Considerable sensation has been evoked in the towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish, in the south of Devon, in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted on from the pulpit.
It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot-prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places—on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the foot-prints were not observed.
The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the centre remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex.
The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor. On Sunday last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the foot-prints being those of a kangaroo; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.
At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors after night.
The drawing submitted by ‘South Devon’ shows a trail of clear hoof prints, each an exact facsimile, as if made by some tiny animal whose feet were shod. Such clear and regular prints seldom occur, since irregularities in the ground or snow cause variations in size and shape. One is tempted to think that the observer in this instance did not draw what he actually saw, but rather what he wanted to see – the hoof-marks of Satan. This is understandable, since a common human failing in most of us is to let a preconceived notion mar our judgement.
Another drawing which I examined, by a correspondent signed ‘GMM’, has given me a clue to a possible solution to this mystery. It shows a carefully drawn set of tracks, each of irregular shape, and roughly ‘V-shaped’ in contour. This is precisely what a small hopping animal would produce in snow, and there is only one British animal small enough to fit the Devon trails – the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus).
It was during a search for snow tracks in Epping Forest, in the severe winter of 1962– 3, that I came across dozens of trails of the wood mouse, each consisting of small ‘V- shaped’ marks regularly spaced out and conforming to the measurements which were given a hundred years ago. When I found them I was totally unaware of their significance (Animals, 18th February 1964).
In the intense cold and silence of the forest, what could have been a better setting for the return of the mysterious Devon visitor. In this case, however, the mischievous little rodents were playing the Devil at his own game!
|from David Sealy's article, Trailing the Devil, Skeptical Intelligencer 6, page 15|
But rational explantations are not welcomed by some individuals and still the discussion rumbles on in websites run by mystics, without even a mention of Leutscher’s interpretation from evidence firmly based on his knowledge gained as a field naturalist.
Finally, a couple of camera trap photographs from the bottom of our garden. When we next get snow (an uncommon occurrence here) I shall be watching t see what tracks they leave.