In this final October edition, I’ll look at a puzzling event that, when considered in context, seems a complementary tale to my last. In the previous edition, I discussed the haunting specter of Spring-Heeled Jack, a figure described as having devilish qualities—beyond his preternatural abilities to leap over walls and onto rooftops, he was said to have glowing eyes, fiery breath, and sharp facial features like the Devil himself. One diabolical feature I failed to remark upon, since it only appeared in one report, had to do with the creature’s feet. For the most part, Jack was described as wearing boots—boots it was assumed contained some spring-loaded mechanism in the heels to help propel him in his leaping—but there is a report that, in 1826, a masked and cloaked figure attacked a young man by clasping the boy to his body and somehow setting him afire, and this attacker was reported by the badly burned victim to have had cloven hoofs instead of feet. And like the Devil is wont to do, Spring-Heeled Jack disappeared from the public eye for around three decades: the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s. Interestingly, though, smack in the middle of these quiet years, when the diabolical figure of Spring-Heeled Jack was absent from the scene, an incident in the county of Devon, some 254 kilometers or 158 miles southwest of London, had people believing the Devil still trod the earth. On the morning of February 9th, 1855, people all over the county woke to discover tracks in their garden paths and streets, and many believed these were not ordinary animal tracks. The incident has been called the Great Devon Mystery, and the tracks have been described as the Devil’s Hoof-marks, for many concluded that Satan himself had visited their neighborhood, creeping up near their doors in the cold darkness of the previous night.
That winter of 1855 was unusually cold, freezing over the rivers of Devon County, the Teign and the Exe, and falling a full degree lower than anyone remembered it ever falling before. On the evening of February 8th, a heavy snowfall blanketed the region, and covered it also in a deep peaceful silence—only one report exists of a resident’s dog kicking up a row that night, which is especially curious considering the indications of widespread disturbance and activity that were discovered the next morning, after dawn brought some rain and a subsequent frost. Within a few days, reports began to circulate about what the residents of Devon villages found that morning: strange tracks that these hardy country folk, who were not unaccustomed to the sight of animal sign, found unnatural and even upsetting. They appeared not only in open areas, where an animal might be expected to venture, but also within the walls of locked gardens, and some of the trails seemed to walk purposefully up to their doors and disappear, or reappear on rooftops as though the creature that had left them had walked easily up the walls. And many agreed that these tracks looked like those that might be left by a pony or donkey: a hoof—sometimes cloven and sometimes not, but hooved, certainly. But of course, a donkey could not get inside their garden walls or onto their rooftops. Moreover, the tracks seemed too straight and purposeful, and appeared to have been made by a bipedal creature. And what cloven-hoofed creature walks about on two legs like a man? The Devil, of course, and almost immediately, this seems to be the conclusion many reached. It only took a few hours before hunting parties formed in multiple villages, setting out to track down this mystery night visitor. These tracking parties discovered some remarkable oddities, including tracks that disappeared and then reappeared in the middle of a snowy field and others that went directly up to a haystack and continued on unimpeded on the other side, with no sign of having disturbed the hay itself, as if whatever left them had merely walked right through it. And one story has a party following the tracks into a wood, where their hunting dogs came whimpering back with their tails between their legs, so terrified were they of whatever they had cornered. This last story would be easy to dismiss as folklore, were it not for its corroboration by a reverend at Marychurch.
