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  • Writer's pictureThe Hammonton Gazette

Tony DiGerolamo speaks to HSH

Kristin Guglietti/THG Tony DiGerolamo talks about the Jersey Devil during the Historical Society of Hammonton’s speaker series on Jan. 4 at the Hammonton Canoe Club.

Tony DiGerolamo, author, screenwriter, comic book writer, game designer, comedian and historian spoke about the folktales of the New Jersey Pinelands with a large focus on the Jersey Devil during the Historical Society of Hammonton’s monthly speaker series on Jan. 4 at the Hammonton Canoe Club.

“In 1730 there was a woman named Leeds and she lived in Leeds Point, New Jersey, right across from Smithville and on a windswept night she gave birth to her 13th child. Now she was a 13th child in her family and when she gave birth to the 13th child in her family, she cried out, ‘Curse this child! Let the devil take it!’ and thus the Jersey Devil was born,” DiGerolamo said.

There are many variations on the Jersey Devil story. For example, in one version the baby is born normal and then transforms into a monster. In another version, Mother Leeds goes back into her yard to feed the Jersey Devil perched on the fence every day until she died.

“They say the scream you hear in the Pine Barrens is the New Jersey Devil screaming for its long lost mother,” DiGerolamo said.

The story changes depending on who tells the story.

During the 1700s, the king ran everything and the Leeds family’s patriarch, Daniel Leeds, was the representative of the king.

DiGerolamo said people were resentful of the Leeds family because they had more wealth and power. This resentment would cause people to make up stories, which may have helped create the legend of the Jersey Devil or the Leeds Devil as it was originally called.

One of our country’s founding fathers would play a huge role in the creation of the Leeds Devil tale and that person was Benjamin Franklin.

“Ben had a new almanac called Poor Richard’s Almanack that no one was reading quite yet, but he started this rivalry with the Leeds,” DiGerolamo said.

Titan Leeds was the publisher of Leeds Family Almanack at that point, the son of Daniel Leeds, and Franklin announced that Titan Leeds had died. However, Titan Leeds wasn’t dead.

According to DiGerolamo, Franklin told people Titan Leeds’ ghost was writing the Leeds almanac with witchcraft and astrology and Franklin would tell people to not read it but instead read Poor Richard’s Almanack.

The family logo on the Leeds Family Almanack looks like a dragon, which looks like a prototype of the Jersey Devil.

During this time period, the Leeds family had a falling out with the Quakers because Daniel Leeds had controversial opinions on theology and had written books on the subject, which the Quakers didn’t like. This prompted Daniel Leeds to move and found Leeds Point.

DiGerolamo had spoken with one of the writers of The Jersey Devil book written by James McCloy and Ray Miller to see if there was any real historical evidence.

“I met Miller before he died, and I asked him if there was any real historical evidence. He said, ‘Yes.’ They had traced one of the branches of the Leeds family to Deborah and Japhet Leeds. They lived on Moss Mill Road right across from Smithville, and they had a family Bible,” DiGerolamo said. “This is how people did genealogy. You put your family and all your relatives in there, so they got a hold of Deborah and Japhet’s Bible and it lists 12 children and a 13th space that’s blank.”

The blank 13th space may have been a placeholder for a child they intended to have but didn’t or there may have been a child that died during childbirth. However, Miller’s theory is there was a 13th child, but it was severely handicapped.

“And what would people in the 1700s say at that time? They would’ve said, ‘That child’s touched by the devil,’” DiGerolamo said.

In 1909, a new version of the legend was born.

A man named Norman Jeffries ran the 9th and Arch Dime Museum in Philadelphia, which was a freak show. He read about the Leeds Devil and got an idea for a new act. A letter was written about the Leeds Devil sighting and then Jeffries staged a capture of the devil.

According to Jeffries obituary, the devil was a “cleverly disguised kangaroo.”

After talking about the history of the Jersey Devil, DiGerolamo told other South Jersey tales such as the Woman in White and the Black Dog.

The first Woman in White is located on Route 55 near Deptford.

“They built it [Route 55] through an Indian Burial Mound [in the 1980s] and one of the road crew died. Now they say the road is cursed. They say the Woman in White is one of the victims of one of many, many accidents on Route 55,” DiGerolamo said.

There’s another Woman in White at the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City named Emily who is waiting for a lost love to return.

The third Woman in White at Absecon, who is also waiting for a lost love, pals around with the Jersey Devil, DiGerolamo said.

The Black Dog is usually a negative spirit in other folktales but is seen as a positive spirit in South Jersey that helps and warns people.

At the end of the night, DiGerolamo signed some of his popular books from The Pineys series, which were available for purchase.

For more information about the Historical Society of Hammonton, visit their website and follow them on social media. Videos from previous speaker series can be viewed on the Historical Society of Hammonton’s YouTube.


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