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The Strange Phenomenon Of ‘The Devil’s Footprints’ That Stumped England In 1855

One cold winter morning in 1855, the residents of Devon, England, woke to a strange sight. Snow had blanketed the ground overnight, and crisscrossing the white countryside were sets of mysterious tracks. While they appeared to be left by hooves, they dotted the snow in a single-file line, like an animal walking on two legs, placing one hoof in front of the other. What's more, these strange tracks ran for miles, crossing places where no normal animal could reach.

This wasn't the only one of Devon's strange occurrences, but for decades, the so-called "Devil's Footprints" have perplexed both skeptics and believers alike. While Devon is perhaps the most popular instance of Devil's Footprints, similar incidents have occurred throughout history and around the world.

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  • Mysterious Cloven Hoofprints Appeared In Over 30 Locations Across The English Countryside

    The bizarre footprints that appeared on Devon's snowy countryside followed no discernable path, and they appeared in more than 30 different locations all over the town's south and east ends. They meandered across dozens of miles, even leading up to people's doorsteps, frightening the residents.

    Most unusual, however, was the fact that they reached places no animal could go - over house roofs and haystacks, through barns, up walls, across the frozen Exe Estuary, and even through pipes no more than four inches in diameter.

  • The Total Distance Of The Tracks Was Between 40 And 100 Miles

    While later accounts of similar phenomena have been limited in scope, Devon's "Devil's Footprints" covered up to 100 miles of land, reaching as far as Topsham, Dawlish, and Teignmouth. According to some reports, the tracks may also have reached as far south as Totnes and Torquay and as far away as Dorset or Lincolnshire.

    Overall, the strange hoofprints were found spanning an area of anywhere from 40 to 100 miles, making most rational explanations seem implausible.

  • Extreme Weather Perfectly Primed The Terrain For The Hoofprints
    Photo: Unknown / PxHere / Public Domain

    Extreme Weather Perfectly Primed The Terrain For The Hoofprints

    Without a fresh snowfall, the distinctive marks would have been imperceptible to locals. Moreover, while accounts of the snowfall's heaviness seem to vary, most agree not only that the previous night was particularly cold, but that a thaw occurred sometime before morning, which may have allowed animal tracks to become distorted.

    Skeptics often point to this theory to explain the bizarre phenomenon of the Devil's Footprints.

  • Locals Quickly Attributed The Prints To The Devil

    The unexplained tracks shortly acquired the nickname "the Devil's Footprints" or "tracks of Satan," thanks in part to their hoof-like shape. This supernatural implication was aided by the tracks' unexplainable, miles-long path. People came to believe that the "Devil walks in Devon," as newspapers would later claim, and took to staying indoors after dark.

    Some observers even claimed the tracks appeared burned or branded into the snow. This claim was seemingly substantiated in 1957 when an anthropologist and psychical researcher reported hoofprints found on a Devon beach that "looked as if each mark had been cut out of the sand with a flat iron." These 1957 hoofprints were also spaced six feet apart, implying a much longer stride than those reported in 1855.

    Also in 1957, Lynda Hanson wrote to the Fortean Times detailing tracks she found in her parents' garden. Her description matched the Devil's Footprints of 1855 almost exactly, and beneath these tracks, she claimed to see dry concrete, as if the tracks had not just melted the snow, but transformed it.

  • After The Footprints Appeared, Locals Were Too Afraid To Venture Out At Night
    Photo: Ibrahim El-Mezayen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    After The Footprints Appeared, Locals Were Too Afraid To Venture Out At Night

    According to some accounts, people genuinely came to believe the Devil was responsible for the tracks and refused to venture outside after dark. Convinced the Devil was still prowling Devon, they claimed he could "sniff out their sins."

    Further fueling their fears was the manner in which the footprints seemed to approach doorways and then stop, as if the creature responsible was keenly interested in the people on the other side.

  • First-Hand Accounts Of The Event Are Rare And Veiled In Mystery 
    Photo: English Papers 1855 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    First-Hand Accounts Of The Event Are Rare And Veiled In Mystery 

    While some sources claim the phenomenon was widely covered in newspapers at the time, first-hand accounts of the Devil's Footprints were difficult to locate for many years. Not until 1950 did accounts of the event return to the public eye. 

    References to the incident were discovered in records from the former vicar of Clyst St. George. Among these papers were tracings or sketches of the tracks themselves, as well as a letter to The Illustrated London News marked "not for publication." 

    The letter described the tracks as "the perfect impression of a donkey's hoof," but "instead of progressing as that animal would have done (or indeed as any other would have done), feet right and left, it appeared that foot had followed foot in a single line." Furthermore, the letter noted that the tracks were found in multiple parishes and that, in every case, they were the exact same size - about four inches by two inches - and always the same distance apart.

    Several courageous individuals attempted to follow the strange tracks, and some reported strange findings. A story credited to Reverend J. J. Rowe and R. H. Busk claims the pair tried to follow the trail with hounds but, "At last, in a wood, the hounds came back baying and terrified."

    Another report tells of a man who followed the prints to their apparent end, where he found nothing but a toad.