In this episode, we get back to Victorian times again. This time to take a look at the phenomena known as “the devil’s footprints”. A trail of unexplained footprints in the snow that appeared overnight, travelled for huge distances and resembled hooves but seemed to walk upright…
Wikipedia – Not too detailed but not a bad starting point.
Amazon – Devils footprints – Households book on the mystery. One of the main people to put forth the “Secret Balloon” theory and the guy with the source spoken about in the podcast.
Mike Dash’s Paper – Mike Dash has collected an obscene amount of primary sources and press cuttings both from 1855 and more modern stories.
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In February of 1855, Britain was deep in the midst of one of the coldest winters recorded. Minus temperatures were reported from January to March, the nights were long and the conditions severe. In the early morning of the 9th February, people across the rural, South West counties of England were waking up after another night of heavy snowfall. As they went about their daily chores, a steady rumbling begun to roll through the small villages and across the bleak farmlands. Rumors were spreading of a trail of prints in the snow. A trail which leapt walls, climbed haystacks, walked on rooftops and seemed to extend for miles upon miles, across rivers and through towns. Each step in the snow left a cloven hoof print, yet it appeared that whatever left it had walked upright on two legs.
This is dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The winter of 1855 was the third coldest winter ever recorded in Britain, with average temperatures in February of -5 Celsius. Snow was reportedly falling until May and frosts were recorded right up until summer, freezing the ground up to a foot deep.
In the city of Exeter, county of Devon, the river Exe had frozen over for so long, that people skated atop the thick icy surface in their hundreds. One of the more unusual newspaper reports from that February can be found in The Royal Cornwall Gazette, dated 23rd February 1855, and read:
“A singular occurrence in gastronomic science was tried on Tuesday week, on the ice in the centre of the River Exe, at St Thomas. The severity of the frost having coated the surface of the river with a thick crust of ice, capable of bearing several hundred persons, who skated and otherwise deported themselves thereon for hours, near the bridge. It occurred to Mr. Vickery, stove manufacturer, Fore Street, that a dinner might be cooked by gas in the centre of the ice-bound stream. The suggestion was seconded by Mr. Hox, of the Seven Stars, and in less than an hour several of the workmen from Mr. Vickery’s establishment had laid down gas pipes from the street main to the middle of the Exe, where the gas supplied a number of little jets in one half of Mr. Vickery’s improved cooking stoves. In this apparatus a large piece of beef and some poultry were roasted; and a leg of mutton and vegetables, a large Devonshire dumpling, and other etceteras were boiled. It was surely no wonder that so many skaters encircled the scientific cookery while the savoury steam issued forth with as much delicacy and richness as though the spirit of a Soyer “ruled the roast.” The meat was admirably roasted, and the experiment altogether was as successful as it was novel.”
This, however, was not the most unusual report from that February. Whilst the people of Exeter took part in a feast cooked on the frozen rivers of Devon, there were some for whom the frivolities would have been a welcome respite, for there had already been several weeks of reports of something much more mysterious that had been playing on the minds of many of the locals.
Around midnight on the night of 8th February, heavy snow clouds formed over the South West of England. The streets were quiet with a muted sound as the snow fell to a depth of 4 inches. As the morning begun to break, there was a slight rise in temperature and it seemed that the snow might melt with the sunrise. As was the case throughout the cold, bitter winter of 1855 however, the temperatures soon dropped again, cementing the snow on the ground and creating thick ice sheets in the small patches where a thaw had begun. As the people of Dawlish in South Devon were rising to start there days, small rumours begun circulating the village. At first, there were whispers of track-marks left in the snow, but strange details were being mentioned. There was a case of the tracks leading up to a 12-foot high wall, stopping on one side and starting again on the other, leaving no trace of traversing the solid brick structure. Worryingly for the villagers, were the reports of tracks leading up to several doors and windows of houses before turning back on themselves or continuing across rooftops. Then were the tracks in the churchyard, which appeared to traipse freely among the graves. The physical appearance of the footprints was also causing a great uproar, there were later reports that described them as slicing through the snow “as if the snow had been branded by a hot Iron”. Despite many of the locals being men and women of long rural lifestyles, no one could recognize them as anything that a known animal might leave and they seemed to appear to many, to resemble cloven hooves.
