Reporter Bill Sprouse recently published his first book, a history of the Jersey Devil and of his distant family connection to the famous folk story of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
He sat down with our own Henry C., a house cat, to talk about Wawas, his grandmother, self-publishing, the Atlantic City casino bus and the ‘C-List cryptid’ to which he may be distantly related.
HENRY THE CAT, HOST: In the book you say the Jersey Devil is part folklore, part “literary amalgamation”? What did you mean by that?
BILL SPROUSE, AUTHOR, THE DOMESTIC LIFE OF THE JERSEY DEVIL: Well, I just meant that it belongs to both an oral tradition and to a written one.
I think you could argue that it’s not folklore. I’ve heard people suggest that it’s not. I’m not sure I’m qualified really to wade into that debate. I’m not a folklorist or an anthropologist or anything. But I think there’s definitely part of the tradition of Jersey Devil storytelling that’s still informal, whether it’s spoken-word or even stuff that’s written down but by non-professionals — in internet forums and things like that — that could be considered examples of folk culture. Maybe even these youtube videos made by kids are a kind of folk media, though they sort of imitate professional forms of storytelling.
But when someone like Donn Shearer tells the story about the Jersey Devil emerging from the ground at a particular lean-to at Camp Edge where there are cracks in the cement, I think you’re hearing an informal, spoken tradition. I’ve never seen that written down anywhere. When Mike Schum talks about the bones in the pond in Millville, I think that’s part of an oral tradition.
There’s a line from Richard Dorson about how folklore is “repetitive, clumsy, meaningless and obscene.” I think that resonated with me. If you looked at my notebooks, I think you’d find their contents to be all those things.
Also, there’s still a big difference, even today I think, between what you hearwhen you ask people about the Jersey Devil — random people — not people who’ve gone out of their way to memorize the books and the Wikipedia articles — and what you read over and over again in newspapers or on the internet.
In the beginning, I kind of accepted the idea in McCloy and Miller’s book that there was a most common version of the story — Mother Leeds’ thirteenth child, born in 1735 in Leeds Point or Burlington — but I never met anyone who said that set of magic words. And I had a pretty strong vested interest in supporting McCloy and Miller’s claim.
The written versions tend toward this cartoon monster with wings. The spoken versions, as I heard them, were much darker.
HENRY THE CAT: What is “folkroulette?”
SPROUSE: Oh, at the time I was going around interviewing people, the hot new thing on the interwebs was “chatroulette.” Some Russian teenager had developed a website where you could video-chat with randomly assigned strangers from around the globe. Folkroulette was meant to be an old-fashioned version of that. But the joke itself is already dated.
Basically I wandered around New Jersey for, off and on, for a couple of years, asking people about the Jersey Devil. I had a little Olympus voice recorder and I would basically ask people if they’d heard of the Jersey Devil. If so, what was it? Where had they heard about it? That kind of thing.
I spent a lot of time in Turnpike and Parkway rest stops, crossing the state in public transportation, in convenience stores, in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Atlantic City boardwalk. I went to a Phillies game — that’s a South Jersey thing to do. I hung out in Penn Station in New York.
I specifically avoided the Pine Barrens, the spiritual home of the Jersey Devil, because A. very few people live there, that’s what makes them the Pine Barrens, and B. I felt it was my mission to take the Jersey Devil out of the Pine Barrens and put it in the suburbs, which is where I grew up. I wanted to look at how this folk story had survived in New Jersey, this hyper-developed suburban wasteland that’s supposedly inimical to all things folksy, charming, authentic etc.
I collected a lot of material and then didn’t know what the hell to do with it. Still don’t know what to do with it. I might put it up on the website someday.
HENRY THE CAT: How did you get interested in this subject?
SPROUSE: When I was about nine years old my grandmother told me I was distantly related to the Jersey Devil. She was a Leeds from Leeds Point. When she was a little girl, her grandfather used to make footprints around the yard every time it snowed, and he would tell the children they’d been put there by this distant relative. It was an old Leeds family joke, she said, being related to the Jersey Devil, which used to be called the Leeds Devil. But there was also a little bit of pride, I think, in being from a family that had been in South Jersey for three hundred years.
The Leeds family first came to Leeds Point when Daniel Leeds moved his family from near Burlington, in what was then the province of West New Jersey, in the aftermath of something called the Keithian controversy, which had split the Quaker community in the Delaware Valley during the 1690s.
Daniel was a Quaker émigré from England, and he had made the beginnings of this splendid career in Burlington and Philadelphia, seemingly. He was a popular writer and almanac-maker and he was the Surveyor General of West Jersey. In 1694, he had six children. By 1699 he would have two more. But he’d suddenly packed up his family and moved to a nondescript swamp on the opposite side of the colony.
In 1697 Daniel published a pamphlet called “News of a Trumpet” where he explained his relationship with the Quakers and his reasons for splitting with the Society, and he cited a poem that some Quakers had written, in which they compared some of their enemies to a group of devils.
“These five men inserted in the aforesaid Rhymes, they call a Team of Devils,” Daniel said, “and here I expect they will put me in for a sixth Devil.”
And in fact they would.
HENRY THE CAT: Describe what the Jersey Devil is and where you think the story came from.
SPROUSE: My grandmother had very particular ideas about where the Jersey Devil came from. In one version of the story — probably the most famous version, written version anyway — the Jersey Devil was the thirteenth child of a Quaker woman called Mother Leeds, and it was born in 1735 after Mother Leeds cursed her unborn child. On a stormy night she supposedly gave birth to this thirteenth child, which transformed into a monster with a horse’s head, bat wings, horns, hooves, scales and a tail. It then flew out the window and into the Pine Barrens, a big forest in the middle of New Jersey, where it lives to this day.
My grandmother was directly descended from a woman named Deborah Leeds, a Quaker, who lived in Leeds Point in the 1730s and who really did have twelve children. You can find her husband’s will in the New Jersey Archives. In 1735, Deborah would have been about fifty years old. Some of Deborah’s story has already been written about.
My grandmother told me that Deborah Leeds was the real Mother Leeds of Jersey Devil legend. She didn’t think Deborah had given birth to a monster of course, but she did think that something must have happened that caused the neighbors to tell this outlandish story about the poor woman.
In the beginning I wanted to find out what could be learned about Deborah’s life that might explain the mystery. But Deborah was an obscure colonial woman living three hundred years ago on the edge of a wilderness, and very little was known about her life.
Daniel Leeds on the other hand, was a very public figure, and he left a lot of records. There were at least three instances where his contemporaries described him using the words “Satan” or “devil” or “Judge of Hell.” Daniel himself very cheerfully repeated these descriptions in his own writings.
What’s less well-known is that Deborah Leeds was married to Japhet Leeds, Daniel’s oldest son. In other words, Deborah was the daughter-in-law of arguably the most notorious Quaker apostate in West Jersey history — certainly one of the top three or four.
HENRY THE CAT: So that’s how you’re related to the Jersey Devil?
SPROUSE: That’s what my BeBop said.
BeBop, my grandmother, was like eight generations, directly descended from Japhet and Deborah, whom she said was the real Mother Leeds, whatever that means. She thought Deborah was believed, by some people, to have given birth to a monster.
