Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
~ Robert Frost, “An Old Man’s Winter Night”
Today we have the means to chase away the shadows of winter, but before the age of electricity a winter’s night was best left outside, behind tightly locked doors, a fire burning brightly on the hearth to keep the dark from stealing in. But just imagine what the countryside must have looked like at night before the age of electricity--no light pollution from nearby cities, not even the far distant blinking of aircraft lights; just the night and all that comes with it.
Midwinter daylight has a short lifespan, so in those days people never traveled very far from home after sundown. In fact, most didn’t travel very far from their own front door after dark if they could help it. Farmers finished their work before sunset, took one last look at the farmyard, then retired into their safe, warm homes to spend a quiet evening with family, followed by an early bed, and the promise of an early rise.
On the night of February 8, 1855, a snowstorm hit the rural countryside of Devon, England. The weather had been particularly harsh that winter--the worst winter that the oldest residents of the town had ever seen--so the storm wasn’t much of a surprise to the folks who lived there. It was so cold that the two nearby rivers, the Exe and Teign, froze over to the point where the townsfolk were able to play games on the ice. So the snow that visited the countryside that night wasn’t unusual or unexpected, but the thing that the snow brought with it was.
If one rarely ventured out at night even in good weather, you can be sure that few if any risked going out during the storm that bore down on farms, houses, churches and villages that blustery night. The snow began falling at midnight, but towards dawn the temperature rose slightly and there was a brief period of rain. A short time later, the temperature fell once again, and the snow iced over.
As the citizens of Devon slept safely in their beds, they were totally unaware of the thing that walked past their windows that night. No one heard it coming. No one heard it pass. But in the morning, there was no question about it--something stealthy and silent had visited Devon that night, and although no one saw it or heard it, it certainly left its mark.
On the morning of February 9, residents across the countryside were greeted with a blanket of iced-over snow that glistened in the morning sun. But there was something else waiting for them in the snow that morning, something so strange that no one had ever seen anything like it before.
In South Devon, a farmer on his way to check on his cows noticed it right away--tracks in the snow going right past the front windows of his house toward the barn. At first he was just curious. The tracks were definitely made by a biped, but he knew every type of track an animal makes, and these were unlike anything he had ever seen before. Each was approximately 4 inches long, nearly three inches wide, and they were shaped like donkey hooves. The snow was around four inches deep that morning, and the tracks were sunk so low into it that it looked as if whatever had made them had melted the snow as they touched it. And if that weren’t strange enough, the tracks walked in a perfectly straight line. Whatever had walked across his farmyard that night had put one foot directly in front of the other, very different from the way a person, a bear, or some other two footed animal would walk; and certainly not the way a four footed animal would walk.
The farmer looked off into the distance and saw that the tracks lead straight to his barn. ‘The animals!’ he thought in a panic. He rushed toward the barn following the strange tracks, then stopped and stared in disbelief. The tracks led directly to the barn, but they didn’t turn and go into the barn door where the animals were kept. They headed straight for the side of the barn, then stopped. The farmer looked to the right and left of the tracks to see if they hugged the side of the barn, but they didn’t. They just stopped. Or so it seemed, because as he stood there trying to solve this strange puzzle, he happened to look up. The barn’s roof was covered with snow, and across the top ran a perfectly straight line of hoofprints. Whatever made the prints in the snow didn’t stop when they got to the barn. It seems they walked straight up the side of the barn and across the roof.
The farmer’s jaw dropped in amazement, and a mounting sense of horror came over him. He opened the barn door and walked carefully through the dark interior, past the cows and the horses in their stalls to the back door. The snow had piled up against the door because of the wind, but he managed to push it open just enough to squeeze through and step outside. He looked to his right. The tracks started up again at the back of the barn right underneath where they ran across the roof, and they continued straight across the barnyard. He followed them with his eyes and saw that they cut straight across the field, their course never deviating an inch, and they continued on and on until they were lost in the distance.
The mysterious tracks didn’t just end at the edge of the farmer’s property, and they weren't witnessed by just a few people. Groups of people across multiple villages in Devon followed the tracks, and within a few hours of their discovery a number of attempts were made to follow the hoofprints in order to discover what might have made them.
In Dawlish, a town on the south coast, a group of armed men followed the tracks for five miles, but they were unable to determine their source. At Clyst Saint George in East Devon, several groups of people followed the same strange hoofprints. They reported that the tracks stopped and started suddenly in the middle of fields, as if they were made by a bird, or by some other creature that took flight, then landed and resumed walking. Most groups followed the tracks for two or more miles before turning back. Once all the reports were in, it was determined that the tracks ran for at least 40 miles. Some say they ran as far as 100 miles.
