Previously: John Titor.
The beginning of February 1855 in the southwest county of England known as Devon was marked by heavy snowfall. Indeed, 1855 would prove to be unusually cold — but on the evening on Feb. 8, something occurred which not even the cold could explain: In more than 30 different locations, mysterious footprints appeared in the snow. Not just any footprints, though; they looked like they had been caused by something with hooves — but which also seemed to walk upright, like a human. Given all these seemingly impossible details, it’s no wonder that the tracks quickly gained a reputation for reportedly being the Devil’s own footprints.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
A letter published in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette shortly after the prints were discovered, written by someone signing themselves only “Spectator,” provides what we believe to be an eyewitness account; it expresses astonishment at the sheer breadth of the activity:
“Sir: Thursday night, the 8th of February, was marked by a heavy fall of snow, followed by rain and boisterous wind from the east, and in the morning frost. The return of daylight revealed the ramblings of some most busy and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity, as its footprints were to be seen in all kinds of unaccountable places on the tops of houses, narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by highwalls and palings, as well as in the open fields. The creature seems to have frolicked about through Exmouth, Littleham, Lympstone, Woodbury, Topsham, Starcross, Teignmouth, &c, &c. There is hardly a garden in Lympstone where his footprints are not observable, and in this parish he appears to have gamboled with inexpressible activity.”
And also describes what the footprints looked like — or at least, what they looked like in one area in which they were spotted:
“Its track appears more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps are generally eight inches in advance of each other, though in some cases twelve or fourteen, and are alternate like the steps of a man, and would be included between two parallel lines six inches apart. The impression of the foot closely resembles that of a donkey’s shoe, and measures from an inch and a half to (in some cases) two inches and a half across, here and there appearing as if the foot was cleft, but in the generality of its steps the impression of the shoe was continuous and perfect; in the centre the snow remains entire, merely showing the outer crust of the foot, which, therefore, must have been convex.”
So: The prints were typically eight inches apart, but occasionally separated by a foot or more, perhaps indicating an extra-long stride or a jump of some sort. The creature’s legs appeared to be about six inches apart, as shown by the fact that the prints appeared in two parallel lines approximately that distance from each other. The individual prints were between 1.5 and 2.5 inches across — that is, quite small — and although sometimes they looked like they might have been cloven, the prints were more commonly uninterrupted. All told, the distance traveled by these prints was around 100 miles.
However, reports differ on the details. A piece in the Illustrated London News from Feb. 24, 1855, for example, describes the prints as being bigger — four inches long and 2.75 inches wide — and laid out in a single line, rather than in parallel ones. (They were, however, still reported as being eight or more inches apart.) What’s more, in some accounts, the trail of prints followed a single line, seemingly moving with a purpose, while in others, the prints meandered, seeming to wander around without much rhyme or reason.
Still, most reports dismissed the idea that the prints could have been caused by an animal. Why? They were everywhere: On rooftops, in enclosed gardens, having scaled 14-foot walls, and so on and so forth. What animal native to England could do that? As “Spectator” put it in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, “Everyone is wondering, but no one is able to explain the mystery; the poor are full of superstition, and consider it little short of a visit from old Satan or some of his imps.”
And that explanation is the one that’s stuck. The marks are still referred to as “the Devil’s footprints” today, more than 160 years after the fact.
But are they really? A number of possible theories have been posited over the years (and decades, and centuries) of what may have caused the prints to appear; here is a small selection of them:
An “Experimental Balloon”
Honestly, I’m not totally sure what was so experimental about this alleged balloon; I suppose it’s possible that it was an early prototype of a weather balloon, given that the device would be more or less invented about 40 years later, but I’m by no means sure that’s the case. In any event, though, novelist Geoffrey Household claimed at one point to have heard a story from someone named “Major Carter” (it’s unclear whether Carter was an actual major or whether “Major” was his given name) who said his grandfather had worked at the Devonport Dockyard at the time the footprints appeared. Household said that Carter told him the aforementioned “experimental balloon” was deployed at the dockyard and got loose; as it crisscrossed Devon, the shackles on the end of the mooring ropes allegedly made the prints so many call “the Devil’s footprints.” The balloon caused property damage during its journey before it finally went down somewhere near Honiton — hence the incident having been hushed up.
This is the only source we have for this explanation, though, so I’d take it with a grain of salt.
I know, I know — a kangaroo? In the southwest of England? In 1855? The reasoning behind this one is that some kangaroos that were kept in a private zoo may have escaped, leaving the tracks behind them as they went; indeed, numerous letters to newspapers of the era suggest that kangaroos are to blame. However, researcher Mike Dash notes in his excellent piece “The Devil’s Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855” that” although “it seems that a pair of kangaroos were kept at a private menagerie in Exmouth … there is nothing to suggest that either or both escaped.” Other “exotic” but unlikely explanations along the same lines as the kangaroo theory include monkeys and wolves.