I should add that BeBop was by no means the only Leeds in New Jersey to think they were related to the Jersey Devil. I went through the phone book one time, calling people with the last name Leeds in New Jersey — wonderfully organized that way, phonebooks — and I can assure you there are lots of other Leedses who thought like my grandmother. But my grandmother was unusual in that she had a specific historic person in mind — Deborah. BeBop had a clearer idea of what she meant than some other Leedses did.
But I don’t want to claim any kind of sole proprietorship, via my grandmother. Other people’s Jersey Devil connections are fine too. This just happened to be the one I grew up with.
HENRY THE CAT: Do you think there’s an explanation for the Jersey Devil story?
SPROUSE: In the beginning I was definitely trying to explain the Jersey Devil. In fact it was worse than that. I wanted to find evidence to support the particular hypothesis that Deborah Leeds was Mother Leeds, as my grandmother had said. But I don’t think that question would have sustained my interest very long.
Very early on I met Harry Leeds, and he kind of changed everything.
HENRY THE CAT: Alright, who was Harry Leeds? And what do you mean by his “performance art?”
SPROUSE: Harry Leeds was an older gentleman from Galloway Township, which is a big township on the southeast edge of the Pine Barrens. It’s sort of a suburb of Atlantic City, and it encompasses the present-day townlet of Leeds Point, one of the classic birthplaces of the Jersey Devil. Harry was the mayor of Galloway, and when I started this, not too long before I started it, there had been a push to adopt the Jersey Devil as Galloway’s official mascot, led in part by Harry.
For years Harry worked a sideline as the kind of press secretary for the Jersey Devil. Whenever newspaper reporters or TV crews came to the Pine Barrens to do stories about the Jersey Devil — a not uncommon occurrence believe it or not — they seemed to end up talking to Harry. He told me that when he was in Vietnam he worked as the liaison to a film crew that was making documentary movies for the military, and maybe that’s where he got his start in public relations. Harry had served in both the Army and in the Marine Corps.
Anyway. When Harry got out of the military, he’d moved back to Galloway and bought a bar and got involved in local politics, and he took up this job as unofficial spokesperson for the Jersey Devil. Every year at Halloween he used to go around to the schools and talk to the school kids about the local monster.
I should also say that Harry was kind of my grandmother’s arch-nemesis. She disliked him enormously. This was my BeBop, remember. Anyone who’s ever had a BeBop knows that BeBops are loving and kind and never hate anyone. But my BeBop hated one person and it was Harry Leeds.
But I felt a weird affinity toward him. I mean, this was a guy who went around getting attention in the media for being related to the Jersey Devil. And here I am essentially doing the same thing. So maybe it’s natural that I should have seen in him a kind of kindred spirit.
HENRY THE CAT: So what happened the first time you met Harry Leeds? Tell the story.
SPROUSE: Well, the first time my grandmother and I went to the Galloway Historical Room to look at the old Beers Map of Leeds Point, someone heard what we were doing and helpfully telephoned Harry Leeds, since he was the local expert on the Jersey Devil, and within minutes Harry appeared in person carrying a videotape of one of the Jersey Devil TV shows he’d appeared in, and he put this tape into a nearby VCR.
At the time, Harry had been expanding his oeuvre as monster spokesman and was appearing not only in newspapers but also in those — one hesitates to call them documentaries — but those TV shows you see on the History Channel or the Travel Channel about monsters or ghosts or whatever. Harry would talk about the Jersey Devil and its history in the Leeds family, and sometimes he would claim to have seen the creature when he was a young boy. He’d had an “encounter” around “dark time” with the beast, he said.
In the documentary that he showed that day, which ran–unshamefacedly–on the Discovery Channel, Harry appeared onscreen to assure viewers that not only was the Jersey Devil currently out there in the woods somewhere, but also that it was trying to communicate with us.
According to the Discovery Channel, the monster was regarded by locals as a kind of Piney Nostradamus. It could tell the future and wanted to alert us to some impending calamity.
This was news to my grandmother and me. I’d grown up here my whole life and had never met anyone who thought the Jersey Devil was anything other than a quaint piece of folklore. But we just sort of sat there dumbfounded by the whole thing.
Maybe Harry sensed our skepticism because, as he was rewinding his video and getting ready to say goodbye, he signaled to me nonverbally that maybe I shouldn’t take his performance too literally.
HENRY THE CAT: What do you mean?
SPROUSE: I mean he winked at me. I wish I’d picked it up on my voice recorder, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Anyway, I was young and impressionable and this made a great impression on me. It never occurred to me that someone might go on television and say things they didn’t necessarily believe.
I interviewed Harry again, about ten years later, not long before he died, and he didn’t exactly come clean, but he definitely suggested that he knew there was more to his performance than what appeared on the Discovery Channel.
Anyway, I knew I wanted to understand that moment and what it meant. I thought if I understood what Harry was doing, I would understand something important about the Jersey Devil. So that kind of became the more important question to me — What did Harry mean by this whole routine he went through? Why did he show me this video and then wink like that?
HENRY THE CAT: Why did your grandmother hate Harry?
SPROUSE: It’s one of the unresolved problems of the book. Many theories but no real answers.
She said Harry was not a “real Leeds.” Apparently her grandfather had been quite emphatic on this point. That was part of it.
Harry was a Leeds, obviously, and he was related to the Jersey Devil. My grandmother was a Leeds and she too was related. But my grandmother was emphatically NOT related to Harry. So, this was a problem.
There seems to have been some family beef traceable at least to Charles Leeds, my great-great grandfather, who was born in 1853, and it’s possible that it’s traceable to some ancient split in the Leeds clans that happened in the 1790s but there’s no way to know.
But I had kind of a soft spot for Harry. And it turned out there was kind of a case of mistaken identity. The Harry Leeds that BeBop wanted to strangle wasn’t really the Harry she thought he was — he was an amalgam of two people.
But Harry was the public face of the Leeds family’s connection to the Jersey Devil. My grandmother was, to me, the private face, or at least the face of this family tradition. And her objections to Harry were in large part aesthetic, I think, so it made a kind of sense that the person she wanted to strangle was a media persona.
HENRY THE CAT: Where did you physically write the book?
SPROUSE: In our apartment in Mexico City. It is blazingly sunlit, which, I think, gloom is probably better for this kind of work, but the thin mountain air has a stimulating effect on the intellects. It dispels the gross humors.
HENRY THE CAT: Did you work on it full-time?
SPROUSE: No, I have a day job that involves summarizing mutual fund news. I’m sort of a failed financial journalist. But what I do now is more what’s called news aggregation, very fashionable. But it’s less demanding than running around trying to find stories and break news, so I was able to work on this during my off-hours.
HENRY THE CAT: I’m looking at the cover of the book here, and there’s a very long subtitle. Could you explain the cover design?
SPROUSE: A friend of mine named Tiffany Edwards designed the cover. She works for an art gallery, and apparently they put out books all the time. Who knew? But she had some skill in these matters. The fonts are seventeenth-century Fell-type fonts that Tiffany found that were digitally generated based on a model built by a man named Igino Marini, a civil engineer in Italy, who really loves Fell fonts and does this kind of thing in his spare time apparently.