On the day that the hoofprints were discovered, several people from different parts of Devon made tracings of the mysterious prints, and it was a good thing that they did. Later comparison of the drawings showed that the tracks were nearly identical in size and shape even though they were traced in places that were very far apart from one another, and in different types of terrain such as farms, towns, churches, and fields.
In addition to tracing the hoofprints, several people measured the prints. The sizes varied, but not by very much. One measurement put the tracks at 3.5 inches long by 2.5 wide. Another measured them at 4 x 2.75 inches. Other measurements suggested that the tracks were narrower, around 1.5 or 2.5 inches wide.
The stride of the tracks were also measured, and these varied slightly as well. While most were between 8 and 9 inches long, some measured the stride as being 12, 14, or even 16 inches long. In any case, the distance between steps would be considered very small were they made by any animal capable of producing footprints that large.
When considering these measurements, it’s important to remember that the people who made them weren’t scientists. Some may have measured the stride from the toe of one print to the heel of another. Others may be toe-to-toe measurements, or heel-to-heel measurements. Still others may have simply estimated the length of the strides, but submitted them as actual measurements; so it’s impossible to say for sure how long the strides actually were.
The description of the prints were also noted by several people, and even though they came from different parts of Devon, their appearance were, for the most part, remarkably similar. Phrases used to describe them were: “like a donkey’s foot”, “closely resembled a donkey’s shoe”, “Cloven, like a donkey’s”, “the perfect impression of a donkey’s hoof”, and “like a donkey shoe, sharply defined”.
Those who described the prints slightly differently described them as: “some whole, some cloven”, “claw or toe marks”, “marks of toes and pads”, “in the shape of a small hoof containing marks of claws”, and “like the cloven hoof of a calf”.
It’s worth noting that some described the marks as being cloven--divided into two parts--”like donkey hooves” or “like calves hooves”. In reality, neither a donkey nor a calf has cloven hooves. This might sound like a minor detail, but it’s actually quite important. If some tracks were cloven and others not, then some of the tracks might have been unrelated to the event. The investigation of the tracks went on for days, so it would be natural for a number of animals to, in a sense, “pollute the crime scene”.
It’s also possible that just one creature made the tracks, but that the overnight rain and refreezing distorted some so that some were whole while others appeared cloven. What’s more, very early on people associated the tracks with the devil who is said to have cloven hooves. So some may have allowed their superstitions to influence their observations. Others may have simply lied about the cloven hooves hoping to further the mystery of the tracks.
The mysterious footprints that appeared overnight were truly vast in number. A resident from East Devon wrote, “There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where these footprints were not observable, and in this parish he appears to have jumped about with inexpressible activity.” On the south coast of Devon, one witness reported that “his footprints were traced through the greater part of town.”
There’s a good reason why people thought that the tracks might have been made by the Devil himself. The creature who made them seemed to possess the supernatural ability to scale walls, haystacks, and walk across rooftops. The hoof-prints were found in fields, gardens, roads, on housetops, windowsills, and on top of haystacks.
The being that made the tracks also seemed to have the ability to walk up to the very edge of an obstruction, and to appear on the other side without climbing over it. One report said that the tracks stopped at the edge of a 14-foot high wall, and then appeared on the other side as if the creature had leapt over it, or walked through it. In another instance, the tracks were followed to the edge of a haystack where they stopped completely. There were no marks on top of the haystack, yet the tracks resumed their course on the other side.
In the port town of Exmouth, one man reported that “there were marks in the middle of a field, insulated without any approach or retreat.” In the same town, another resident reported that, “the footprints came up to the front garden to within a few feet of the house, stopped abruptly, and began again at the back within a few feet of the building.” Because such feats would be impossible for any living creature, the idea that the tracks could have been made by an ordinary animal were seriously called into question.
People weren’t simply puzzled or amused by the mysterious footprints that were found across Devon that morning; many were truly horror-struck. Soon after the discovery of the tracks, the Illustrated London News received letters from a number of readers who expressed just how terrified some residents were. One correspondent wrote, “laborers, their wives and children, old crones, and trembling old men dread to stir out after sunset, or to go half a mile into lanes or byways on a call or message, under the conviction that this was the Devil’s walk, and no other, and that it was wicked to trifle with such a manifest proof of the Great Enemy’s immediate presence.”
