When I was young, between 7 and 13. I spent my summers reading books about ghosts, bigfoot, UFOs, and ESP: all nonfiction stuff that purported to discuss their subject matter with a journalistic eye. Some managed that better than others. The most intriguing individual story was about Devon, a town in England, tightly in the grip of winter. There had been a heavy snowfall the night before, and when the people left their houses the next morning, they observed something strange. In the pristine white meadows of snow and hilly snowdrifts, there was a trail of what looked like hoofprints that went from house to house.
These tracks traveled in single file over 100 miles. They scaled walls–in one case a fence fourteen feet high. They were found on top of sheer walls. They climbed roofs, would stop and start again a great distance away. They even forded a two mile stretch of river. In many instances the hoofprints went up to the front doors of houses and back down to a trail. It was as if the devil were marking houses, checking on people, taunting them. It frightened and captivated me.
I never forgot that story, but for many years I had no way of verifying it or even finding mention of it. Once I was well into adulthood the story had a question mark over it in my memory. Did I make it up? Was it actually in a work of fiction that I forgot everything else about?
And then… internet. It was maybe 10 years ago that I thought about that case again–I can’t remember what brought it to mind. I hit the interwebs, and there it was. It was real. Most of the facts of the case were as I remembered them. Magic still existed.
The great thing about this story is how unexplainable it is. You’ll notice that many of the skeptical dismissals almost seem more far-fetched than the supernatural ones. Some of the skeptics even have the facts wrong. This is one of those cases that perhaps gets the immovable skeptic to start grasping at answers.
The Facts About the Event
On the night of February 8th, 1855, in South Devon, England, footprints resembling cloven hoofs measuring about three inches long and four inches wide proceeded all through the wide open for an aggregate of more than 100 miles and, with the exception of veering at different houses, for most of their course took straight lines.
The tracks were found in spaces enclosed by high walls. They appeared to enter a four inch pipe and come out the other side. The prints stretched from Exmouth, up to Topsham, and over the waterway Exe to Dawlish and Teignmouth (The Times 16-2-1855).
R.H. Busk, in “Remarkable impressions in snow, S. Devon” says the impressions seemed to stretch as far south as Totnes and Torquay; and that there were different reports of the prints in Weymouth (Dorset) and Lincolnshire. For each situation, the prints would continue for a total of 60-100 miles before unexpectedly ceasing.
“It appears on Thursday night last, there was a very heavy snowfall in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the South of Devon. On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the footmarks of some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the footprints were to be seen in all kinds of unaccountable places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and court-yards, enclosed by high walls and pailings, as well as in open fields.”
“The marks which appeared on the snow (which lay very thinly on the ground at the time), and which were seen on Friday morning, to all appearances, were the perfect impression of a donkey’s hoof – the length 4 inches by 2 ¾ inches; but instead of progressing as that animal would have done (or indeed as any other would have done), feet right and left, it appeared that foot had followed foot, in a single line; the distance from each tread being eight inches, or rather more – the foot-marks in every parish being exactly the same size, and the steps the same length.”
The Townspeople were baffled
In Topsham, England, the early risers were the first to find them. A baker noticed some unidentified tracks near his shop. He dismissed them until he later heard similar stories from neighbors. A set of the prints even bridged a two mile span of the river Exe, continuing on the other side as if the creature had walked over the water.
The townspeople were baffled and, toting clubs, rakes, and other weapons, they set off to find the monster that created the footprints. They criss-crossed cemeteries, popular town squares, and in same cases led right up to people’s doors where they stopped and continued on in another direction (including back-tracking on top of themselves). They went into a shed and came out on the other side–apparently, whatever made them went through a six-inch hole.
Outside of a church in Woodbury, the prints looked like they had been burned into the snow by a hot iron. One report claimed that dogs in Dawlish refused to follow the tracks and backed away, fearful. (This is similar to reports of the Jersey Devil hysteria in 1909. Read that story next!)
