Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Jersey devilry

Yesterday's post, about spurious claims of a curse (and associated terrible occurrences) in rural northwestern Connecticut, prompted an interesting comment from a reader.

I have a question, and please don't take this as criticism, because it's not meant that way.  Don't you think that the sheer number of claims of the paranormal counts for something?  I don't remember where I read this, but polls have found that wherever you go, the majority of people claim to have had at least one experience of the supernatural.  I'm not talking about Dudleytown in particular -- that may well be a hoax, as you explained -- but surely you can't attribute all of the claims of the paranormal to lies or hoaxes or people misinterpreting natural phenomena or whatever.  There has to be some wheat among the chaff, don't you think?

It's a good question, and I don't at all take it as criticism (after all, questioning is how we come to understanding).  She's certainly right about the commonness of the claims; a 2022 poll by YouGov found that over two-thirds of Americans claim to have had experiences of the supernatural.  But the fact is, no, I don't find this very convincing.  As we've seen all too often here at Skeptophilia, humans have an unfortunate tendency to make shit up and claim it's real.  Add that to our generally faulty sensory-perceptive apparatus and capacity for psychological priming (interpreting what we experience based upon what we expected to experience), and you have a combo that makes eyewitness accounts suspect right from the get-go.

As an example of this, let's take a look at one of the most famous examples of a supernatural entity -- the notorious Jersey Devil.

The Jersey Devil, or Leeds Devil, is a legend of the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey.  The area is atmospheric enough without the creature.  It's a thinly-occupied belt of poor, sandy soil running down the middle of the southern half of the state, home to a unique ecosystem dominated by pitch pine and other species that have evolved to thrive there.  Because the soil was lousy for farming, it never was heavily settled.  The few permanent residents somehow eked out a living for themselves, but other than that it was mainly a haunt of sketchy characters and criminals on the run from the law.  (As an interesting side note, one of these was my direct ancestor, Luke Rulong, who lived in the Pine Barrens in the late eighteenth century.  He was in and out of jail repeatedly for such crimes as poaching, mischief, and riot, and his only known child -- my ancestor, Aaron Rulong -- went all the way to Louisiana to get away from his father's bad reputation.)

In any case, the Jersey Devil is said to be a strange looking creature, a bit like a skinny kangaroo with wings.  Here's a drawing from the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1909:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

There have been hundreds (probably thousands) of alleged sightings of this thing, including by such luminaries as Commodore Stephen Decatur and Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon, who had emigrated to the United States and owned an estate near Bordentown.  There was a wave of sightings in 1909 (which is why the artist's impression of the Devil ended up in a Philadelphia newspaper that year).  However, the sightings have been steady throughout the twentieth century, probably bolstered by how many times the creature has appeared in fiction -- in fact, it was one of the first "monster of the week" episodes in The X Files.

Where we start running into trouble is that even the believers can't agree on the Jersey Devil's origins.  Here are three popular claims:

  1. It is a spirit creature that has inhabited the area for millennia, and was known to the Native Lenape people as M'Sing.
  2. It is the thirteenth child of one Jane (or Dorothy) Leeds and her husband Japhet, inhabitants of the Barrens.  Dorothy (or Jane) was understandably enough pissed off at the fact that twelve children weren't sufficient and cursed her child in utero.  "May you be the Devil!" she said, and sure enough, so it was.  It was born with wings and hooves and a horrible animal face, and shortly after birth flew up the chimney and out into the woods, where it lives lo unto this very day.
  3.  Same as #2, except that the father of the child wasn't Japhet Leeds, but was Satan himself.

Japhet Leeds was apparently real enough, even if no one is quite sure what his wife's name was (in a lot of the versions of the legend, she's called "Mother Leeds" to obviate the need of figuring it out).  There's a place in Galloway Township, Atlantic County, New Jersey called Leeds Point, and a tradition that the Leeds family was in general up to no good -- although how much of that was due to their connection to the Jersey Devil legend is uncertain.  Certainly, they were a superstitious lot.  One of the Leedses, amusingly named Titan, was a writer of almanacs in the early eighteenth century, and included a lot of astrological mumbo-jumbo along with the usual folksy wisdom.  Apparently this attracted the attention of none other than Benjamin Franklin, who saw Titan Leeds's books as competition for his Poor Richard's Almanack.  So Franklin put an entry in his almanac saying that he'd used astrology to predict Leeds's death in 1733.  When Leeds published an objection, Franklin (who was not a man you wanted to engage in a battle of wits) responded how remarkable it was that he'd gotten a reply from a ghost.  He continued referring to Leeds as a disembodied spirit of the dead until the poor man finally became one in actuality in 1738.

In any case, a lot of the Jersey Devil legend probably stems from how generally accepted superstition was back then (and still is, to look at the polls).  But here's where we get to the other sticking point, and why the number of eyewitness accounts doesn't lead me toward belief -- but actually the opposite.

Of all the thousands of sightings of the Jersey Devil, there has never been one piece of hard evidence of its existence.  Not even a decent photograph (although these days, with digital image software and AI, photographs aren't really admissible as evidence anyhow).  Here we have something that has been seen countless times -- and has left behind not a single trace.

For me, if something has been seen on multiple occasions, a lack of hard evidence becomes a persuasive argument against its existence.  If you've got a single sighting of, I dunno, the Evil BunnyMan of Nebraska or something, and there's no evidence, that's one thing.  Maybe the one time he was seen, BunnyMan hippety-hopped in such a way as to not leave any footprints.

But thousands of accounts, and nothing?

That's mighty peculiar.

So in answer to my reader, no -- I don't find the number of sightings, by itself, convincing.  I'm going to require something other than an eyewitness account.  As always, though, I am open to having my mind changed.  But, as eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "As a scientist, I need more than 'you saw it.'"


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