Although the event was covered in many local newspapers for months after the actual event, the most valuable resource about the ‘Devil’s Hoofmarks’ is a contemporary collection of documents assembled by the Reverend H.T. Ellacombe from Clyst Saint George, Devon. These include a number of letters written to Ellacombe by friends, the draft of a letter sent to the Illustrated London News, a letter from the Reverend G.M. Musgrave, and actual tracings of the hoofmarks made on the spot. There are also letters with references to the tracks being found on the outskirts of the city of Exeter, the furthest north that the tracks were reported.
In his own writing, Ellecombe said that a number of tracks were found on the grounds of his rectory. He recorded the weather conditions on the night that the tracks were made, and wrote how his dog was barking and acting strangely that night. He also described the marks in the snow as all being similar in shape and size.
Ellacombe also made note of a conversation he had with a group of men who had attempted to track whatever had made the marks. The group obtained samples of droppings found alongside the trail which were described as “four oblong globes of whitish excrement the size of a large grape alongside the tracks”. A sample of the droppings was sent to acclaimed naturalist Richard Owen, but he never replied to the inquiry. Although the droppings were found near the tracks, it’s entirely possible that they were unrelated to the creature who made them.
The tracings of the tracks preserved among the Ellacombe papers are perhaps the most valuable piece of evidence. They show the exact shape and size of the tracks, and they included marks that the vicar believed to have been left by claws.
The drawings are interesting because they show that the tracks were not uniformly shaped. Some appear to be roughly horseshoe shaped, while others seem to be missing a bit of the rear part resulting in a cloven shaped print. This inconsistency seems to be the result of the melting and refreezing of the snow.
Another important piece of contemporary documentation is a series of letters that were written to and published in the Illustrated London News. The letters were written by William D’Urban who later became the first curator of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum at Exeter. Although he was just 19-years-old at the time that he wrote the letters, he was an experienced hunter who was, in his own words, ‘much experienced in tracking wild animals and birds upon the snow.’
In his letter to the newspaper, D’Urban wrote, “At present, no satisfactory solution has been given. No known animal could have traversed this extent of country in one night, besides having to cross an estuary of the sea two miles broad. Neither does any known animal walk in a line of single footeps, not even man.”
Later in this same letter, D’Urban rejected the idea that the overnight thawing refreezing might have distorted the prints, pointing out that “on the morning that the tracks were observed, the snow bore the fresh marks of cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, and men clearly defined. Why, then, should a continuous track, far more clearly defined--so clearly even that the raising in the centre of the frog of the foot could be plainly seen--why then should this particular mark be the only one which was affected by the atmosphere, and all the others left as they were?” For those unacquainted with the anatomy of an animal’s hoof, the “frog of the foot” D’Urban mentions in his letter refers to a triangular-shaped mark on the bottom of the hoof extending midway from the heel toward the toe.
As soon as the tracks in the snow were discovered, people began to formulate theories about their sources. Many believed they were the work of the Devil, and the tracks were early on called, The Devil’s Footprints, The Devil’s Hoofprints and The Devil’s Hoofmarks. Of course, not everyone believed this. Many attributed the tracks to animals, the main suspects being the heron, badger, mouse, rat, otter, swan, kangaroo, cat, wolf, hare, flocks of birds, or a donkey. Unfortunately, upon close consideration, every animal-related theory falls apart in one way or another.
Since the majority of people described the tracks as looking remarkably like donkey hoofprints, a donkey was the first suspect. Although some of the trails might have later been left by a donkey or a pony, many cannot have been. One problem with the donkey theory is the observation that D’Urban made--that the tracks were made, for the most part, in a perfectly straight line with one foot being put directly in front of the other. Donkey’s leave tracks where the feet are side-by-side, and the fact that the tracks were found on the tops of buildings puts to rest the theory that the lowly donkey was the culprit.
Another animal suspect was the badger who, because of the way it walks, also leaves tracks that look as if they were made by a biped. But the badger theory is dismissed by animal experts because a single badger simply could not have traveled 40 miles or more in a single night. In addition, when a badger stops to rest, its tracks clearly show it to be a four-footed animal. But most importantly, badger tracks are not hoofed or cloven. Their tracks show clear toes and claws. But even if a badger left the tracks in snow, and they were partially melted and refrozen, this would not have resulted in a uniform set of hoof-like tracks extending as far as 100 miles.
