With Halloween just around the corner I thought I would share with you the legend of Spring Heeled Jack who was once infamous in Victorian times and yet is now largely forgotten.
Early 19th Century London was a spooky and often dangerous place to be after dark and ghosts were often reported to follow and prey on lone travellers, sometimes even assaulting them. Of these the most prominent was The Hammersmith Ghost who seems to have been active for at least 20 years.
It was in this background that Spring Heeled Jack first came to prominence in the London of 1837 when in October of that year, a young girl by the name of Mary Stevens was walking to Lavender Hill where she was working as a servant, after visiting her parents in Battersea. On her way through Clapham Common, a strange figure leapt at her from a dark alley. After immobilising her with a tight grip of his arms, he began to kiss her face, while ripping her clothes and touching her flesh with his claws, which were, according to her deposition, “cold and clammy as those of a corpse”. In panic, the girl screamed, making the attacker quickly flee from the scene. The commotion brought several residents who immediately launched a search for the aggressor, who could not be found.
The next day, the leaping character is said to have chosen a very different victim near Mary Stevens’ home, inaugurating a method that would reappear in later reports: he jumped in the way of a passing carriage, causing the coachman to lose control, crash, and severely injure himself. Several witnesses claimed that he escaped by jumping over a 9 ft (2.7 m) high wall while babbling with a high-pitched, ringing laughter. Soon news of this strange individual spread through the city and then the country at large with the newspapers of the time naming him Spring Heeled Jack.
Spring-heeled Jack was seen my hundreds of people but generally their descriptions were generally similar being described as having a terrifying and frightful appearance, with diabolical physiognomy, clawed hands, and eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”. One report claimed that, beneath a black cloak, he wore a helmet and a tight-fitting white garment like an oilskin. Many stories also mention a “Devil-like” aspect. Others said he was tall and thin, with the appearance of a gentleman. Several reports mention that he could breathe out blue and white flames and that he wore sharp metallic claws at his fingertips. At least two people claimed that he was able to speak comprehensible English.
Letters began to flood in to the Lord Mayor of Londons office demanding something be done to catch the creature that was scaring men and women alike around the villages that formed what is now the London Suburbs. The mayor was highly sceptical but he began to receive reports from level headed and scientifically minded friends which led to a major police investigation.
Two particular instances turned Jack into a Victorian sensation. The first involves Jane Alsop who reported that on the night of 19 February 1838, she answered the door of her father’s house to a man claiming to be a police officer, who told her to bring a light, claiming “we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”. She brought the person a candle, and noticed that he wore a large cloak. The moment she had handed him the candle, however, he threw off the cloak and “presented a most hideous and frightful appearance”, vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled “red balls of fire”. Miss Alsop reported that he wore a large helmet and that his clothing, which appeared to be very tight-fitting, resembled white oilskin. Without saying a word he caught hold of her and began tearing her gown with his claws which she was certain were “of some metallic substance”. She screamed for help, and managed to get away from him and ran towards the house. He caught her on the steps and tore her neck and arms with his claws. She was rescued by one of her sisters, after which her assailant fled.
Eight days after the attack on Miss Alsop, on 28 February 1838, 18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister were returning home after visiting their brother, a butcher who lived in a respectable part of Limehouse. Miss Scales stated in her deposition to the police that as she and her sister were passing along Green Dragon Alley, they observed a person standing in an angle of the passage. She was walking in front of her sister at the time, and just as she came up to the person, who was wearing a large cloak, he spurted “a quantity of blue flame” in her face, which deprived her of her sight, and so alarmed her, that she instantly dropped to the ground, and was seized with violent fits which continued for several hours.
Her brother added that on the evening in question, he had heard the loud screams of one of his sisters moments after they had left his house and on running up Green Dragon Alley he found his sister Lucy on the ground in a fit, with her sister attempting to hold and support her. She was taken home, and he then learned from his other sister what had happened. She described Lucy’s assailant as being of tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance, covered in a large cloak, and carrying a small lamp or bull’s eye lantern similar to those used by the police. The individual did not speak nor did he try to lay hands on them, but instead walked quickly away. Every effort was made by the police to discover the author of these and similar outrages, and several persons were questioned, but were set free.
