The fire-breathing, demonic monster that gripped the public consciousness in the 19th Century.
In October 1837, teenage serving-girl Mary Stevens was walking home through Clapham Common, when a strange figure jumped out at her. Gripping her tightly, he began to kiss her and tear at her clothes. The girl screamed and her attacker quickly fled. An unpleasant, but not especially unusual sexual assault, you might think. But Stevens would make a description to the police that gave birth to a legend that would last for nearly eighty years and seep its way into the pop culture of the age. Her description of the attacker’s “claws, cold and clammy as those of a corpse” may have just been a vivid way of describing her attacker’s bony fingers, but quickly became a literal interpretation of a less (or more) than human monster.
Thus began the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, a sinister, mischievous and sometimes malicious character who entered 19th-Century English folklore. Not, as some have believed, another name for Jack the Ripper, Spring-Heeled Jack was apparently a demonic prankster, putting the fear of God – or, more accurately, the fear of the Devil – into all who saw him. A fire-breathing, shape-shifting monster who could be anything that people wanted him to be.
The day after his attack on Stevens, the monster made another appearance, inaugurating a method of attack that would reappear in later reports: he leapt out at a passing carriage, causing the coachman to crash and injure himself. Witnesses excitedly claimed that he escaped by jumping over a nine-foot wall, cackling with “a high-pitched, ringing laughter“. Why this was assumed to be the same character as the one who attacked Stevens – whose assault seemed suspiciously human, clammy fingers aside – is anyone’s guess, but before long, the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack – as the press dubbed him – was spreading.
Spring-Heeled Jack would be described by witnesses in increasingly dramatic ways, with a devilish face, clawed hands, and eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”. Some said he was tall and thin, with the appearance of a gentleman. Several reports mention that he would breathe blue and white flames and that he wore sharp metallic claws at his fingertips. Some had him talking to his victims, while others just reported sinister laughter or silence. Jack, it seemed, could be all things to all men.
A few months after the first sightings, on January 9, 1838, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, revealed an anonymous complaint that he had received several days earlier. The writer – “a resident of Peckham” – stated:
It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises — a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families. At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses. The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.
The story was breathlessly reported in The Times on 9 January and more letters quickly poured in. One claimed that several young women in Hammersmith had been frightened into “dangerous fits” and some “severely wounded by a sort of claws the miscreant wore on his hands”. Another claimed that in Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell and Vauxhall several people had died of fright; meanwhile, another reported that the trickster had been repeatedly seen in Lewisham and Blackheath. No evidence of these attacks and deaths was forthcoming; none was asked for. The press was having a field day with the story, and no one wanted to scupper it with inconvenient facts. The original claims that the whole thing was a malicious prank were rapidly forgotten.
In April 1838, The Brighton Gazette related how a gardener in Rosehill, Sussex, had been terrified by a mysterious creature. The incident had occurred a day earlier when a gardener encountered “a bear or some other four-footed animal” that climbed the garden wall and ran along it before jumping down and chasing the hapless man for some time. Finally tiring of this hilarity, the creature scaled the wall and made its exit. Despite this having no resemblance to the previous reports of a fire-breathing, claw-fingered, gentleman imp, The Times breathlessly wrote that “Spring-Heeled Jack has, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast”. Clearly, anything and everything could become Spring-Heeled Jack in the fevered imagination of journalists.
On 19th February 1838, teenage Jane Alsop claimed that she had answered the door of her father’s house to a man claiming to be a police officer, who told her to bring a light, saying “we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane”, and then threw off his cloak and “presented a most hideous and frightful appearance”, shooting blue and white flames from his mouth while his eyes resembled “red balls of fire”. Miss Alsop – a girl of some observational skill under such trying circumstances, you might think – also reported that he wore a helmet and that he wore skin-tight white oilskin as he began ripping at her gown, neck and arms with claws that she was claimed were “of some metallic substance”. Only the appearance of one of her sisters saved her from further assault.
Eight days later, 18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister were returning home after visiting their brother in Limehouse. As the pair passed along Green Dragon Alley, they observed a sinister cloaked figure in the shadows. As Lucy made to pass him, he spurted “a quantity of blue flame” in her face, temporarily blinding her and causing violent fits that went on for hours. Her sister – oddly unmolested by the demonic figure who, despite his supernatural prowess, could clearly only attack one woman at a time – described the attacker as a tall, thin gentleman who was carrying a small lamp, much like those used by police officers at the time. A pattern seemed to be emerging, and perhaps the most notable clue was the idea that Jack was disguising himself as (or, indeed, was) a police officer. However, the investigations into both attacks went nowhere.
