Folklore: The Devil’s Footprints

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In February 1855, Satan took a stroll through Devon, England. At least that’s what many locals thought at the time, and despite assorted explanations for the series of mysterious footprints left behind, some still cling to that belief.

February 1855 was unusually cold in England. Snowfall after snowfall built up on top of each other the frozen ground having no time to defrost before it was added to. On the night of either February 8th or 9th, there was a particularly heavy snowfall, and the people of the Exe Estuary in East Devon and South Devon apparently awoke to find a series of mysterious, hoof-like marks in the snow. Measuring around four inches long and three inches across each, the tracks were between eight and sixteen inches apart, mostly single file, and continued for a distance of between 40 and 100 miles, from Exmouth to Topsham, Dawlish and Teignmouth – thirty different locations reported the marks in total. Nothing interfered with the relentless march of the prints – house, haystacks and frozen rivers were traveled over, the prints appearing on roofs, walls and even up to and then exiting four inch drain pipes. No wonder that people though there was something supernatural about the event, and the cloven hoof shape of the ‘footprints’ suggested that Satan had indeed decided to take a stroll through the snow.

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That, at least, is the ‘official’ story. Actual eye-witness accounts from the time are few and far between, however. The only documents to have been found were published a century later, in 1950, after an article in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association asked for information about the event. This helped unearth a collection of papers belonging to Reverend H. T. Ellacombe, the vicar of Clyst St. George in the 1850s, including letters sent to the vicar from his friends, a letter to The Illustrated London News marked ‘not for publication’ and several tracings of the alleged footprints.

With no hard information from the time available – and of course, no photographic evidence – it is impossible to know exactly what really happened that night. Not that it hasn’t led to assorted theories, none of which seem much more plausible than the idea that they were left by Satan. Doubts as the validity of the story include questions about whether the tracks really did extend as far as is claimed (it would, after all, be quite the task to follow the prints for such a length and over buildings during a heavy snowfall), how accurate the descriptions of them were and if they actually took the relentless route claimed. As eye-witness reports are contradictory, there is no real evidence that the footprints reported were even the same from place to place.

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Researcher Mike Dash, author of The Devil’s Hoofmarks (1994), has claimed that the footprints came from various sources, including hoaxes (though this requires the hoaxers to be aware of the mystery appearing elsewhere and to act remarkably quickly), donkeys and ponies and even wood mice, the marks left by these hopping rodents allegedly resembling the marks as described. But as in many such cases, the ‘rational’ explanations for the mystery seem no more plausible than the supernatural ones. Modern researchers like Dash, after all, weren’t there. They haven’t have been able to talk any eye witnesses. Their theories are just that – theories.

Stretching conjecture even further, author Geoffrey Household has 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. While he claims a local source for this covered up story, others have questioned if a balloon could travel such a distance, so conveniently close to the ground, without being caught in trees or other obstacles. The simple fact is that Household’s claims come with no actual evidence – he claims that he was told the story by a man who heard it from his grandfather the very definition of Chinese whispers – and they are ultimately as fantastical as the idea that Satan was at large that night.

Other theories that have been dangled over the years include badgers, escaped kangaroos (a claim not helped by the fact that there is no evidence that any escaped kangeroos were at large at the time) and the more plausible ‘mass hysteria’, with people hearing tales of Satan’s stroll and subsequently mistaking ordinary animal tracks for the prints.

The truth is, we’ll never know quite what happened on that snowy night in Devon. The major unanswered question must surely be: if Satan did walk for a hundred miles through the snow, why?

Original version on HORRORPEDIA

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