But it’s supposed to look like a seventeenth century pamphlet. I sent Tiffany one of Daniel Leeds’ pamphlets called The Rebuker Rebuked, from 1703, and she put this together and I thought it was amazing. We debated using a different color background, to evoke the feel of an old document, but in the end I couldn’t live with a book about authenticity with a fake parchment cover. There are limits to my hypocrisy.
It solved a few problems. A, I have no graphic skill or sensibility. B, I had no advance book blurbs, so this was a way of covering the book with text, not having to pay for any art, and communicating a sense of informality, all while honoring the history. I don’t have a publisher. I’m a pamphleteer, just like Daniel Leeds.
HENRY THE CAT: Why’d you call it The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil?
SPROUSE: I kept thinking something would come up in the research or reporting — someone would say something, or I would stumble across some quote. But in the end I made up a bunch of names and took a poll among some friends. That was the title I could live with.
The book is kind of about borders. Something weird seems to happen when the Jersey Devil crosses boundaries, when it stops being a local story or a family story and turns into something you see on the Discovery Channel or read about in the New York Times.
There are sort of two main characters in the book: Harry Leeds, who was sort of the master of exporting the story or selling it to big, or bigger, media, and my grandmother, who was my personal, family connection to the story. I kind of wanted to take the story out of the hands of Harry and the Discovery Channel and give it back to my grandmother.
Also, houses: They’re a big theme. The Jersey Devil has several houses across South Jersey. I liked the idea of a fire-breathing monster doing chores around the house, baking pies and doing the vacuuming and all that.
But mostly it was the other stuff.
HENRY THE CAT: I’m going to go through some of the things you mention in the subtitle. What was the Keithian Affair?
SPROUSE: Well some very capable historians, actual historians, have examined the Keithian controversy, and I would direct you to their work for a proper answer, but if I understood it correctly, it was a kind of doctrinal-social-political-religious dispute — historians still debate which of those elements ought to be emphasized — that split the Quaker community in Burlington and Philadelphia in the 1690s. It was led by a man named George Keith, a Scottish Quaker who came to East Jersey in the 1680s and ended up in Philadelphia.
Keith was kind of an intellectual, though apparently you’re not really supposed to emphasize that. But he wrote a sort of epistle called “Gospel Order Improved” in which he proposed a series of reforms to Quakerism in the Delaware Valley. Keith seemed to feel that many of his neighbors in the colonies lacked a proper understanding of basic Christian doctrine — what he took to be basic Christian doctrine. There were many “Ranters” and “airy notionists” among the faithful, and these people were in need of remedial training. But Keith was also criticizing, implicitly, church governance, and this brought him into conflict with the Quaker leadership in Philadelphia and Burlington, in particular with a group of influential Quakers known as the Public Friends, who acted as a kind of Quaker ministry, and this powerful group was not necessarily receptive to Keith’s reform suggestions.
Anyway, Keith was apparently a charismatic fellow, and he attracted a following in Burlington and Philadelphia. Some historians — Gary Nash notably — say Keith became a kind of lightning rod for men of a certain social class and of a certain level of ambition, who were resentful of the Public Friends and their control over the political life of the colony. In this, Nash could have been describing Daniel Leeds.
Leeds certainly appears to have been ambitious. He was from the right social class — not high enough to have a lot of power, but not low enough to keep his head down — and he probably felt himself pressed upon by the Public Friends, with whom he’d already had a few fights.
Anyway, when Keith came along, Leeds supported the movement. He became a Keithian, if you will. He would later say that a “motion heavenly” had inspired this action, a significant phrase, though its meaning had been lost on me.
In the summer of 1692, as the controversy was reaching its crisis and it was becoming clear that Keith’s reform proposals were not going to be enacted by the Quaker Yearly Meeting, Keith widened his criticism to include a political element. He said Public Friends or ministers shouldn’t serve simultaneously as magistrates in civil government, or “worldly” government, as they did in Pennsylvania, and he asked if there were an example of this kind of thing anywhere else in Christendom. At the time five, maybe six, magistrates in the courts in Philadelphia were also Public Friends. So this was not idle musing on political theory. It was a direct attack on some specific, powerful people.
The Public Friends responded by declaring Keith seditious and ordering him to stop publishing criticisms of the government. Keith had been issuing these pamphlets printed by William Bradford, who was also Daniel Leeds’ printer. And when Keith ignored the order, the Public Friends arrested a group of Keith’s followers and charged them, and Keith, with libel, essentially.
In December 1692 there was a big trial, which seems kind of farcical from the perspective of someone reading about it 320 years later. And in fact it was probably seen as petty and vindictive even by the standards of the time, by the Quaker leadership in London. But that pretty much ended the Keithians’ activities withinthe Quaker community in Philadelphia and Burlington. It put an exclamation point on the split.
The Keithians would later say — some of them — that they had spent long stretches of time in jail between their indictments in late August and the trial in December. The Public Friends — or their spokesman Samuel Jennings at least — said this claim was nonsense, that the Keithians had in fact regularly snuck into jail to drum up public sympathy. The Keithians admitted: Ok, we were let out of jail, but only through the kindness of the jailer. More capable researchers than I can someday perhaps find out what actually happened.
What is clear is that Bradford, Keith’s printer — Leeds’ printer — was relieved of his printing duties. His printing press was confiscated. His contract as official printer for Pennsylvania had been cancelled the previous spring in retribution for his support for Keith. And Bradford soon left Pennsylvania and took a job as printer for the colony of New York. Keith soon left America and returned to England. And a few years later Daniel Leeds would leave Burlington and go off pioneering on the other side of the Pine Barrens in Leeds Point, where his descendants continued to live into the twentieth century, into the twenty first century even, my grandmother being one of them, and where they continued to talk about being distantly related to the Leeds Devil.
HENRY THE CAT: Who was Lord Cornbury?
SPROUSE: Cornbury was a British colonial governor who was appointed to oversee the colonies of East and West New Jersey and New York when they ceased to be proprietary colonies and were taken over by the crown in 1702. This was ten years after the libel trial, but in some ways this drama felt like act II of the Keithian controversy, at least from Daniel’s perspective, though I never saw it written about in that way, and I’m sure a historian with actual expertise in this area would find that statement misleading. But some of the characters were the same — Samuel Jennings, Keith himself and Daniel Leeds.
Back in 1692, the libel trial of the Keithians had been very explicitly aboutsilencingcriticism of the Public Friends. The Keithians had supposedly been routed from the field, yet here we are ten years later and Daniel Leeds had not been silenced. He was, if anything, freer then he’d ever been. William Bradford, his printer, had new patrons in New York. He was no longer subject to arbitrary arrest or fines by the Quakers in Philadelphia. Leeds was free to write criticisms of the Quakers from his homestead in Leeds Point and Bradford was free to publish them from his presses in New York. And this is the context in which Daniel becomes party to the pamphlet wars in which he was called “Satan’s Harbinger” and later “Judge of Hell” and so forth. Maybe it was the only way the Quakers had left to respond to his provocations.
