The Devil’s Footprints By James McArthur
The night of February 8, 1855 was a singularly cold one. The next morning, the rural residents of East and South Devon awoke to a familiar site. Snow had fallen during the night, ending around midnight, and blanketing the coun- tryside with a cover of heavy white. But for many of them the snowfall re- vealed something totally unfamiliar: something eerie and frightening: an ex- tensive trail of deep, hoof-like prints in the snow, prints of a type that none of these farmers and villagers had ever seen before.
Footprints Each individual print was about four inches long and three inches across, and shaped roughly like a horse’s hoof. The tracks were spaced about eight inches apart and proceeded in an odd, single-file manner: definitely not made by the nor- mal run of four-footed creatures, and somewhat more suggestive of something with a single foot, than two. It is not known whether any single person followed these snow tracks for their entire observable distance. However, based on reports that came in from about 30 locations in Devon and several in Dorset, the tracks are estimated to have extended from between 40 and 100 miles! Yet the most striking thing about the snow prints was neither their shape nor the extent of their track, but the manner in which they traversed the countryside, seemingly oblivious to obstacles which should have been impassable. A contem- porary news report stated that they ap- peared to be “the footmarks of some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot- prints were to be seen in all kinds of un- accountable places—on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and court- yards, enclosed by high walls and pailings, as well as open fields.” No natural barrier nor manmade obstacle seemed to pose any impediment to the movement of whatever made these tracks. Houses, rivers and haystacks were traveled straight over. The prints appeared on roof tops and atop high walls,as if whatever made them had gone there without effort. In some places, the tracks reportedly led across an open field or lawn to the very edge of a high wall and re-ap- peared on the opposite side, leaving the piled snow on top of the wall untouched: as if made by a creature who could leap to great heights from a standing start, and land gracefully on its feet immediately on the opposite side of the wall. Other reports stated that the tracks would sometimes end at the shoreline of one side of a flowing river and appear on the riverbank directly opposite. The tracks were said to enter and exit various drainage pipes, some as narrow as four inches in diameter.
Sightings Some observers described the prints as “cloven” in shape. Others declared that the snow under the surface impressions was melted down to the bare ground. Ellacombe’s Papers Then in 1950 the Devonshire Associ- ation, an area historical society, published an article about this strange phenomenon of a century ago. The article also requested the readers’ help in providing any addi- tional information or documentation. This request brought forward a collection of personal papers that had been the property of the Reverend H. T. Ellacombe, who had lived from 1790 until 1885 and had been vicar of a church in Devonshire from 1850 until his death. Ellacombe’s collection of papers re- vealed two things: that he was both very interested in this footprints event, and that he was very anxious that his name not be publicly associated with it. His papers included letters about the footprints written to a fellow clergyman and to other friends; the draft of a letter addressed to The Illustrated London News, which he had marked as being “not for publication,” and then declined to post altogether: and several pencil tracings of these peculiar tracks, presumably done by the vicar. There was also a paper authored by Ellacombe and entitled “The Devil’s Hoof- marks,” wherein Ellacombe made this trenchant observation: “On the whole it appears that a considerable majority of the people who might have been expected to be familiar with all manner of trails left by the local wildlife, were puzzled and in many cases scared by these tracks and by the places in which they were discovered.” Two other local eyewitnesses, a Reverend JJ Rowe,and a Mr R H Busk,told of setting a pack of hunting hounds to follow the trail of the tracks: and of the dogs following the tracks into a dense wood, only to run back to their handlers “baying and terrified.”
Fort and Dash The phenomenon has attracted sev- eral writers over the years, including Charles Fort, who discussed it in his 1919 classic, The Book of the Damned. The most thorough investigation was conducted by Mike Dash, editor of the Fortean Times journal, which published his articled en- titled “The Devil’s Hoofmarks” in 1994. Mr. Dash extensively analyzed the various explanations which have been brought forth over the years. These theories have included human hoaxers, badgers, birds and cats—don- keys, monkeys, ponies, and kangaroos— a rope that was left dangling from an as yet unidentified aerial balloon—some sort of unknown weather phenomenon— even a sea serpent that left the ocean and traversed the countryside! He concluded that, while some of the proposed theories had a limited degree of utility, or might possibly account for some of these odd markings in the snow, nevertheless, “No one theory entirely ex- plains the appearance of the Devil’s Hoof- marks...the mystery remains.” And it remains to the present day.