It was a cold morning on Thursday February 8th 1855 in South Devon. There had been a moderate snowfall the previous night which had ceased around midnight. Those early to rise in the villages (as they were then) along the Exe estuary were greeted with a shocking and frightening surprise; footprints, or rather hoof prints, “burnt” into the snow.
From Exmouth they stretched to Topsham, crossed the River and continued to Dawlish and Teignmouth. Reports later surfaced that they continued towards Totnes; that is a journey of 100 miles between the Exe and Dart estuaries.
The prints were maddening; they traversed the country without any thought of the obstacles in their way. If they led to a house, the prints traversed the roof to appear on the other side. Likewise haystacks and high walls (some 14 feet high) were no obstacle and, strangely enough, neither were narrow pipes (some only 4 inches in diameter). It mattered not, the footprints were at either end; as if their maker had squeezed through them.
Local Clergymen were quick to point the finger at Satan, scouring Devon for the souls of sinners to claim as his own, and urged repentance and full church pews as a remedy. It would be easy to put this down to the superstitions of rural folk, but even those of an empirical bent joined the feeling of general unease.
When the tracks were measured they were worryingly consistent; they were 4 inches long, 3 inches across and 16 inches apart and in single file. They left a trail that could only have been made by a bipedal creature. They were left in virgin snow, there were no tracks around them, making the explanation of the phenomenon as a hoax by pranksters difficult to sustain. Hunting parties followed the tracks on both sides of the Exe without success. Amid the ensuing hysteria, reports were made of sightings of a “devil-like” figure.
For two days the area was awash with fear and rumour, as the locals wondered whether the strange nocturnal visitation would return. The story was taken up by the papers and relayed far and wide, in Britain and beyond. The following report was published in Bell’s Life in Sydney& Sporting Reviewer 26th May 1855:
“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.”
As the story spread a number of theories were put forward. The eminent Victorian biologist and founding father of palaeontology, Sir Richard Owen, suggested them to be caused by foraging badgers; the distinctive hoof shape being caused by freeze-thaw action. Other suggestions of their cause were swans, a hot air balloon trailing a rope, even hopping wood mice!
The papers settled on the theory suggested by the Rev. Musgrave, in a letter to the London Illustrated News, that the tracks were caused by escaped kangaroos from a private zoo in Sidmouth, owned by a Mr Fische. However it was never ascertained whether Mr Fische had actually lost some animals from his collection, or indeed how the kangaroos had managed to cross the River Exe.
To add to the mystery, after the local hysteria had died down, Rev Musgrave later retracted his statement to the paper:
“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. Musgrave: letter to The Illustrated London News, 3 March 1855
Perhaps if such a phenomena occurs again, 21st Century science can be applied to explain their cause, or perhaps a blank will be drawn, as what happened over 150 years ago. Surely the cause couldn’t have really have been diabolic… could it?
Rob Bayliss - the Review