The Devil’s Footprints is a name given to a phenomenon that occurred in Teignmouth and elsewhere in South Devon in 1855.
There is little first-hand evidence of the phenomenon. The only known documents came to light after the publication in 1950 of an article in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association asking for further information about the event. This resulted in the discovery of a collection of papers belonging to Reverend H. T. Ellacombe, the vicar of Clyst St George in the 1850s. These papers included letters addressed to the vicar from his friends, among them the Reverend G. M. Musgrove, the vicar of Withycombe Raleigh; the draft of a letter to The Illustrated London News marked ‘not for publication’; and several apparent tracings of the footprints.
On the night of 8–9 February 1855 and one or two later nights, after a heavy snowfall, a series of hoof-like marks appeared in the snow. These footprints, most of which measured around four inches long, three inches across, between eight and sixteen inches apart and mostly in a single file, were reported from Exmouth, to Dawlish, Teignmouth and onward as far as the river Dart.
It was estimated that the total distance of the tracks was between 40 and 100 miles. They went straight over houses, rivers, haystacks and other obstacles; and footprints appeared on the tops of snow-covered roofs and high walls which lay in their path, as well as leading up to and exiting various drain pipes as small as four inches in diameter. A set of the prints were even supposed to have bridged a two mile span of the river Exe, continuing on the other side as if the creature had walked over the water. From a news report of the time:
“It appears on Thursday night last, there was a very heavy snowfall in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the South of Devon. On the following morning the inhabitants of the area were surprised at discovering the footmarks of some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the footprints were to be seen in all kinds of unaccountable places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and court-yards, enclosed by high walls and palings, as well in open fields.”
The footprints were so called because some people believed that they were the tracks of Satan, as they were allegedly made by a cloven hoof. Many theories have been put forward to explain the incident, and some aspects of its veracity have also been called into question.
In his Fortean Studies article, Mike Dash concluded that there was no one source for the “hoofmarks”: some of the tracks were probably hoaxes, some were made by “common quadrupeds” such as donkeys and ponies, and some by wood mice. There is also a suggestion that the prints were made by kangaroos or badgers. But these and other theories cannot explain the extent of the marks, their sudden appearance over one or two nights and their appearance as what seemed to be a trail. So the mystery remains.
Reports of similar anomalous, obstacle-unheeded footprints exist from other parts of the world, although none is of such a scale as that of the case of the Devil’s Footprints.
The Devil’s Footprints was used as the inspiration for the events depicted in the motion picture ‘Dark Was the Night’. The film speculates on how a modern American town would react to discovering biped hoof prints through freshly fallen snow.
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