On the night of 8/9 February 1855, during an unusually severe winter, long trails of prints appeared in the snow in at least 30 different places in Devon. Each was about 3½ inches long by 2½ inches broad, resembling a donkey's hoofprint, and some seemed cloven; they were said to have crossed roofs, high walls, and haystacks, adding to the supernatural impression. The first known press report, from Dawlish, says that the marks had ‘caused an uproar of commotion among the inhabitants in general’, and that ‘several of the very superstitious’ were saying ‘it must be the marks of Old Nick’, while others blamed ‘some monkey which has escaped a travelling menagerie with something on its feet’ (The Western Luminary and Family Newspaper for Devon, Cornwall, Somerset & Dorset (13 Feb. 1855).
The story was taken up in The Times (16 Feb. 1855) and the Illustrated London News (24 Feb. 1855, 3 Mar. 1855, 10 Mar. 1855), the latter being particularly detailed. Explanations offered were naturalistic, if implausible; over the years, badgers, rats, cats, a variety of birds, a kangaroo, a toad, and groups of Gypsies on stilts have been suggested. A further burst of interest in N&Q many years later led people with personal memories of the event to speak of the general excitement and consternation felt at the time (N&Q 7s:8 (1889), 508–9; 7s:9 (1890), 18, 70).
Theo Brown, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association 82 (1950), 107–12;84 (1952), 163-71.An extensive discussion, reprinting all original and secondary sources, is Mike Dash, Fortean Studies 1 (1994), 71–150.