Who is Jimmy Squarefoot?

Two of Jimmy Squarefoot’s rare appearances in modern pop culture: the Folklore video game and Monster in My Pocket.

I enjoyed my deep dive into dullahans so much that I decided to look at the roots of another little-known folkloric beastie – namely, a supernatural creature by the name of Jimmy Squarefoot. Once again, Wikipedia has a disappointingly scanty article on the topic, so short that I may as well quote it in its entirety:

In Manx folklore, this is a legendary bipedal pig-headed creature living on the Isle of Man. He had two great tusks like a boar. It is generally a peaceful wanderer. His large feet are swathed in calico bands and are squarish in appearance. He is thought to have once been ridden by one of the Foawr, a race of stone-throwing giants. Jimmy Squarefoot is also the name of Monster in My Pocket #80 as well as a character in the 2007 PlayStation 3 video game Folklore.

The one source cited for this is Theresa Cheung’s Element Encyclopedia of the Psychic World, published in 2006. But thanks to Google Books I was able to find a number of much earlier attestations that allow a glimpse of how the figure of Jimmy Squarefoot evolved over time.

The earliest references I’ve found are from 1856. One is in Theognis: A Lamp in the Cavern of Evil, a novel attributed to Catius Junior (apparently this was a pseudonym for someone named Lizzie R. Torrey). In one scene Phelim, a jester, tells the following joke: “Why would this tavern be a good place for Jimmy Squarefoot to get repaired if he should happen to lose his tail in a gale of wind? […] it’s because evil spirits are re-tailed here.”

The other references from 1856 are in two autobiographical works by Charles Nordhoff, namely Man-of-war Life: A Boy’s Experience in the United States Navy and Whaling and Fishing. The former includes the following anecdote: “The nearer we approached the equator, as the skipper calls the line, the louder Sails swore, until one Sunday morning, when we were all sitting on our chests in the steerage, smoking and yarning, he all at once broke out in a long string of oaths, and ended by declaring that he wished Jimmy Squarefoot might take him off to perdition that minute, if he ever meant to submit to any of their gammon.” The latter has a scene in which “Mr. Jones produced… one of those abominable hats, which, as Bill said, ‘would make old Jimmy Squarefoot look like a greenhorn.'”

Moving forward in time we find Jimmy Squarefoot mentioned in a 1957 Harper’s Weekly column (“I know that the respectable reader will hold up his hands, and turn up his eyes at such an avowal, and will, straightway, give me over to ‘Jimmy Squarefoot.’ But what is a man to do?”), Robert Chamblet Adams’ 1879 book of his nautical experiences On Board the “Rocket” (“I guess old Jimmy Squarefoot is putting him over the road now”), Howard Patterson’s 1890 novel The Captain of the Rajah (“Is it thot Jimmy Squarefoot hos a towline to thor ould hooker?”), Charles Henry Robbins’ 1899 story collection The Gam (“give us the ‘Commodore’, or we’ll scuttle your old hulk and send you plumb to Jimmy Squarefoot”) and Robert Maclaughlan MacDonald’s 1909 novel Chillagoe Charlie (“I charged through the sleepy troopers as if Jimmy Squarefoot was after me”).

Between them, these brief mentions give a fairly consistent picture: Jimmy Squarefoot was a nickname for the Devil used primarily by sailors, much like Davy Jones. This is backed up by the entry on Jimmy Squarefoot in the 1953 Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge, which defines him as “Davy Jones; ‘Old Nick, the Devil, or Old Clootie in stokers’ duds and twice as sooty; ne’er a friend o’ honest Jack.'”

Exactly why the Devil would be associated with square feet is unclear. Perhaps it’s a reference to hooves, as certain hooved animals have roughly square feet. More likely, I feel, it’s a corruption of some dialectic word or another.

But what of the interpretation of Jimmy Squarefoot as a pig-faced, land-dwelling entity? Well, this is mentioned in various books on fairy lore, and these in turn appear to be derived from a description of Jimmy in Katherine Mary Briggs’ 1967 book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature: “Sometimes a pig, sometimes a pig-like man. Ridden by a stone-throwing giant.”

The source cited by Briggs is A Manx Scrapbook, a 1929 volume by W. Walter Gill about folklore across the Isle of Man. And this is where we find almost certainly the most substantial description of the porcine Jimmy Squarefoot to have been written.

In the relevant section of his book, Gill introduces us to the area of Grenaby, said to be home to multiple strange beings: these include a cow-like water monster, an “unnaturally large black cat with flaming eyes nearly as big as saucers”, a headless man and “something dark like a big chest or box” that moved around the road. These last two beings, Gill says, “have been identified by one of my informants, rightly or wrongly, with a much more unusual phenomenon called ‘Jimmy Squarefoot.’”

Without clarifying the nature of Jimmy Squarefoot’s reported association with the headless man and moving box, Gill – quoting his informant – goes on to describe Jimmy as the steed of a stone-throwing giant:

Broadly speaking, Jimmy Squarefoot was a man with a pig’s head and face, “and he had two great tusks like a boar.” He haunted all round the Grenaby district. In a purely porcine shape he had belonged to the giant living on Cronk yn Irree Lhaa, who, in the course of an altercation with his wife on South Barrule pelted her unsubmissive head with rocks of which one is now the Creg yn Arran and another-distinctly a wide — dropped at Cloughur to the South. This giant, whose name is regrettably forgotten, rode Jimmy in his pig-form about the country and over the sea, for “he could stramp the waves as easy as he could the ling.” After their quarrel the giant and his wife (who, it occurs to me, may have been the Caillagh my Groamagh) both disappeared, leaving their pet behind, whereupon he came down to the Grenaby district and has infested it ever since in his various modifications.

