Even for England’s dreary standards, the winter of 1855 was particularly bleak. From January right through to March, temperatures hovered around freezing, creating colder conditions than anything experienced in living—and for that matter recorded—memory. While it was naturally worse in the North, the southwest, coastal region of Devon fared no better during the great freeze. Two of the region’s rivers—the Exe and the Teign—froze over entirely in parts; becoming the scenes of spur-of-the-moment children’s games and remarkably well-attended makeshift feasts.
But in spite of such festivities, there was still a palatable chill in the air, especially in early February when the region was inundated with some of the heaviest snowfall. Night after night the snow piled up, blanketing the usually lush countryside in a thin, powder coat. Eventually, the snowfall ceased, but its chill still lingered in the air. That is at least until the morning of February 9, when Devon’s residents woke up to find something far more chilling on the ground.
During the course of the night, an extraordinary trail of hoof prints appeared across the length and breadth of the county in a mysterious event known as the “Great Devon Mystery”. They were reported in over 30 settlements, particularly in the South and East of the region, and there were also accounts of mysterious hoof prints from a couple of villages in the neighboring county of Dorset.
In size, shape, and the direction they were traveling in, they defied the laws of nature and physics. Many of the prints were in the shape of a cloven hoof, a little like that of a donkey, and measured four inches long and three inches wide. What suggested that they weren’t the prints of a donkey was that they progressed in a straight, single line, one after another, with a distance of between eight to 16 inches between each.
The prints weren’t just found trodden into the soft snow on the ground. In the countryside, they left their mark on the frozen lakes and rivers, clambered over haystacks, and vanished through small holes in thickets and hedges only to appear abruptly and impossibly on the other side. Still more disturbingly, in towns and villages they crossed rooftops, leapt over walls—one as high as 14 feet (4.2 metres)—and made their way from door to door.
The fact that the prints went from door to door was particularly interesting. It mirrored a biblical story from the Book of Exodus (12:12-13) known commonly as the “Plague on the Firstborn.” In the story, God addresses Moses and tells him that on an appointed night he will visit Egypt and “strike down” every first born, be it human or animal. Yet for reasons unknown, God needs some help telling the Egyptians and the Israelites apart. So he tells Moses to paint the doors of Israelite houses with lambs’ blood, so when he does the night’s murderous rounds he’ll be sure to pass over them (or, this being the Old Testament God, pass them over).