The Devil’s Footprints of Devon is one of the most enduring mysteries in the county’s history, and despite multiple attempts to solve or explain what happened we are still no nearer to understanding the disturbing phenomenon.
The mystery is so strange and so intriguing it inspired a film, Dark Was the Night, which explored what the reaction would be if it happened today.
Similar stories have been told around the world, but none on such a huge scale as was seen in Devon on the snowy night of February 8 to February 9, 1855.
On the morning of February 9 people across Devon woke to find a trail of hoof-like marks in the snow. Each print was four inches long and three inches wide, and each step was eight to 16 inches apart.
The trail was reported from 30 locations across Devon, an unbroken line that carried on across the roof tops of houses, crossed rivers, mounted high walls and carried on across haystacks.
The trail was even reported to lead into and exit pipes as narrow as four inches across.
All told the trail of hoof prints in the snow stretched for 100 miles across the county, and it quickly spread that the Devil had walked over Devon that night.
The trail stretched across the Exe Estaury in East Devon and right across the south of the county, with hoof prints found in deep snow.
A news report at the time read: “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 above towns 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 pailings, as well in open fields.”
The prints ran from Exmouth to Topsham and across the Exe estaury, then on to Dawlish and Teignmouth, also taking in Totnes and Torquay.
In 1950 letters and drawings from the 1850s detailing the mystery were uncovered for the first time. Several priests had written to the Revered H T Ellacombe, the vicar of Clyst St George, detailing the phenomena in various Devon parishes.
A letter had also been written to the Illustrated London News, with tracings of the footrpints.
Those who do not believe the devil marched in Devon that night have put forward various ideas as to what caused the strange marks.
Some say the incident never happened at all, and others that it was a hoax.
Some say the marks were made by horses and ponies, or even mice and rats jumping across the snow. They say mass hysteria saw people share a story which became wilder and wilder, linking incidents which had no real connection.
Author Geoffrey Household said he had been told by the grandson of a man who worked at Devonport Dockyard in 1855 that an experimental balloon escaped from the military base on that night.
He said shackles at the end of two ropes would have left the marks as they dropped repeatedly into the snow – and the incident was hushed up as the balloon left a trail of destruction before crashing in Honiton.
Sceptics say the balloon would not have followed the unusual trail the prints let, and ropes would have caught in trees.
In the summer of 1855 Professor Owen claimed the prints were left by a hungry badger.
Whatever the truth, the story has become firmly imprinted in the folklore of Devon, and is known around the world.
What is Dark Was The Night?
Dark Was the Night (released as Monster Hunter in the UK) is a 2014 American thriller film directed and produced by Jack Heller, and written by Tyler Hisel. It stars Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, and Bianca Kajlich
In the forest near the small isolated town of Maiden Woods a team of loggers goes inexplicably missing. Unable to contact them the Foreman goes searching for them, finding only a logger’s severed arm. He is then violently killed by an unseen creature.
Sheriff Paul Shields and his new deputy Donny Saunders from New York speak to farmer Ron who insists one of his valuable horses has been stolen.
The next morning Paul finds large footprints in the snow around his house that appear to come from an animal with hooves that walks on two legs. Donny informs him the footprints are around everybody’s houses in the entire town. Paul and Donny follow the footprints into the woods where they also find large claw marks on the trees where the footprints disappear. After hearing from Park rangers that no known animal with hooves could walk such a distance, Paul later hears from the town priest that his dog and a lot of other animals have gone missing…