When my parents purchased a townhouse in Galloway in the summer of 1989, the Pine Barrens that surrounded it were essentially unknown territory to me. Born and raised in North Jersey, up until then all I knew of the Jersey Devil was that it was the smiling mascot of the professional hockey team that played in the Meadowlands just down the road.
But as we spent more time in South Jersey, I began to hear bits and pieces on the local legends that lived in these woods. People would talk about Leeds Point and a much scarier, non-NHL version of the devil that supposedly lived there. Occasionally I would hear local kids tell tales of crazy and mysterious Piney characters like “The Bobcat” (a former veteran who went mad and would attack people at random) and “The Kruker” (a terrifying soda-drinking child murderer with his own lair/shrine) that could each be found deep in the Pines — should one be foolish enough to go exploring within their boundaries.
But it wasn’t until my brother Sean began attending college at Stockton University in the mid-’90s (back when it was still called Stockton State College) that we really started exploring uncharted roads. On any given Saturday night, we would hop in his trusty purple Honda Civic — a car that lacked any form of four wheel drive or off-roading capabilities— and head out into the sandy dirt roads and foreboding woods in and around Galloway Township.
On our adventures we made Leeds Point a regular late-night stop, and though we never spotted the devil himself, the vibe out there on those lonely roads was enough to keep the hair on the back of our necks standing on end. While all the other kids were hitting up the local haunted houses around Halloween, something about the manufactured nature of those attractions seemed lifeless in comparison to our real-life adventures. We would get out maps and search for roads that seemed to head into the most obscure corners of the region. What could be out there? The mystery of it all was half the fun.
At one point we set out to find Indian Cabin Road — a street that weaved its way through the thick of the Pines, twisting and turning, splitting into forks and dead ends at every turn. On it we spotted some of the most memorable sights of any journey we had taken — a lone grave with a single headstone that contained the bodies of a woman with the last name of Shaler and her three infant children. And a bit further down the road, a compound with a statue of the Virgin Mary that had what appeared to be blood dripping from her eyes. Was it just paint? Maybe … then again, maybe not. Though most folks with any common sense would have stayed as far away as possible from these sights, somehow the mystery behind them was enough to make us return again and again.
That was 25 years ago. This year, instead of writing a Halloween story for A.C. Weekly about a mundane Halloween attraction like a local hayride or a staged haunted house, I called my brother and asked if he would join me on a mission to see if the sites that scared us so much back then were still there today, and if so, were they really as creepy as we remembered?
Exploring (not so) new ground
Ryan: Sean and I decided to make a night out of our journey, and what better way to kick off a creepy trip into the Pines than by stopping in at a few local haunts to get us in the mood?
A friend had tipped us off about a brewery that produced a beer called “Leeds Point Porter” and off we went. Garden State Beer Company sits right on Route 30 in Galloway and the tasting room there made for the perfect beginning to our evening. The beer itself was a tasty robust porter, dark and roasty and perfect for a crisp fall evening. From there we headed to the actual Leeds Point. Finding the Jersey Devil is always a priority on any trip to this area and tonight was no different. We drove down to Scott’s Landing, an offshoot into the Pines before finding our way to Oyster Creek Inn.
Sean: A classic spot nestled along the water next to a series of nearly dilapidated sea shacks, the Oyster Creek Inn oozes down-home charm and is the perfect haven to trade war stories of run-ins with notorious Pine Barrens’ characters such as “The Kruker,” “The Colonel” and “The Bobcat.”
Ryan: We saddled up at the Boat Bar and chatted with a few locals. “Ever see the Jersey Devil?” I asked the man next to me who declined to give his name. “No, but my uncle has,” he replied matter-of-factly. “He almost hit him with his car one night driving on this road right here.”
To my surprise, nobody even flinched at this man’s story. I guess everyone in Leeds Point knows somebody who knows somebody who saw the Jersey Devil at least once. In honor of his tale we ordered up the famous ”Jersey Devil Shrimp” before departing. It was spicy and delicious, but far less menacing and elusive as the character we had heard so many tales of.
The Jersey Devil and his shrimp dish made for a nice appetizer, but it was time to head to the main course, Indian Cabin Road.
Sean: Back in the ‘90s we explored just about every nook and cranny of Atlantic County in an attempt to scare ourselves to death, but out of the countless roads we traveled, Indian Cabin Road has always stood out. Its tales of devil worshippers, child molesters and blood-thirsty Native Americans have been well-documented over the years, but whether you believe them or not, heading down this incredibly dark, narrow, bumpy and isolated road in the middle of the night is a terrifying experience for any sane person.
Ryan: We plotted our route from memory, resulting in plenty of wrong turns along the way before finally finding the start of the road. We didn’t use a GPS because Google Maps is useless in this part of the Pine Barrens. You just have to try a few turns and be fine with being wrong a few times. That’s half the fun anyway.
Sean: Traveling in a big juicy van with its tires rumbling over the rough sandy terrain, there definitely was a certain sense of familiarity and nostalgia. It’s amazing how after all these years, certain nuances of a place can be so vivid that memories snap right back as if you’d just visited last week.
