What would they have seen?Among the world's great mysteries is the case of the devil's footprints. Unfortunately, the documentation is not entirely satisfactory, but no one disputes that something out of the ordinary took place just after a snowfall on the night of February 78,1855, in Devonshire, England.
As The Tinies of London reported on February 16:
Considerable sensation has been evoked in the 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 neighborhood 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 foot-prints 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) two 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 last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the 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.
The Times had nothing more to say on the subject. The most detailed accounts, in fact virtually the only detailed accounts, are to be found in letters to the editor of Illustrated London News from locals who reported on what they saw, heard about, or believed about the enigmatic prints, which covered some 100 miles over a zigzag course. Of a general horseshoe shape, each track was, correspondents claimed, exactly eight and a half inches apart.
Then and later theorists would offer all kinds of candidates for print-maker: mouse, rat, swan, rabbit, deer, badger, otter, toad, donkey, and kangaroo. But if the accounts-never investigated by any independent authority-of what the tracks looked like and where they went are accurate, none of these candidates works.
The only other known instance of such tracks was reported by Captain Sir James Clark Ross, commander of two ships which were exploring the southern polar regions and which landed at Kerguelen Island in May 1840. The captain wrote in his Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions (1847), "Of land animals we saw none; and the only traces we could discover of there being any on this island were the singular foot-steps of a pony or ass, found by the party detached for surveying purposes, under the command of Lieutenant Bird, and described by Dr. Robertson as 'being 3 inches in length and 2 1/2 in breadth, having a small and deeper depression on each side, and shaped like a horseshoe.'
"It is by no means improbable that the animal has been cast on shore from some wrecked vessel. They traced its footsteps for some distance in the recently fallen snow, in hopes of getting a sight of it, but lost the tracks on reaching a large space of rocky ground which was free from snow."
Rupert T. Gould asks the obvious question: "One wonders, if they had 'got a sight of it,' what they would have seen."