About three hundred years ago, when I was in high school, I first stumbled across the frustrating tale of Titan Leeds. Leeds was a writer and publisher in colonial Philadelphia, producer of The American Almanack, which he had taken over from his father, Daniel Leeds, in 1716, and which contained his popular astrological predictions.
However, even if you’re an ardent student of colonial American history, you’ve probably never heard of The American Almanack. But I’ll bet a sack of shiny nickels that you’ve heard of Poor Richard’s Almanack. And guess who owned Poor Richard’s?
Benjamin fucking Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin, I have to point out, in addition to being a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist (yes, he was basically pre-Revolutionary America’s answer to Tony Stark), was also a massive fucking troll. He liked to play pranks. At the time they would have been seen as ‘satirical efforts’, but now we call them ‘hoaxes’.
And in the inaugural issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack, he played a helluva prank on poor stuffed shirt Titan Leeds: he told the whole colony that Titan Leeds was going to die.
Wow, Benjy, dramatic much?
In his first almanac of 1732, Franklin – or rather, Poor Richard, i.e., Richard Saunders, the fictional voice of the book – predicted that Titan Leeds would die on the 17th of October 1733, at 3:29 in the afternoon, at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.
And, naturally, he encouraged readers to buy next year’s issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack to find out if his prediction had been right.
It was a publicity stunt, of course, and not even an original one; Franklin copied it more or less wholesale from writer Jonathan’s Swift’s 1708 fake death prediction of astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff. Remember, kids: bad writers borrow, good ones steal (but don’t plagiarize).
Beyond that, it was either a harmless joke at a fellow writer’s expense or else a very calculated attempt to drive the older American Almanack out of business. Which way you look at it depends on how much you like Ben Franklin, I suppose.
Leeds was, understandably, peeved at this stunt. He probably thought it was, at best, in very bad taste, and at worst, a possible threat on his life. Either way, he responded in the next issue of his own almanac, and then when the 17th of October 1773 rolled around and he emphatically did not die, and no doubt thought that would be the end of that.
Oh honey... Titan, honey, no.
Franklin not only didn’t rescind his bogus prediction, he doubled down on it. He not only proclaimed in print that Leeds had in fact died, but he also declared that someone had taken over Leed’s name and identity and was using them to falsely continue publishing The American Almanack. Or else it was Leeds’s spirit come back to haunt him (in print). Yes, he accused his rival publisher of being a ghost.
He kept this up for the next five years.
I haven’t even managed to get to the point of this article (the brother of monsters part) yet, but now I’m hung up on this detail and need to dwell on it.
Benjamin Franklin trolled Titan Leeds, a rival publisher in the same city, for FIVE YEARS. This fact is just outrageously ridiculous to me. This was an era where dueling was still legal in places like New Jersey, where calling a man a coward in public was grounds for shooting him in the face and not being charged with a crime. Ben Franklin spent five years making one of his rival feel – and possibly look – like an idiot and didn’t suffer an iota’s worth of professional or personal damage over that.
Ben Franklin: OG troll. Ugh.
I mean, true, he eventually stopped telling people that Titan Leeds was dead. But only because Leeds eventually did die, in 1738. At which point, Franklin owned up to the entire thing for the hoax that it was... oh, wait, no, he didn’t do that. Instead, he congratulated the men who had “usurped” Leeds’s name for finally deciding to end the charade.
And then he continued the gag for a little bit longer, complaining that he was being abused (in print) by the ghost of “his old friend”.
Benjy, you DICK.
So now Franklin’s the top dog in Philly almanacs, Titan Leeds is dead, and I still haven’t justified the title of this piece. Ohhh, I’m getting there. It took me a while to make the next step, too.
Some years later, I read about the legend of the Jersey Devil.
The Jersey Devil, for those of you not from my generalized neck of the woods, is a legendary demonic animal that supposedly stalks the foreboding Pine Barrens of New Jersey. (We have pine barrens where I’m from as well, but we’ve mostly clear-cut ours for more important things, like a mall, and a landfill.)
I’d encountered it before – it’s the sort of thing that tends to pop up when you’re a compulsive reader of books on cryptids and regional folklore – but I only knew the basics: a woman in colonial New Jersey had twelve children and didn’t want another, so when her thirteenth was about to be born she said, “I hope it’s a devil” and The Devil Himself took her at her word and caused her to give birth to a winged demon. You know, your basic bogeyman origin story.
The detail that was missing from all my earlier readings of the story was the woman’s name: Mother Leeds, the wife of Daniel Leeds.
The same Daniel Leeds who had originally published The American Almanack, and who had upon his death passed on the almanac to his son, Titan. Who, I then came to realize, was only one of Daniel Leeds’s sons, the majority of whom did not live to adulthood.
