Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Falling into the Jersey Pine Barrens ~ Leah St. James

Talking about falling into danger, or not...I live a pretty ho-hum life. I get up early, write for a bit (or that's the theory), head into the my job at the newspaper where I busy myself for the next eight or so hours, then head home to have dinner with hubby, after which I collapse into a coma-like state on the couch until he rouses me to go to bed. The next day I get up and do it all over again.

That's the reality. (Zzzzzzzzzz.) 

In my head, however, danger is rarely too far from my side. I have a worst-case-scenario mind, meaning that I'm liable to conjure up trouble even when none exists. Add to that my extreme gullibility, and I'm a walking/talking mass of susceptibility to anything spooky.

This isn't new. I've been like this my whole life. During a hiking outing as a young Girl Scout, I refused to cross a log "bridge" over a stream because I'd pictured myself falling in, swept away by whitewater, eaten by ... whatever creatures lurked in the rivers of Central New Jersey. (I shudder still!) 
Little Falls, New Jersey--not at all close to the camp where I was.

In reality, the "river" was probably little more than a creek, the "whitewater" a trickle. When I think of that poor leader who had to sit with me while the rest of the troop went off adventuring...I want to duck into bed and pull the covers over my head with embarrassment. (If by any chance you're reading this....I'm sorry!) 

Yes, I refused to walk the ten feet or so across the log. (Hangs head in remembered shame.)

So when it came to overnight camp-outs, "nervous" hardly described my state of mind. Even safely ensconced in the tent (burrowed so far down into my sleeping back I was probably at risk of suffocation), I imagined insects hovering inches over my head waiting to feast on me.  (In fairness, they probably were. We were camping in the woods, after all.) 

And then the stories would start.  First, the legend of Mr. Nomoco, a tall, skinny man who at one time owned the property. His ghost roamed the site of the campgrounds, waiting for young girls to brave the night to trudge through the mists to the latrines while bats sang overhead. (In reality, there was no Mr. Nomoco, alive or ghostly. Nomoco was an abbreviation for the Girl Scout campground -- NOrthern MOnmouth COunty.)

The spookiest, though, was the legend of the Jersey Devil, a hoofed, leather-winged creature that patrolled the woods of the southern Jersey Pine Barrens for its supper. (Human, of course.)  

The legend has numerous variations, but most tell of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Leeds who lived in what is now Atlantic County in the mid-1700s. Upon the birth of their 13th child, Mother Leeds shouted, "He'll be the devil," or words to that effect, at which point the newborn turned into the creature and would forever haunt the woods in the area. It was cruel and heartless...and relentless. (Think of the velociraptor chasing the kids in the lab in Jurassic Park.) 

And it has scared the you-know-what out of hapless scouts and campers for more than a hundred years.

This is kind of what the Jersey Devil looks like..I've never actually seen him myself. 

I wish I'd known then what I know now:  That according to Brian Regal, professor of the history of science at New Jersey's Kean University, the "Jersey Devil" was born of a running fight between the Leeds family who published a political, anti-Quaker almanac called by some as heretical, and rival Benjamin Franklin.

In the November/December 2013 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Regal writes that Titan Leeds (who took over as publisher from his father, founder Daniel Leeds) "...redesigned the masthead to include the Leeds family crest, which contained three figures on a shield. Dragon-like with a fearsome face, clawed feet, and bat-like wings, the figures, known as Wyverns, are suspiciously reminiscent of the later descriptions of the Jersey Devil." 

In 1732, Franklin launched his Poor Richard's Almanac, and in an attempt to boost sales in 1733 ran an item that predicted a date that his "devilish" rival would die. After that, Franklin referred to Titan Leeds as a ghost. (Apparently it was meant in fun. Imagine what would happen today! Talk about political mud-slinging!) 

It wasn't until the early 20th century that the now-familiar story of the winged creature started making its rounds of campfire circles.  And from there the legend took root and thrives to this day.

I wish I had more time. I'd tell you the one about the young lovers whose car breaks down on a lonely stretch of road deep in the woods of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.... :-)

To read more about the legend, go here:

To read more about Regal's so-called truth :-):  go here.
Leah writes of mystery and romance, good and evil, and the redeeming power of love, including her own story about things that go bump in the night--Adrienne's Ghost. FBI agent Jackson Yates had never believed in ghosts...until now. Available in eBook, print and audiobook.


Diane Burton said...

For someone who is a scaredy-cat, you can tell amazingly scarey stories, Leah. Like you, I'm a Nervous Nellie. I, too, think up worst-case scenarios. Your poor Girl Scout leader. She must have been really patient.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Oh, ladies. I'm another catastrophic thinker. There are many tales I could tell. Also, head hung in shame. Thanks for sharing.

Susan Coryell said...

Where would we mystery writers be without catastrophe? Washed up, that's where! Loved the creepy legend. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Jannine Gallant said...

I used to love telling those creepy stories when I was a girl. Remember the Ouija Board? We scared ourselves silly with that, sleeping outside on the deck, with the dark woods harboring all sorts of unknown spirits, closing in around us... Okay, I'll stop! LOL Great post.

Leah St. James said...

Diane, I still remember how frustrated the leader was with me, but I guess what they say about Taureans (is that spelled right?) being stubborn is true! I wouldn't budge. She earned her brownie points (ha!) that day.

Leah St. James said...

Hi, Margo - I'm glad I'm not the only one! Maybe it's normal for writers???

Leah St. James said...

You're right, Susan! All that murder and mayhem has to come from someone's imagination! :-) Thanks for stopping by.

Leah St. James said...

Hi, Jannine. I LOVED the Ouija Board! I'd forgotten about it. Do they still make them???

Alicia Dean said...

What the heck? I swear I commented. Sorry!

I said something like this...

Love the post, very interesting background on those campfire tales. I also think of worst case scenario things, but I am one of those odd people who like to be scared. :) I was a bit of a daredevil as a child, and one of my favorite things to do was scare people. Yeah, I was twisted.

Denise Golinowski said...

Well, Leah, thanks for reminding me of the things that go bump in the night. Now I'll be making that a sprint from the car to the back door tonight. I didn't know about the myth of the Jersey Devil, how cruel of the mother, but to have one of our Founding Fathers indulging in such shenanigans? Well, it's to be expected. He was an interesting man. Thanks again. Where's that flashlight...?

Leah St. James said...

I really can't picture you purposely scaring people, Alicia! You must put all that energy into your creepy characters these days. :-)

Leah St. James said...

I was really surprised too, Denise, to read about the Franklin connection. And if you believe him, the Jersey Devil is no more than the product of someone's over-active imagination. I mean, all those sightings can't be for real, can they? :-)

Rolynn Anderson said...

I'm in agreement...writers need their minds to run wild...I can go there too. What really scares me now, however is the horror, the horror, the horror of social media! That keeps me up at night!

Leah St. James said...

Me too, Rolynn--because I am so gullible!