The Devil’s Footprints

On the night of February 8th of 1855, a snowstorm blanketed most of Devon, England. When residents awoke the next morning, they were shocked to discover that some unknown creature had left a trail of footprints in a more or less straight line that covered some 100 miles of the white landscape. The resemblance of the prints to a cloven hoof led some of the local clergy to proclaim that the Devil had made them, and thus the legend of the Devil’s Footprints was born.

 

The prints, strange U-shaped marks approximately 2 inches in width and roughly eight inches apart, were described as having proceeded across the Devonshire countryside with an apparent great sense of purpose – they crossed open country, streams, a two-mile stretch of a river, roads, and even rooftops with few deviations from their straight path. Some of the prints looked as if they had even gone through narrow drainpipes! Residents were shocked and frightened, and groups of men gathered arms and went hunting for the creature that could have made them – to no avail; eventually, the melting snow caused the footprints to disappear and no convincing explanation was ever found for them.

A Sensation in the UK

The story quickly became a major sensation in the British press. Many possible explanations were offered in the days following the appearance of the Devil’s Footprints. Predictably, many varieties of animals were identified as the culprits, from foxes and squirrels to mice; an eminent biologist of the time, Sir Richard Owen, examined sketches of the prints and pronounced them to be the work of a badger. A report that kangaroos had escaped from a local private zoo added to the confusion.

Unexplainable Footprints

There were many holes in these explanations, however. The greatest of these lay in the fact that 100 miles of tracks couldn’t have been made by any of these animals in the time between the end of the snowfall around midnight and their initial discovery at around 6 AM. In addition, the layout of the tracks in a straight line suggested that, if the tracks were indeed made by a creature of some sort, it would have been walking upright like a human or other biped. The fact that the creature seemed to have been able to leap over walls and cross rooftops without being detected also argued against the animal candidates. As for the kangaroos, the tracks did not appear to resemble anything like a kangaroo’s prints.

 

While the suggestions that the prints were made by some sort of animal were popular, there were other ideas floated at the time and in the years since. One theory suggests that a weather balloon may have gotten loose and traveled over the countryside, dragging a rope behind it; the bouncing of the rope as it trailed behind the floating balloon left the marks in the snow. This does explain how the marks could have been found on rooftops and appear to cross the rivers; however, it seems unlikely that this could have produced a straight and even line of marks.

 

The most commonly accepted rational explanation for the Devil’s Footprints is that there was no actual straight line of similar tracks. Instead, people saw a wide variety of marks and interpreted them as being similar while under the spell of a sort of mass hysteria. However, the real answer to the question of the Devil’s Footprints will likely never be known –unless, of course, it happens again.

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