The Devil’s Footprints was the name given to a peculiar phenomenon that occurred in South Devon, England on 8th February 1855. After a heavy snowfall, during the night, a series of hoof-like marks appeared in the snow. These footprints, measuring 1.5 to 2.5 inches wide and eight inches apart, continued throughout the countryside for a total of over 100 miles, and, although veering at various points, for the greater part of their course followed straight lines.
Houses, rivers, haystacks and other obstacles were travelled straight over, and footprints appeared on the tops of snow-covered roofs and high walls which lay in the footprints’ path, as well as leading up to and exiting various drain pipes of as small as a four inch diameter. The extent of the footprints may have been exaggerated at the time, and they may have been the result of freak atmospheric conditions.
The last snow is thought to have fallen around midnight, and between this time and around 6.00am the following morning, something (or some things) left a myriad of tracks in the snow, stretching for a hundred miles or more. The area in which the prints appeared extended from Exmouth, up to Topsham, and across the river Exe to Dawlish and Teignmouth (The Times 16-2-1855). R.H. Busk, in “Phenomenal footprints in snow, S. Devon” Notes and Queries, s.7, 9 (January 25, 1890) page 70 states that the footprints also appeared further afield, as far south as Totnes and Torquay; and that there were other reports of the prints in Weymouth (Dorset) and Lincolnshire. In each case, the prints would go on for miles and miles before abruptly stopping.
In Topsham, England, the early risers were the first to find them. A baker noticed some unidentified tracks near his shop. He dismissed them until he later heard from neighbours stories of the length of the trail. These strange hoof-shaped prints in straight lines, passed over rooftops, through walls and covering huge areas of land. A set of the prints were even bridged a two mile span of the river Exe, continuing on the other side as if the creature had walked over the water. Townspeople were baffled and immediately set out to discover the culprit. Toting clubs, rakes, and other weapons, the people set off to find the monster that created the footprints. as they followed the tracks that crisscrossed through cemeteries, in popular town squares, in people’s yards, over snow covered wagons, and in same cases led right up to people’s doors were they stopped and continued on in another direction (including back-tracking on top of themselves). They went into a shed and came out on the other side- apparently, whatever made them went through a six-inch hole. Outside of a church in Woodbury, the prints looked like they had been burned into the snow by a hot iron. One report claimed that dogs in Dawlish refused to follow the tracks and backed away, fearful.
It soon became clear that the phenomenon was widespread, and some of the more scientifically minded examined the prints in detail. One naturalist sketched some of the marks, and measured the distance between them, it was found to be eight and a half inches. This spacing seemed to be consistant wherever the tracks were measured. It was also noted that the way in which they were set out, one in front of the other, suggested a biped rather than a creature walking on four legs.
Some clergymen suggested that the prints belonged to the Devil, who was roaming the countryside in search of sinners (a great ploy to fill the churches), while others rejected the idea as superstition. It is true that a feeling of unease had spread through some of the population, who watched carefully to see if the strange footprints would return. They did not and after a couple of days the news spread out of Devon and made the national press. The phenomena sparked correspondence in some of the leading papers including the Times and the Illustrated news. This brought more accounts to light, and led to a plethora of speculation by eminent scientists and lay men alike.
It seems that most of the Southern villages of Devon, from Totnes to Topsham, had been inundated with the prints in all manner of absurdities. Some stopped abruptly and continued after a large break, others stopped at walls as high as 14 feet, only to continue on the other side, leaving untouched snow on the top of the wall. Some were even said to have travelled through narrow apertures such as drainpipes.
The papers picked up that some kangaroos had escaped from a private Zoo belonging to a Mr Fische at Sidmouth, but the tracks description bears no resemblance to the tracks a kangaroo would leave. Sir Richard Owen, the eminent Biologist, suggested that the tracks were made by badgers, roaming the countryside in search of food. He explained the strange shape of the prints as the result of freeze-thaw action. This explanation only holds as much ground as the other theories given at the time, these included roaming racoons, rats, swans, otters and the theory that a hot air balloon passed over head trailing a rope. These could explain some of the tracks made that night, but certainly not all of them, unless all of the above were to blame in separate occurrences. Another explanation was soon presented: Spring-Heeled Jack,
The footprints were so-named because many of the more superstitious townspeople believed that the footprints were the work of Satan, since they were allegedly made by a cloven hoof; there were many attendant rumors about sightings of a “devil-like figure” in the Devon area during the scare. Many townspeople armed themselves and attempted to track down the beast responsible, without success.
In The News
The English newspapers only picked up the story after days had passed; the first full account did not appear until February 16. The delay means, of course, that the story had time to acquire elaborations.The Times of London printed the following article on February 16, 1855.
Considerable sensation has been evoked in he 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 on from the pulpit.
It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighborhoods of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the footprints were not observed.
The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey’s shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) tow and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the center remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex [concave?].
The creature seems to have approached the doors of 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 lat the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested that possibility of the footprints being those of a kangaroo,; but this could scarcely have 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 actually afraid to go outside their doors after night.
Many different animals have been suggested as a cause, but none would have been capable of covering so large a distance overnight. It is still bizzare at this time even with modern day technology. Some contend it remains a mystery to this day, although it has been suggested that some bizarre meteorological phenomenon was at work. Paranormal writer Colin Wilson suggests (based on a theory by author Geoffrey Household) that a weather balloon had gotten loose from Devonport dockyard and drifted over the area in question. Others have connected the footprints with the contemporaneous sightings of Spring Heeled Jack, a mysterious figure known for his extraordinary jumps.
It is also often suggested that the footprints were merely a case of mass hysteria, caused by the sighting of various different animal tracks and lumping them together as one. The most common argument for this theory is the improbability that someone would be able to track the course of the lines for over 100 miles in the course of a single day, while throughout the night and even during the day many animals roam about creating new tracks and disrupting old ones. Also, as Joe Nickell points out in his book Real Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal (2001), the eye-witness descriptions of the footprints varied from person to person; the claim that the footprints were identical is unlikely at best.
Writer Geoffrey Household, best known for his thriller novels, claims that the Devonport Dockyard accidentally released an “experimental balloon” which carried two shackles on the end of ropes. These trailed the balloon, and left what people believed to be footprints. Househould cites as his source the descendant of someone who worked at the dockyard, and who further claims that those responsible kept quiet because they feared the public response. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but one cannot easily see how this device would have made such a trail, especially against the night’s prevailing winds.
There are similar scattered cases from other parts of the world and also one written account in Britain. According to Ralph of Coggeshall, (who also recorded strange arial phenomena during his era) a writer from the 13th Century, on the 19th of July 1205 strange hoof print appeared after a violent electrical storm. In mid July these tracks would only be visible in the soft earth, and the electrical storm suggests some kind of natural phenomenon as yet unknown.
Among the high mountains of that elevated district where Glenorchy, Glenlyon and Glenochay are contiguous, there have been met with several times, during this and also the former winter, upon the snow, the tracks of an animal seemingly unknown at present in Scotland. The print, in every respect, is an exact resemblance to that of a foal of considerable size, with this small difference, perhaps, that the sole seems a little longer, or not so round; but as no one has had the good fortune as yet to have obtained a glimpse of this creature, nothing more can be said of its shape or dimensions; only it has been remarked, from the depth to which the feet sank in the snow, that it must be a beast of considerable size. It has been observed also that its walk is not like that of the generality of quadrupeds, but that it is more like the bounding or leaping of a horse when scared or pursued. It is not in one locality that its tracks have been met with, but through a range of at least twelve miles. (The Times, March 14, 1840)