It was on the night of February 8, 1855, that heavy snowfall covered the southern British counties of Devon and Dorset. The inclement weather would continue for days, and upon waking, villagers and townsfolk in the mostly rural locations were horrified to find cloven hoof prints at as many as thirty sites across the region. While you might not think this unusual, with goats to be expected in the countryside… these footprints were up to four inches long and the creature, whatever it was, seemingly walked on two legs…
The “Devil’s footprints” covered a distance between 40 and 100 miles and were between eight and sixteen inches apart and, while some were described as four inches long, most were in fact only an inch a half or two inches. Reports of the phenomenon came from across Devon, mostly centred around the Exe Estuary in the east and south of the region. However, there were reports of such Satanic footprints as far away as Dorset, the next county to the east. The tracks were mostly straight with no object seemingly phasing whatever creature was responsible, smoothly moving over haystacks, houses and rivers. The footprints even appeared on roofs, and according to some accounts were directed toward the country house of the Lord of Exeter. At the time this was Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter.
The Times described the tracks as: “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 two and a half inches across.” The appearance of the prints was seemingly a one-off event, with nothing new appearing on subsequent nights. The tracks led to a feeling of unease in the local area, mainly when some opportunistic members of the clergy decided to proclaim them the work of the Devil and a warning for locals to cease their sinning.
The appearance of “Satanic footprints” in Devon is not the only reporting of such a phenomenon, with a similar case being noted fifteen years prior in Scotland. As in Devon, the tracks appeared in the snow with the footprints recorded as covering a sizeable distance. The press was clear, however, that they believed them to be from an unknown animal rather than the work of Satan.
“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 of the foot in every respect is an exact resemblance of 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 sunk in the snow, that it must be a beast of considerable size; it has also been observed, that its walk is not like that of the generality of quadrupeds, but that it is more like the bounding or limping of a hare when not scared or pursued. It is not in one locality only that its tracks have been met with, but through a range of at least twelve miles…”
The Times, March 14, 1840
There were further reports of such footprints in Munich and at the Dresden Frauenkirche, both in Germany. There was one from as far away as the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, yet another from Belgium in 1945 at the Chateau de Morveau.
Another further case was noted in 1855 in Poland, and modern-day appearances of such footprints have also been reported in Devon and Scotland, likely by pranksters evoking the legends of the Devil’s Footprints case. Appearing in 2009, the new Devon footprints were considerably different to those of the myth, appearing in a single back garden and appearing different to those of legend. Scientists from the Centre for Fortean Zoology inspected them.
“Thousands of people across the world believe in the paranormal, but so far every single thing we have looked into has turned out to have a natural explanation. I’m sure these will as well. Do I believe that the Devil comes from the pits of Hell to wander around the gardens of North Devon? Of course not.”
Jonathan Downes, Centre for Fortean Zoology
Explanations for the original 1855 event are varied, and none entirely satisfy. The author Geoffrey Household, for example, suggests that a balloon may have been responsible, the experimental craft accidentally breaking free from its moorings at the nearby Devonport Dockyard. Household contends that the mooring ropes of the balloon had shackles on the end which impacted into the ground, the affair being hushed up by the military when it became apparent that damage had been done to property over a massive distance.
Others, however, suggest that wildlife was responsible, with the incident sparking the interest of naturalists. With the night of February 8 and into the morning of February 9 being unnaturally cold, many animals were likely to have been in search of food. Raccoons, rats, swans, and otters have all been suggested as culprits. Writing just a month after the incident, the English biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen told that badgers were responsible. Owen said that the badger is “almost the only plantigrade quadruped” in Britain, with its footprint being far more extensive than most people expect.
“An esteemed zoological friend has submitted to me a carefully executed drawing of one of the more perfect impressions left in the snow at Luscombe, South Devon on or about the 8th of last month. It was of the hind-foot of a badger.”
Sir Richard Owen, The Lancaster Gazette, March 17, 1855
The biologist would point out that while the badger sleeps a great deal in winter, it does not hibernate, and, being nocturnal, occasionally comes out in the winter when faced with cold and hunger. He would speculate that more than one such creature was out foraging.
“That one and the same animal should have gone over 100 miles of a most devious and irregular route in one night, is as improbable as that one badger only should have been awake and hungry out of the number concealed in the 100 miles of rocky and bosky Devonshire, which has been startled by the impressions revealed by the rarely-spread carpet of snow in that beautiful county.”
Sir Richard Owen, The Lancaster Gazette, March 17, 1855
Others preferred mice, with the historian Mike Dash pointing out that hopping rodents will make a print that resembles a cloven hoof through the positioning of the limbs when they make a jump. The theory was not new, with The Illustrated London News suggesting the same in March of 1855.
The most interesting theory, however, was the claim that kangaroos might have been responsible. Writing in the same publication, the Reverend GM Musgrave claimed that he had received a report that kangaroos had escaped from a private zoo in the area and must indeed have been responsible. There was no follow-up to this claim and Musgrave would later say he’d made it up in an attempt to alleviate his parishioners’ fears that the footprints had been the work of Satan.
“I found a very apt opportunity to mention the name of kangaroo, in allusion to the report then current. I certainly did not pin my faith to that version of the mystery … but the state of the public mind of the villagers … dreading to go out after sunset … under the conviction that this was the Devil’s work … rendered it very desirable that a turn should be given to such a degraded and vitiated notion … and I was thankful that a kangaroo … [served] to disperse ideas so derogatory…”
Reverend GM Musgrave, Illustrated London News, March 1855
Being 1855 in Devon and Dorset, the possibility exists that these tales were mere superstition and the work of fevered imaginations, a mass panic of sorts ensuing. However, sightings of the prints were not limited to rural areas, with the marks appearing in urban environments such as Exeter and Torquey. Despite this, it seems likely that the incident has no one true origin, with the majority of the prints being animal tracks and witnesses exaggerating the accurate scale of the phenomena. After all, if they stretched 100 miles, its unlikely anyone would have been able to verify the fact before the snow melted given the limitations on transport and varied terrain that would need traversing. Once news spread of the “visitation”, pranksters may have become involved, adding their own tracks and tales of the Devil walking abroad.
While the legends of devilry may have been believed by some at the local level, the claims were never taken seriously by most people. The real mystery was how the tracks had actually come to be. While mice, badgers and even kangaroos may be one suggestion, they seem unlikely to be a sole explanation, and the mystery of the Devil’s Footprints, therefore, remains still unsolved.