As word spread wider, a muted panic began to stir and in an attempt to put the matter to ease in the village, a group of tradesmen equipped with clubs and guns attempted to follow the tracks. Begging in the churchyard, they walked East of the village for about a mile and a half to Luscombe Wood, North for half a mile to Dawlish Water, before doubling back 180 degrees to follow the path South for several miles to the village of Oaklands where the tracks continued and seemed to offer no clear material evidence of what or how they were created. After this 5 mile trek through the cold snow, they returned to Dawlish none the wiser than they had begun. One of the men remarked that:
“The tracks had stopped and started suddenly, in the middle of fields – as though they had been left by a bird, or something more mysterious that had then taken wing”.
Whilst people were initially perplexed by the prints, as the day wore on and reports from further afield begun to filter across Devon, people began worrying and the muted panic was turning to outright fear for many. There were congregations of people huddled around the footprints exchanging rumours and hearsay that the trail had been seen as far West as Torquay, and even lead up to the bank of the river Exe, where they stopped abruptly and then continued again on the far bank, traversing the river, in however manner, with ease. The vast distance covered by the tracks in a single night was disconcerting to all but the most sceptical of the time.
The first newspaper report concerning the mysterious tracks appeared on the 13th of February and focused on the Dawlish prints. In describing the tracks, it read:
“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 markings, to say the least about them, are very singular; the foot print, if foot print it be, is about 3 inches long by 2 inches wide exactly, in shape, like a donkeys hoof: the length of the stride is about a foot apart, very regular and is evidently done by some two-footed animal. What renders the matter more difficult of solution is, that gardens with walls 12 feet high have been trodden over without damage having been done to to shrubs and walks. The animal must evidently have jumped over the walls.”
As the first few days after the sightings of the tracks wore on, the true nature of the extent and scale of the event had now spread throughout the towns, villages and cities of Devon. There were reports of tracks stopping in front of a haystack, then again on the opposite side, appearing as if it travelled straight through. Some people had claimed to see them in guttering and through pipes of only a few inches in diameter and there were numerous sightings of the tracks appearing in enclosed gardens, fields and yards, that appeared to have no entry nor exit points.
On the 16th Of February, The Times picked up the story and printed an account of the prints which gave a good example of the feeling at the time:
“Considerable sensation has been evoked in the towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth and Dawlish. In the South of Devon, in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted from the pulpit.”
It goes on:
“There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where these footprints were not observable. The track appeared more like that of a biped than of a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other.”
“At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors after night.”
By the 17th of February, the press had taken the story and run with it. The Western Times actually running a piece that stated that there had been:
“a report that the town and neighborhood had been visited by no less a person than His Satanic Majesty. “
Whilst the newspapers ran sensationalist stories, capitalising on the mystery and fear of some of the locals, there were other voices making themselves heard through letters sent to several newspapers. Anything from flocks of birds, to otters and escaped monkeys, were being offered as explanations from some that considered themselves to be more rational. Spliced among them, however, were still some letters that offered personal accounts that continued the demonic narrative. One such letter was from a Mr R. H Busk, who wrote of an episode of men chasing a trail into the woods around Dawlish with a group of hunting dogs, the tail he spins was written:
“The track was followed up by hounds and huntsmen, and crowds of country folk, till at last, in a wood (I think it was said over Dawlish), the hounds came back baying and terrified. This was the moment one would think real excitement would begin. Nevertheless, no one seems to have had the courage to rush in where the dogs feared to tread, and the matter ended in a battle of conjecture on paper.”
As a lone voice, it could be easily dismissed, however, another source, written by a reverend J.J Rowe confirms the instance and wrote a passing reference in another letter, stating:
“The episode of the hounds and co. I well and distinctly remember.”
Perhaps the most infamous of letters written during the time of the case, however, is that of a correspondence to The Illustrated London News, from a writer calling themselves simply “South Devon” and contained not only many details of the tracks that are still sighted 160 years on, but also included a page of sketches of the footprints. In this lengthy letter, South Devon wrote:
“It may probably be interesting to many to have a more particular account – which I think this unusual occurrence well deserves.
“The marks which appeared on the snow and which were seen on the Friday morning, to all appearance were the perfect impression of a donkeys hoof – the length four inches by two and three-quarter inches; but instead of progressing as the animal would have done (or indeed as any other would have done), feet right and left, it appeared that foot had followed foot in 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 step the same length.”
