The Devil’s Footprints is a name given to a phenomenon that occurred in February 1855 around the Exe Estuary in East Devon and South Devon, England. After a heavy snowfall, trails of hoof-like marks appeared overnight in the snow covering a total distance of some 40 to 100 miles. The footprints were so called because some people believed they were the tracks of Satan, as they were allegedly made by a cloven hoof. Many theories have been put forward to explain the incident, and some aspects of its veracity have also been called into question.
On the night of 8–9 February 1855 and one or two later nights, after a heavy snowfall, a series of hoof-like marks appeared in the snow. These footprints, most of which measured around four inches long, three inches across, between eight and sixteen inches apart and mostly in a single file, were reported from over thirty locations across Devon and a couple in Dorset. It was estimated the total distance of the tracks amounted to between 40 and 100 miles. Houses, rivers, haystacks and other obstacles were travelled straight over, and footprints appeared on the tops of snow-covered roofs and high walls, which lay in the footprints’ path, as well as leading up to and exiting various drain pipes as small as four inches in diameter. From a news report:
“It appears on Thursday night last, there was a very heavy snowfall in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the South of Devon. On the following morning the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the footmarks of some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the footprints were to be seen in all kinds of unaccountable places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and court-yards, enclosed by high walls and pailings, as well in open fields.”
The area in which the prints appeared extended from Exmouth, up to Topsham, and across the Exe Estuary to Dawlish and Teignmouth. R.H. Busk, in an article published in Notes and Queries in 1890, stated that footprints also appeared further afield, as far south as Totnes and Torquay, and there were other reports of the prints as far away as Weymouth (Dorset) and even Lincolnshire.
There is little first-hand evidence of the phenomenon. The only known documents came to light after the publication in 1950 of an article in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association asking for further information about the event. This resulted in the discovery of a collection of papers belonging to Reverend H. T. Ellacombe, the vicar of Clyst St George in the 1850s. These papers included letters addressed to the vicar from his friends, among them the Reverend G. M. Musgrove, the vicar of Withycombe Raleigh; the draft of a letter to The Illustrated London News marked ‘not for publication’; and several apparent tracings of the footprints.
Over many years the noted researcher Mike Dash collated all the available primary and secondary source material into a paper entitled The Devil’s Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855 which was published in Fortean Studies in 1994.
Many explanations have been put forward for the incident. Some investigators are sceptical that the tracks really extended for over a hundred miles, arguing that no-one would have been able to follow their entire course in a single day. Another reason for scepticism, as Joe Nickell points out, is that the eye-witness descriptions of the footprints varied from person to person.
In his Fortean Studies article, Mike Dash concluded there was no one source for the “hoofmarks”: some of the tracks were probably hoaxes, some were made by “common quadrupeds” such as donkeys and ponies, and some by wood mice. He admitted, though, that these cannot explain all the reported marks and “the mystery remains.”
Author Geoffrey Household suggested “an experimental balloon” released by mistake from Devonport Dockyard had left the mysterious tracks by trailing two shackles on the end of its mooring ropes. His source was a local man, Major Carter, whose grandfather had worked at Devonport at the time. Carter claimed the incident had been hushed up because the balloon also wrecked a number of conservatories, greenhouses, and windows before finally descending to earth in Honiton.
While this could explain the shape of the prints, sceptics have disagreed about whether the balloon could have travelled such a random zigzag course without its trailing ropes and shackles becoming caught in a tree or similar obstruction.
Mike Dash suggested at least some of the prints, including some of those found on rooftops, could have been made by hopping rodents, such as wood mice. The print left behind after a mouse leaps resembles that of a cloven animal, due to the motions of its limbs when it jumps. Dash stated the theory that the Devon prints were made by rodents was originally proposed as long ago as March 1855, in The Illustrated London News.
It is also often suggested the footprints were merely a case of mass hysteria, caused by the sighting of various animal tracks and lumping them together as one.
In a letter to the Illustrated London News in 1855, Rev. G. M. Musgrave wrote: “In the course of a few days a report was circulated that a couple of kangaroos escaped from a private menagerie (Mr. Fische’s, I believe) at Sidmouth.” It seems, though, nobody ascertained whether the kangaroos had escaped, nor how they could have crossed the Exe estuary, and Musgrave himself said he only came up with the story to distract his parishioners’ concerns about a visit from the devil:
I found a very apt opportunity to mention the name of kangaroo, in allusion to the report then current. I certainly did not pin my faith to that version of the mystery … but the state of the public mind of the villagers … dreading to go out after sunset … under the conviction that this was the Devil’s work … rendered it very desirable that a turn should be given to such a degraded and vitiated notion … and I was thankful that a kangaroo … [served] to disperse ideas so derogatory…
—Rev G. M. Musgrove: letter to The Illustrated London News, 3 March 1855.
In July 1855, a ‘Professor Owen’ put forward the theory that the footprints were from a badger, arguing the animal was ‘the only plantigrade quadruped we have in this island’ and it ‘leaves a footprint larger than would be supposed from its size’. The number of footprints, he suggested, were because ‘it is improbable that one badger only should have been awake and hungry’ and added that the animal was ‘a stealthy prowler and most active and enduring in search of food.’