The “Jersey Devil” Whisperer

By Nasser Tufail

At the confluence of the Delaware River, Blacks Creek and Crosswicks Creek in New Jersey, about 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia, is a small town with a population of less than 4,000 called Bordentown.

Comte de Survilliers

English born American political activist, philosopher and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, lived in Bordentown for several years. A lady named Patience Wright also lived here at the beginning of the official birth of USA (1776), creating wax busts for King George’s court in England; she is recognized as America’s first female sculptor. But the most intriguing character who called Bordentown home for over 17 years was a fellow who styled himself ‘Comte de Survilliers’ (Count of Survilliers).

The Count was once an Emperor of a country in Europe for almost 5 years and, after having abdicated his throne (a position he did not particularly wish for; he wanted to be a writer), he stashed all the royal crown jewels,  gold and other valuables in his possession in a suitcase and went into exile in the United States. After spending some time in New York and Philadelphia, he eventually moved to a large estate in Bordentown, New Jersey. Initially on 211 acres of land, it was later expanded to include an additional 1,600 acres on a bluff called “Point Breeze.

The estate also housed the largest collection of books in the country at the time, larger even than the Library of Congress, the largest collection of sculpture and the largest and most valuable collection of paintings in America. The land surrounding the mansion was elaborately landscaped and featured ten miles of carriage paths, rare trees and plants, gazebos, gardens, fountains and a purpose built lake over a half mile long stocked with imported European swans.

Here, he lived a glamorous social life and would entertain such guests as the American statesman, speaker of the house and US Secretary of State, Henry Clay, the future 6th President of the US, John Quincy Adams, another American statesman and US Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, and many other politicians, European and American elite and intellectuals of the day. His estate was considered the “second-finest house” in America, the finest being the White House! The first house looked as shown in this painting, but it caught fire and he ended up building another one, ever grander than this one.

Jersey Devil

At the time the Count of Survilliers was living at his Point Breeze estate near Philadelphia, it was widely accepted in local folklore that a legendary creature was said to inhabit the nearby Pine Barrens area. This creature was often described as a flying biped with cloven hooves and leathery bat-like wings, or a kangaroo-like beast with horns, small arms with clawed hands, a head resembling that of a goat or a horse and a forked tail. It was also reported to move quickly and emit a high-pitched “blood-curdling scream”.

Legends, folklore and fairytales about mythical monsters, animals and other bizarre creatures have captured man’s imagination for centuries – from Minotaurs, Vampires and Werewolves to Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman. In the case of the “Jersey Devil” (also known as Leed’s Devil), one lore had it a British soldier had a love affair with a girl from Leed’s Point, South of Bordentown. In the Battle of Chestnut Neck, the townspeople cursed the girl for allegedly being a “traitor”. That curse was so robust that when the girl gave birth to a child, it turned out to be this screeching monster which came to be known as “Leeds Devil”! Another legend had it that a Mother Leeds was in labor with her 13th child, already burdened with raising a dozen, and when she was in excruciating pain she snapped and yelled, “DAYMN! Let it be the Devil,” as she popped the baby out. Whilst the baby was in the midwife’s arms, it suddenly transformed, growing hooves, bat-wings, a goat’s head, fur and a forked tail and, with a loud screech, just flew out the window (or up the chimney) towards the Pine Barrens. Thus the beastly Jersey Devil was born in 1735! This is what it was supposed to look like, based on the description of those who had seen it.

During his years at Point Breeze, the Count of Survilliers claimed that he had a run-in with the Garden State’s most infamous resident—the Jersey Devil! He professed that he was hunting alone in the woods near his Point Breeze estate when he spotted some peculiar tracks on the ground resembling those of a two-footed donkey, with one foot slightly larger than the other. The tracks ended abruptly as if the creature had flown away, and just at that moment the Count heard a strange hissing noise. As he looked around, he found himself face-to-face with a creature that had a “long neck, wings, legs like a crane with horse’s hooves at the end, stumpy arms with paws, and a face like a horse or a camel.” It hissed once more, beat its wings and flew away.

The Count is said to have been vigilant whenever he was out in the woods and kept a sharp eye out for the fabled Jersey Devil, hoping to kill it and add another crown to the one he once held.

A Committed Adulterer

The Count’s wife, Julie, did not accompany him to America and he did not see her for over two decades after he left Europe. An 18 year old Annette Savage, daughter of a Virginia merchant, would serve the “essential role” of a mistress in Julie’s absence. Over the years, she would bear the Count two daughters, Caroline and Pauline, adding to his brood of three daughters he already had with his wife and two other children from his previous mistress, Maria Giulia, Countess of Atri!

If you have made it this far, you are likely to be wondering who exactly was this “Comte de Survilliers”- Count of Survilliers? Well, he was none other than Joseph Bonaparte, the former King Spain, and brother of Napoleon Bonaparte I (yes, THAT Napoleon, Emperor of France), or ‘un-affectionately’ known by Spaniards as “Pepe Botella”!!

Bonapartes in the US

A couple of notable members of the Bonaparte family born in the US include Jerome-Napoleon Patterson Bonaparte, great-grandnephew of Napoleon, and Charles Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-Nephew. The former was walking his dog in NY Central Park during WW2 days when he tripped over the leash, cracked his skull open on the ground and died. Sad! The latter, ended up becoming the Secretary of the Navy under Theodore Roosevelt, and later the U.S. Attorney General.

As for Joseph Bonaparte’s estate at Point Breeze (now partly owned by Divine World Missionaries), it was unceremoniously demolished by a “fervant Francophobe”, Henry Beckett (‘Beckett the Destroyer’, as he came to be known), British Consul at Philadelphia, to make way for a distinctly inferior villa, which is no longer there either!

Besides the sections of Joseph’s secretary’s house and the gardener’s house, sadly only crumbling or buried remnants remain of the estate – underground foundations; tunnels; docks; some walking paths. And these pillars and a rusted gate at one of the eerie entrances to the estate… were once fit for a King’s chateau.

After living in Point Breeze New Jersey for 17 years, the ‘committed adulterer’, Joseph Bonaparte, took ill and returned to Europe in 1839, and the following year joined his wife, Julie, in Florence, not having seen her in over two decades whilst living with his mistress, as I mentioned above. In spite of Joseph Bonaparte’s numerous adulterous affairs, his wife Julie Clary referred to him as “my beloved husband”. DAYMN… what a wonderful woman… they just don’t make them anymore! I had to offer a ‘Double Fatiha’ (prayer for God’s mercy and blessings for the soul) when I visited her grave at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. There, she lies amongst some great luminaries – Galileo Galilei, Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo and Machiavelli (I know!).

Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: A stunning diamond called Jacob & the Nizam of Hyderabad

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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