Spring-heeled Jack was a legendary character who first appeared in Victorian London. He would terrify people by springing out on them and by his fearsome appearance.
In Victorian times London was the largest city in the world. It had experienced an explosion in population as people moved from the countryside in search of work as the Industrial Revolution unfolded.
In 1800 the population was about one million people but by 1880 it had reached 4.5 million.
This influx of people from the countryside was supplemented by people coming from foreign countries to live and trade in the great city. It was a melting pot of cultures where people brought their own traditions, superstitions and folklore with each adding to the other.
The rich and middle class lived in comfortable and spacious homes but lived in relatively close proximity to the poor and working class whose housing was usually in overcrowded slums. The streets were badly lit at night and crime was rife. In such an atmosphere urban legends sprang up and spread rapidly.
The first reports of Spring-heeled Jack
Reports of sightings of Spring-heeled Jack first appeared in London in 1837. Later reports came from all across Great Britain, with most coming from London and its surrounding area. There were also reports from the Midlands, Liverpool and Scotland. It soon developed into a popular urban legend. The last reported sighting of him was in Liverpool in 1904.
The strange appearance of Spring-heeled Jack
Spring-heeled Jack was generally described as having a long pale face, horns on his head and had the ability to breathe blue and white fire from his mouth. His eyes were also said to glow red and he wore a tight fitting garment of white over his tall, thin, body covered by a dark cloak. His hands were like sharp metallic claws.
He got his name from his acrobatic abilities and was said to be able to spring and leap huge distances to escape capture. According to two witnesses he could speak good English.
During Victorian times there were many reports of ghosts that haunted the streets of London. They were said to be very pale and human-like and would prey on people walking alone. The stories told about these hauntings are part of a unique London ghost tradition which many people believe created the basis for the legendary Spring-heeled Jack.
The Mary Stevens incident
His first reported victim was a servant girl in London named Mary Stevens. She had been to visit her parents in Battersea and was walking to her place of work in Lavender Hill when she encountered him.
While she was walking through Clapham Common she was attacked by dark, bizarre figure that had sprung out of the shadows of an alley. Grabbing hold of her arms he had restrained her while kissing her face. His hands were like claws and he ripped at her clothing. Mary later described them as “being cold and clammy as those of a corpse.”
Fortunately for her, when she screamed he sprang off. Hearing her panic stricken screams a number of local people came to her assistance. Although they searched all over they could not find her attacker.
The next attack
The next day the strange figure struck again near to where Mary Stevens lived. This time he chose a different victim and mode of attack. He lay in wait for a passing carriage and sprang out in front of the horses causing them to panic. The coachman lost control resulting in him crashing the carriage and being seriously injured.
According to several eye-witnesses the culprit sprang off laughing manically leaping over a 9 ft fence to make his escape. As news of these attacks spread by word of mouth and the press he became known as Spring-heeled Jack.
A matter of public concern
Sir John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London, at a public session revealed that he had been sent an anonymous letter from someone in Peckham. The letter claimed that Spring-heeled Jack was a high ranking person in London life who had accepted a bet. The bet required this person to appear as a ghost, a bear and a devil in many of the villages around London.
The letter also alleged that Jack had struck several times and had so terrified his victims that at least two would never fully recover. It also claimed that although these events had been happening over a period of time the newspapers were strangely not reporting the attacks. The writer claimed that they knew about the attacks and knew who was responsible but chose not to publish on the matter.
A member of the audience revealed that there had also been a number of attacks in Kensington, Ealing and Hammersmith on servant girls. The girls were terrified and talked of being attacked by a ghost or the devil himself.
Reports of more incidents
On the 9th of January “The Times” did publish a report and the next day several other national newspapers followed. The Lord Mayor revealed he had received many letters from many places in the London area reporting similar acts.
Indeed, the sheer number of letters from all around London suggested that the culprit had been highly active in and all around the capital city. Many young women had been terrified out of their wits and some had been injured by the attacker who either had false, or real claws on his hands.
There were claims that many people in Brixton, Stockwell, Vauxhall and Camberwell had been overcome by fits when attacked or had died of fright. There were also reports that the attacker had also been active in Blackheath and Lewisham.