Naturalist Sir Richard Owen suggested badgers in a letter to the Illustrated London News. Badger prints, Owen argued, feature “the fore and hind-foot … commonly more or less blended together, producing the appearance of a line of single footsteps,” making it appear bipedal, rather than quadrupedal; indeed, Owen found the idea of badgers more likely than, say, bears, because although “the badger sleeps a good deal in his winter retreat,” it “does not hibernate so regularly and completely as the bear does in the severer climate of Canada.” Additionally, noted Owen, “The badger is nocturnal, and comes abroad occasionally in the late winter, when hard-pressed by cold and hunger; it is a stealthy prowler, and most active and enduring in its quest of food.” However, Rupert Gould refutes this theory, citing the badger’s wide tread (which would cause two parallel lines of tracks), as well as the fact that it would be unlikely for a badger, however hungry, to find its way on top of a roof or make its way inside an enclosed garden.
Birds explain the prints appearing in hard to reach places — but although we have only drawings, rather than photographs, of the prints, we’re pretty sure that it wasn’t birds. The depictions are exclusively hooved — and it’s highly unlikely that bird feet, whether webbed or clawed, would be capable of making prints that look hooved.
Mike Dash lays out a few possible motivations behind human hoaxers. Two groups are named: Anglicans hoping to make a point, as is likely to have happened in Topsham (the tracks appeared a full five days later than they did pretty much everywhere else; what’s more, they were very specifically located in the churchyard); and Romany travelers, who, according to one account, they were basically marking their territory and trying to scare away other groups of travelers (I suspect, though, that this theory is rooted in racism more than anything else). I do think it’s possible that humans had at least something to do with the whole thing; more on why in a bit.
Remember the description of the weather the night before the tracks appeared from “Spectator”? It’s important — because it didn’t just snow the night of Feb. 8, 1855. There was also freezing rain. It’s possible, therefore that the rain may have fallen and frozen in such a way as to create something that looked like tracks. The BBC does note, though, that “this effect has never been recreated,” so alas, we don’t have a ton of evidence to support this theory.
Rats, wood mice, and the like have also been pegged as the culprits, because hey, guess what? Some of them hop. However, if rodents were, in fact, to blame, they must have been some huge effing rodents — I’m talking R.O.U.S.-sized, because remember: The footprints were reported as ranging from 1.5 inches to four inches. Mice feet typically aren’t that big.
Here’s The Thing, Though:
The fact that there are so many differing descriptions of what, exactly, the prints looked like means that we’re probably not dealing with one set of prints; we’re dealing with multiple sets. As Mike Dash noted, “There were simply too many prints, in too many locations, for any one entity — except, perhaps, Milton’s Satan — to have made them. Nor, given the observed differences in the shape and spacing of the prints, and the dates on which they appeared, need we assume that all the marks were made by the same type of animal, the same mechanism, or the same group of human hoaxers.” Dash proposes that it’s likely that most of the prints were made by the same entity, citing the similarities between the prints and the common threads throughout the reports… but the important thing to note here is that not necessarily all of the prints were made by one animal, person, or group. Indeed, that’s what Brian Dunning of Skeptoid points to as one of the primary facts that debunks the idea of the tracks being demonic footprints in the first place:
“In the presence of so many possible and reasonable culprits, and in the extreme unlikelihood that this was indeed one single set of prints, I find little reason to turn to supernatural explanations. Commonplace events are frequently blown out of proportion, and everyday objects are just as frequently regarded as supernatural oddities.”
It’s also why I think it’s likely that human hoaxers were responsible for at least some of the tracks. We’ve been capitalizing on sensationalist rumors since time immemorial.
As is often the case with mysteries that are this old, we’ll likely never know exactly what caused the so-called “Devil’s footprints”; indeed, we don’t even really know if the original reports were accurate. All we have are what people say they saw, and some illustrations — no photographs, nothing but hearsay.
Interestingly, though, this isn’t the first time “Devil’s footprints” have been spotted — and it wasn’t the last, either. These stories wind their way through history, popping up all over the world: In Munich, Germany, at the Frauenkirche, the legend of the Teufelstritt — the “Devil’s footstep” — explains a mysterious mark on the floor of the 15th-century church as the result of the Devil stomping his foot after realizing he had been tricked. In May of 1840, on the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, a sea captain and his crew found a trail of three-inch-long, 2.5-inch-wide hoof tracks wandering through the snow — this, on an island that they were fairly certain didn’t have any hooved animals living on it. In Belgium in 1945, a series of prints 2.5 inches long and 1.5 inches wide led off in the snow behind the Chateau de Morveau in a single line. And in 2009, a woman in Woolsery, UK found tracks in her garden that looked a lot like the descriptions of the 1855 tracks.
Woolsery is in North Devon, by the way. The 1855 tracks were spotted in South and East Devon, but the coincidence is… curious.
Don’t you think?