The Jersey Devil was born in Bordentown. So claims a 1905 newspaper article written by Alminus Alba.
That early 20th-century story appears briefly in the 2018 book “The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster.”
Written by Kean University history professors Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito and published by John Hopkins University Press, it’s a good start for this overview that leads to the Bordentown connection.
That’s because “The Secret History” authoritatively connects the myth of a demon child that still haunts New Jersey to a feud between two prominent 18th-century Philadelphia almanac publishers.
One, obviously, was Benjamin Franklin. The other was a member of the Leeds family. Together, they vied for business in New Jersey and in the communities along the Delaware River — especially in the Quaker region of what is now Burlington County.
Although Quaker, almanac founder Daniel Leeds used his publication to criticize the church’s hierarchy and its decisions. Fellow Quakers fought back by questioning the publisher’s spiritual leanings and began to consider him demonic.
At the same time, Franklin was establishing his paper using tongue-in-cheek stories to attract readers, such as the supernaturally charged “The Witch Trial at Mount Holly.”
He eventually baited another member of the Leeds family, publisher Titan Leeds, into a series of published exchanges and eventually used them to suggest that Leeds was actually dead and animated by a malevolent spirit.
That in turn helped create clouds over the Leeds family and gave credence to the potential that a Leeds woman cursed God when she discovered she was pregnant for the 13th time and gave birth to a demon.
The historians have their facts down about the feud, but they have a devilish time with the birth of the myth.
And while they lean on the most retold tale of the Leeds Devil being born at Leeds Point in Atlantic County in 1737, they also mention other stories that point to other places of the demon’s birth — including the one by Alba that, despite the author having a Newark Sunday Call byline listing, seems to have appeared simultaneously in several New Jersey newspapers.
So what about the claim that the Leeds Devil had a Bordentown address?
Contemporary New Jersey journalist Bill Sprouse shares some thoughts. He is the author of “The Domestic History of the Jersey Devil, or BeBop’s Miscellany,” a 2013 book that combines the author’s training as Yale University history graduate and his boots-on-the-ground journalist work to examine the Jersey Devil’s history and social impact.
He is also a member of the Leeds family and learned the tale of his infamous ancestor from his grandmother, AKA “BeBop.”
Sprouse’s book connects his family to Leeds Point, but the writer considers the Bordentown birth and says in an email “multiple versions of what amounted to this same (1905) story appeared around the same time. The one I reference in my book was headlined something like ‘Leeds Devil was Bordentown Born’ and was from the Trenton Times.”
Along with the note, Sprouse forwarded a photocopy of Alba’s article. This one was on page five of the Tuesday, May 5, 1905, issue of the Camden Post-Telegram.
The headline starts with “Story of the Leeds Devil” and continues with the subhead, “The Imp’s Physical Peculiarities Which Startled Bordentown for Many Years.”
Then the story opens with: “Who has not heard, especially if he be a Jerseyman, of Leeds’ devil? Though the name may be familiar to many, only a few doubtless are aware that there ever was such an individual, and, if so, that the sinister being was born in Bordentown, N.J.”
After putting the town in context and reporting that “William Penn used to cross over from Penn’s Manor to attend the Friends’ meeting at the Farnsworth’s down,” Alba says the town has been associated with a number of historical names and that “among the numerous names which rise out of the misty past the Leeds monstrosity claims a prominent place.”
He then tells the following tale.
* * *
In Bordentown, N.J., many years ago on the northeastern corner of Farnsworth Avenue and McKnight Alley stood a quaint old house, which for a long time was owned and occupied by Parmella Jolly. Years ago the house was demolished and on the site stands a modern villa. In the Baptist section of the desolate and desecrated graveyard at the foot of Church Street there is a yellow tombstone, whereon appears the name, Parmella Jolly.
In the house in question during 1808 resided Captain Leeds, his wife and young daughter. The captain at times followed the sea, was highly respected and well known in the community. Though but a youth at the time, he served in the old Revolution, and as a mark of honor bore on his brow over the left eye an ugly scar. The scar was said to have been the result of a bout he had with a Hessian at the time the English invaded Bordentown and burned the residence of Joseph Borden. Mrs. Leeds was a Tarlton before she married the captain. She was of a reputable family, and the only reflection that was ever passed on her, if the expression can be considered in that light, was that she was “queer.”
Gossip was rife in the old town, then as it is now, and the insinuations that were passed in reference to Mrs. Leeds associated her name with beings of the other world. There is no evidence to indicate that she did not possess a maternal love for her daughter, but she had no desire for another offspring, and repeatedly expressed herself corroborating this sentiment. She said, in case she should ever be so unfortunate as to have an additional offspring, she hoped it would be a devil.
A year or so after Mrs. Leeds expressed herself in such a singular manner she gave birth to a child bearing a close resemblance to the orthodox devil, and the monstrosity soon became known in the neighborhood as “Leeds’ Devil.” In several respects it developed rapidly; it did not possess any of the characteristics of a human child. It never cried — that is, as a child cries — but instead would whine and screech in such a tone as to suggest something of an infernal nature.
Soon following its birth it was able to walk, and had perfect control of its limbs. Its eyes were dark and piercing, and when any attempt was made to frustrate its action their brilliancy was intensified, and the gleams shot forth seemed the concentrated flashes of diabolism. The strength the imp put forth at times was remarkable. Its long, claw-like fingers frantically tore the plain, strong garment which for decency was required to tone down as far as possible the imp’s repulsiveness. In several respects it resembled a monkey; in fact, it surpassed the latter in mischievousness, and would chatter when it inflicted injury or pain to anyone who attempted to control its action.