It soon became clear that the phenomenon was widespread, and some of the more scientifically minded examined the prints in detail. One naturalist sketched some of the marks and measured the distance between them. It was found to be eight and a half inches. This spacing seemed to be consistent wherever the tracks were measured. It was also noted that the way in which they were set out, one in front of the other, suggested a biped rather than a creature walking on four legs.
Some clergymen suggested that the prints belonged to the Devil, who was roaming the countryside in search of sinners (a great ploy to fill the churches). A feeling of unease had spread through some of the population, who watched carefully to see if the strange footprints would return. They did not, but after a couple of days the news spread far beyond Devon and into international press. The phenomena sparked correspondence in some of the leading papers, including the Times and the Illustrated News, and led to a plethora of speculation by eminent scientists and laymen alike.
Theories Attempting to Explain the Prints
Author Geoffrey Household suggested that “an experimental balloon” released by mistake from Devonport Dockyard had left the mysterious tracks by trailing two shackles on the end of its mooring ropes. His source was a local man, Major Carter, whose grandfather had worked at Devonport at the time. Carter claimed that the incident had been quieted because the balloon also wrecked a number of conservatories, greenhouses, and windows before finally descending to earth in Honiton.
Common sense, however would expect considerable dragging to occur, and what about when it entered sheds and pipes? Skeptics also wonder how the balloon would have traveled such a random zigzag course without its trailing ropes and shackles becoming caught in a tree or similar obstruction
Mike Dash suggested that at least some of the prints, including some of those found on rooftops, could have been made by hopping rodents such as wood mice. The print left behind after a mouse leaps resembles that of a cloven animal, due to the motions of its limbs when it jumps. Dash stated that the theory that the Devon prints were made by rodents was originally proposed as long ago as March 1855, in The Illustrated London News.
It is also often suggested that the footprints were merely a case of mass hysteria, caused by the sighting of various animal tracks and assuming them to be the same.
In a letter to the Illustrated London News during 1855, Rev. G. M. Musgrave wrote:
“In the course of a few days a report was circulated that a couple of kangaroos escaped from a private menagerie (Mr Fische’s, I believe) at Sidmouth.” It seems, though, that nobody ascertained whether the kangaroos had escaped, nor how they could have crossed the Exe estuary, and Musgrave himself said that he invented the story to distract his parishioners’ concerns about a visit from the devil:
“I found a very apt opportunity to mention the name of kangaroo, in allusion to the report then current. I certainly did not pin my faith to that version of the mystery … but the state of the public mind of the villagers … dreading to go out after sunset … under the conviction that this was the Devil’s work … rendered it very desirable that a turn should be given to such a degraded and vitiated notion … and I was thankful that a kangaroo … [served] to disperse ideas so derogatory…”
In July 1855, a Professor Owen put forth a theory that the footprints were from a badger, arguing the animal was “the only plantigrade quadruped we have in this island,” and it “leaves a footprint larger than would be supposed from its size.” The number of footprints, he suggested, were indicative of the activity of several animals because “it is improbable that one badger only should have been awake and hungry,” and added that the animal was “a stealthy prowler and most active and enduring in search of food.”
However, none of these fit the account well, unless several animals of whichever variety began at different places and were too polite to intrude upon their neighbors.
And It Never Happened Again.
YES IT DID! Kinda. In 2009 Woolsery resident Jill Wade discovered tracks very similar to those of 1855 in her back garden. Wade, 76, said, “I looked in the garden and it really intrigued me. I couldn’t believe it. The footprints were in the shape of a cloven hoof. There were no other marks at all in the snow. I was quite surprised by it, and I hadn’t got a clue what it was, but I thought I would love to know.”
Maybe Old Mrs. Wade is the only sinful person left in South England. You go, grandma.
“Professor Owen on the foot-marks in the snow in Devon.” Illustrated London News, 26 (4 March 1855): 214.
Cited in Dash, 1994
Household, Geoffrey (ed.) (1985). The Devil’s Footprints : The Great Devon Mystery as it was Reported in the Newspapers of 1855. Exeter: Devon Books. ISBN 0-86114-753-7.