Something Wicked This Way Comes
One of Victorian England’s greatest unsolved mysteries stemmed from the superstitious musings of some of its more backwoods denizens.
In the early hours of February 8, 1855, a rustic baker in England’s southern community of Devon found footprints in the snow, footprints that he and hundreds of others would later superstitiously overstate into being those of The Prince of Darkness after Old Scratch apparently walked near those good folk’s homes while they slept.Credit: public domain
Unsolved mysteries are not always unsolvable.
Natural phenomena can explain a myriad of “unexplainable” (at least, to the ignorant) observations.
The single, spiraling, elongated tooth of the narwhal (when found detached from its host) became prized as the horn of the mythical unicorn as did fossilized, conical shells from prehistoric marine animals.
Weather can play a role in creating an “unexplained” phenomenon: over a short period of time, for example, with proper weather action, a bear’s paw print can easily be construed by a wandering hillbilly as that of the mythical Bigfoot.
Though the mid to late 18th Century was a truly enlightened period (with great technological and theoretical scientific strides made in leaps and bounds) even the more civilized countries retained superstitious beliefs as truth.
This was particularly apparent in the British Isles where the residents held firm to beliefs in ghosts. Most still thought fairies, imps, elves, and other “wee folk” lived in the woods and fields to wreak mischief or bestow gifts depending upon their ever-changing moods.
One of the more unfortunate superstitious holdovers involved the Protestant Christianity of Britain—most adherents thought the Devil (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Old Scratch, whatever euphemism was thrown out) was a real entity that could not only influence lives toward a path of ruin but routinely assumed a passably corporeal form and wandered the earth.
It is against such a background of ignorance that the unexplained appearance of a strange set of footprints in the snow led to a mass hysteria that hysterically claimed Satan had been wandering among the common people during the night.
On the morning of February 8, 1855, in the southern seaport town of Topsham in Devon a baker named Henry Pilk had risen at dawn to start his loaves for the day. Beginning around 8 o’clock the previous night snow fell on the village; it was very thick before it abated in the small hours of the morning.
Pilk stepped out of his house and gazed around at the unbroken field of white—unbroken, that is, except for a peculiarly linear disturbance of the white sameness. Upon closer inspection he found the disturbance in the snow was a line of tracks, roughly shaped like those a shod horse might make. [Though he would later claim each was the size of a man’s foot, every other eyewitness described them as a sort of v-shape no more than 1½”-2” (about 3.8-5 cm) long.]
However, it wasn’t the shape or size of the prints that struck Pilk as unusual: it was the pacing, spacing, and apparent gait of the prints’ maker that struck him as funny. Each was identical in both size and depth of impression in the snow. There was no clear spatter pattern (as from when a person plants a foot in a snow drift, raises it, and snowy clumps fall away or the depression is raised on its edges from compression force). Finally, the weirdest thing was, unlike a normal biped’s stride, the prints were carefully aligned one immediately in front of the other all about the same distance apart, roughly 8” (20 cm).
The very curious Pilk noted the prints started at his house and ran to his bakery. Following the trail for a short spell he noted the tracks had crossed over a six-foot high fence and continued on the other side of the obstacle, uninterrupted. From there, the prints bee-lined into the village proper.
Pilk, while still somewhat curious about the prints, was not curious enough to shirk his duties for the day—he merely noted the tracks as they disappeared from his line of sight, went into his bakery, and worked there for the next two hours without interruption.
The Villagers are Restless
Many of Pilk’s neighbors had by then discovered the mysterious spoor methodically placed in town. They ran the trail back to Pilk’s bakery and demanded to know what mischief he was into. Pilk was as mystified as the rest, though, and he told them the little he knew. Later, in his own words (and certainly prejudiced by the superstitions of the day) he said the marks were:
“. . . the oddest prints I had ever seen. They seemed to have been made neither by man, nor bird, nor animal. There was no sensible or Christian way of explaining them.”
His statement about having “no Christian way” to explain the strange tracks, however, proved false almost immediately. During the hours since the tracks had been first seen by him the mild warming of the day had deformed the prints somewhat and they took on (or so the villagers believed) a more sinister, cloven look. Some seized readily upon the idea that the odd prints were none other than those of Satan (part of Christian lore), having decided to stroll around the southern England countryside in the middle of a wintry night. So, right there was a “Christian way” to explain the tracks (albeit a very silly one).
