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Crooked Ways in the Wilderness

If you’ve ever made the drive from Swarthmore to the Pine Barrens, you may have heard the peculiar tale of the Jersey Devil. A winged creature with horns and a tail, said to resemble a horse standing on its hind legs, the beast has supposedly haunted South Jersey for more than 250 years.

Based in the folk culture of the Pine Barrens with parallels in indigenous Lenape lore, the Jersey Devil— sensationalized and popularized by Victorian-era hucksters—has often been referred to as the “Leeds Devil,” said to have been birthed by a woman called Mother Leeds in the early 18th century.

In fact, there was a Leeds family living in New Jersey at that time. And the members were Quakers. How did they become devils? The answer sounds absurd: almanacs.

The Leeds family was among the first generation to join the Religious Society of Friends when it was established by George Fox in England in the 1650s. Daniel Leeds was a member in good standing when he immigrated to New Jersey in 1677 ... that is, until he published an almanac without approval—an almanac, furthermore, that used pagan names instead of Quaker plain language (e.g. “March,” referring to the Roman god of war, instead of just a month’s ordinal number) and included occultist content like astrology. (The horror!)

Disillusioned by his censure by Quaker leadership, Leeds began publishing texts critical of Quakers, some of which personally disparaged George Fox. The move ignited an all-out pamphlet war.

In 1697, Leeds published News of a trumpet sounding in the wilderness. Or, The Quakers antient testimony revived, examined and compared with itself, and also with their new doctrine. Whereby the ignorant may learn wisdom, and the wise advance in their understandings.

Quaker Caleb Pusey’s rejoinder—one among many—may constitute the earliest outline of the “Leeds Devil”: Satan’s harbinger encountered, his false news of a trumpet detected, his crooked ways in the wildrnesse laid open to the view of the impartial and judicious (1700).

Enraged, Leeds retorted with the jaw-droppingly titled News of a strumpet co-habiting in the wilderness or, A brief abstract of the spiritual & carnal whoredoms & adulteries of the Quakers in America. Delinated in a cage of twenty unclean birds. Purposely published in pitty to the Quakers, to let them see themselves as others see them (1701).

The Leeds family’s reputation suffered further when Daniel’s son Titan aroused the ire of a rival almanac publisher. Perhaps you’ve heard of Benjamin Franklin?

The legendary sharp wit came up with a satirical joke to drum up interest in his own almanac while infuriating his rival: Among his almanac’s astrological predictions, Franklin forecast Titan Leeds’s death for October 1733.

When that date dawned and died, but Titan didn’t, the son tried to publicly shame Franklin, who coyly replied that his prophecy had been fulfilled: Surely the ghost of the deceased Titan Leeds was pestering him now.

And thus, the Leeds family passed from the realm of history into lore. From bedeviling the Quakers into devils and from haunting Ben Franklin to haunting the Pine Barrens, the myth of the Jersey Devil was born.

Visit Friends Historical Library to see our sources, from our copies of pamphlets from the 1690s and 1700s to 2018’s The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster, to judge for yourself.

Or, of course, you could set up a tent deep in the Pine Barrens, toast a marshmallow, and wait in the darkness for your answer. But if you happen to encounter a fearsome beast, winged and horned and horselike, try not to mention that you’re a Swarthmorean.

After all, the Jersey Devil and George Fox, inhabitant of the original Swarthmoor Hall, weren’t exactly on the “Friend”-liest of terms.