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.
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
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papers were tracings or sketches of the tracks themselves, as well as a letter to The Illustrated London News marked "not for publication."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.
Skeptics Theorize That At Least Some Of The Hoofprints Were A Hoax
Since the prints in Devon were so numerous and covered such a broad area, multiple sources were likely responsible. This is one of the underlying tenets of skeptics who claim at least some of the hoofprints were likely the work of hoaxers, if the marks existed at all.
As Brian Dunning points out on the hoofprints' episode of the Skeptoid podcast, the very length of the trails discredits the notion that any one source could possibly have seen all the tracks. "In 1855, the means didn't really exist in Devon to travel 100 miles in a single day to verify the length of this track, especially when the way is obstructed by two-mile stretches of water," Dunning said.
In detailing the various fantastic properties of the footprints, Dunning reaches what he considers a foregone conclusion: "...is there really any reason to believe that this happened?"
Mice, Kangaroos, And Badgers Have Also Been Blamed For The Footprints
Skeptics have attempted to advance a pantheon of reasonable explanations for the Devil's Footprints. One popular theory claims that kangaroos or wallabies loosed themselves from a nearby private owner, possible a Mr. Fische.
As Brian Dunning points out on the Skeptoid podcast, "kangaroo tracks were almost certainly unfamiliar to residents of England in 1855."
Other theories include badgers, field mice - who often hop in snow, leaving distinctive V-shaped tracks - unusual weather conditions, or perhaps more likely, a combination of different elements. Some skeptics simply dismiss the entire incident as a hoax or "mass hysteria."
Mike Dash, a Welsh writer and historian, proposed that the tracks were made by several different animals, though he conceded at the end of his study that his solutions did not explain all of the tracks' elements, and they are still a mystery waiting to be solved.