Sunday, 8 February 2015

EVERYDAY STRANGE - The Devil's Footprints

“Since the recent snow storms, some animal has left marks on the snow that have driven a great many inhabitants from their propriety, and caused an uproar of commotion among the inhabitants in general.”
The Western Luminary & Family Newspaper for Devon, Cornwall, Somerset & Dorset. 13 February 1855

DEVON, UK - It was 160 years ago on this day, February 8, 1855 that one of the most enduring mysteries of the world took place. The people of Devon county, England awoke to find a mysterious track of seemingly bipedal footprints in the snow. The prints were spaced roughly eight to 16 inches apart and described as four inches in length and two and half to three inches wide. The tracks were uniformly single file. They were made by cloven hooves which led over top of buildings, through walls, haystacks, gates and enclosures stretching over a course of 100 miles from Exmouth to Topsham. Some apparently lucky villagers reported the tracks leading up to their front doors before retreating back again. They even continued across the two mile expanse of the River Exe estuary.

Kangaroos, badgers, otters, experimental balloons and freezing rain have all been offered as alternate explanations for the prints, but did this event even happen? Very little contemporary reports remain to this day, only a few survive, that there are contemporary accounts at all is encouraging.

River Exe estuary.
First mention of the mysterious case appeared in the February 13, 1855 edition of the Western Luminary in which local people were already ascribing the mysterious hoofmarks to the devil. But they did not cower in fear at the idea. Within hours of the discovery of the bizarre trail, searches were conducted to discover their cause, tracing the prints for miles. No one however, tracked the full 100 mile length of the marking. Had anybody even attempted to do so there wouldn’t have been enough time as the snow was not deep and fluctuating temperatures played havoc with the impressions. Initially, it was reported that the tracks covered an area of around 40 miles, which was deduced from various reports coming from several different towns in the county. After a few weeks interest in the story eventually died down and the Devil’s Footprints became something of a local legend and nothing more.

Interest in the story was revived by the ubiquitous Charles Fort in his 1919 work ‘The Book of the Damned’. By 1950 contemporary papers by Rev. H.T. Ellacombe were sent to the Devonshire Association which included tracings of the footprints and the draft of a letter to The Illustrated London News marked ‘Not for publication’ concerning the event. Ellacombe had even collected samples of the oblong globes of whitish excrement that had been found next to some of the tracks. He sent the samples off to naturalist Richard Owen without receiving a reply. The Ellacombe papers are the oldest surviving documents concerning the case. Another pivotal discovery was The Devil’s Footprints booklet published by G.A. Household which reprints many contemporary newspaper articles.

[Image source]
It was an anonymous letter writer (signed ‘South Devon’) to The Illustrated Times of London who first put forth the idea that the tracks were uniform in size and shape, traveled in single file over the course of 100 miles, surmounted a 14 foot high wall, climbed roofs and crossed the river estuary. The letter writer claimed to be an experienced woodsman, skilled in animal tracking and identification and appeared befuddled as to an explanation for the tracks. According to Rev. Ellacombe’s now recovered papers, ‘South Devon’ was actually a ‘young D’Urban’, a 19-year old resident of Newport House, Countess Wear. Young D’Urban would grow up to be a respectable, reputable man, but youthful ‘enthusiasm’ seems to have gotten the better of him here. It is D’Urban’s falsified account of the events which colors them to this day.

So, was the devil really in Devon on this day 160 years ago? Some believe the entire story was a satirical fabrication, formulated to criticize the local church which had recently changed their standard prayer book. One thing is sure, the event now known as the Devil’s Footprints certainly happened, though not as mysteriously as it is remembered. It’s entirely possible that the prints really were made by unidentified animals, possibly migrating fowl. It seems that it was the unidentifiable nature of the prints that had captured the public’s collective imagination, not the tracks anomalous behavior.

In 2009 the mystery was revisited when a woman awoke to find a track of cloven footprints in her back garden. It would have been the perfect time to come up with a valid explanation for the 1855 case, an investigator looked into hares as the possible culprit. No follow up reports were found.

Anybody interested in this mystery event owes a huge debt of gratitude to Mike Dash whose exhaustive 1994 survey of research materials has been an invaluable resource into the study of The Devil’s Footprints.

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