Footprints in the News

Modern day example of devil's footprints in snowAlthough documentation is sketchy, we do know that something extremely strange occurred in Topsham England on 02/07/1855.  Townspeople were shocked when they awoke to find unexplained footprints covering their yards, gardens, streets, and even roofs of their homes.  Although other reports of unknown tracks are known to exist, this incident proved to be most unexplainable.  The Times of London printed the following article on February 16, 1855.

Considerable sensation has been evoked in he towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish, in the south of Devon, in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted on from the pulpit.

It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighborhoods of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places – on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the footprints were not observed.

The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey’s shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) tow and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the center remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex [concave?].

The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor. On Sunday lat the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested that possibility of the footprints being those of a kangaroo,; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.

At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors after night.

This strange incident occurred in Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish.  Most of the details came from readers to the editors of the Illustrated London News.  Strangely, most of the newspapers failed to report on the incident until almost a week later.


The Tracks

Report of Devil's Foortpints in The Illustrated London News - February 24, 1855The tracks covered a 100-mile course zigzagging from Topsham southward to the town of Totnes.  Each of the prints were exactly 8 1/2 inches apart and measured 4 inches long by 2 3/4 inches wide.  The prints were U-shaped.  Some indicate that the tracks had a split in the middle indicating a cloven hoof.  The prints were made in-line with each other further indicating that they were made by a 2-legged animal.  Each of the prints were extremely clear, as if they had been ‘branded’ into the snow (could this have been caused by freezing rain on top of the new snow?).

Townspeople immediately set out to discover the culprit.  Toting clubs, rakes, and other weapons, the people set off to find the monster that created the footprints.

The tracks appeared to follow no certain course.  In one case they led right up to a 12 foot wall, ended abruptly, and continued on the other side!  The snow at the top of the wall was not disturbed and a small gate on the wall was locked and secure.


In another instance the tracks led up to the Exe River (near the Powdersham Castle) where they suddenly ended.  On the other side the tracks continued as if the creature had swam (or walked) across the river.  This would have been quite a feat given the fact that at this point in the river, it was considered a ‘bay’ and was actually over 2 miles wide.  Of course details are sketchy on the entire incident so could it have been possible that the river was frozen at this time?

In another instance the tracks ended at the entry of a drain pipe and reappeared at the other end as if the animal had somehow passed through the pipe.

There were even reports that the tracks actually went up walls, sides of barns, and over houses.  Townspeople were baffled as they followed the tracks that crisscrossed through cemeteries, in popular town squares, in people’s yards, over snow covered wagons, and in same cases led right up to people’s doors were they stopped and continued on in another direction (including back-tracking on top of themselves).


Theories Abound

One local clergyman thought he knew the answer.  He claimed that the tracks were the footprints of the devil.  He believed this event occurred due to the waning morals of the local people and that the occurrence served as a warning to all to change their ways.

Of course, others produced more believable theories.  Sir Richard Owens suggested that the prints were those of a badger (even though he never actually saw the prints and created his theory on the description he heard from others).  Other theories included rabbits, birds, otters, and rats.

One of the most believable theories came from Geoffrey Household who edited a book that contained all of the newspaper correspondence collected concerning the incident.

I think that Devenport Dockyard released, by accident, some sort of experimental balloon, and trailed 2 shackles on the end of ropes. The impressions left in the snow by these shackles went up the sides of houses, over haystacks, etc. A major Carter, a local man, tells me that his grandfather worked at Devenport at the time, and that the whole thing was hushed up because the balloon destroyed a number of conservatories, greenhouses, windows, etc. He says the balloon finally came down in Honiton.

But even this theory is difficult to prove.  If a wondering balloon were responsible for the tracks, how do we explain the fact that the tracks covered much of the territory scrambling all over the place.  A balloon would indeed tend to follow a much straighter path.  Besides, the tracks followed a North to South path and not surprisingly, the prevailing winds at that time were from East to West…


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