Whether Daniel deserves any credit for bringing about the “surrender” that put Cornbury in charge, I can’t really say. But Leeds, by 1702, was definitely a prominent anti-Quaker, who was publicly identified with the effort to defeat the Quaker political project in the Delaware Valley. West Jersey had been the first Quaker colony, older than Pennsylvania, so a bitter defeat this was for the Quakers. And it’s hard to imagine that Daniel wasn’t seen within that community as being at least partially responsible for the surrender and for the alleged catastrophe of the Cornbury government.
Cornbury had this amazing historical reputation for a long time as being unusually corrupt and terrible. Apparently this reputation was unjustified. But it’s important because it lasted a long time, and it raises some interesting questions about the tactics used by Cornbury’s enemies to discredit him. Many of those same tactics could have been used against Daniel, because those people would have been Daniel Leeds’ enemies too. It also raises some interesting questions about why this historical image of Cornbury was so readily accepted and certified by later scholars.
Cornbury was probably most famous as the transvestite governor of New York, which, that claim too had no real basis. There used to be a painting on display in the New York Historical Society on Central Park West allegedly depicting Cornbury in drag. People would dress up as the person in the painting and march in the Village Halloween parade. The painting’s still there, but it’s no longer identified as Cornbury. When I went up there, the curator who showed me around said they used to sell a lot of Cornbury tchotchkes in the gift shop. The painting was a museum superstar, she said, and there had been real resistance to taking down the ID tag that claimed she was Cornbury, but in the end the Cornbury revisionists won the day.
Anyway, Cornbury was important to me because Daniel Leeds’ historical reputation, to the extent that it exists at all, seems to derive from his participation in Cornbury’s government. Daniel is regarded basically as a Cornbury apparatchik. And though there has been a revision of Cornbury, there’s been no accompanying revision of Daniel Leeds. Why would there be?
Daniel’s political career flourished for a few years under Cornbury, I think it’s fair to say. Whether this was in reward for Daniel’s good works in helping to undermine Quaker authority and install Cornbury is kind of a historical question beyond my pay grade. But Daniel’s big act of treachery, as far as the Quakers were concerned, came when he intervened in an assembly election in which it appeared that the West Jersey Quakers and their proprietary allies had won a majority in the New Jersey assembly. Daniel and Thomas Revell objected that three West Jersey Quakers who had won seats had in fact been ineligible because they didn’t own the required one thousand acres of land. This was a false claim, but Cornbury used it and maneuvered to keep the Quakers from taking their seats, and so, for a year, the anti-proprietary, anti-Quaker factions controlled the government, and during this time they passed a number of laws offensive to the Quakers, including a militia act that required males of fighting age to muster four times a year or else pay fines. This act was opposed by the pacifist Quakers of course, and didn’t they let everyone know about it. But the revisionist side acknowledges at least that maybe there was a legitimate need for a militia, that Cornbury was under orders to provide for one, that the Quakers were obstructing much legitimate work of the government, and so on. But earlier historians blamed it on Cornbury’s venal and decadent nature.
The revision of Cornbury seems to have been led by Patricia Bonomi, a professor at NYU who wrote a book about the governor, and one of the most interesting things about that book, to me, was the argument thaat political rhetoric at this time was being reinvented and pushed to extremes, kind of. This was when Daniel Leeds wrote a pamphlet called News of a Strumpet, about the spiritual and carnal “whoredoms” of the Quakers. Which seemed a little extreme to me — at least the title — and indeed Bonomi seems to say it was a little extreme, even for its time. But maybe things were a little more heated at this time that you might otherwise expect — than I expected anyway.
HENRY THE CAT: So what role did these scandals play in creating the Jersey Devil story, do you think?
SPROUSE: When you start out in this monster-hunting nonsense, you’re looking for some kind of smoking gun, some document that says Deborah Leeds stroked poppets, or Daniel Leeds entertained Satan, or so-and-so Leeds consorted with the Prince of Darkness, so when you come across a pamphlet about Daniel Leeds, titled “Satan’s Harbinger” you think maybe you’re onto something. But it’s important to remember that Daniel Leeds was dead by 1720. He was essentially out of public life by 1716. The first mention of a “Leeds Devil” that anyone’s found wasn’t until 1859. Someone could find something earlier tomorrow, but to my knowledge that’s the earliest. I doubt anyone’s ever going to uncover a convincing body of documentary evidence that connects 1735 to 1859.
Folklore is, by its nature, invisible in the historical record. That means there’s this gap of a hundred and fifty years where the story’s essentially in a black box. You can speculate. You can hypothesize. But any arguments connecting Daniel with the Leeds Devil must necessarily be indirect or circumstantial.
On the other hand, there were Leedses living at the time they were supposed to be living, in the place where they were supposed to be living, and people were calling them devils. So it would be an interesting coincidence if these things weren’t related.
The other important caveat, I think, is that the name-calling isn’t enough to explain the Jersey Devil phenomenon. Lots of people have been involved in political controversies. Lots of people in the seventeenth century were publicly denounced in language that invoked the Satanic. Daniel Leeds’ name was used in connection with the devil at least four times, that I counted. But lots of those people didn’t then go on to inspire a folk story that stuck around for three hundred years and ended up getting turned into an X Files episode, the mascot of a pro sports team, and all the rest. So, necessary but insufficient on the whole Satan’s Harbinger thing, I think.
I think the best explanation for the Jersey Devil story is that members of the Leeds family lived in Leeds Point three hundred years ago. Their descendants have lived in Leeds Point, in Galloway, in Egg Harbor Township, across South Jersey into the present day. That in itself is kind of amazing. But they and their neighbors seem to have spent a fair chunk of that time, going back at least a century, talking about the Leeds Devil, or Jersey Devil. My great-great grandfather was one of them.
So in that sense, which is the only sense that actually matters, there is a line of causality that runs through Daniel Leeds and George Keith and Lord Cornbury and all the rest. That’s why there are Leedses in Leeds Point.
HENRY THE CAT: What is a Piney and why were they important?
SPROUSE: Pineys were people that lived in the Pine Barrens, the big forest in the middle of New Jersey. There’s a traditional Piney economy involving cranberry and blueberry cultivation, charcoal-making, that kind of thing. The Pine Barrens had had iron and glass-making industries in the nineteenth century, but when iron was found in Pennsylvania, the furnaces went out. The industries and a lot of the people left the Pines. Pineys were the people who stayed behind for one reason or another.
It’s worth pointing out that Leeds Point people weren’t really Pineys though. My great grandfather and great-great grandfather were “Bay Men.” They were fishermen basically. They went out fishing for clams and oysters in Great Bay, the mouth of the Mullica River. Maybe this is an academic distinction, but it was important enough to them, I can tell you.
Anyway. Pineys were important because they’ve had this weird connection with the Jersey Devil going back to the beginning. A lot of the most interesting writing about the Jersey Devil was done by people who were primarily interested in the Pine Barrens and who only wrote about Pineys and the Jersey Devil accidentally, as part of their reporting about something else. Some of this writing is pretty amazing. W.F. Mayers, who wrote a famous essay about the Pines in the Atlantic Monthly in 1859 openly rhapsodized about the destruction, or cultivation, of the Pine Barrens and the accompanying “Pine Rat” genocide that would ensue. It’s a thing to behold, this essay. Mayers was happy to see the Indian and other American “gypsies” who were unsatisfied with factory life die of starvation too.