Concerning the distance travelled by the tracks, they went on to write:
“When we consider the distance that must have been gone over to have left these marks, one may say in almost every garden, or doorstep, the extensive woods of Luscombe, upon commons, in enclosures and farms – the actual progress must have exceeded a hundred miles. It is very easy for people to laugh at these appearances, and account for them in an idle way. At present, no satisfactory solution has been given. No known animal could have traversed this extent of country in one night, besides having to cross an estuary of the sea two miles broad. Neither does any known animal walk in a line of single footsteps, not even man.”
It is also in this letter that the footprints were described “That this particular mark removed the snow, wherever it appeared, clear, as if cut with a diamond or branded with a hot iron.”
The writer, Using the nom de plume of South Devon, cited their own experience of spending five months in the backwoods of Canada during winter and their extensive experience of tracking wild animals and birds to confidently state:
“I have never seen a more clearly defined track, or one that appeared to be less altered by the atmosphere than the one in question.”
The contemporary press naturally had quite a field day with the letter and using the details from the letter, published many more stories, right up until March, whereby the appetite for news on “the devils footprints” as they were now known, was clearly starting to thaw just as were the frosts in the ground. With no further leads, no fresh tracks and no evidence of what had caused the markings coming into frame, the history of the mysterious footprints left on the night of the 8th of February, 1855 gradually faded from the minds of the residents of Devon. Life returned to normal and the stories passed into local Legend. The question remained – What did leave the tracks in the snow during that cold and bitter winter?
Most contemporary theories of the time revolved around an animal of some kind as the culprit. Not a single theory, however, is backed with strong evidence and in many cases, can be thrown out with a cursory examination of the claims, such was their lack of credibility.
One thing of relative certainty that we can say upon looking back at the contemporary sources, is that the strength of the similarities between the descriptions of the prints from comparable reports covering the entire area, suggests that it’s highly probable that the majority of “the Devils Footprints” were created by either a singular or singular group of being.
When considering animals as a culprit, it should be noted that the circumstances of the overtly cold winter will have altered the habits of some animals into acting in ways that differ from their norm. Flocks of birds had, earlier that winter been driven ashore in Norfolk due to the harsh conditions at sea and with the nights being so cold, it might not have been uncommon for nocturnal and traditionally shy animals to venture into built-up areas in search of food that would have been scarce in their natural habitats outside of the villages and towns. Among the animals suspected of creating the prints at the time of the event were birds, hares, toads, otters, badgers, rats, donkeys, ponies and even monkeys and kangaroos.
Richard Owen, a renowned naturalist of the period was the man to put forward the idea that it was badgers creating the footprints. He based his theory on two key facts. Firstly, that badgers were known to travel great distances in search of food and secondly, that they were native to England. It is then, disturbingly easy to attack this theory and so it was by another naturalist named Rupert Gould, who stated simply
“A badgers paw-prints are staggered as it has rather a wide tread, and the result would be a double line imprints. In addition, a badger could hardly have made the tracks seen on the roof tops and probably could not have been responsible for those found in closed gardens”
This rather puts the theory of badgers to bed quite comfortably and so it is with most of the other animals suggested too. Whilst the tracks superficially resembled that of a horse or donkeys hoof, the size and once again the rooftop markings do the same for this theory and all the others, with the exception of birds.
The theory that Birds made the footprints was an attempt to explain the strange occurrence of tracks upon rooftops and seeming to jump clean over obstacles up to 14 feet in height. As stated, there was also evidence that large flocks of gulls had previously been driven ashore by the harsh winter in Norfolk. The lack of any noise associated with a large flock of birds arriving en masse is an obvious problem for this theory, however. The largest problem presented by the theory of flocks of birds, however, is the simple fact that no birds feet are known to look in any way like the marks left in the snow.
Of all the animals then, we are left with perhaps one of the more bizarre contemporary theories of the time, that an animal such as a monkey or kangaroo had escaped a menagerie and roamed the countryside. The idea of an escaped monkey only appeared in one press report in an offhand remark and has little to no basis in fact whatsoever. An escaped kangaroo is at first glance, an utterly ridiculous suggestion. It was in fact, a fringe theory until it was repeated by the Revered G.M Musgrave during a sermon. Musgrave himself, however, later admitted that he had little stock in the theory and chose to repeat it in his sermon only to relieve fears in his parish that the devil was walking among them. Nevertheless, it is somewhat more likely than the monkey theory, given that there was actually a pair of kangaroos residing in a menagerie in Exmouth, however, neither were reported missing. Of course, we are also once again faced with the fact that the feet of a kangaroo are far distant from the marks left in the snow during the Devon mystery.
