“The Great Devon Mystery of 1885”; source
165 years ago on a snowy and particularly cold February night, (The 6th of the month in 1855, to be exact), East and South Devon, England experienced a strange phenomenon. One that will not only remain unsolved but repeat itself more than a century later.
A dark visitor in Devon?
The morning of the mystery, which would come to be known as “The Curious Case of The Devil’s Footprints” or “The Great Devon Mystery of 1855”, the townsfolk of Devon and far out as Dorset, woke to a brand new blanket of snow.
Yet, their gasps of surprise were not because of the over-night flurry, but what they found tramped into the fresh powder.
Between 40 to 100-miles long and traveling all the way from North Devon to the South Devon coastline, over roofs, haystacks, and fourteen-foot walls, was a trail of footprints. They’d even been found on the other side of the River Exe, which narrows over time from 112 miles (180 km) to around 21 miles.
According to legend, the footprints reached down to the deepest layers of snow almost to the earth below, as if scorched into the ice.
The prints soon became known as “The Devil’s Footprints” or “Tracks of Satan”, because of their shape, which resembled a cloven hoof.
Letters and Theories
In response to the mysterious tracks, some people refused to go outside after midnight and within a few weeks, the prints were being mentioned in the Illustrated London News.
This letter to the editor from a “correspondent” mulls over the possibilities of what could have caused such prints.
“Birds could not have left these marks, as no birds feet leaves the impression of a hoof, or, even were there a bird capable of doing so, could it proceed in the direct manner above stated — nor would birds, even had they donkeys’ feet, confine themselves to one direct line, but hop here and there: but the nature of the mark at once sets aside its being the track of a bird …”
Naturally, the writer’s theories and letter sparked many others, such as:
- A kangaroo that escaped from a local zoo, which would explain the bipedal tracks and the odd shape of the foot.
- A badger, which also makes bipedal tracks, but might not have been able to travel such a distance in one night.
- A low-flying weather or hot air balloon could have been dragging an anchor through the snow. Some argued that the balloon might explain the tracks over rooftops and tall walls, but no balloon had been reported lost, and surely would’ve been tangled in a tree.
- Rainfall freezing on the snow could create the marks, some reasoned. But their pristine pattern makes this theory unlikely.
- Certain breeds of local wood mice with the ability to hop could’ve caused the prints, but it’s doubtful a mouse could hop for miles.
The Devil Returns to Devon in 2009
Without a concrete solution to “The Great Devon Mystery”, it became one of the many unsolved through history and then forgotten, until 2009. Jill Wade, a great-grandmother living in Devon, called the nearby center for Fortean Zoology when she looked outside her window to see hoof-like prints in her garden, which was covered in fresh snow.
Jill told news sources, “I looked in the garden and it really intrigued me. It was a complete blanket of snow — there were no other marks in the snow at all. I cannot believe what I saw, the footprints were in the shape of a cloven hoof.”
The center sent zoologist Graham Inglist to check out the marks, who was, in a word, unconvinced.
In regards to the prints, Inglis said: “This is certainly a first for me. The footprints are peculiar, but they are not the devil’s — I don’t believe the horned one has been in Woolsery. Personally, I think it belongs to a rabbit or hare, but quite an academic punch-up has started over it.”
Yet, the mystery still stands. Does the Devil like to prowl Devon in the dead of winter? Or is it simply an animal going for a very long, odd stroll?
Maybe it’ll take another 165 years to know the truth.