Anyway. Mayers claimed that Pineys believed in the Jersey Devil — which was then the Leeds Devil — and he said that many Pineys lived in fear of the monster. Who knows how true this was. But Pineys have occupied this convenient role as surrogate believers ever since. Mayers didn’t believe in the Jersey Devil. I don’t think his editors at the Atlantic believed in it. But they didn’t have to, because the Pineys did.
This attitude, by the way, survived into my childhood even, I think, despite the efforts of reporters since the 1930s to undo the mythology of Pineys. When I was kid I never met any Pineys, but one of the things I remember thinking about these mythical beings was that they believed in the Jersey Devil. Today if you run around New Jersey with an Olympus voice-recorder, asking people about the Jersey Devil, they may not mention Mother Leeds to you, but I can assure you they will talk your ear off about Pineys
I think it’s fair to say that Jersey Devil is not just associated with Pineys. It is a Piney. Its parents were Pineys, after all. And people even still sort of conflate the very idea of the Jersey Devil with the idea of Pineys. Lord Whimsy, whose judgment I trust in these matters, spoke very accurately I think when he said Pineys and the Jersey Devil had melded into a kind of hybrid monster.
One woman I interviewed told me she saw the Jersey Devil one time and then proceeded to describe seeing a man with his shirt off, chopping wood, beside his house, in the Pine Barrens. This was quite clearly just a Piney. But the Jersey Devil and this Piney seem to have blended together, in her mind.
The Pine Barrens were also believed to contain high levels of what was called “feeblemindedness.” When people talk about a “mentally challenged” person or whatever running around the woods, a wild person, they’re conflating the Jersey Devil with this old stereotype of Pineys. Supposedly there was a story that children born “feebleminded” along the Mullica River were said to have been “touched” by the Jersey Devil.
HENRY THE CAT: Who was Deborah Kallikak?
SPROUSE: Deborah Kallikak was the pseudonym of a young girl who was an inmate, let’s call her, at the Training School for Backward and Feeble-Minded Children in Vineland, New Jersey. Which is still standing, by the way, and still functions as some kind of educational institution. I once delivered an order of pizzas there.
But Deborah was an orphan, basically. She was admitted to this institution in the 1890s, and she came under the care of two scientists, if you could call them that — Henry Goddard and Elizabeth Kite — who studied her, quite creepily, for a decade and a half before publishing a book called The Kallikak Family in which they argued that Deborah, though she might look normal enough, was in fact a feebleminded moron, a kind of moral abomination, and but one example of a feebleminded menace that numbered in the hundreds of thousands and posed a threat to American democracy and national security.
The trouble with morons, Goddard said — and he is credited with bringing that word into the English language — is that they appeared on the surface to be normal. They were attractive and healthy and energetic, but they were utterly lacking in any moral intelligence. And because they could not control their sexual urges, they led otherwise normal men into temptation. And so morons reproduced at alarming rates, churning out huge numbers of children who were likewise feebleminded and who “clogged the wheels” of human progress, in Kite’s words. The Pine Barrens were full of such people, Goddard and Kite said. They had been notorious for decades and were known as Pineys.
The Kallikak Family was probably the most important work of creative writing ever produced about the Pine Barrens. It formalized the traditional bigotry about Pineys that had existed for decades — that they couldn’t care for themselves, that they were prone to poverty and general moral terribleness. And Kite proposed an explanation for the preponderance of morons in the Pines.
Sinfulness and feeblemindedness were sort of the same thing, by this way of thinking. Since sin was heritable, the prevalence of immorality among Pineys implied some original sin on the part of the region’s founders. Those founders, the Quakers, had, as a matter of policy, expelled sinners from their ranks. In this way they had cast sinners into the Pine Barrens, resulting in the preponderance of morons that had continued down into the present day. That was Goddard and Kite’s claim, anyway, and it was taken seriously.
But while the sins of the Keithians had been their “unbounded ambition,” in Samuel Jennings’ words, the sins of the Pineys apparently had to do with whatever lack of ambition kept them living happily in the Pine Barrens year after year without running off to seek their fortune in the big city.
Anyway. Deborah Kallikak was kind of a Piney archetype. And I think her story — which wa one of poverty, sexual misadventure and rampant reproduction — is the same in all important respects as the Mother Leeds story. Mother Leeds was a Piney. Her thirteenth child was a Piney, not just by geography but by the terms of the literary mythology of the Pine Barrens.
Anyway. Deborah’s story made me realize the basic misogyny at the heart of the Jersey Devil story, and in fact at the heart of my own attempt to win glory and riches by pinning this insane legend to my distant ancestor, who really did have 12 children in 1735 and had probably been beset by some terrible domestic tragedy.
HENRY THE CAT: What was Titan Leeds’ ghost?
SPROUSE: Titan Leeds was Daniel’s son, his youngest son, if I remember correctly, and when Daniel retired from the almanac business in 1714, I want to say, he passed the famous Leeds almanac down to Titan, who continued it into the 1730s.
If you’re looking for an example of witchcraft or sorcery or generally spooky things, in the Leeds family tree in the early 1700s, look no further than the almanac. It was hidden in plain sight.
Now, I didn’t know that about almanacs. I assumed that the almanac was like a farmer’s almanac today, which it was kind of, but I thought of them as these little quaint, agrarian relics that predicted how much snow you’d get this winter based on how many acorns fell last fall — that kind of thing. But Leeds almanac, seventeenth century almanacs broadly, were occult documents. They were astrological toolkits. They were part of an occult belief system that predated Christianity, that had been partially absorbed by Christianity, at times rejected by Christianity, but always kind of there, in the culture, for millennia. You hear echoes of that ancient system, whether it’s in words like Friday or Thursday, that refer to ancient gods, or in the names for the months, everywhere you look. You see it in images of saints in the Catholic Church with their eyeballs on platters. You see it all over the place.
Now, I happen to think the Jersey Devil itself is exactly that kind of relic, an example of residual paganism. There’s a reason newspapers run Jersey Devil stories around Halloween, that he’s depicted bumming around with a black cat and all that. There’s a reason certain Christian groups don’t like him. He’s not the Christian devil. He’s a little kind of pagan icon that’s survived for one reason or another.
But so, the Quakers wanted to suppress Leeds’ almanac, on the grounds that it washeathenish. He used the names of the months and days that referred to those old religions. But Daniel Leeds resisted. He joined up with Keith, he said, because of a “motion heavenly.” He was referring to his astrology with those words. And as a result of these controversies, Leeds moved his family to Leeds Point, away from the center of the cultural life of the colony.
In the same way, in the wider culture, occultism, astrology, these elements of these old pre-Christian religions, were kind of pushed aside by modernity, by the Enlightenment, to oversimplify. But they weren’t defeated altogether. They were just suppressed, pushed to the edges, and they pop back up from time to time. And I think you’re hearing echoes of that conflict three centuries later when people talk about the Jersey Devil.
Now, this sounds all very airy and theoretical. But what actually happened was that Ben Franklin, when he launched Poor Richard’s almanac in the 1730s, drew Titan Leeds into this hoax where he predicted, or pretended to predict, the precise moment of Titan Leeds’ death, based on astrological principles.
