On the night of 8–9 February 1855 and one or two later nights, after a heavy snowfall, a series of hoof-like marks appeared in the snow. These footprints, most of which measured around four inches long, three inches across, between eight and sixteen inches apart and mostly in a single file, were reported from over thirty locations across Devon and a couple in Dorset. It was estimated that the total distance of the tracks amounted to between 40 and 100 miles. Houses, rivers, haystacks and other obstacles were travelled straight over, and footprints appeared on the tops of snow-covered roofs and high walls which lay in the footprints' path, as well as leading up to and exiting various drain pipes as small as four inches in diameter. From a news report:
"It appears on Thursday night last, there was a very heavy snowfall 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 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."
The area in which the prints appeared extended from Exmouth, up to Topsham, and across the Exe Estuary to Dawlish and Teignmouth. R.H. Busk, in an article published in Notes and Queries in 1890, stated that footprints also appeared further afield, as far south as Totnes and Torquay, and that there were other reports of the prints as far away as Weymouth (Dorset) and even Lincolnshire.
There were also attendant rumours about sightings of a "devil-like figure" in the Devon area during the scare. Many townspeople armed themselves and attempted to track down the beast responsible, without success.
There is little first-hand evidence of the phenomenon. The only known documents came to light after the publication in 1950 of an article in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association asking for further information about the event. This resulted in the discovery of a collection of papers belonging to Reverend H. T. Ellacombe, the vicar of Clyst St George in the 1850s. These papers included letters addressed to the vicar from his friends, among them the Reverend G. M. Musgrove, the vicar of Withycombe Raleigh; the draft of a letter to The Illustrated London News marked 'not for publication'; and several apparent tracings of the footprints.
Over many years the noted researcher Mike Dash collated all the available primary and secondary source material into a paper entitled The Devil's Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855 which was published in Fortean Studies in 1994.
Many explanations have been put forward for the incident. Some investigators are sceptical that the tracks really extended for over a hundred miles, arguing that no-one would have been able to follow their entire course in a single day. Another reason for skepticism, as Joe Nickell points out, is that the eye-witness descriptions of the footprints varied from person to person.
In his Fortean Studies article, Mike Dash concluded that there was no one source for the "hoofmarks": some of the tracks were probably hoaxes, some were made by "common quadrupeds" such as donkeys and ponies, and some by wood mice (see below). He admitted, though, that these cannot explain all the reported marks and "the mystery remains".
Reports of similar anomalous, obstacle-unheeded footprints exist from other parts of the world, although none is of such a scale as that of the case of the Devil's Footprints. This example was reported 15 years earlier in The Times:
Among the high mountains of that elevated district where Glenorchy, Glenlyon and Glenochay are contiguous, there have been met with several times, during this and also the former winter, upon the snow, the tracks of an animal seemingly unknown at present in Scotland. The print of the foot in every respect is an exact resemblance of that of a foal of considerable size, with this small difference perhaps, that the sole seems a little longer or not so round; but, as no one has had the good fortune as yet to have obtained a glimpse of this creature, nothing more can be said of its shape or dimensions; only it has been remarked, from the depth to which the feet sunk in the snow, that it must be a beast of considerable size; it has been observed also, that its walk is not like that of the generality of quadrupeds, but that it is more like the bounding or limping of a hare when not scared or pursued. It is not in one locality only that its tracks have been met with, but through a range of at least twelve miles...
—The Times, 14 March 1840, page 1.
In the Illustrated London News of 17 March 1855, a correspondent from Heidelberg wrote, "upon the authority of a Polish Doctor in Medicine", that on the Piaskowa-góra (Sand Hill), a small elevation on the border of Galicia, but in Congress Poland, such marks are to be seen in the snow every year, and sometimes in the sand of this hill, and "are attributed by the inhabitants to supernatural influences".
On the night of 12 March 2009, marks claimed to be similar to those left in 1855 were found in Devon. In 2013 trails were reported in Girvan, Scotland possibly as part of an April Fool's hoax.
The mysterious footprints, which appeared overnight in heavy snowfall in Southern Devon in 1855, have never been adequately explained. According to contemporary reports, they stretched for over a hundred miles, and went through solid walls and haystacks, appearing on the other side as though there was no barrier. The extent of the footprints may have been exaggerated at the time, and they may have been the result of freak atmospheric conditions. But in truth the 'footprints', if that is what they were, still remain a complete mystery.
On the night of the 8th of February 1855, heavy snowfall blanketed the countryside and small villages of Southern Devon. The last snow is thought to have fallen around midnight, and between this time and around 6.00am the following morning, something (or some things) left a myriad of tracks in the snow, stretching for a hundred miles or more, from the River Exe, to Totnes on the River Dart.
The early risers were the first to find them, strange hoof-shaped prints in straight lines, passing over rooftops, through walls and covering huge areas of land. A set of the prints were even supposed to have bridged a two mile span of the river Exe, continuing on the other side as if the creature had walked over the water.
It soon became clear that the phenomenon was widespread, and some of the more scientifically minded examined the prints in detail. One naturalist sketched some of the marks, and measured the distance between them, it was found to be eight and a half inches. This spacing seemed to be consistant wherever the tracks were measured. It was also noted that the way in which they were set out, one in front of the other, suggested a biped rather than a creature walking on four legs.
Some clergymen suggested that the prints belonged to the Devil, who was roaming the countryside in search of sinners (a great ploy to fill the churches), while others rejected the idea as superstition. It is true that a feeling of unease had spread through some of the population, who watched carefully to see if the strange footprints would return. They did not and after a couple of days the news spread out of Devon and made the national press. The phenomena sparked correspondence in some of the leading papers including the Times and the Illustrated news. This brought more accounts to light, and led to a plethora of speculation by eminent scientists and lay men alike.
It seems that most of the Southern villages of Devon, from Totnes to Topsham, had been inundated with the prints in all manner of absurdities. Some stopped abruptly and continued after a large break, others stopped at walls as high as 14 feet, only to continue on the other side, leaving untouched snow on the top of the wall. Some were even said to have travelled through narrow apertures such as drainpipes.
The papers picked up that some kangaroos had escaped from a private Zoo belonging to a Mr Fische at Sidmouth, but the tracks description bears no resemblance to the tracks a kangaroo would leave. Sir Richard Owen, the eminent Biologist, suggested that the tracks were made by badgers, roaming the countryside in search of food. He explained the strange shape of the prints as the result of freeze-thaw action. This explanation only holds as much ground as the other theories given at the time, these included roaming racoons, rats, swans, otters and the theory that a hot air balloon passed over head trailing a rope. These could explain some of the tracks made that night, but certainly not all of them, unless all of the above were to blame in separate occurrences.
There are similar scattered cases from other parts of the world and also one written account in Britain. According to Ralph of Coggeshall, (who also recorded strange arial phenomena during his era) a writer from the 13th Century, on the 19th of July 1205 strange hoof print appeared after a violent electrical storm. In mid July these tracks would only be visible in the soft earth, and the electrical storm suggests some kind of natural phenomenon as yet unknown.
The Devil's Footprints remain an intriguing mystery that will only truly be solved if the phenomenon happens again and can be examined more closely.