by Michael Bell

Where's Charlie Daniels when you need him?

The Devil made it to Rhode Island, and he probably came from Massachusetts. That is, if you believe our local legends.

In North Kingstown, north of Wickford and near the entrance to Quonset, is a large, granite ledge known as Devil's Foot Rock. Legends going back to the colonial era tell of a squaw being chased by the devil. Some say that she fled from Boston, like so many others seeking relief from religious persecution (or supernatural retribution). Her pursuer is said to have left his footprints at Devil's Foot Rock, then at Chimney Hill in South Kingstown, and finally at Block Island.

For the past several months I have been part of a team investigating the North Kingstown site to determine its cultural significance. I'm surprised that relatively few Rhode Islanders have even heard of Devil's Foot Rock. Fewer still know anything about the legend or have visited the site, despite the fact that the adjacent road is named Devil's Foot.

The footprint must have been hidden for many years by heavy underbrush and silt eroded from the embankment above. In 1939, when the site was given to the Rhode Island Historical Society by John Dixon Johnston of Newport, a newspaper headline declared, "Searchers Unable to Find Devil's Footprint on Rock." But two years later, during the installation of the rail spur to Quonset, a stone retaining wall was constructed around the print, minimizing the impact of nature's unrelenting quest to cover the devil's tracks.

If you know anything about folklore (and who will admit otherwise?), then you no doubt expect that there is more than one version of this story. You will not be disappointed. A text of the legend published in 1850 links the South Kingstown site to a well-known geological wonder in Middletown. One of the three different versions of the Purgatory Chasm legend betrays its probable colonial origins, during a time when European Christians were converting, if not the Native Americans themselves, then at least their ancient spirits. Most of these mythological and legendary beings, such as Cheepie and Hobomoko, were transformed into the devil or at least demons.

In this legend, an Indian woman murdered a white man near Wickford. Just as she attempts to escape, a stern-looking English gentleman appears, asking if she will walk with him for a short distance. She balks, but cannot escape before he seizes her by the arm. As she cries out for Hobomoko to save her, her attacker reveals, "I'm Hobomoko." Then, dropping his disguise, the devil grabs her by the waist, stamps the ground fiercely once or twice, and flies with her to Purgatory Chasm, plunging her into its turbulent waters. The story concludes, "To this day may be seen near Wickford the footprints of Satan on the surface of a ledge near the road. One has the form of a cloven hoof, and the other has exactly the shape and size of a human foot, even to the mark of the great toe."

Near the old Mohegan church in Montville, Connecticut, there is another Devil's footprint. In this story, the devil left an impression of his cloven hoof as he made his way toward Long Island. Not surprisingly, at the tip of Long Island, a similar legend is told. The following text was reported almost a hundred years ago in the Journal of American Folklore:

One of the natural curiosities of Shelter Island is what appears to be a footprint in a rock. This footprint is that of a right foot. The impression of the heel and instep is deep and well formed, but the toe-prints are lost where the rock slopes suddenly away. The tradition about this is that when the Evil Spirit left the island he took three long strides, the first on Shelter Island, the second on Orient Point, and the third on Montauk, whence he plunged into the sea.

Suffice it to say that legends of imprints made by supernatural agency are quite common, not only in America but also in Europe. By the same process as in New England, giants and other ogres representing a heathen past were transformed into the stern Christian devil of the Middle Ages. His footprints and other accoutrements, including aprons, chairs, pulpits, stairs, kitchens, and bridges, litter the European landscape, from Scotland and Wales to Germany.

Through our local legends, we can trace the footprints of the Evil One as he departs civilization, sometimes pausing along the way to punish sinners. Perhaps these legends are a miniature picture of the Christianizing process that occurred in both the Old and New Worlds. In Rhode Island, the heathen sinner (represented by the squaw) is driven from the realm of God (the Puritan colony of Massachusetts) by the devil (a blending of native spirits). Other regional variants of this legend complete the picture, for, having served his function, the devil disappears into the sea, leaving only his footprints to remind us of his presence.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the November 1993 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

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This article last edited April 21, 2004

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