Titan was drawn into this joke, which was a replay of a hoax that Jonathan Swift had played against an English astrologer, John Partridge. Leeds responded to Franklin with earnest indignation, which only made him look ridiculous. It made astrology look ridiculous.
When Titan went on the attack, Franklin responded by pretending that Leeds was in fact dead, and that he was getting letters from Leeds’ ghost, which was one name for the Leeds Devil, by the way.
Anyway, the joke wasn’t original, but it was well executed. Franklin was a much better writer than Titan.
By 1738, I think, Titan really was dead. Franklin had succeeded in getting this free publicity for his fledgling almanac. He’d added a nail to the coffin of judicial astrology, which was one of his goals, and he was on his way to becoming this important Enlightenment figure.
But he’d also been playing a little bit on this occult idea to kick-start his almanac, and some historians have accused Franklin of sending mixed messages about the validity of the occult beliefs he was supposedly attacking. But that lesson, I think, that strategic ambiguity, is not lost on people who want to sell the Jersey Devil 280 years later.
But I think the Jersey Devil today is a kind of reaction against certain Enlightenment strains in modern life, and there’s a parallel there in Franklin’s maybe having played a part in inventing a Leeds Devil.
HENRY THE CAT: You spent a lot of time in Wawas, you said. What is a Wawa, and why did you elect to do original reporting there?
SPROUSE: Wawa is a chain of convenience stores. There are many, many Wawas across South Jersey. I think I counted nine one time within five miles of my childhood home. For good or ill, they’re a part of the culture of the region. Friends of mine leave South Jersey and go through Wawa withdrawal. Apparently they get very, very used to buying their iced tea out of a particular refrigerator and eating totally forgettable turkey sandwiches.
When I was a teenager, you could get an oatmeal-raisin bar and a two-liter carton of Wawa lemonade for, like, $2.29. I dreamed of growing up someday and wandering the countryside like David Carradine, having adventures and surviving exclusively on Wawa-based lemonade and oatmeal-raisin bars, but instead I grew up and wrote this book, where I went into many Wawas and Wawa parking lots and asked people to tell me about the Jersey Devil.
I had a plan that I would spend, like, an entire year sitting in Wawas, engaging various patrons in spirited discussion about the Jersey Devil, but in reality it was more like a week, and not an entire week even, just in the evenings, after I was done summarizing the day’s mutual fund news.
I wanted to try to correct a certain pernicious cultural tendency. Traditionally, much Jersey Devil reportage has been located in the Pine Barrens and among people who, if they’re not Pineys, at least scan as rural or, for lack of a better word, poor. The Jersey Devil is an Authentic piece of Folk Culture, and the proper place to encounter such artifacts is among honest, straightforward Country Folk.
But the part of South Jersey I grew up in wasn’t the Pine Barrens. It was suburbia. Growing up I don’t think I ever met a Piney, but I spent a lot of time in Wawas and in the Shore Mall, places that are regarded as hostile to the kind of authentic culture that folklore like the Jersey Devil is said to exemplify. But that, to me, is where the Jersey Devil resides, so that’s where I wanted to set my story.
Wawa seemed like an interesting battleground. On the one hand, it’s this highly sanitized, highly homogenized retail environment, designed and built in accordance with the dictates of high-octane corporate capitalism. On the other hand, it’s kind of a part of the community, and this is somehow not as depressing as you might expect. Or it’s depressing, but in different ways.
But I think there’s this kind of cultural conceit, for lack of a better word, that says a Piney can have an authentic culture, but people in the suburbs can’t. This is pernicious in a lot of ways, I think. One of the ways, perversely, is that it allows the things like the Jersey Devil to be sold back to suburbanites as emblems of authenticity. Which is sort of the story of the contemporary Jersey Devil in a nutshell.
HENRY THE CAT: Ok, There are 176 footnotes in this book, and a lot of reported speech too, a lot of unattributed speech in quotation marks. What was your reporting and research method?
SPROUSE: With a few exceptions, the quotes in the book that don’t come from documents are transcribed from recordings I made with the little digital voice recorder I carried with me. There are a few quotes from memory, but they’re generally short. Like when my grandmother says, “oh, they’re good” when she’s talking about eating fried eels. It’s just something I could hear in my head because she said it all the time.
There are also three bus conversations that I didn’t record but quoted in liberally. For one, which has a lot of direct quotes, I was sitting a few rows ahead of the guy with my laptop open, taking dictation, because he was talking such crazy talk — about Egyptian poetry and Vladimir Lenin and Donald Trump and electromagnetic brainwaves into space — that I felt like there really needed to be a record of what was going on around me. The other two bus conversations I wrote down shortly after they took place. For everything else there are tapes. None of the quotes are made up or composites. I don’t claim total accuracy but I do claim transparency.
HENRY THE CAT: What about the research in original documents. How did you do that?
SPROUSE: I’m not a historian, so I’d hate to give you the impression I know what I’m talking about. But, with that caveat, I waded, a little bit into some academic debates, but I did so as a reporter, I think. I tried to faithfully report what previous authorities had written. The only authority I claim is an ability to read and write accurately.
HENRY THE CAT: What about the old documents?
SPROUSE: That research is a lot easier now than it used to be. I can tell you that.
Fifteen years ago, when I read about the existence of a pamphlet called Satan’s Harbinger, whose title referred to Daniel Leeds, I would have had to send away to a library, in another country I think, to get a photocopy of that document. It would have cost ten or fifteen dollars, which, at that time in my life, seemed like an outrageous outlay of capital for a piece of paper that may or may not have been legible, that may or may not have been relevant, and that, even if it was legible and relevant, may or may not have been delivered by the postal service. I’d had a few bad experiences with the mails.
Long story short: I knew that damn document existed for ten years before I ever read it.
But, but, today, you can walk into a branch of the New York Public Library and read PDFs of these documents, three-hundred-year old documents, for free.
So, happy ending. Maybe.
HENRY THE CAT: Is the Jersey Devil real? Is something out there?
I mean, it’s customary for people selling a piece of Jersey Devil reportage to affect a kind of strategic ambiguity on that question, to say something like, “Maybe it’s out there! Who knows?” During my brief dalliance with the publishing industry, I was encouraged to do the
same thing. But now I’ve met too many people who have been influenced by stories like that, which are dressed up as journalism, and they think the Jersey Devil is real. So, No.
I was accused recently of debunking the Jersey Devil, but I don’t think that’s really fair or accurate. I never thought of this story as anything other than fiction. The truth is, it didn’t occur to me that that was an interesting or important question.
The questions that interested me were: Where did this story come from? And how has it survived for so long, as an authentic folk story, in a region that is not exactly renowned for its folksiness or authenticity?
Maybe I came to this from a weird perspective, because of the family connection, but it’s not like I’m interested in other monsters. I mean, I’m as interested in them as the next person. I like a good ghost story now and then. But I’m not going to put my life on hold and spend years researching a book on one.
It’s not like I’m going to follow this up with a book about Bigfoot.
HENRY THE CAT: Why don’t you like the term skeptic?
SPROUSE: I mean skepticism in general is a wonderful concept — thinking for yourself and all that, very enlightened. Daniel Leeds was a skeptic, in some ways. Bless him. But it seems a little grandiose in this instance, don’t you think? A little self-congratulatory? For what’s essentially a statement of common sense?