The Lord Mayor was undecided what to make of the situation. On one hand he thought that the events had been exaggerated but on the other someone he knew and trusted had related to him the case of a servant girl who had gone into fits when attacked by someone wearing a bear’s skin. Nevertheless, he was sure that the culprit would be eventually apprehended and brought to justice. Rewards were offered for information leading towards his capture and the police were now searching for him.
The Sussex Incident
A story originally reported in the “Brighton Gazette” was taken up by “The Times” on 14th April, 1838. The report told how a gardener had experienced a terrifying encounter with an unknown beast.
The incident occurred on the 13th of April, 1838, when a gardener in Rosehill, Sussex, had his attention caught by some kind of animal growl. A bear-like animal then appeared and climbed upon the garden wall and ran along the top before leaping down and chasing the gardener. It terrorised him for some time before finally climbing back over the wall and escaping.
Although there was little of similarity between the London incidents and this one “The Times” claimed, “Spring-heeled Jack, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast.”
The infamy of Spring-heeled Jack spreads
Two of the most notorious and best known incidents were those that happened to Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales, both teenage girls. It was the coverage of these by the newspapers that elevated Spring-heeled Jack in public awareness.
The Jane Alsop incident
On the night of 19th February, 1838, Jane Alsop answered a knock on the door of her father’s house. On answering she found a man wearing a great cloak who claimed he was a policeman. He asked her to bring a light outside as the police believed they had captured Spring-heeled Jack in the lane.
She ran inside and brought out a candle into the lane. Upon giving him the candle the man threw off the cloak giving the girl the fright of her life. His appearance, “presented a most hideous and frightful appearance”, vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled “red balls of fire”. According to Jane he wore a style of garment that was tight-fitting and similar to white oilskin. On his head he wore a large helmet.
He did not utter a further word but commenced tearing at her clothing with hands that were like metallic claws. Screaming she managed to escape his grasp and tried to run back to the house. He caught up with her and clawed her neck and arms wounding her. Her sister, on hearing the screams came to her assistance and the attacker ran off into the night.
The Lucy Scales Incident
Just over a week later on the 28th of February another attack on a teenage girl took place. The victim was Lucy Scales an 18 year old who was walking back to her home accompanied by her sister. They had been visiting their brother who was a butcher in a high class area of Limehouse.
They had just left their brother’s house to return home. As they passed by a passage known as Green Dragon Alley they noticed someone standing in an angle of the alleyway. At the time Lucy was walking to the fore with her sister following behind. She noticed the person was wearing a large dark cloak.
Just as she came to pass him by she claimed “a quantity of blue flame” issued from his mouth into her face blinding her. Terrified she fell to the floor and began having fits which were to last for several hours.
Her brother told of how he had heard screams and realising it was his sisters had run after them. On finding them he found Lucy on the floor convulsed in a fit with his other sister supporting and holding her. Her brother and sister took Lucy safely home.
Once there Lucy’s sister explained to her brother what had happened. She told him that the assailant had the appearance and air of a gentleman. He was tall and thin in stature and wore a large dark cloak. He was holding in his hand a bull’s eye lantern or lamp like those used by police constables. He did not utter a word and he did not try to grab hold of them. Instead he turned and walked swiftly away from the scene vanishing in the shadows.
The police made an intensive search of the area for the culprit of this and similar attacks. They apprehended and questioned many people but they were all released.
An arrest is made
On the 2nd of March 1838 “The Times” ran a report on the Jane Alsop incident. They led with the headline, “The Late Outrage at Old Ford,” which was followed by an account of the trial of Thomas Millbank. The police had arrested Millbank who had been bragging in the Morgan’s Arms public house that he was Spring-heeled Jack.
The policeman who arrested Millbank was James Lea who had earlier tracked down and arrested William Corder who had murdered his lover, Maria Marten, in what became known as the “The Red Barn Murder.”
Millbank had been wearing a greatcoat over white overall. He had dropped the greatcoat and a candle both of which were found.