The most creative animal theory at the time was that the tracks were made by an escaped kangaroo. There was a pair of kangaroos kept at a private menagerie in Exmouth, but there was no evidence that they ever escaped. What’s more, kangaroo tracks simply don’t resemble hoofmarks or cloven tracks, and unlike the tracks discovered in the snow that morning, their stride is very long. In addition, even two kangaroos couldn’t have left all of the tracks found on the morning of February 9. Although a kangaroo might be able to jump over a high wall and leave tracks on both sides without disturbing the snow on top, there are so many holes in the kangaroo theory that no one takes it seriously.
An escaped monkey was also suggested because of the ability of the creature to scale walls and walk on roofs, but no single monkey could have left all of the tracks, and monkey tracks don’t resemble those found that morning. What’s more, there were no reports of an escaped monkey anywhere in Devon, so that theory has also been put to rest.
A hopping rodent, such as a mouse, could have been responsible for some of the tracks, especially if they thawed and froze over; but proponents of the rodent theory are unable to explain why large numbers of mice or rats would have hopped such long distances rather than walked. And if a number of rodents were hopping along, they surely wouldn’t have all hopped together without at some point breaking off and making a number of trails.
If it were a single mouse or rat who made the tracks, it is seriously doubtful that it could have covered the distance of 100 miles, or even the 5 miles that one party followed the footprints. And while it’s possible that rodents could have climbed houses and rooftops, there seems to be no good reason why they would want to. They would more likely run along the edge of a house, in which case they would have left tracks showing that they had done so.
The theory that flocks of birds touched down repeatedly in a single line, and in doing so created a long line of uniform tracks isn’t worth exploring. Likewise, a swan or some other single type of bird simply couldn’t have left that many tracks in such a short span of time, and bird footprints don’t even vaguely resemble the hoofmarks found in the snow in Devon that morning.
A farmer in Dawlish reported that the tracks his cat left in the snow that night were found to be half-melted in the morning leaving them ‘in the shape of a small hoof, with still the impression of a cat’s claws enclosed.’ Although cats were certainly plentiful in Devon, there must be some doubt as to whether the thawing and refreezing of a single cat’s tracks could have made so uniform a trail of identical hoofprints over so vast a distance.
Several non-animal theories have been suggested and quickly discarded. One was that a balloon flew over Devon that morning, and that a rope with a weight that resembled a hoofprint was repeatedly dropped in a straight line across the countryside, and on top of houses. Why anyone would risk their lives being out in a snowstorm in a balloon is beyond me; and a rope being dropped from a moving balloon would surely have left drag marks in the snow, something that was not reported anywhere in Devon.
Another theory is that a freak weather phenomenon was responsible for the tracks. In 1952, a man from Scotland named J. Allan Rennie claimed to have witnessed large globules of water falling from the sky. He said that one even struck him in the face, and that these large drops of water left tracks in the snow. But meteorologists say that it would be impossible for any known weather phenomenon to produce such tracks, and that even if these blobs of water were some sort of ultra-rare weather event, there is simply no way that they could have left uniformly shaped tracks over such a vast distance.
Animal theories aside, one of the most outlandish theories about the source of the mysterious tracks in Devon was proposed by author Manfri Wood in his autobiography In the Life of a Romany Gypsy (1973). According to Wood, the footprints were the result of a hoax by Romany tribes. He claimed that after 18 months of careful planning, more than 400 pairs of specially-made stilts and boots were used to leave the trail in an attempt to scare away rival Gypsy tribes who were fervent believers in devils. The scheme’s success depended upon the tracks being left in inaccessible and bizarre places, which is why they were found on rooftops, windowsills, and on opposite sides of high walls.
One problem with the Gypsie theory is that while it is certainly possible that four or five hundred of them could have left all of the trials found in Devon, how in God’s name could that many people have walked through so many farms, towns, private gardens, and across so many rooftops without having been seen or heard? Another hole in this theory is that in order to make it look like the work of the Devil, the Gypsies were supposed to have made tracks in a single line without deviating or making any detours around houses, churches or barns. The footsteps were to go straight up one wall, over the roof, and down the other wall. In reality, the footsteps reported in Devon sometimes appeared disorderly.
It is highly unlikely that a well rehearsed group of Gypsies were responsible for the hoofprints found in Devon. It’s more likely that the Romanies came up with the idea of a “Devil’s Walk” after hearing the story of the footprints, and that they added the story to their traditions rather than being responsible for the event themselves.