Indeed, much of the original source support that is available comes from churchmen and would seem, perhaps, the more reliable for it. A Reverend Ellacombe of Clyst St. George, collected numerous documents on the incident, including letters from a Reverend Musgrave of Withycombe Raleigh and some tracings of the tracks likely made on the scene. These, along with some letters from locals published in the Illustrated London News, serve as the extent of the primary source documentation of the event, which, once again, researcher Mike Dash has delved into extensively in his investigation of this phenomenon, which again I have relied on as my principal source, since his is the definitive work on the topic. As Dash points out, much of the primary source material is contradictory, and the evidence it presents is meager, but this has not limited the development of many theories to explain the tracks. One, as might be expected from paranormal researchers, is that the marks were not tracks at all, but rather the result of laser beams fired from flying saucers engaged in some kind of land surveying. Another rather interesting theory developed in later years is that the marks were made by some as yet unidentified weather phenomenon, an idea first floated by J. Allan Rennie, a Scotsman who claimed to have seen, in the wilds of Canada in 1924, similar tracks being formed before his eyes by no visible being or creature, just tracks being laid into the snow by a phantom and being blamed on a wendigo by his Native American companion. However, according to Rennie, as they drew right up to him, a splash of water hit his face and the marks continued on behind him, suggesting some strange meteorological even whereby large raindrops may fall only in one line and successively, like a trail. A more down to earth explanation, though still up in the clouds, puts forth the idea that the tracks were laid by a balloonist out for a lunatic midnight flight on the frigid and windy night of February 8th, and that a loose rope, perhaps with a horseshoe or other grappling device at its end, had been left to drag along beneath. While all three of these explanations account for the appearance of tracks that disappear and then reappear elsewhere, as well as for tracks on rooftops and in walled gardens, there are other contemporary reports that weaken them. For example, despite the legend that evolved, saying that the tracks were one single trail in a straight line that went purposefully all over Devon, there are many reports of meandering and crisscrossing trails that would not seem to fit these theories or the idea that one evil Adversary left the hoof-marks. One hunting party out of Dawlish did track one trail as far as five miles, which is a long distance for one creature on a snowy night, but no parties tracked any trails long enough to confirm that they were all one trail. Moreover, these parties reported the tracks passing beneath low tree branches and through small holes in hedges and 6-inch drainage pipes, which would eliminate not only UFO lasers, strange rain, and balloon ropes but also any suspected creatures that were large, such as donkeys, ponies, and of course the odd escaped monkey or kangaroo that are sometimes suggested. It would also eliminate the Devil himself, unless Satan is very small indeed, with strides only ranging from eight to sixteen inches.
This leaves smaller creatures, and of them there was no shortage of suspects. At different times, badgers, otters, rabbits, birds, and rodents have been named as possible culprits of the tracks. The descriptions of the tracks themselves have been so varied—ranging not only from cloven to not cloven but also to having toe marks or claw marks or the impression of pads—and so many explanations have been offered for why an animal without hoofs might leave prints that resemble hoof-marks—rabbits and rats, for example, hop, and landing with four feet together can create a hoof-like impression, and birds like gulls, driven inland by the cold, might have ice on their feet that could take the shape of a hoof—such that it becomes difficult to rule out many of the suspects. Add to this the fact that it had rained at dawn, likely melting whatever tracks had been laid and then distorting them when they refroze. A similar explanation has been put forward to explain how bear tracks might be mistaken for yeti prints, and in the case of the Great Devon Mystery, it means an argument can be made for nearly any creature being the culprit. One reverend of Dawlish reported that a farmer had found what appeared to be hoof-marks but upon closer examination, seeing claw marks in them, realized they were just his own cat’s tracks, thawed and misshapen by the frost. This tends to make one doubt most of the reports. Could it have just been a brief panic or hysteria, causing many in Devon to mistake common animal tracks for something supernatural and sinister? If so, why did these savvy country folk suddenly act like they’d never encountered such trails, and why did such panics not recur every time similar trails were seen? They surely must have been, for snowy nights were not uncommon, nor were rodents and birds. And what of contemporary reports that the tracks of cats and other animals could clearly be made out that morning, indicating that the distortion of a thaw and a refreeze was not the explanation, or the reports that these hoof-marks were not indistinct but rather extraordinarily clear and sharp, as one witness put it, “as if cut by a diamond or branded with a hot iron”? This, of course, leads us to an alternate explanation: that of a hoax perpetrated by men.
