EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – For generations, stories about the Jersey Devil have been passed down and passed around by people living and visiting South Jersey. One former resident decided to dig deeper into the lore and try to find out not only the truth, but why the tales have persisted through the years.
“I used to think it was kind of cute and harmless,” Bill Sprouse said of the myth. “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.”
Sprouse, 37, who grew up in Egg Harbor Township and now lives in Mexico City, is out to set the record straight.
“No. There’s no such thing as the Jersey Devil,” he asserts.
Sprouse, who said he is a descendant of the infamous Leeds family of local lore, recently wrote and self-published a book titled “The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil: or, BeBop’s Miscellany.”
According to the book, the Jersey Devil of legend was a fire-breathing monster with the head of a horse, batlike wings and a body similar to that of a kangaroo. It had horns, hooves, scales and a tail.
The creature is said to have been born in 1735 in the Leeds Point area of Galloway, the 13th child of a Mother Leeds, who put a curse on her offspring.
Sprouse said that when he was a child, his grandmother, Helen Leeds of Northfield, told him the family was related to the Jersey Devil.
His “BeBop,” as he called her, told him tales about the creature when he was growing up. Sprouse was born in Atlantic City and moved to Egg Harbor Township with his family in 1987. He attended Egg Harbor Township elementary schools and Holy Spirit High School, graduating in 1994.
As an adult he began researching the topic. The resulting book is a rollicking romp through 300 years of New Jersey history that is part memoir, part travel log. And while it is a work of nonfiction, “All nonsense expressed herein is purely that of the author,” Sprouse says in the book’s opening disclaimer.
“Growing up here, I knew there was no controversy and the claims were wildly exaggerated, so the question of the monster’s being real or not was uninteresting to me,” he said.
“The questions that interested me were: Where did this story come from? And how has it survived for a hundred and fifty years, probably much longer, in a place like New Jersey, which isn’t exactly renowned for its folksiness or authenticity?”
The book, he said, is based on historical documents and maps, his family’s own stories passed down, and interviews with former Galloway Mayor Harry Leeds, whom Sprouse called the “de facto press secretary for the Jersey Devil.”
“When I was about 9 years old, my grandmother told me I was related to the Jersey Devil. She was a Leeds from Leeds Point. It was kind of a 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 lived in South Jersey for 300 years,” he said.
BeBop, who died in 2008, had specific ideas about where the Jersey Devil story came from, he said.
“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 to cause the neighbors to tell this odd story about her,” he said.
According to the book, Sprouse’s grandmother is a direct male-line descendent of Deborah Leeds.
“In the beginning I wanted to find out what could be learned about her life that might explain the mystery. But Deborah was an obscure Colonial woman living on the edge of a wilderness, and very little was known about her life.”
The book states that the Jersey Devil is part folklore and part literary amalgamation – meaning that it belongs both to a spoken tradition and to a written one.
It follows his exploration into the life of Leeds, who was a Quaker, and what might have taken place to give birth to the legend of the Jersey Devil.
Sprouse said it was journalists – “mainly men who had a certain tendency toward romanticism and maybe failed to appreciate the natural realities of her situation” – who caused the legend to grow into what it is today.
“Sometimes they wanted to preserve the Pine Barrens culture… and sometimes they just wanted a good ghost story and didn’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow with nasty details about sick or unwanted children.”
“The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil” is available on Amazon, and details are available on Facebook.
“I think it’s really a sad story, any way you look at it. Growing up here, maybe it’s easy to miss that,” the author mused.
“One of the few things that it is possible to say about the historical Deborah Leeds is that she bore 12 children during her lifetime,” Sprouse continued.
“She was pregnant for nearly 10 years of her life in total. If she was old and tired and said something regrettable in 1735, maybe a little sympathy is in order.”