Of course, the parents were more than pained from the infliction. They tried as far as possible to treat the imp as they would a natural offspring, and the neighbors curbed their curiosity out of respect to parental feeling.
As a general thing, the perverse being was kept indoors, and at times was manacled and chained, for its paroxysms now and then wee of such a character as to terrify the parents. Night seemed to be the season when the imp was the most wakeful and when its screeches and howls could be heard in the street. At such times laggard youths, and grown people who chanced to be about, would accelerate their steps, for they were impressed with the idea that evil influences were in the air, associated with Leeds’ devil. In this sketch I have clung to the tradition, and it is based upon the report of one who knew Mrs. Leeds, was a frequent visitor to the house, and at such times saw the demon child. In those primitive days, the marvelous was probably magnified, but a great deal which we in a matter of fact age consider mythical had its origin in fact.
It was said Mrs. Leeds had a motherly affection for the strange offspring. She, perhaps, was haunted with the singular expression with which she was accredited. A mother’s love is unfathomable, and what seems perversity, sometimes is the most natural.
From the time of its birth, until its final mysterious disappearance, the child was in the habit of scratching and striking its mother, and despite her endearing way to pacify the imp’s malevolent disposition, behaved in a truly diabolical manner.
One evening, just after the candles were lit, when the mother and her demon child were seated by the liberal old hearth, the imp, as if impelled by a sudden impulse, darted form its seat into the huge fireplace, sprang upon the lug pole, and, like a flash, flew up the chimney, and disappeared. The singular leave taking of the imp led to a search, and the neighbors joined with the parents in the movement. The old chimney received due attention. They searched high and low, and, just about as the folk thought — or, at least, so expressed themselves — “the devil had called his own,” the imp returned. The event occurred the third night following the disappearance.
The parents and a neighbor were seated by the hearth, discussing the whereabouts of the imp, when he jumped from the lug pole, to the hearthstone.
This act of disappearance and returning was repeated several times. Finally one night in the early part of November, when the rude blasts were tearing over the hilltop the imp disappeared. Following a more than usual display of impish tricks, it darted into the fireplace, up the chimney, and away, and never since, from what I have been able to learn, has it appeared in the neighborhood.
For a number of years following the imp’s final disappearance from the old house on the hilltop, reports came from the Pine Barrens touching its marvelous visitations. The singular character, inferring from reports, confines its field of action to the State of New Jersey and makes its appearance in the woodlands and desolate tracts in the southern section of the state.
A few years ago the engineer and fireman on one of the Southern Railroad were the parties who, it was averred, witnessed the antics of the diabolical Jerseyman. The train was going at an ordinary speed, when the occupants of the cab were startled by the sudden appearance of the thing of ill omen. It flew against the cab window, and clung like a bat to the projection. It continued for a mile or so to cling to the cab, when it gave an unearthly screech and disappeared in the scrubland. When the train arrived at Toms River a report of the singular visitant was given, and in circulating, came to the ear of “an old inhabitant.” He said that years before, he had met the imp and given it the full contents of his gun. Strange to say, the discharge was harmless, all of which impressed the ancient inhabitant with the idea that the strange creature, if it was not the devil himself, was one of his imps.
Sometime following the adventure, the hunter learned that the strange being was “Leeds’ Devil.”
* * *
Alba’s tale concludes by connecting the figure to European myths of entities that wander through time without changing and to an Arabian demon “that confines its visitations to haunts least frequented by human beings. To old Bordentown it has turned a cold shoulder and the present generation seems to know as little of its history.”
So what’s to make of the story? Was the writer with the odd name part of a little joke the newspaper pulled on a slow news day (like Franklin would have done)? Or if he were real, how would Newark Call writer know about the Leeds Devil’s connection to Bordentown and the details of the town?
A quick visit to the free Family Search genealogy site had the answers. Honestus Arminius Alba was not only an actual person, he was born in Bordentown in 1883 and lived in Essex County during the time of the article’s publication.
However, beyond the facts that the writer’s father was Francis Alba, his mother was Carrie T. Ellis (from Bordentown), and that he died in Manchester, Connecticut, in 1944, there is no further detail.
Furthermore, there is no digital trace of Captain Leeds or Parmella Jolly, or any gravestone with Jolly’s name on it in the cemetery mentioned in the story. However, there is the fact that many of the names on the old stones have been scrubbed away by time.
There is also the reality that for some reason the author created a story that argued a connection to Bordentown.
While it would be easy to dismiss one Bordentown resident connecting the town to the Jersey Devil, another also did.
According to Regal and Esposito, “The exiled king of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, who was the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, found himself dragged into the Jersey Devil legend. While living in exile in the early 1800s at his estate, Point Breeze, in Bordentown, Joseph allegedly sighted the devil while hunting. No shots were fired at the monster, but the exiled king told local townspeople of the encounter. Like so many elements of the Jersey Devil story, no contemporary historical documentation can be found to substantiate this incident.”
Sprouse again weighs in and agrees with the historians about the lack of documentation and puts the account and story in perspective. “The Bonaparte story is fun. Like a lot of Jersey Devil stuff it’s of dubious historicity but has been in circulation for a while, at least in print.
“I don’t think, for instance, that there’s an entry in Bonaparte’s diary that says ‘Went for a walk today and saw the Jersey Devil. Think she winked at me.’”
But this brings up another consideration. Maybe Bonaparte and Alba were winking with the tales and are continuing to do so from the past. Then again, perhaps they were actually trying to share something and say that the devil really is in the details of their stories.