Animal Planet’s “Monster Week” is underway, and AiPT! Science has decided to join in on the fun, with a slightly more skeptical viewpoint. Click the “MW2018” tag down below for more, all week!
Finding Bigfoot finally admitted defeat last night, but could the story be different for a decidedly more local monster?
Brian Regal has led an interesting life. After going into the army straight out of high school, he earned a certificate in scientific and technical illustration, drew for the first ever university textbook on dinosaurs and even taught at the Kubert School for a time. But he was always interested in history, so Regal became a 30-year-old freshman at Kean University, where he now teaches the history of science, technology and medicine.
It’s been a circuitous path, but not nearly as convoluted as the history of the subject of his latest book. AiPT! Comics spoke to Regal about what inspired him, with co-author Frank Esposito, to write The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster, why people believe in such a strange thing and how the Jersey Devil has an even more interesting origin story than you might have thought.
AiPT!: First of all, why the Jersey Devil?
Regal: The story I always tell everybody is, when Hurricane Sandy came through and laid waste to most of New Jersey a few years back, in our particular neighborhood, the power was out for over a week, and when it finally came back on, I had a lot of TV-watching to catch up on. There was a show — I forget, I think it might have been Monsterquest, or one of those — and they were doing a segment on the Jersey Devil, and it was just so awful; it made me angry.
My colleague at Kean, Frank Esposito … is a scholar of Native American history and New Jersey history, and we got to talking, and the two us pretty much simultaneously said, “Let’s do a book about the Jersey Devil!” So that was it! Three and a half, four years later, it’s on the shelf.
AiPT!: The Jersey Devil is a weird case, because it kind of gets lumped in with cryptozoology, but it’s really more of a historical legend than it is a creature that people see often, right?
Regal: Yeah, well, going by cryptozoologists’ own standards of what makes a cryptid, it isn’t really. It doesn’t make any sense evolutionarily, biologically. It has a strange folkloric history. I think that’s the thing that the cryptozoology people get drawn to — that it does have this folkloric aspect to its history.
AiPT!: But you say it doesn’t make sense evolutionarily — nobody knows exactly what it’s supposed to look like. Aren’t there —
Regal: Yeah, there is a certain basic morphology to it. It sort of looks like an emaciated deer with wings. I always tell people, imagine if Pegasus went over to the dark side. Or if Pegasus had let himself go, that’s sort of what the Jersey Devil looks like. But the problem is, you can’t have a quadruped with wings.
AiPt!: But people still say they see it. Or do they?
Regal: Sure. Oh yeah, they still see it. I give talks all over the region here, all the time — I just gave one a couple weeks ago — and I stand up there and I give them this lecture about this thing, and I make jokes about how I’m going to disappoint everybody by telling them this thing isn’t real, and sure enough, when it’s all over and you go through that whole shaking hands and “thanks a lot for coming,” and all that kind of stuff, someone will come up and say, “Yeah, yeah, I know; I know it’s fake, but I really saw it. It was in my yard.” Or, “We were out, driving around, and we saw it.” So yeah, people still think they see this. They still think it’s real.
We are under no illusions that this book of ours is going to make people suddenly stop believing in the Jersey Devil. That’s not gonna happen.
AiPT!: It does seem like you want people to think about the history of it a little differently. So tell us a little bit about the usual story people tell about the origin of the Jersey Devil, and how you might think the reality is a little different.
Regal: The legend is that a witch named Mother Leeds living in the Pine Barrens in 1735 gives birth to a 13th child, which she curses as it’s being born, and it turns into this monster [that] flies off and spends the next couple of centuries just sort of annoying people in the woods. It doesn’t ever really do anything.
That’s one of the, sort of disappointing things about this whole story. There are a few scattered, apocryphal stories about the Jersey Devil eating people, but that’s really not much in the legend. You see it, it looks at you, you look at it, you run away in one direction, it runs away in another direction, and that’s pretty much the end of the encounter.
AiPT!: But you think there was more to it than that. There was maybe political and religious things that might have led to the birth of this legend?
Regal: Yeah, that’s what we did in this book. Frank and I decided that we wanted to do something with a monster legend that had never really been done before, and that was to approach this as historians (which is what we are), and we approached it the way we would approach any aspect of the past. We began digging through the archives and looking through material and museums and libraries, all around the region, and you dig out what you can find, and you use that to build a story.
AiPT!: Is there anything [interesting] you can tell us you found out, without spoiling the book too much?
Regal: Ben Franklin was a bit of a dick?
AiPT!: Everyone knows that!
Regal: Great guy, probably the best of all the founding fathers, but he apparently had a little bit of a nasty side to him, so that’s kind of interesting.
AiPT!: Do you think the cryptozoologic field could benefit from this kind of historical perspective that you’ve taken?
Regal: Yeah, but I don’t think they will. I think the whole draw of cryptozoology is sort of the romance of the thing. Going out into the woods and looking for Bigfoot, or wearing some night vision goggles — it’s sort of adventurous and fun.
AiPT!: You said you’re not expecting anyone to read the book and stop believing in the Jersey Devil. What do you hope people will take away from it?
Regal: That they’ll see that this story is much more interesting than they think it is. That it’s not just some sort of wacky, provincial, local foolishness, but it comes out of the very foundations of what became the United States. It’s part of the colonial period, it’s involved in politics of the empire, and grew out of a collision of Europeans and Native Americans and politics and science and the dawning of the Scientific Revolution in America.
We think it’s much more interesting than just some sort of dopey, malformed horse with wings, running around the Pine Barrens.
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