He goes on to cite fellow folklorist Charles Roeder:

If he has ever left it, it was to show himself between Ballagawne and Ballacurrey in Rushen, where a buggane was often seen, Roeder says, which alternated between the shapes of a man and a black pig. But in his own neighbourhood he was more of a simultaneous mixture of both. Whether it is due to his friendly name or not, there is something engaging about Jimmy, fearsome goblin though he has been in his time, when he used to charge out at wayfarers with gleaming tusks and gnashing fangs.

Gill then brings up the question of Jimmy Squarefoot’s name (he gives no indication of being familiar with its nautical use) and outlines his inconclusive attempts to find the creature’s den:

How he got the sobriquet of “Squarefoot” I have never been able to learn. Has he despoiled some human ghost of its rightful name, or is it that his spoor has been detected in the moist soil of his favourite haunts? For he seems to have an affinity with water, and though I have not tracked him to his lair with any degree of certainty, I incline to suspect a certain collection of large stones, now diminished in number and much overgrown, forming a sort of den in a fieldcorner high above the Awin Reash, near its convergence with the Silverburn. In that case he would resemble the Purr Mooar of Cosh ny Hushtaghyn in Druidale.

Gill wrote sequels to this book, and in The Third Manx Scrapbook we find another reference to Jimmy Squarefoot. Here, Gill appears to be hinting at a possible origin for the being’s name, mentioning that “square foot” is a Manx term for a club foot and that Jimmy’s footprints have reportedly been sighted (although he doesn’t mention their exact shape):

Square foot, A, a club-foot. “Bill Quarrie of Creg ny-Mult had a square foot” (Oral). “Jimmy Squarefoot” was a cross between a human being and a tusked boar who haunted the hillward parts of Malew and Arbory, and whose footprints were found where he had shown himself.

Another document of note is the Jubilee Congress of the Folk-lore Society, Sept. 19-Sept. 25, 1928, which contains an account of Jimmy Squarefoot (possibly written by Gill, who was a member of the group). This time he is described as taking the form of a large white boar – no mention of his humanoid guise – and is associated with the underworld:

The most remarkable example of the bad kind of fairy pig that I know is the buggane known as Jimmy Squarefoot, who haunts the Grenaby river and bridge in the form of a large white boar and is greatly feared,–not without reason, as he is said to be able to carry mortals off up the river and through his cave somewhere near Barrule to the dark underworld.

So, Jimmy Squarefoot – a sailors’ nickname for the Devil – is also shared by a being of Manx folklore. Or, indeed, multiple beings of Manx folklore, given that Gill and his informants appear associate the name with four distinct apparitions: a large pig or boar, a pig-headed man, a headless man, and a box that moves by itself.

It’s not surprising to see an overlap between maritime beliefs and the folklore of a small island, but we’re left with a chicken-and-egg question. Did Jimmy Squarefoot originate on the Isle of Man, with his name later being spread over the seas by the island’s sailors? Or perhaps Manx seafolk returned home with tales of the nautical devil Jimmy Squarefoot, whose name was applied to indigenous spooks. The answer is probably lost to time, but if any readers have leads, I’d be interested to see them.

As a final note, the Wikipedia article includes details not found in Gill’s description: the giant who once rode Jimmy is identified specifically with the Foawr (I believe that this is a Manx variant of the Irish Fomor) while Jimmy himself is said to wear calico bands on his feet; the article also describes Jimmy as being peaceful, contradicting Gill’s book. The earliest references I’ve found to these elements is in Pamela Allandice’s 1990 book Myths, Gods & Fantasy:

A creature only ever seen on the magical Isle of Man, Jimmy Squarefoot has a formidable appearance, with the head and tusks of a large boar, the body of a man, and large square feet swathed in calico bands. In days of old, he was thought to have been ridden by one of the Foawr, fabled giants who threw stones at the earth as they passed overhead. More recently he appears to prefer amiably wandering the countryside and doing no harm.

Directly or not, most online descriptions of Jimmy Squarefoot appear to be drawing upon Pamela Allandice’s version.

Update: Since posting this article, I’ve found that Jimmy Squarefoot has also been known as Jemmy Squarefoot. Entering the alternative name into Google Books turns up a few more citations, including one from Nathaniel Ames’ book Nautical Reminiscences. The book in question is from 1832, a full twenty-four years before the earliest references to Jimmy-with-an-I Squarefoot that I’ve found:

Some of the men were so thoroughly convinced that Pug was “Jemmy Squarefoot” in the body, that they made me promise I would offer no further violence to him, they quoting the old proverb, “the third time never fails,” to prove that the third act of leze majeste committed upon the person of the “prince of the powers of the air,” would be resented by some tremendous catastrophe that would involve me, the criminal, and the whole ship’s company in some dreadful punishment.

I won’t bother quoting the other references to Jemmy Squarefoot that i found, as they merely reaffirm what we already know: that Jimmy/Jemmy Squarefoot is a nautical name for the Devil (I have yet to see the Jemmy variation used in association with the Manx pig-monster). I would, however, like to point out that multiple citations for both Jimmy Squarefoot and Jemmy Squarefoot are from books by Charles Nordhoff, who seems to have done more than any other author to record this piece of maritime folklore.

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