But who would go to the great trouble of committing this hoax, and why? In the 1970s, one Manfri Wood revealed in his account of growing up as a Romany gypsy that the hoax had been perpetrated by seven tribes of Romany for the purposes of claiming their territory by scaring away other tribes, such as Pikies, who held deep-seated fears of the devil. They had planned it for a year and a half, he explained, and it had been accomplished using stilts made from stepladders. However, Wood’s version of the hoax suggested the prints would have been far larger than they were actually reported to be, and that the tracks would have been laid at intervals of about 9 feet, rather than every 8 inches. Add to this the idea that seven tribes of gypsy could possibly descend upon so many Devon towns in one night, tramping on stilts through gardens and atop roofs, without ever being spotted and only ever disturbing one dog, and you have a legend second only to Santa Claus’s massive Christmas Eve undertaking in its lack of feasibility. There is, however, a second possibility. As many of the reports of tracks were said to cross churchyards, it has been suggested that the signs of the devil were set down as a kind of protest, a display of dissent against recent happenings in the Anglican Church. For the last few decades, the so-called “high church” clergy had inflamed the ire of so-called “low church” parishioners who held some disdain for ritual and other trappings commonly associated with Roman Catholicism. The Oxford Movement, or Tractarianism as it had commenced with the publication of a series of tracts, had been moving the church toward an Anglo-Catholic revival, to the indignation of many. This theory posits that protesters, disliking this move away from simple Protestantism, had visited churches on the night of February 8th to make the point that the devil had returned, come home to roost in the Anglican Church.
The fact is, this would not have been the first time even that year that hoof-marks were laid around places thought to be corrupt as a statement. A month earlier and 150 miles or 240 kilometers northeast of Devon, several pubs around Wolverhampton had hoof-marks on their walls and roofs, and these seem to have been left by teetotalers hoping out to indicate that alcohol was the devil’s drink. So this appears to be a well-established ideological stunt designed to imply the presence of evil at a place. The problem in the case of the Great Devon Mystery, however, is that the hoof-marks were not only found on church grounds, but all over, in private gardens and atop the roofs of homes owned by simple citizens. And what would have been the point of laying the tracks all the way out of town, as far as five miles out into the wilderness? And these tracks appeared in towns all over the county in one night. Not only is it unlikely that the vast conspiracy required to perpetrate such a stunt could have long stayed hidden, but it would also have been quite the ill-conceived failure, since by failing to place the hoof-marks only on churches, its hypothetical message had been very poorly conveyed. But if, in this instance, the notion that mere men could have been behind the phenomenon seems rather more a stretch than a reasonable explanation, we might still find a sensible solution, as we have before, by suggesting that it may have been a combination of several proposed explanations. Could not some tracks, when out in the open, have been made by donkeys and ponies, while others were made by birds with icy feet alighting on roofs and in fields, and still others by rats who had climbed into walled gardens? But then one encounters another problem… that of the seemingly honest and earnest residents of Devon County themselves. Why would so many sensible people who were quite familiar with their home and the common wildlife thereabout suddenly take to the snowy morning searching out mundane animal tracks and ascribing supernatural significance to them? Did it just take one person to suggest that the marks in the snow were unusual and represented something uncanny to set off the hysteria? And if so, what are the chances that one such person made the suggestion in more than thirty places across Devon County? If doubting the strangeness of the tracks requires us to make this leap in logic, would it actually be more reasonable to believe these simple country folk, these farmers and reverends, that something strange stalked all over their county that winter’s night? As Mike Dash asserts, with so little evidence and so many puzzling aspects, this mystery may forever remain a blind spot in the past.
Dash, Mike. “The Devil's Hoofmarks: Investigating the Great Devon Mystery of 1855.” Fortean Studies, vol. 1, 1994, pp.71-150. mikedash.com, www.mikedash.com/research.