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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Devil's Footprints, February 8, 1855

Today in 1855, citizens of the English county of Devon woke to a sight that was at once both interesting and disturbing. While the mystery seen that day was not entirely unique, its true origins remain unknown to us to this day.

On the night of February 7th, a light snow blanketed the county. The next morning, residents discovered U-shaped marks in the snow which resembled hoof marks. They measured from 1.5 to 2.5 inches wide and were roughly eight inches apart. Details vary, but most observers thought that the marks were left by something with two legs instead of four. What made the tracks mysterious was not just their shape, but the fact that they ran in an almost straight line for nearly one hundred miles. They crossed rivers, roofs, haystacks, carts and everything else in their path, only veering slightly over the course of the route.

At either end of the trail, the prints abruptly stopped as if whatever made them either flew away or disappeared into thin air. Most of the citizens of Devon assumed that the tracks were made by an animal. However, as the length of the trail was learned, it seemed unlikely that any creature would be able to cover such a distance overnight. What's more, the snow had stopped some time around midnight and the first tracks were discovered at daybreak. Thus, whatever made them covered 100 miles in about 6 hours, meaning that it ran continuously at a speed greater than 16 miles per hour.

The tracks gave little indication of the size of the creature that made them, but the trail it followed did. The tracks went through small drainage pipes and appeared on both sides of fences with only six-inch diameter holes in them. It was able to jump high walls and navigate thickets too tangled for dogs to enter. Some witnesses claimed that the tracks looked as if they had not been left in the snow because of the weight of the creature, but were created by heat, like a branding iron. This led some townspeople to speculate that the tracks were left by Satan himself wandering the countryside looking for sinners. What made this speculation terrifying was the fact that the tracks veered towards several homes' front doors before continuing on their base course.

It didn't take long for local ministers to make the tracks, now being called the Devil's Footprints, the subject of their Sunday sermons. The idea of Satan wandering around Devon in the dark of night caused a startling increase in church attendance. However, some people tried to find an explanation that was less supernatural. Reverend G.M. Musgrave wrote a letter to the Illustrated London News, claiming that two kangaroos had escaped from a private zoo in Sidmouth and had not been found. However attractive this explanation may have been, it did not explain the enormous distance the tracks covered.

Another explanation was soon presented: Spring-Heeled Jack, a high-jumping man-like creature first seen in the 1840's near London. Jack would attack women or cause carriages to run off the road, then run off with a high-pitched, mocking laugh. According to those who encountered him, Spring-Heeled Jack had red eyes and breathed fire. While this may seem ridiculous to us today, sightings of him were taken very seriously, enough so that the mayor of London had to appeal for calm while the demon-like creature was investigated. Sightings of Jack would continue well into the 20th century, but no conclusive explanation has ever been offered.

As with Spring-Heeled Jack, the Devil's Footprints defy explanation to this day. Researchers have found records of such tracks in places other than England----Poland and the Arctic just to name two. It seems the tracks also appeared in England during the 13th century after a particularly fierce thunderstorm. The latest sighting of similar tracks occurred in Cleveland, Ohio in 2000. These tracks seemed to indicate a stride of four feet, much larger than the Devon tracks. These, too, traveled into small places, although not for as great a distance. Investigators claimed that the tracks were made by a rabbit and obtained their odd shape due to deterioration of the prints and degradation of the snow. According to them, this would also explain the English tracks of 1855. While this theory has solved the mystery for some, others consider it a little too convenient.

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