Ryan: I have to agree with my brother on this point. As we made our way down the road, the same familiar feelings came over me from all those years ago. A nervous combination of jittery excitement and fear prevailed, along with a hyper-focused mindset that was both keenly aware that most of this perceived danger was imaginary, yet also raced with what ifs. (What if the van dies and we get stuck out here? What if another car comes down this VERY narrow road and blocks us? What if the stories about The Kruker and The Bobcat are true???)
The environment itself at Indian Cabin Road is desolate and spooky and has a natural ability to conjure up a palpable sense of dread. We forged on as the trail narrowed, while creeping tree limbs overhead touched, interlocking like a trap of shadowy fingers on a thousand pairs of menacing hands.
Sean: The two major sites we were determined to find (if they still existed) were the Shaler Grave and what had been known as the “Satanic Church” compound. As we maneuvered through the twists and turns and past Egg Harbor City Lake, we knew that the compound should be close by. This was a terrifying site where many moons ago we’d stopped for an innocent photo op at the bloody Virgin Mary statue outside and ended up fleeing for our lives as one of the compound’s presumed occupants roared after us in his pickup truck. Sadly, 25 years later all that remained of the once-threatening fortress was a chain blocking off the now-vacant piece of land. The statue and the entire compound had all vanished without a trace, but the unsettling spirit still lingered in the air as we slowly made our way past.
Ryan: At this point we assumed that neither of the major sites we remembered from back in the day were still standing, so we made a U-turn and began to head back.
Sean: Driving past the lake again in the opposite direction, the road curved. Just as we were about to drive on, Ryan hit the high beams and yelled out, “There it is!”
Ryan: Tucked back a bit further off the road than we had remembered was The Shaler Grave. Standing just beyond old concrete remains, it looked exactly as it did all those years ago, with a mini chain-link fence surrounding it and its inscription — factual in that it mentioned the four bodies that lie beneath it, yet vague enough to keep generations of curious kids (and 40-something-year-old men) wondering just what happened to Mrs. Shaler and her three children.
Sean: We made our way to the grave down a dark path littered in soda cans (this was enough to thoroughly spook us after hearing countless stories of The Kruker and his love for ice cold soda). It contains the remains of Sibbel Warner Shaler and her three infants who died in 1785. From what we had heard, her husband, Captain Timothy Shaler was a privateer and legend has it that the family was murdered by a local tribe of Native Americans while he was away at sea.
Ryan: As we stood by the grave, my mind once again raced. Was the story of the family massacre true? It sure sounded feasible. And if this story could be true, what’s to say the other tales of terror weren’t also based on facts? Could the Kruker be sipping a Dr. Pepper just beyond the beams of the headlights of our van? Was the Bobcat — or worse, The Jersey Devil himself — looming in the deathly silent darkness, just waiting for a nostalgic pair of brothers to be foolish enough to take one step too far into his world? We decided to cut our losses before we found out the hard way.
We may never know the truth, we may never have the nerve to find out what horrors lurk deep within the trees, but that very mystery is key to the appeal of a night like this. Maybe it’s all nothing more than a bunch of tall tales and even taller trees. But it definitely beats a hayride.
A word from an expert
We contacted Stockton University staffer and local historian James Pullaro to see if he could shed some light on the mysteries of the Shaler Grave. Here is what he had to say:
Along Indian Cabin Road, alongside Egg Harbor City Lake is the gravestone of Sibbel Shaler and her three infant children. This site has been the antecedent of a fantastic story that has developed into old folklore that tells of an Indian attack on the Shaler home which led to the deaths of mother Sibbel and her three infant children.
Being the local historian that I am, I am inclined to look through the folktales to find the truth. Oftentimes, I find the truth is more fantastic than the lore.
The legend of Sibbel Shaler and her infant children being killed by Indians is just that, a legend. A number of local historians have looked into this and found no primary sources to corroborate the story. Not to take anything away from legends/folklore as they are also an important part of our Piney heritage and worthy of preservation in their own right. It is, however, important to separate folklore, legends and yarns from actual factual history that can be backed up by primary source documents.
Some have suggested that the British attacked the Shaler home. Although this idea is an interesting one it, too, is likely untrue. Timothy Shaler was the husband of Sibbel and presumably the biological father of her infant children. He was a great patriot and owner of several privateers that operated out of Chestnut Neck. He may also have been a part owner of the privateer “Chance” which brought in the Venus, the largest, most valuable prize ship to be captured out of the Mullica during the Revolutionary War. This capture actually was the last straw for the British. By the next month, the British Commander in Chief, Sir Henry Clinton, issued the command to “seize, pillage and destroy this nest of rebel pirates.”
Timothy Shaler also provided the cannons for the defense of Chestnut Neck which mysteriously weren’t in place when the British attacked. Shaler was also a part owner of Batsto during this period. The British were known to attack and pillage the properties of renowned rebels and Timothy Shaler would have fit that description.
But although it is true that the British army and bands of Loyalists would target known patriots (and vice versa), hostilities of this sort would have ceased by the 1787 date on the gravestone. If I had to guess, I would suggest the Yellow Fever or some other epidemic would be the likely cause of their demise, as was for so many around that time.
— As told to Ryan Loughlin by James Pullaro