I mean, I don’t believe in Santa Claus either. Does that make me a Santa Claus skeptic?
To paraphrase my wife, everyone likes talking about monsters. Not everyone needs to call himself a cryptozoologist.
HENRY THE CAT: You don’t like the term ‘cryptozoology’ either?
SPROUSE: I think those terms, in this context, have become a sales tactic. It’s a way of floating that question — ”is it real or not?” — as a way of appealing to the monster-hunter crowd, while not staking an affirmative position that would make you look like a lunatic. I think it’s quite cynical, in fact. To me it feels that way.
That question — real or not — is not a question I found interesting, personally.
HENRY THE CAT: What about all the reported sightings?
SPROUSE: I think the claims about reported sightings are hugely overstated. There’s a line in McCloy and Miller’s book [The Jersey Devil] where they say that in 1909 thousands of people claimed to see the Jersey Devil. Or its footprints.
That’s rather a big or don’t you think? Maybe we should try to pin them down a little, maybe?
But that line gets repeated over and again, not just on the internet but in newspaper stories about the Jersey Devil and on TV. It’s kind of depressing.
But when one person claims to see something, say, a four-foot-tall hopping dinosaur, and another person sees something, an eight-foot-tall hairy hominid, and you file both those reported sightings away under the heading “Jersey Devil” what are you really saying? You’re saying a phrase exists in the language, and in New Jersey, when some people see things that they don’t understand, they sometimes apply the phrase “Jersey Devil.” But people see things all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s a phenomenon worthy of scientific scrutiny.
And now that the story has made the jump to TV — these shows on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel that present the Jersey Devil as a real, or potentially real, monster — the sightings will probably continue.
Well, the main figure in my book is a guy who went on a lot of those shows and said he saw the Jersey Devil and he was totally fucking with people. So, there’s one reported sighting that maybe we should put as asterisk next to.
HENRY THE CAT: What do you think of the whole cryptozoology thing? I mean, aren’t you doing the same thing those people are?
A little part of me died every time someone mentioned MonsterQuest.
I’d like to see those shows go away. I’d like to undo the damage they cause. But, it’s difficult to wade into that nonsense without getting nonsense all over you. And that’s not really a game of Whac-a-Mole that you can ever win, I don’t think. I realized that reading the backlash against the latest mermaid documentary or whatever. You’re just feeding the trolls. At some point you have to acknowledge: We are the moles, and we’re whacking ourselves.
So, to answer your question, all I can say is I didn’t consciously consider the feelings of people who might think it’s real — not until I started wandering into Wawas and met some of those people — which was pretty late in the process. Those people, by the way, had watched too much cable TV.
You’ve come to the wrong shop for cryptozoology.
HENRY THE CAT: There does seem to be a kind of uptick in TV shows about, or interest in, the paranormal or in cryptozoology.
SPROUSE: I don’t know how to measure that, but I agree. It feels like there has been. A few years ago, me and my wife drove down the coast for our honeymoon, and I noted an epidemic of “ghost tours” from Baltimore to Charleston to Savannah.
HENRY THE CAT: You went to Baltimore on your honeymoon?
SPROUSE: Is that a question?
HENRY THE CAT: Sorry. Continue.
SPROUSE: Anyway. I think there has been an uptick. I think The Blair Witch Project deserves a lot of credit for the plague of monster-hunter entertainment, for providing a blueprint on how to monetize folklore, for demonstrating at least the size of the market for that kind of thing. Which has been this irresistible temptation.
Blair Witch was preceded, by a year, by a very similar movie called The Last Broadcast, about the Jersey Devil. If things had broken a little differently, the Blair Witch could have been the Jersey Devil. But happily it wasn’t.
But it’s a very scary example of the way that old media and the internet can combine to capitalize on misinformation.
HENRY THE CAT: They fill a need, those shows.
SPROUSE: I guess so. But I’m not sure it’s wholly to do with the supernatural or whatever.
When Galloway Township wants to adopt the Jersey Devil as the official township mascot, I don’t think it’s because they want a monster to represent their town. I think the Jersey Devil represents other things — a sense of place, a connection to the past, a sense of authenticity. It’s a relic that has survived from a different era. You feel that immediately. It gives you a sense of local identity for lack of a better word. And that’s a really basic, understandable human need. But I’d rather that need were served in other ways.
There was a moment when I was driving out to Leeds Point one night with the Devil Hunters, this group that goes around looking for the Jersey Devil, to stare at a hole in the ground, and I realized, later, that we’d been passing the scenes of all these great stories — places where real people had really lived and died and had real things happen to them. But all those stories were unremarked upon. They just sort of slid by as we hurried out in the rainy night to investigate this noise about the Jersey Devil.
So, if I sound angry a little bit when you mention cryptozoology, that’s why maybe.
HENRY THE CAT: What happened the second time you met Harry Leeds? Tell that story.
SPROUSE: The second time I met Harry was in 2009, so, just about ten years after that first meeting, when he kind of destroyed my ideas about how the media works. By that point I sort of understood enough about the Jersey Devil story to have an idea of the traditional role that Harry was playing, whether consciously or not, in the making of the Jersey Devil.
Jersey Devil stories need a capital-L Local — whether you call that person a Piney or an Ol’ Timer or an Ancient Hunter or whatever — they need one of those, traditionally. And Harry provided one. He wanted to keep the Jersey Devil story alive, for whatever reason, so he put that on himself. You had to respect that about his game.
Anyway. Harry took me out to a house that he said was the Jersey Devil house–where the monster was supposedly born. It was no such thing. But when I didn’t really react enthusiastically, he kind of changed tactics and went a little meta, talking about his routine when he took film crews out to the end of Leeds Point. And at one point I asked him finally why he did all this. And he didn’t really answer but he directed my attention to a different movie that he’d done, at a place called Wheaton Village, which is a little museum near Millville. Harry had given a talk there on the “Role of the Leeds Family in the Perpetuation of the Jersey Devil story” or something like that. And during the talk, he’d shown various examples of his TV work. And the audience in the museum reacted with gales of laughter throughout.
Harry would appear onscreen and say something outlandish and the audience would laugh. And Harry was standing there, laughing along. So it was a nice moment.
HENRY THE CAT: What did he mean by that, do you think?
SPROUSE: I mean, Harry was acting out a stereotype. That’s a subversive thing to do. I think the laughter kind of underlined that.
Also, it showed how differently the story played in South Jersey, within the community, compared with how it plays outside the community. It was Harry’s particular burden to try to straddle that divide. I think he wanted to share what that job was like. And I think Harry wanted us to know which side he was on — the local side, where it was a joke.
HENRY THE CAT: But what was the joke?
SPROUSE: I don’t know. I can tell you what I’d like it to be.
HENRY THE CAT: Go ahead.
SPROUSE: I mean, I think the Jersey Devil has become kind of hipster-bait. It’s the ironic mustache of the cryptid world. I mean, there’s an authenticity fetish that seems to afflict Cool Kids, of all ages, the world over, and people like Harry, who can kind of pass as Old Timey Locals, are seen as Authentic for whatever reason.
