The column of two weeks ago regarding Stockholm's "monster" (actually a huge feral pig) caused several folks interested in local history to ask me if I had ever heard of the "Devil's Footprint," another piece of Stockholm folklore. I was happy to reply that I had, and a very bizarre bit of folklore it is.
In several newspaper articles and histories of the late 1800s, there are cryptic references to something called the "Devil's Track" at Snufftown (which was the pre-railroad name for Stockholm). Inquiries a dozen years ago to local historians about exactly what the "Devil's Track" was came up empty-handed until my friend (and Sussex County historian) Kevin Wright came up with the following article, from a Sussex County newspaper dated December 12, 1872. The article, submitted by a correspondent who identified himself only as "W.R.", explains what exactly this fiendish-sounding phenomenon was.
The article begins "About forty years ago [c.1832], I was at a time wandering through the highlands of Jersey, in the region of New Foundland and Snufftown, for the purpose of noticing the geological features of the hills and rocks of which I passed. I called one morning for breakfast at the Snufftown Tavern, which was then kept by Mr. Lewis, a Welshman, if I recollect right.
"While at table with several other men I inquired if there was in that neighborhood anything interesting in the way of minerals and fossils. I was immediately replied to, by the question whether I had ever seen or heard of the Devil's Track, which was in that vicinity on a flat rock. I expressed an anxiety to be shown the specimen.
"Very quickly we were on the tramp to visit the above named Track. We passed northward along the turnpike about a quarter of a mile, then turning to the right through a pair of bars, we entered enclosed but uncleared ground; thence we proceeded through trees and bushes ten or twelve rods, when one of the party passing, pointed his finger to the ground and observed, "there it is."
"And there it was sure enough, on a rock in situ. "The rock was cropped out three or four inches above the ground, the track appeared identical with that made by a large human foot; the impression of each of the five toes, the uprising to fit the hollow of the foot and the spoon-like indentation of the heel--all were as perfect as a person could make with his foot in soft clay; the whole impression was an average depth of three quarters of an inch, and smooth and without flaw as if cast in a mould. To be certain that what I believed was a reality, I bared my right foot and placing it in the track, stood with my weight upon it. It was a complete fit in length, breadth, and in every minutiae.
"While I stood here my companion laughingly said, "Your other foot will not be fitted so well by the other track." "What other track?" said I, "The one the old gentleman made with his cloven hoof," was the reply. And observing, about a foot forward of the track of which I stood, I saw the other resembling that of a cow; the latter resemblance was not near so good as the former, yet it bore a considerable likeness to the track of a cleft-footed animal. These tracks were indented in a solid gneiss rock or grey stone, as commonly called.
"These mysterious, even beautiful, tracks interested me so much that I determined to employ a stone-cutter and have the impressions chiseled out in a block to ornament my cabinet. Long years passed away and I found no opportunity to carry my determination into effect. At length about five or six years ago I wrote to a young gentleman living near Snufftown by the name of Lyon and requested him to inform me if the Devil's Track was still preserved in his neighborhood. Mr. Lyon upon receiving my letter immediately proceeded to the locality and found the specimen. But to my great disappointment he forwarded me the unwelcome intelligence that the track was so mutilated and broken up that it no longer merited my care or attention.--W.R."
Who "W.R." was remains a mystery, but the other elements of the story ring true. Mr. Lewis's Snufftown Tavern (long gone) stood on Route 515 in Stockholm, only a short distance from the former Hardyston Municipal Building. In 1992 I attempted to retrace the steps of the short expedition of the early 1830s with my good friend George P. Sellmer, a retired Upsala College professor and a devoted local historian. We followed the route described in the story, which is fairly specific, to find the Devil's Track. Several hours of effort proved fruitless. The Devil's Track--whatever it was, whatever its origins--was gone, or at least unrecognizable, just as Mr. Lyons had said so many years ago.
It's important to note that folklore of footprints of the Devil (or various other supernatural beings) is pretty common in both the United States and in Europe. You don't need to poke around much to find out that such "Devil's footprints" are a semi-generic part of old-time folklore. You can look at the phenomenon as an anthropologist would, and say: it reflects the strong religious beliefs and superstitions of an earlier era (combined with a lack of understanding of geology). Or you can look at it as a student of the paranormal, and say: man, the Devil really did do a lot of stomping around.
So . . . did he? In Stockholm, at least, the evidence has vanished.
(Ron Dupont can be reached at vernonstories.com)