Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Devil's Footprints

A few days ago saw the anniversary of a curious episode in Devon history very close to here, the "Devil's Footprints" of February 8th 1855. After heavy snowfall overnight, there was widepread reportage of strange footprints over a large area on either side of the River Exe, the story even reaching The Times.

EXTRAORDINARY OCCURRENCE - Considerable sensation has been caused in the towns of, Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth and Dawlish in the south of Devon, in the consequence of the discovery of a large number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go as far as to believe 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 appears on Thursday night last there was a heavy fall of snow in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the foot marks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the footprints were seen in all kinds of unaccountable places - on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards, enclosed by high walls and pailings as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where these footprints where not observable. The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impression of the foot closely resembled that of a donkey’s shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the centre remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been concave. The creature seems to have approached several houses, and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor. On Sunday last the Rev Mr Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the foot prints being those of a kangaroo, but this could have scarcely been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe. At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are afraid to go outside their doors at night.
- The Times, February 16, 1855

It was documented in Chapter 28 of Charles Hoy Fort's The Book of the Damned, and has become a classic unexplained phenomenon (though for reasons I can't fathom, people in Topsham historical circles always have seemed to change the subject when I've mentioned it).

Probably the best source on the whole topic is the author and historian Mike Dash. His paper "The Devil's Hoofmarks", first published in Fortean Studies 1 (1994) and Fortean Studies 3 (1996), reinvestigates the available accounts with a historian's rigour and "explodes several popular myths concerning the Hoofmarks: the prints were not uniform in size, were not laid in the course of a single night, and did not run in a straight line across the county of Devon". One of the most crucial features of the story he shows is how it was widely copied, recopied and embroidered, creating details that are omnipresent in popular retellings, but absent from the handful of primary eyewitness accounts. He ultimately comes to no conclusion, but it's an excellent analysis of an 1850s media-driven scare. Here's the PDF: The Devil's Hoofmarks.
- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Must be related to those strange thingies they do in the crops.