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February 2005
Still A Mystery 150 Years On
An artists impression of the footprints
An artists impression of the footprints
What do an experimental balloon, a kangaroo and freezing rain have in common? They're all suggested answers to the mystery of a satanic visit.

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The Times reported the main areas affected were Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish.

There has been one other recorded sighting of similar tracks, reported by Captain Sir James Clark Ross. The commander of two ships was exploring the South Pole landed on Kerguelen Island around May 1840.

The winter of 1855 is one of the coldest on record. The ice was so thick people are reported to have taken stoves onto the Exe for a party.

The animals suggested for the tracks include a crane, a fox, a wild cat, a donkey or even a kangaroo.

Other things that happened on this day in history are the first recorded horce race meeting; Ronald Colman, star of The Prisoner of Zenda was born; Bill Haley passed away and Shergar went missing.

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A century and a half has passed and the inexplicable events of 8th February 1855 are still without answer: was Devon really visited by the Prince of Darkness?

Residents either side of the River Exe woke up to an almost unblemished snowfall, unblemished that is but for a collection of what were described as cloven footprints.

This was no horse or deer though, the footprints appeared to go through haystacks and walls, across the River and even, most unexplainable of all, across roofs and seemingly travelling up drainpipes, stopping at the base and starting again at the gutter.

In the Times the footprints were described as "more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to two and a half inches across."

Did the Dark One visit?

From the description of the prints it was probably inevitable that many of the locals became positive the footprints were Satan's own tracks as he stalked around the area looking for sinners and many became terrified to leave their homes, a worry compounded by the tracks actually going up to people's doorways before backtracking.

The fact the heavy snow was almost totally cleared through to the ground in the prints, giving the impression they were almost branded, gave the more religious of the locals even more cause to imagine it was Infernal One's red hot hooves causing the prints.

Many answers have been put forward for the phenomenon, one of the most agreed upon is that Devonport Dockyard had released an experimental balloon by mistake and it had travelled across the area trailing its mooring shackles.

This would explain the shape of the prints but people who disagree with this argue whether the balloon would have travelled such a random course and also suggested that it would have been a near miracle for the hanging chains not to have become fouled up in a tree or other obstruction.

A Kangaroo
An explanation?

Most of the other explanations given revolve around animals. The most bizarre being that a kangaroo had escaped from the private zoo near Sidmouth owned by a Mr Fische.

Many biologists and naturalists have belittled this however and one, Sir Richard Owen, suggested they were badger tracks as a badger places its back feet in the same tracks left by its front, therefore explaining the fact the tracks were bipedal.

The biggest problem with many of these explanations is that the prints had not been photographed and were roundly ascribed to an animal without the naturalist having seen them, simply working from a description.

One un-named animal expert told the newspapers that no beast or bird could have made such prints in that straight a line for such a distance.

The scientific explanation has also been put forward that the way the rain fell and frozen may have created the effect, unfortunatly though this effect has never been recreated.

This mystery will probably never be properly solved unless the phenomenon that created it happens again and can be recorded, although maybe if it was the footprints of the Devil we may not want that to happen...

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