Devil's Footprints of 1855


In February of 1855, The Times of London reported on a series of strange tracks left overnight in the snow around the towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, Dawlish, and Exeter, in Devon County, England.  The tracks appeared overnight after a large snowfall, and immediately caused concern among the local populace due to their odd appearance and location.  They ran for 40 miles "on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards, enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields," even sometimes approaching houses before retreating; although no one was able to discover any standing or resting points for the mysterious visitor.  The imprints in the newly-fallen snow were described as one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half inches across, and resembled a "donkey's shoe."  Their pattern resembled more that of a biped than a quadruped, with approximately eight inches between hoofprints.  

The Times reported that "The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself," while other residents were anxious to find a more rational explanation.  The Reverend Musgrave was said to have included the phenomenon in that Sunday's sermon, suggesting that the footprints of a kangaroo could be to blame.  Very few people were comforted by the reverend's baffling explanation, though, and locals were still afraid to go out after dark for fear of whatever caused the tracks.

By March, armed posses were patrolling in Dawlish to find whatever creature caused the footprints.  These hunting parties turned up nothing, and more mundane explanations were bandied about to calm the frightened locals.  The claws of large birds, an escaped exotic animal from a menagerie, and an unseasonably awake badger were all speculated to be the cause; although no explanation at the time involving a single animal could account for the positioning and scope of the tracks.  Part of the difficulty in identifying the mystery's cause might have been a lack of attention to detail during the initial discovery, since the tracks may not have all come from a single source. 

"The onus of the proof that one creature made them in one night rests with the assertor who ought to have gone over the same ground, with power of acute and unbiased observation, which seems not to have been exercised by him who failed to distinguish the truly single from the blended footprints in question," noted a Professor Owen in the March 14th, 1855 issue of The Guardian.

"Nothing seems more difficult than to see a thing as it really is, unless it be the right interpretation of observed phenomena."

Other explanations have been added more recently, including the ever-popular mass hysteria, in this case caused by the misinterpretation of several different sets of animal prints; an experimental balloon trailing two shackles from its mooring ropes that was accidentally released from the Devonport Dockyard, and covered up due to the property damage it caused; and hopping mice, who leave imprints in the snow similar to a cloven hoof due to the motion of their limbs as they leap.  No consensus has yet been reached by researchers on what the actual cause of the devil's footprints in England could be, and it remains a fortean mystery to this day.

Tobias Wayland