Thursday, June 24, 2010

Did Stephen Decatur Really Shoot the Jersey Devil?

Not much is said these days about the Jersey Devil.  There were many sighting over 100 years ago and almost nothing since other than a few strange sounds here and there.  One of the most well circulated stories about the Jersey Devil is that the creature was shot with a cannon in mid-flight by none other than American naval hero Stephen Decatur.

Stephen Decatur was active in the War of 1812 and his heroics were well known.  He died in 1820 after being shot in a duel and President James Monroe, along with almost everyone else in the nation's capitol, attended his funeral.

As a decorated war hero, Decatur was probably a good shot - but could someone conceivably hit a moving target in the air with a cannon in the early 1800s?  That seems suspicious.

Rifling is the process that makes a rifle/gun/cannon fire more accurately.  Older muskets did not fire in straight lines, but instead the musket balls flew at random angles which made it necessary to line up large groups of soldiers and have them all fire at once.  Cannons were no better, and they were simply aimed at the center of an army where they would surely hit someone can cause great damage.  No one actually aimed cannons to hit specific targets until about 40 years after Decatur's death when rifling became common in rifles and cannons (making the American Civil War very different on the battlefield from the previous wars America had known).

So, Decatur's feat is incredibly improbable.  Of course, it's possible that he got lucky and hit the creature, but it would be like playing the lottery.

The other reason this story can be doubted is because of the simple timeline.  It appears that the Jersey Devil was first reported in 1909, and all of the earlier sightings, like Decatur's, were added retroactively after stories of the Jersey Devil became popular.  Not only is his aim improbable but pre-1909 dates for the Jersey Devil are suspicious by nature.

I do hate to be negative about these things.  The people of New Jersey were certainly frightened in 1909 for some reason, but I think that the story of Stephen Decatur and the Jersey Devil only distracts us from finding out what happened.


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  2. As I mention in my new book, Monsters of New Jersey, Stackpole 2010, Stephen Decatur is reported to have fired upon, with a cannon, at what many said was the Jersey Devil, in 1804. This occurred when a bizarre beast flew over the firing range at Brown's Mills, NJ, and Decatur merely pointed a cannon in the creature's direction. He shot at it, missing it, and it continued flying, unharmed by the encounter.

    It has never been said Decatur "hit" the beast, but only fired at it.

    1. Loren,
      What is the source of the story?

  3. Oh, it's often said that he hit the creature but that the cannon ball bounced off. I suppose the stories are difficult to nail down, because primary documents are often difficult to find - or simply missing.

  4. "The Pine Barrens" by John Mcphee, 1968, mentions that the iron 24-pounders used by Stephen Decatur on his ship USS Guerriere during the second Barbary War (1815) were cast at the Hanover Furnace in the Pine Barrens. The ship was built and fitted out in 1814, and Decatur supposedly took an active role in overseeing and proofing the guns. A simple inquiry into the Commodores papers during this period would indicate whether he fired at anything unusual while testing the guns.

  5. So would this critter be the namesake for the New Jersey Devils hockey team?