Shortly after the Jane Alsop attack, one Thomas Millbank had drunkenly boasted in the Morgan’s Arms pub that he was Spring-Heeled Jack. He was quickly arrested, but the subsequent trial fell apart when Alsop insisted that her attacker breathed fire, something Millbank was clearly incapable of (or so he claimed).
More cynical observers questioned the validity of the two teenage girls’ claims, neither of which had witnesses outside their own sisters – but the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack was now cemented. His fantastical acts and Satanic image quickly made him a mythical figure, the stuff of Penny Dreadful stories and Grand Guignol plays. These fictional versions of the character further blurred the truth and cemented aspects of his appearance that would increasingly become a part of future sightings.
However, actual sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack became rare over the next few years, perhaps as his original creators tired of the stunt and the character slipped from real life into folklore. Then, In 1843, he made a dramatic comeback, with sightings across the country. A report from Northamptonshire described him as “the very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame”, and in East Anglia reports of attacks on drivers of coaches became commonplace – the legend of Jack’s early appearances perhaps feeding a whole new series of stories. That, or he really didn’t care for coach drivers very much.
This set the scene for the rest of the century, with long periods of silence suddenly punctuated by flurries of activity. In November 1872, the News of the World reported that Peckham was “in a state of commotion owing to what is known as the ‘Peckham Ghost’, a mysterious figure, quite alarming in appearance”. The paper – as sensationalist then as ever, it seems – made the entirely unsubstantiated claim that the Ghost was “Spring-Heeled Jack, who terrified a past generation”. Perhaps as a result of this, sightings of ‘The Park Ghost’ during April and May 1873 in Sheffield also became attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack. The name, it seemed, was now a handy identifier for any mysterious and demonic figure that people claimed to have seen.
In August 1877 one of the more impressive sightings came from a group of soldiers in Aldershot. A sentry spotted a strange figure “advancing towards him” and challenged him to stop. The figure then slapped the soldier’s face several times, which must have been an unexpected reaction. A guard shot at him, but the odd character disappeared into the darkness “with astonishing bounds.” Perhaps he was impervious to bullets; perhaps the nervous guard was a bad shot and missed. We’ll never know.
In the autumn of 1877, Spring-Heeled Jack – or possibly some passerby who was subject to mass hysteria – was seen at Newport Arch, in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, his usual attire switched for a sheepskin outfit. Although there is no record of any sinister behaviour from him, an angry mob chased and cornered him, and shots were fired – again, to no avail as once again, he leapt to freedom.
By the end of the 19th century, sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack moved North. In 1888 – when an altogether more genuine and brutal, if no less mysterious Jack was terrorising London – he appeared on the rooftop of Saint Francis Xavier’s Church in Liverpool. In 1904 there were reports of appearances in nearby William Henry Street. And then it all went quiet. There have been no sightings since that time – though Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague who was active between 1939 and 1945, resembles Spring-Heeled Jack in many ways. Perhaps he had tired of England.
A variety of exotic and wildly speculative paranormal explanations have – of course – been proposed to explain the origin of Spring-Heeled Jack. Was he was an extraterrestrial entity, a demon sent to torment God-fearing Christians or a ghostly figure with a grudge against coach drivers and teenage girls? It goes without saying that the evidence for any of these theories is slim, to say the least.
The most likely explanation lies, I suspect, in the letter sent to the Lord Mayor of London back in 1938 – that Spring-Heeled Jack was the work of pranksters, and took on a life of its own with copycat miscreants following in the footsteps of the originals. But no matter what the truth, Spring-Heeled Jack has slipped into legend and – to a lesser extent – pop culture, having turned up in novels, comic books, games and movies, though we have yet to see the definitive adaptation of the character. Perhaps he is just too slippery a concept to recreate faithfully – a would-be rapist, a demon, a prankster and a bear with little to really hold the story together. Perhaps the truth about Spring-Heeled Jack is that he never existed at all, not even in the most prosaic of ways, but was instead a media creation as several unrelated incidents were unconvincingly tied together to create a monster. Now, that might be a story worth filming…
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