Hoofprints of the Devil Spotted in the Snow?
On Feb. 9, 1855, in the county of Devon, England, residents were mystified when they awoke to find strange tracks in the snow—tracks unlike any animal tracks they’d seen before. As groups of people across multiple villages spanning some 40 to 100 miles followed the tracks, curiosity turned to a mounting sense of horror and dread.
Some 4–5 inches long and in the shape of cloven hooves, they went up walls, across rooftops, from one side of objects inexplicably through to the other side. They seemed to sink so low in the snow, it’s almost as though they were hot and seared their way through. At spots, the tracks seemed to disappear, only to reappear some ways off, as though the being that made them had flown for a short stretch. The single-file prints suggested a biped.
In some villages, it seemed the maker of the tracks had visited nearly every home.
Was it animals? Was it a case of mass hysteria? Was it a trick played by some mischief-makers? Was it, as many believed, the Devil himself? No one really knows. Let’s take a look at the accounts, the evidence, and the possibilities.
Pope Silvester II. and the Devil. Illustration from Cod. Pal. germ. 137, Folio 216v Martinus Oppaviensis, Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum (public domain)
The most extensive modern investigation of the so-called Devil’s Hoofmarks was undertaken by Mike Dash, an editor for Fortean Times. He collected all primary documents available, including tracings of the prints made by witnesses, the accounts collected by Reverend H.T. Ellacombe, who was vicar of the parish of Clyst St. George in East Devon from 1850 to 1885, newspaper articles from the time, and more.
Tracing of the “Devil’s Hoofmarks” by Mr. D’Urban of Clyst St. Mary in Devon, England, reproduced in the Illustrated London News.
Tracing of the “Devil’s Hoofmarks,” included in the papers collected by Reverend H.T. Ellacombe, who was vicar of the parish of Clyst St. George in Devon, England, from 1850 to 1885.
Tracing of the “Devil’s Hoofmarks” by G.M.M of Withecombs Raleigh, Exmouth, Devon, England, reproduced in the Illustrated London News.
Tracing of the “Devil’s Hoofmarks,” sent in a letter by Reverend G.M. Musgrave from Exmouth, East Devon, included in the papers collected by Reverend H.T. Ellacombe.
He wrote in a paper titled “The Devil’s Hoofmarks” : “On the whole it appears that a considerable majority of the people who might have been expected to be familiar with all manner of trails left by the local wildlife, were puzzled and in many cases scared by these tracks and by the places in which they were discovered.”
Reverend H.T. Ellacombe (1790–1885)
Nonetheless, it seems that at least some of the tracks attributed to the Devil may have been made by animals. The night of Feb. 8 was an unusually cold one. But a thaw is said to have occurred partway through. The snow melted a little, then froze again when the temperatures dropped once more. This can distort animal prints, and some of the prints may have been made by hares hopping (the two hind feet can leave prints that may be mistaken for cloven hooves in single-file), or some other small animal. Claw marks were reportedly seen in some of the prints, suggesting little animal feet instead of hooves. In one account, the prints went through a drain pipe 6 inches in diameter. But, some of the other prints seem to defy this explanation and it may be that these regular animal prints were scrutinized alongside prints of a more mystifying nature.
In Exmouth, a port town in East Devon, a witness named W. Courthope Forman said: “The footprints came up the front garden to within a few feet of the house, stopped abruptly, and began again at the back within a few feet of the building.” Others made similar comments about the prints crossing garden walls and other objects. In one case, the prints stopped on one side of a haystack and resumed on the other, without leaving a trace on top that anything had moved across it. Dash wrote: “Indeed the problem with assessing all the reports of prints found in strange places is a lack of full descriptions of their precise situation.”
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The ‘Devil's Hoofprint’ on Broadfleet Bridge in Pilling ( Wikimedia Commons )