The group who confronted Pilk was led by a local schoolteacher, Albert Brailford. He took it upon himself to become the mob’s de facto leader, and he organized a venture to follow the prints where they might lead. Arranged groups fanned out with reports coming in by noon of that day that the tracks continued outward into the countryside and that they had “swarmed over” 20-foot high haystacks stored in the open farmlands (meaning the tracks stopped abruptly at the foot of a stack only to resume on the other side).
A hunting party rode into the village as the agitated townspeople were forming their first exploratory groups. According to the new arrivals’ leader, the tracks were indeed further out from the town center, ranging into the countryside, and they were most definitely cloven in appearance. He even added fuel to the burbling speculation by saying, “. . . we think that Satan is abroad and that he is marking us as his future victims!”
Reports came in of the tracks stopping at the mouth of a 4-inch (10 cm) diameter drainpipe, continuing out the other side. Allegedly, the tracks were claimed to have crossed over a river after a lapse of two miles (3.2 km) between the river’s edge and regaining the trail. The seeming supernatural abilities of this animal to walk though solid objects, to leap over tall haystacks, and to apparently walk across a river’s watery surface confirmed the rubes’ beliefs that Satan had been in town.
Hysteria into Silliness
The story of the Devil’s Footprints of Devon spread rapidly, and reports from as far away as 100 miles (160 km) claimed the prints were seen in those more remote locations as well.
As the day wore on the prints in Devon further deformed and none of the trackers was any closer to finding their source. The incident was repeated only a few days later when, after a second overnight snowfall, more of the same kinds of tracks were spotted in the freshly-fallen drift. These, however, were not as far ranging as the initial February 8 phenomenon; barring a write up in an 1855 issue of The Illustrated London News the original incident lapsed into the realm of folklore.
Panic about Satan’s striding silently among the masses was spread through local pulpits, but even many of the most hard-shelled Christian fundamentalists asked what really could have caused the mysterious footprints.
No clear answers presented themselves then. Less than a month after the event in March 1855 one noted person suggested the tracks were nothing more than the hopping and skittering of wood mice. The tracks left by these animals fits the profile; with their longish hind feet placed together in a v-shape, they bunch the muscles and hop, leaving a “cloven-hoof” impression in soft soil, mud, or snow. Pareidolia (the phenomenon of morphing the amorphous into recognizable shapes, such as claiming a particular cloud looks like Elvis or a certain potato chip looks like Lady Gaga) does the rest: the v-shaped prints become cloven hooves in the mind’s eye, and it is only a short mental leap from there for superstitious people to think Satan was out for a stroll in the snow.
Naysayers, preferring the more horrific idea of Lucifer lingering in the neighborhood, did not want to hear such an explanation, however: the tracks were allegedly too regular, they traversed over objects (ignoring the obvious, of course, that a mouse might actually crawl under a haystack, or fence, or travel through a drain rather than leap over any such obstacles). Other suggestions from the animal kingdom included the badger, a raccoon, rats (very common), swans (also common in the area), and otters.
These alternate suggestions fail a simple common sense test, though—since Devon was a rural community, and its people familiar with the habits of most of the wildlife in the area, chances are good they would have immediately recognized a native animal’s tracks. The only explanation, then, is the animal was truly an exotic and not native to the area or the tracks were unrecognized from distortion due to temperature changes—they likely melted slightly and then refroze at various times during the day, dependent upon whether they lay in sun or shade.
At a first glance by the modern reader one explanation leaps out as perhaps completely out of bounds. It was suggested at the time that the tracks were made by a kangaroo! However, upon more careful reading it turns out the kangaroo hypothesis was not as implausible as it sounded. Many people in Victorian times, especially those with disposable incomes, were collectors of exotica, and this included exotic animals. Many wealthy landowners proudly kept menageries on their property.
One such private collector was a man named Fische. It was known he owned at least a pair of kangaroos, and that they had escaped his care before the Devil’s Footprints made an appearance. While the suggestion of kangaroo tracks made sense in that context the simple truth is a kangaroo’s hind legs are much too large per the witness descriptions of the prints seen.