While it’s doubtful that the footprints were the work of a troupe of Gypsies, it is almost certain that at least some of the tracks were the result of hoaxes after the first reports of the hoofprints were publicized. Some prints were discovered well after February 9, and based on where they showed up, they seemed to have been staged. In Topsham, for example, prints appeared five days later than they did in other parts of the county. Some crossed the churchyard and led to the door of the vestibule. Similarly, tracks were found in Dawlish that lead directly from the vicarage to the vestry door and left marks all over the churchyard and between the graves.
Hoaxers may have been responsible for the creation of faux footprints after February 9, but it’s impossible for them to have made all of the tracks the night they first appeared. There were so many tracks over such a large area of Devon that a conspiracy of dozens if not hundreds would have to have been involved.
Of course, there are other theories about the Devil’s footprints, one more far fetched than the next. Author George Lyall, for example, suggested that they were made by a laser beam shot from a UFO as a measuring device. However, the meandering tracks found in Devon don’t seem to have been made in such a manner. Although some described the tracks as looking as if they were made by a hot object that melted the snow, they were definitely made by something solid coming into contact with the snow rather than a laser beam melting the snow.
More than one person has suggested that the hoofprints were made by some sort of a water monster due to the proximity of some of the tracks to the sea. Although it’s an odd theory, it does have some substance to it. In 1840, small horse-shoe looking tracks were found in the snow on the uninhabited Kerguelen Island in the Antarctic. In the book Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions (vol. 1, p. 87) Captain Sir James Clark Ross wrote, “Of land animals we saw none; and the only traces we could discover of there being any on this island were the singular footsteps of a pony or ass, found by the party detached for surveying purposes.”
Ross recorded the footprints as being “3 inches in length and 2 inches in breadth, having a small and deeper depression on each side, and shaped like a horseshoe.” The tracks were tracked for a distance in the newly fallen snow, but they were lost on a large space of rocky ground that was free from snow.
Though it’s possible that the tracks seen on the island were made by some unknown sea creature, Captain Ross himself suggested that they may very well have been made by a donkey or other such animal that was cast ashore from a wrecked vessel. What’s more, Ross was in England at the time of the Devil’s Footprints panic, and he never came forward with the idea that the tracks he saw on the island might be related to the tracks in Devon.
When the residents of Devon looked out their doors and saw the hoofprints in the snow, it was clear that no one had seen anything like them before. If they had, no one would have thought twice about them, and no one would have taken the time to investigate them. And here we are, one hundred fifty-five years later, still puzzled--and more than a little spooked--by the Devil’s Footprints.
What do I think it was that made the Devil’s Footprints that night? To answer that question, I have to imagine that I am the farmer who discovered the tracks in the snow, and who followed them to his barn, and who looked with amazement as they continued up the side of the barn and across the rooftop. If I was that farmer, I would be familiar with all kinds of animal tracks, and having lived through decades of winters, I would also have been familiar with the look of tracks that thawed slightly and then froze over.
When I try to answer the question of who or what made the tracks, I also imagine that I am one of the town residents who followed the hoofprints right to the edge of a 14-foot high stone wall where they stopped, only to appear on the other side.
When trying to answer the question of who or what made the tracks, I also imagine that I’m one of the people who opened their second or third story window that morning to look at the footprints in the snow far below, only to find that they were also imprinted in the snow on their windowsill.
When I put myself in the shoes of the people who witnessed the Devil’s Footprints that cold, glistening morning, I can only think that whatever made them was not of this earth. I believe that something inhuman walked across Devon in the middle of the snowstorm that night, leaving hoofprints in the snow.
One theory that I would like to propose is that the Devil’s Footprints might have been made by the same creature that was seen in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966 known as The Mothman. Witnesses described the Mothman as a seven-foot tall flying man with large, glowing red eyes and ten-foot wings. There were reports that the creature left “strange footprints”, though these were never photographed or even described. But a Mothman-like creature who could both walk and fly could very well have made the hoofprints in the snow in Devon the night of February 8, 1855. Such a creature could walk across rooftops, could fly over walls and haystacks, and could leave tracks that start in one part of a field, and resume a great distance later. I would be curious to know if there are any legends of such a creature in England.
I’ve know about the story of the Devil’s Footprints so many years, and it has left such an impression on me, that to this day on the morning after each snowfall, I have to admit that I find myself half expecting--half hoping--to find a line of mysterious hoofprints running in a straight line across my backyard; over the snow covered wheelbarrow, over the roof of the shed, running on and on, and disappearing into the distance.