And so we can start to see that what should, at first consideration be the most obvious answer to the mystery, is in fact faced with a myriad of problems. So what of the other, perhaps less obvious, theories?
Wandering dangerously close to the line of conspiracy theory, one theory put forward at a later date by author Geoffrey Household stated that an “experimental balloon” of some kind was responsible for the tracks. His source was a Major Carter, whose Grandfather had worked at Davenport Dockyard at the time and who stated that the balloon had somehow broken free and flown out across Devon on the night of February the 8th trailing two ropes with shackles tied to the ends. It was, Carter stated, these shackles which had caused the track-marks as the balloon flew across the towns and villages before landing in Honiton. Whilst this theory does explain how marks could have gotten onto rooftops, hopped large obstacles and travelled such great distances, it does not explain why no other evidence has ever been found. According to Household, the incident was quieted as the damage caused by the trailing ropes to property across Devon was too great and therefore a coverup was enforced. Whilst this theory may seem attractive to some, it leads a lot to be desired in answering how trails were found that seemingly zig-zagged around gardens and stopped at peoples doors and windows, as a balloon should fly in a more or less straight, or, at best, slowly curving persistent line. It would also seem sheer fluke that balloon would not have become snagged as it trailed ropes tied with shackles over such a vast area. Furthermore, if such great damage was caused by such a craft, where are all the reports of the carnage?
J. Allen Rennie put forth yet another theory, this time pertaining to a rare weather phenomenon. Rennie claimed that he had witnessed marks like the devil’s footprints on five other occasions. The first time he observed them was in Canada in 1924 and his companion was so scared upon finding them that he deserted the expedition. He described the phenomena as caused by “Some freakish current of warm air, coming into contact with the very low temperature which had set up the condensation” and left tracks that looked remarkably similar to those found in Devon in 1855. There are however two drawbacks to Rennie’s theory. The first is that critically, Rennies description of the markings left by his meteorological phenomena were much larger in size, being 19 inches in length by 14 inches in width and seven feet apart. Secondly and perhaps more damning, depending on how you take it, is that Rennie is the only person in history who has claimed to have seen such a phenomena.
So what of the idea of a complex hoax? There is some suggestion that at least some of the prints were left by human hoaxers. Five days after the original prints were left, there were fresh tracks left throughout a churchyard in Topsham that crossed right up to the door of the vestibule. The high church vicar of the Parish at the time was a controversial figure and some, including investigator of the case Theo Brown has concluded that at least these prints could be attributed to a human hoax. It is however highly unlikely that the entire case was a hoax, as the sheer scale would make leaving so many tracks in so many places, all in one night a conspiracy that would have been almost impossible to keep quiet.
So we are finally left with the last theory, that it was the devil himself that had made the prints. Walking through the cold winter night. It is important to remember that in 1855 and especially in rural areas, people would have been far more susceptible to this idea that they might be now, hence how quick it was to gain traction once the press ran with the story. However unlikely you find this explanation, it is nevertheless a theory which at the time was believed by many. It was enough to keep people in their homes at night through fear of meeting the cloven-hoofed monster as he patrolled through the streets. An event worthy of note on the case happened almost 100 years after the fact, when, in 1952, a collection of papers and notes collected by the Reverend H.T Ellacombe, the vicar of the parish of Clyst St George during the time of the event were drawn to the attention of folklorist Theo Brown who published extracts from them. It is from these papers that we are now able to discern the identity of “South Devon”, the person who wrote such an influential letter to The Illustrated London News. It is now clear that the author was “young D’Urban and he was 19 years old. It’s unknown whether he had truly been a skilled tracker who had spent time in the Canadian wilderness, but it certainly makes the story less likely.
In the end, we are left with a bizarre event with little evidence and few sources with which we can draw information from. The mystery of the Devils Footprints of 1855 will remain in folklore and likely never be solved. No one theory fits neatly or gives us any clarity on what may have caused the phenomena. Mike Dash, a writer for the Fortean Times and who studied the case in great detail believed that the best explanation is a combination of several theories, however still himself admits that if such mundane theories can explain away the devils hoof-prints so easily, how have we avoided any panic on such a scale since? In his paper on the subject, concerning the multiple theories angle, he wrote:
“There were simply too many prints, in too many locations, for any one entity – except perhaps, Milton’s Satan – to have made them.”
You need only an ounce of scepticism to disregard the theory that the prints were caused by Satan himself, however, the mystery will remain.
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