The Curious Case Of The Devil’s Footprints

On the morning of the 9th February 1855, residents of Devon awoke to inexplicable footprints in the snow stalking the land, marking rooftops and crossing rivers.

Coined The Devil’s Footprints, or The Devil’s Hoofmarks, the mysterious hoof-like imprints were supposedly found to sweep a trail of up to 100 miles, and they didn’t stick to the ground; they were said to have scaled rooftops and climbed up drainpipes. They were even undeterred by solid objects such as haystacks or walls. Word travelled fast that it was Satan himself seeking sinners.

The cloven hoof shape of The Devil’s Footprints were said to resemble those of a donkey, but remarkably the prints were in single file, suggesting they were not left by a four-legged animal. The prints measured about 3 inches wide and 4 inches long with the spaces between them measuring around 8 to 16 inches apart.

One aspect that had people scratching their heads was how irregular the footprints were. Accounts detail them skipping over areas or jumping from one place to another. Alongside the rooftops and either side of the River Exe, there were also solitary prints in fields, with no obvious way of getting there without leaving other prints.

An article in The Times on the 16th February 1855 described the event as “A vast number of foot tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go as far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself.”

Whilst many believed the footprints were the work of the Devil, there were other theories regarding this mystery. One suggests that some of the prints that were not as erratic as others were hoaxes or even protests relating to the local Churches.

There have been several types of animals suggested as possible sources of the footprints such as cats, hares, mice and badgers. Donkeys and horses were also considered but could not account for any of the rooftop prints. Birds have often been suggested too, especially as flight would account for the gaps in the prints. There are anomalies for each species however, meaning none fit exactly.

Author Geoffrey Household suggested that 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.

Another explanation could simply be a case of ‘Chinese Whispers’; that word spread quickly and as with any rumour, it slowly developed each time it was passed along to the point it was on a much grander scale than the initial event, generating mass hysteria about the hoof print’s origins.

Writer Mike Dash proposed that none of the theories, the Devil excluded, could on its own account for all the marks in just one night. He says that it is more likely to have been a combination of several different factors, perhaps including those already suggested.

A lack of evidence and witnesses means it’s unlikely we will ever know the true source of The Devil’s Footprints. What we do know, however, is that without a definitive answer, some people will always believe it was Satan wandering Devon on that snowy night in 1855.