It is 7 February 1855. The whole of England’s South-West has been swept since morning by an appalling tempest. Wind of unheard-of violence is uprooting trees, taking off roofs, blowing down belfries and ripping out gravestones in the cemeteries, leaving tombs open and coffins scattered.
Barricaded inside their houses, the inhabitants of Devonshire are terrified. Some would later say:
“It was an infernal night, the wind was screaming like a thousand witches…”
Suddenly, around five o’clock in the morning, the wind calms, the noise stops and snow begins to fall heavily.
This silence, after the torment, worries all who have not slept a wink that night. One of them would say,
“We had the impression that there was some sort of threat hovering… With my wife who was trembling with fear huddled against me, we were afraid of something supernatural. Everything was really strange that night.”
It is in Blayford that it all unfolds.
Around six o’clock, a high-pitched, terrifying howl suddenly erupts near the village. A dog’s howl which is heard for about a kilometre all around. The good people huddle under their eiderdowns. Then, once again, there is silence.
Around eight o’clock, Dawn breaks and the inhabitants of Blayford fearfully open their shutters. Snow is no longer falling, but the countryside is all white. Many times, the villagers of the little English town have seen this spectacle upon rising and they have always found something marvellous about it. Today, inexplicably, they feel anguish. A woman, unable to clearly explain her unease, would say:
“Bad luck seemed to be floating over us…”
Despite this, that same morning, a farm hand goes to have a look around to see the damage caused by the tempest. He then notices some strange footprints. Footprints of a kind that he has never seen and which correspond to no known animal in the region. They look like a little horse-hoof and pierce the snow with mathematical regularity. The farm hand, very intrigued, follows them across the fields and soon arrives beside the tattered remains of the dog who had howled so atrociously in the early hours of the morning.
He bends over it and notices, stunned,
“that the poor animal had died from wounds which could not have been made by either a man or a beast”…
He runs back to alert the village, saying:
“Come and see! There are some strange footprints.”
The inhabitants of Blayford rush out and see that the farm hand has not lied.
Further, at that same moment, throughout the whole of Devonshire, peasants are discovering the same footprints in the fresh snow.
They extend over more than 160 kilometres.
The journalists of the County of course write about the phenomenon, remarking that the footprints, which are like dots on rigorously straight lines, each measures ten centimetres in length by seven centimetres in width, and that they are very regularly twenty-five centimetres apart… One journalist writes:
“These footprints don’t stop anywhere. Whatever it was, the unknown creature walked on hooves in short, leaping steps, in an inexplicable fashion without stopping nor resting, and it covered here more than thirty kilometres during the tragic night of 7 February, crossing rivers, climbing the walls of several houses and walking on the roofs before finally arriving at the little village cemetery without daring to enter it…”
Zoologists soon come from London to examine these strange prints which remain visible in the frozen snow. None of them manages to identify the animal who had travelled all over South-East England – always in a straight line.
One of them writes a few days later in the Illustrated London News:
“This mysterious visitor generally only passed once down or across each garden or courtyard, and did so in nearly all the houses in many parts of the several towns above mentioned, as also in the farms scattered about; this regular track passing in some instances over the roofs of houses, and hayricks, and very high walls (one fourteen feet [4.50 metres]), without displacing the snow on either side or altering the distance between the feet, and passing on as if the wall had not been any impediment. The gardens with high fences or walls, and gates locked, were equally visited as those open and unprotected.”
Another notes that
“two inhabitants of one community followed a line of prints for three and a half hours, passing under rows of redcurrant bushes and fruit trees in espaliers; losing the prints and finding them again on the roof of houses to which their search had led them”.
Farther on, he adds that these prints
“passed through a circular opening of about thirty centimetres in diameter and inside a drain of 15 cm; finally, they crossed an estuary around 3,500 kilometres wide”…
A third writes:
“These footprints are strange, for the snow is completely removed, as if it has been cut by a diamond or marked by a red-hot iron…”
Naturally, many hypotheses are emitted by both journalists and scholars who study the case. Some are extravagant. Someone suggests that these strange marks could have been made
“by a balloon dragging its tethering ring at the end of a rope”.
But this explanation appears absurd. How could a metal ring tear apart the Blayford dog; and by what miracle could this ring, attached to a balloon blown by the wind, leave perfect prints, disposed in a straight line and regularly distanced at 25 centimetres?…
A journalist suggests that it could be marks left by a kangaroo who had escaped from a menagerie. The zoologists reply that it is extremely rare that kangaroos leap on only one leg, and that they haven’t any hooves, anyway…
Other investigators try to explain the presence of these marks by an atmospheric phenomenon. It is pertinently replied that no-one had ever yet seen an atmospheric phenomenon leave hoof-prints…
Finally, none of the hypotheses emitted having been retained, the newspapers publish the embarrassed words of zoologists, physicists and meteorologists. One of them, Doctor Williamson, goes as far as writing this:
“These millions of prints constitute an absolute enigma. Neither a man, nor an animal, nor a machine is capable of leaving such marks. This phenomenon is inexplicable. Consequently, the best thing, in my opinion, is to forget it.”
A surprising declaration, coming from a scholar.
But the Devonshire peasants do not forget, and they give a name to these mysterious marks: they call them The Devil’s Footprints… A name that is not very scientific of course, but which still remains. And it is by this name that Historians continue to designate them today…
Guy Breton, whose work I have translated, consulted the English Press of the epoch and was able to note that, for two months, February and March 1855, all of the English newspapers published articles, investigations, interviews and sketches on what was called at the time the “mysterious Devonshire holes”. He adds that a number of authors have studied this case. Charles Fort, who called himself an “amateur of the unusual and scribe of miracles”, consecrated a chapter of his Book of the Damned to them, as did Jacques Bergier and the Info group in Le Livre de l’Inexplicable…
They give no explanation and only emit hypotheses. Some speak of sea birds, hailstones, field-mice. But there is no bird, nor field-mouse whose feet end in hooves. As for hailstones, has anyone ever seen any fall in a straight line, twenty-five centimetres apart?… A modern author had another idea: he suggested that these marks could have been left by an extra-terrestrial who landed from a space-ship… Guy Breton says that he is not hostile a priori to this kind of explanation, but that this person would have had a strange way of walking. On top of which, he must have been very small to have been able to pass through openings of a diameter of thirty centimetres…
So, we come back to Charles Fort’s explanation. He said with humour:
“These prints could only have been made by a thousand one-legged kangaroos wearing a very small horseshoe…”
In other words, we don’t know.
There have been some absolutely identical marks left in Scotland in 1839, in the Kerguelen Islands in 1840, in the United States in 1908, in Belgium in 1945 and in Brazil in 1954… So, you see, the Devil walks around his estates. After all, he is called the Prince of this World…