But nobody wants to be the token Authentic Person in someone else’s story, so I think Harry enjoyed messing with people a little bit. It was a way to assert some editorial control.
By the way, he wasn’t the only person who liked to joke about believing in the Jersey Devil, I can tell you that.
HENRY THE CAT: Ok. On the subject of jokes, there’s a certain image of New Jersey that exists in the popular culture in America. It might not be the most flattering image.
SPROUSE: You’re talking about the Jersey Joke? Good segue.
HENRY THE CAT: The Jersey Joke. What role did that play in this story?
SPROUSE: I don’t know how to handle the Jersey Joke. It’s a stereotype, and it’s hard to talk about a stereotype without absorbing some of the terms of the stereotype — without helping to spread it.
But you’re right, I think. It’s hanging out there in the ether. We didn’t invent it. And I think the Jersey Devil is kind of a rebound off the Jersey Joke. So hugely it’s important.
In New Jersey, “folksy” things like the Jersey Devil get called into service to combat the Jersey Joke, which leads to some odd situations, like Mother Leeds’ thirteenth child — which half the people I talked to think was a stillbirth — being sold on teeshirts and postcards in antique shops across the Garden State. Kind of perverse when you think about it that way.
But I think the Jersey Joke is one of those things that maybe exist in a media bubble. My grandmother didn’t care about New Jersey’s image problem. I’m pretty sure my mother doesn’t care about it. They have, sort of, more immediate concerns. But some people do care.
There’s a group of people who make wine in Hammonton. They sell South Jersey wine for $10 a bottle. They’d like to sell “Outer Coastal Plain” wine for $30 a bottle, or whatever. They care about New Jersey’s image problem. But I think it’s easy to take that Chamber of Commerce attitude and imagine that it is shared by a wide section of the population when in fact no one else cares. I think this is a journalists’ fallacy we have to be on guard against.
Anyway. But I had a funny window into the Jersey Joke, I think.
When I started working on this book, before the world changed, I wrote up a book proposal and sent it around to some literary agents, because that’s what I was told was the proper thing to do. You asked a literary agent and then they asked a publisher, on your behalf, and then, if they gave you permission, you wrote your book.
Most of them never got back to me. Not surprising. But a few took a minute to respond and they said the same thing. And a few friends of friends who were in the industry talked to me and they said the same thing: This is a regionalbook. You realize that, right? This is a regional book. That’s how they’ll look at it.
It started to feel like this mantra, like maybe it was something they taught you in Literary Agent School: How to spot a regional book. Ten reasons to avoidregionalbooks. Etc.
But I thought, you know, that’s weird. I never thought of New Jersey as being overlyregional. I thought it had the opposite problem. I thought New Jersey was the poster child for the post-regional nightmare scenario that the planet was supposedly transforming into, led by New Jersey. That was the whole reason I wanted to write the book, to find out how this weird little folk story had managed to take root and flourish in the Strip Mall Capital of the Universe.
But then some time passed, and I thought about it some more, and I thought, lots of books are regional. The Odyssey is a regional book. Huckleberry Finn is a regional book. Surely literary agents aren’t opposed to regionality per se. That doesn’t seem right.
And then, because I’m a dingbat, I realized finally that they were saying: This is a book we can’t sell to people in other parts of the country. This book isn’t scalable enough. It won’t be appealing to mass audiences.
Now, the knock on New Jersey of course is that it’s a place that’s been shaped overwhelmingly by precisely those economic considerations — it’s scalable, homogenized, mass-produced, designed for mass consumption — and therefore has no, uh, identifiable human soul. That’s the stereotype.
But then here were these New York Literary types, who position themselves as curators of the culture, telling me they couldn’t support this book because it wasn’t scalable enough, wasn’t designed for mass consumption. You’ve written a book about New Jersey, but it’s not New Jersey enough. You might be tempted to call this “ironic” but remember that America is Cloud-Cuckoo Land.
So, I don’t know. I have limited patience for the Jersey Joke. There are neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn that are every bit as suburban as anything you’d find in South Jersey, the preponderance of neck tattoos notwithstanding.
HENRY THE CAT: So, you’re not interested in the paranormal. You’re not interested in explaining the folklore. Why the in god’s name did you write this book?
SPROUSE: I’m told there’s a concept in folklore call functionalism. You look at a story and try to find out why people tell it, what function is serves. To the extent that there’s any folklore in this book, it’s my attempt to find out why I myself told the story.
The thing that interested me was that, there were, I think, three kind of phases. In the beginning, you had Daniel Leeds. There were elements of his character that were, for lack of a better word, a little bit modern. He was religiously pragmatic, questioning. He moved around a lot, both physically and in social class terms. It’s possible to overplay this aspect of his personality, but I think it’s there. He was ambitious in a way that would be familiar to someone alive today, I think. In a state that would one day become synonymous with real estate subdivisions, Daniel, as surveyor general, did some of the first subdividing. And yet the culture that he operated in was still, basically, traditional. And out of this conflict came, if not theJersey Devil, at least one Jersey Devil. Or one Leeds Devil.
A hundred and fifty years later, when the Jersey Devil was being invented in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Daniel’s side of history had won, if you will. It was now commonplace to move around a lot, to be uprooted and ambitious, to have confidence in progress, both personal and in wider social progress. The writing about the Jersey Devil from this time — which is the seminal period — is sort of drenched in this kind of rhetoric of progress and faith in technology and markets and all that. And yet there were of course, parts of the culture that weren’t on board that train. There were people that were obstinately in denial, that stayed in their hometowns, even as industry abandoned them. In New Jersey, these people were sometimes called Pineys. And it was out of this cultural frisson, which is the reverse of the one of Daniel Leeds’ time, that a second Jersey Devil was born.
Flash forward another century — the excesses of the late nineteenth and twentieth-century faith in science and progress have now been imaginatively absorbed, by part of the culture, anyway. There’s a growing emphasis on preservation, of both the natural environment, and of enclaves of local culture. Places like the Pine Barrens and people like the Pineys are seen as valuable natural, and cultural, resources. The enemy is now globalization, homogenization, the eradication of local culture that comes with the advance of mass culture, that coincides with the spread of high-octane corporate capitalism. If you’re looking for a symbol of that cultural or ecological apocalypse, in the U.S., look no further than New Jersey — which is seen as an uninterrupted series of strip malls and Superfund sites connected by grim superhighways. But even here there are holdouts, little relics from the pre-modern past that have survived the flood and are now seized on as Authentic examples of a genuine culture.
But Authenticity is its own business model, its own kind of cultural ploy. And I think that’s the space that this contemporary Jersey Devil inhabits — any folklore inhabits — whether it will remain authentic or just kind of represent Authenticity while in fact being co-opted by cynical entrepreneurs of one variety or another.
So, that’s why I think it’s a cop-out to just put the Jersey Devil in the Pine Barrens and not consider it as part of the culture of the surrounding South Jersey environment, which is mostly suburb. So, that’s what I wanted to look at.
I failed completely, by the way, but that was the point of all that wandering around in strip malls and Wawas and everything.
HENRY THE CAT: The book is called The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil. We’ve been talking with Bill Sprouse. And we thank you.
SPROUSE: Thank you, Henry.