The sightings of Spring Heeled Jack lessened but increased in geographic area. Perhaps the publicity and police investigations scared him off but he was soon sighted as far away as Devon and East Anglia, a distance of around 350 miles.
In August 1877, Spring Heeled Jack is reported to have approached a sentry in the Aldershot army barracks. The soldier shouted orders for the individual to identify himself but this was ignored and the creature soon stood by the soldier, slapping his face several times. Another guard then shot at Jack but there were no effects and the creature quickly jumped off into the night.
In 1877 Spring Heeled Jack appears to have left the South East of England and journeyed north. In the autumn of 1877, Spring Heeled Jack was reportedly seen at Newport Arch, in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, wearing a sheep skin. An angry mob supposedly chased him and cornered him, and just as in Aldershot a while before, residents fired at him to no effect. As usual, he was said to have made use of his leaping abilities to lose the crowd and disappear once again. This appearance though was enough to send Aldershot into panic with the military commander ordering that any suspicious individual should be shot on sight.
Later still around 1888 in Everton which is a district in north Liverpool, he allegedly appeared on the rooftop of Saint Francis Xavier’s Church in Salisbury Street. In 1904 there were reports of appearances in nearby William Henry Street.
Afterwards sightings of Jack seem to have lessened though in the 1970’s there was a resurgence when residents of Attercliffe in the city of Sheffield began to complain about a “red-eyed prowler who grabbed women and punched men.” The man was said to bound between rooftops and walk down sides of walls. 150 miles away and a decade later in South Herefordshire, not far from the Welsh border, a travelling salesman named Marshall claimed to have had an encounter with a similar entity in 1986. The man leaped in enormous, inhuman bounds, passed Mr. Marshall on the road, and slapped his cheek. He wore what the salesman described as a black ski-suit, and Marshall noted that he had an elongated chin.
He was sighted again more recently in the South East by schoolchildren in West Surrey, who claimed he was “all black, with red eyes and had a funny all in one white suit with badges on it.” They also said he could run as fast as a car, and would approach dark haired children and tell them, “I want you.”
His last possible sighting was in 2012 in Stoneleigh, Surrey when a figure matching his description bounded across a road and went over a 15ft / 4.6 metre wall in seconds.
No-one has ever managed to successfully corner Spring Heeled Jack as he can always jump away as well as showing at least some immunity to gunfire. Sceptics have long attributed Spring Heeled Jack to being a case of mass-hysteria and it is certainly true that London of the time was always on edge and ready to be hysteric about something or other. Others have said he may be based on the antics of a drunken Irish nobleman by the name of The Marquess of Waterford. The reports of Spring Heeled Jack breathing fire could be due to what was then the new Magicians trick of fire-breathing.
Those who believe in Spring Heeled Jack often think of the possibility that he is a marooned Extra-Terrestrial with his red eyes, inhuman appearance, long life and ability to leap over buildings or the result of a terrible experiment by a mad Victorian scientist producing a result similar to Frankenstein.
Either way, it can’t be denied that Spring Heeled Jack has been seen on numerous occasions over 170 years and frequently by groups of people. There are no similar mentionings of such a creature anywhere else in the world except for Perak, a being in Prague who could also leap around buildings in WW2 and quickly became a folk hero.
Spring Heeled Jack has never hurt anyone and certainly not seriously. He is often reported as being mischievous and enjoying scaring passers-by but dislikes being in danger of being caught. Spring Heeled Jack should not be in any way confused with Jack The Ripper who murdered many women in the poorest parts of London in the 1880’s and whose identity also remains unknown and who understandably has rather stolen the bizarre Spring Heeled Jacks fame and turned shadowy figures in London streets into something deadly serious.
Nevertheless Spring Heeled Jack seems to live on and has featured in novels, films and television shows. Remember to be good this Halloween or else as countless Victorian mothers told their children, Spring Heeled Jack will get you.