existed or continues to roam the Pine Barrens. Still, he says, that's not the point of his organized hunts.

"There are a lot of people who just think it's nonsense or object to it on religious grounds," Juelg said. "I never try to convince anybody of one thing or another. The way I present the Jersey Devil legend is primarily a component of the folklore of New Jersey and let people make up their own minds how to interpret it. I'm just basically retelling the story, keeping the story alive."