Another was, according to legend, a winged monstrosity birthed from the pits of Satan, at a spot on the New Jersey coast known as Leeds’ Point. And “[i]t is interesting to note,” writes Brian Regal of New Jersey’s Kean University, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer in 2013, “that the traditionally believed period of the “birth” of the Jersey Devil (the mid-1730s) coincides with the death of Titan Leeds.”
So now not only is one of Daniel Leeds’s sons a hideous hellish hellspawn, but Titan Leeds has become a ghost resurrected from the grave, and oh, did I mention that their family crest is that of a winged dragon? Because it is. (Specifically, a heraldic dragon known as a wyvern. Fans of Disney’s Gargoyles will recognize that reference, I hope.)
This is one of those confluences where reality outstrips the powers of fiction, because if I tried writing all of that into a book, my long-suffering editor would ask me to tone it down a notch.
I love it so much.
And knowing what I did about Benjamin Franklin and his penchant for spreading jovially malicious rumors, I began to wonder: was it possible that the entire legend of the Jersey Devil – or at least the part about Mother Leeds – was all one of Franklin’s fabrications?
It seemed all-too-plausible, rather like learning that there were bones buried in the basement of Franklin’s London home and wondering if the discoverer of electricity was conducting Dr. Frankenstein-esque experiments. (He wasn’t, but he probably was doing clandestine dissections, like many other wealthy and inquisitive men of his day. Regardless, I still treasure the idea of Benjamin Franklin: Reanimator.)
However, we can safely exonerate Franklin from being the origin of this particular myth (though his shit-heel prank didn’t help matters), because the real origins of the Leeds-Jersey Devil connection begin, not with Titan, but with Daniel.
You see, at the beginning of his life and career in the New World, Daniel Leeds was a member of the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. He was also a man of some importance, a member of the local assembly and surveyor general. He married four wives and sired at least nine children, and in 1702, became a councilor to the colonial governor of New Jersey, Lord Cornbury. Cornbury was not a man the Quakers thought highly of, for a number of reasons (one of which seems to have been his reputed penchant for cross-dressing), and Daniel’s association with the governor was a mark against him.
Another was his own study of astrology and mysticism, which went against everything the Quaker faith stood for.
According to Regal,
“Leeds’s astrological data did not please all his readers. Several members of the Quaker Meeting complained that Leeds had used inappropriate language and astrological symbols and names that were a little too “pagan.” The notion of predicting the movements of the heavens did not sit well with Quaker theology."
“He went to the next meeting and publicly apologized. To his surprise an order was sent out to collect up all the copies of the almanac not in circulation and destroy them. Daniel Leeds determined privately to break with the Friends and continue his almanac.”
He began writing other books dealing with Christian mysticism. The Quakers suppressed them. In retaliation, Daniel left the Society and Friends and began writing explicitly anti-Quaker tracts, claiming that they were deniers of Christ's divinity and antimonarchists. In response, George Fox – the founder of Quakerism himself – and wrote pamphlets of his own defending his faith as unjustly accused, and denouncing Daniel Leeds publicly as being in league with the Devil.
Danny, son, you done fucked up.
So we have a disgruntled Quaker who’s left his faith on very acrimonious terms, who’s slinging mud and getting mud slung at him, being called a servant of the Devil, with a son who eventually acquires the reputation of being a ghost (honestly I’m not sure how accurate that part is, but Titan was definitely ‘accused’ of being dead), and who has a very devilish-looking image on his family crest.
Surely now we have come to the point in the story where the legend of the Jersey Devil is born!
Uh… see, about that…
The truth is, no one’s exactly sure when or how the Jersey Devil as a story actually developed. There simply isn’t a paper trail. Which, given the historical germ of the tale deals with printers and publishers, is a little ironic.
It’s known that the story does have a lengthy pedigree. Such illustrious names as U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur and Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon) are both reputed to have seen and even shot at the Jersey Devil in the 1820s, but written evidence of actual sightings is surprisingly scarce.
Regal has pointed out that there are no references to the Jersey Devil in print during the colonial era, and so far, the earliest mention I’ve been able to find is from 1887, in an article in my beloved New York Sun (of Great Moon Hoax fame).
“Just after the Revolutionary war a young man named Leeds, who lived in Evasham and was well known in all that part of the country, married a respectable but harum-scarum girl, who was the life of all the corn huskings, paring bees, dances, and rustic merrymakings generally of that day. She had a temper of her own, as the story goes, and after marriage refused to settle down to quiet domesticity, but insisted on joining in all the gay doings of the region, as she had done as a girl, in spite of her husband’s protests. When she found that she was to be a mother she became absolutely wicked in her complains and regrets over having married, and led her husband a terrible life. The night before she became a mother she was particularly violent. The granddaughter of the woman who was Mrs. Leed’s nurse is still living in Burlington county, and she says that what I am going to tell you has been handed down in the family straight and without a change or addition. This woman’s grandmother's story was that night Mrs. Leeds finally raised her hands above her head and almost shrieked:
“‘I hope it will be a devil!’