However, considering the average person in Britain back then had probably never seen a kangaroo, even in a book, the possibility also exists that Fische’s animals were really wallabies, a much smaller marsupial closer in size to a rabbit. Even then, though, the wallaby is too large to have left such diminutive prints. [And it isn’t known if Fische recovered his kangaroos at some time after the incident of the “cloven hoof prints” in the snow.]
The classic illustration of the largish horseshoe-shaped tracks used by The Illustrated London News in its article is pure bunk, a creation of a graphic artist’s fertile imagination based on hearsay. [Only Henry Pilk stated the prints were human sized—everyone else said otherwise and almost all reported the v-shaped configuration, not the typically rounded horseshoe shape portrayed in the drawing.]
Still, even the other witnesses left much to be desired in terms of credibility: the amount of snow reported (with no accurate weather record keeping) varied from a light dusting to a blizzard’s blanket, the claims of snow falls over 100 miles away (when one snowstorm front could not possibly affect such a large area concurrently), minor differences in size and shape of the prints, etc., leave much information lacking.
Reports of similar tracks being found 100 miles distant are certainly suspect. Most travel in 1855 (and certainly by the Devon seekers) was by foot or on horseback. A distance of 100 miles was not possible to cover in one day (train travel could have made such a stretch, but then no one on a train would be able to see such slight footprints in the snow).
The only inference from such reports is that as the word spread of the Topsham, Devon, mystery this caused other communities (within days) to remark upon similarly noted tracks in their environs, tracks that may have differed greatly (there was no corroboration for these other accounts so it is unclear if these even looked like the Devon tracks). Even if similar, such tracks had probably occurred dozens if not hundreds of times before but were only given significance thanks to the current sensation.
This tends toward illustrating a classic example of mass hysteria.
So Much Hot Air
Strange hypotheses in modern times emerged (involving UFOs, etc.).
One of the more creative ideas thrown out is that a hot air balloon (dragging a mooring rope and shackle) left the skittering tracks in the snow.
This, of course, begs many questions not the least of which is who, in his or her right mind, would launch a hot air balloon at night (when the snowstorm began) or during the thick of it? Or in the earliest morning hours after the snow had stopped?
Even assuming it was an errant balloon (one that broke loose of its anchor) makes no sense—hot air balloons aren’t docked inflated and ready to go. They are deflated; the bag and gondola are stowed away and assembled and inflated when needed. One conspiracy-minded person claimed the balloon was part of an experiment (in 1855!) by a local industry that didn’t want to admit to its accidental release after the so-called dragline markings were discovered (and interpreted by the locals later as Satan’s footwork).
Shutting that “theory” down completely is easily done using mere common sense. A hot air balloon will lose altitude if not kept filled with hot air. This means a pilot was necessary. If inflated and accidentally set aloft without a human attendant, any hot air inside the bag would cool quickly, and the balloon would descend and crash to earth. It could not have completed a 100-mile trek unattended. No one in the area reported seeing an aeronaut at work at any time nor was there any in the region.
And no balloon wreckage was discovered.
Area map of Devon, England, with Topsham highlighted
Topsham, Devon, UK
Making Mouse Tracks
While the 1855 Devil’s Footprints of Devon, England, mystery is unsolved technically the field mouse theory, combined with human ignorance and superstition, is probably the best fit.
And it was almost certainly not one mouse that did all the tracking. Mice need food—under adverse weather conditions if their regular food supply is hampered they will range afield to find something to eat.
The report of the tracks hitting the bank of River Exe then being picked up two miles up (or down) stream on the opposite shore is absurd. While the prints may have been traced to the shore leading away from Topsham, the tracking party would need some means of crossing the river themselves to gain the other shore. This meant they would either have had to find a rowboat or bridge to cross the water. By the time they reached the opposing shore there is no way to confirm that what they found further along belonged to the same set of prints they sought. It was probably a different animal.
Similar tracks were observed in 1840 in Scotland, but the Scots merely thought they were from a previously unknown quadruped (as reported in the March 14, 1840 edition of The Times). They did not leap to the unfortunate conclusion that Satan walked through their Scottish snow-covered glens.
Such mystery prints phenomena are noted today in many places, and are photographed and documented. And just as in Devon in 1855 hypotheses are thrust forth, sometimes bearing fruit, but more often not.
But one thing is assured—no one today ever suggests that mysterious “cloven hoof prints” seen on the landscape after a snowfall belong to the Devil!
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