“The next night the nurse appeared at her own house, pale and in great terror.
“‘Mrs. Leeds is a mother!” she exclaimed, ‘but her offspring was a hideous deformity, and flew up and out of the chimney, shrieking and screaming as it went.’” (The New York Sun, Sunday, 2 October 1887, via Newspapers.com)
The first rash of newspaper stories about the creature, which made it known all over the country, didn’t appear until 1909, roughly one hundred and seventy years after Titan Leeds (actually) died. In that year, a number of mysterious footprints and purported sightings scared the pants off of New Jersey-ians.
WHAT AILS SOUTH JERSEY?
Strange Conduct Even Though This is the Hot Apple Toddy Season
PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 20 -- All south Jersey had posses out to-day hunting the “Leeds devil,” the strange monstrosity, according to all accounts, which has been leaping, flying, running and hopping over the towns in that section for the last week. Most of those who have been scoffing for the last two days began to-day to believe there is something stranger than usual about south Jersey.
The “devil” leaves two tracks like those of a pony, the cloven hoofs being clear. It walks on two legs and shows a facility in scaling six foot fences and leaving its tracks a mile apart that has made south Jersey argue that it has wings. Its tracks were found to-day in Philadelphia in two places, 4521 Sansom street and 2237 North Sixteenth street. Its course ranges from Woodbury, Salem, Gloucester, Clayton, Williamstown, Glassboro and all the towns in Cumberland county.
The “Devil” gets its name from the fact that thirty-five years ago there was a similar appearance, of which the tracks started from a cave at Leed’s Corners in Cumberland county. In Gloucester it has been seen. Nelson Evans, a paperhanger living at 208 Mercer street, Gloucester City, declares that he and his wife saw the “Devil” early this morning as he sat on the roof of their back shed. White faced and trembling, Evans entered police headquarters there this morning.
“About 2 o’clock this morning,” said the paperhanger, “my wife and I were aroused by a noise on our shed roof. I went to the window and looked out and then I called to her. We saw the strangest beast or bird, I don’t know which, you ever heard of.
“It was about three feet and a half high, with a head like a collie dog and a face like a horse. It had a long neck, wings about two feet long, and its hind legs were like those of a crane. It had horse’s hoofs. It walked on its hind legs and held up two short front legs with paws on them. It did not use the front legs at all while we were watching it. We hid.” (The New York Sun, Thursday, 21 Jan 1909, via Newspapers.com)
“We hid.” Sensible people.
I haven’t been able to find any reference to the sighting of “thirty-five years ago”, which would have put the previous sighting in 1865-1866, but two things about this description stand out to me:
- The description of the hooves reminds me very much of earlier “Devil’s footprints” stories from the British Isles, proving that there’s no new deviltry under the… sun? Moon? Hellish nightscape?
- That subtitle. How does ‘hot apple toddy season’ even come into play here, Sun writer? I demand to know.
Most of these sightings can probably be put down to mass hysteria and misidentification of known animals (cranes are thought to be the most common culprit), but a publicist for a local museum is widely believed to have been responsible for the impetus behind the sightings.
This museum, in fact. The ‘Leeds Devil’ they had for display was a shaved kangaroo with fake wings.
And it’s entirely possible that some of those pony-lookin’ hoof prints were, in fact, made by an actual, real-life, non-demonic pony.
But of course that doesn’t make for very good advertising copy.
So what we’re left with is a story that has a beginning in colonial religion and business slapfights, and a culmination of sorts in the modern legend of the Jersey Devil that’s become part of Pine Barrens lore, and as for the middle…
Well, that’s where the stories are. Stories about a ghost and his brother the deformed devil, about their mother the harridan and their father the heretic, and apparently about Benjamin Franklin never letting the dead lie down.
Thank you so much to all my readers, new and longstanding. If you'd like to read any of my previous Oddments post, here they all are!
April 2019: Monk Killers and Everlasting Pills
March 2019: Carnacki the Ghost-finder
January 2019: The Great Moon Hoax of 1835
December 2018: The Mostly-Forgotten Exploits of Ray Stannard Baker
November 2018: John Billington and the Murder of John Newcomen
October 2018: The Mysterious Deaths of John & Hannah Grieve
July 2018: Lizzie Siddal, Tragic Victorian
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