He was tried at Lambeth Street court but was not convicted because Jane Alsop steadfastly claimed that her assailant had exhaled fire from his mouth. Of course Millbank could do no such thing and he was acquitted.
Incidents around the country
These incidents were to catapult Spring-heeled Jack into the British public awareness. Alleged incidents were reported and attributed to him across the country. He became a popular character for plays and Penny Dreadfuls. He was in all the newspapers and even replaced the devil in many Punch and Judy Shows of the time.
Oddly, even though he was becoming more well known the incidents attributed to him became less though more widespread across Britain. In an incident in Northamptonshire he was described as having flaming eyes and horns on his head like the Devil.
From East Anglia an increase in attacks of mail coach drivers was reported and Spring-heeled Jack was accused of being the culprit.
An investigation in Teighnmouth, Devon, in the July of 1847 led to a conviction to a Captain Finch for assault on two women. It was claimed he dressed in skin coat and a skull cap with horns and that he wore a mask.
Spring-heeled Jack is linked to other phenomena
Links were also made to a strange phenomenon that occurred in 1855 called the “Devil’s Footprints.” After a heavy snow marks appeared in the snow that looked like hoof prints. The prints could be seen for many miles.
Reports of incidents became scarcer for a number of years and then in November of 1872 the “News of the World” ran a story about the “Peckham Ghost” claiming that it was non other than Spring-heeled Jack returned. Similarly reports were published in April and May in 1873 reporting about the “Park Ghost” in Sheffield. Local people blamed Spring-heeled Jack.
During August in 1877 one of the most extraordinary incidents was reported to have been witnessed by soldiers at Aldershot Barracks. According to reports a soldier on night time sentry duty challenged a strange figure that advanced towards him. The challenge was ignored and the figure approached the sentry and slapped his face several times.
Another sentry is said to have fired shots at the figure but there is confusion as to whether the shots were blanks, warning shots, or simply missed the target. What ever the case they had no effect on the attacker who with great leaps and bounds disappeared quickly into the night.
There were several more sightings at Aldershot Barracks and also Colchester. It is said the army responded by ensuring sentries had live ammunition and were ordered to shoot intruders on sight. However, no more incidents were recorded by the army.
An incident in Lincolnshire
A report was made in Newport Arch, Lincoln, Lincolnshire where he made an appearance but was chased by and furious mob who shot at him but could cause him no harm. They managed to corner him but
He escaped by using great leaps to leave the crowd behind.
Last seen in Liverpool
An incident was reported in Liverpool at the end of the 19th century of Spring-heeled Jack making appearances. First, in 1888, in the district of Everton he was seen on the top of the roof of St Francis Xavier’s Church in Salisbury Street. Later in 1904, he was seen nearby in William Henry Street.
All sorts of theories abound about who or what he was. Some say he was a paranormal phenomenon such as the bogeyman or a ghost. Others say he was an alien from another planet. Others say it was a case of mass hysteria claiming that witnesses exaggerated what had been seen or were just mistaken.
Others point back to the anonymous letter received by John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London that claimed the Spring-heeled Jack incidents were the result of a bet by a group of young aristocrats.
Many think sensationalism by the press and mass public hysteria had snowballed into creating some kind of superhuman bogeyman. Copycat incidents across the country may have further exaggerated the reputation of Spring-heeled Jack.
Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford
One of the chief suspects as the original perpetrator was Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. The Marquess had a reputation for public brawling, drunken behaviour and had rather a macabre sense of humour. Known as “the Mad Marquess” he was known to be disrespectful to women and police officers and was always willing to take on a bet. He was known to be in London when the incidents first began to be reported.
In 1880, the Reverend Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, compiler of “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” accused the Marquis of being the perpetrator. He referenced his liking of jumping out and frightening unsuspecting travellers, claiming that others had also copied his pranks.
What ever the truth in these accusations the Marquess is known to have married and resided in Curraghmore House in County Waterford in 1842. There he lived respectably and flawlessly until his death in 1859 in a riding accident.
Although Captain Finch was convicted of attacking two women in 1847, it seems to have been more of a copycat incident or something different. The Marquess died in 1859 and incidents of Spring-heeled Jack continued to be reported up to 1904.
Concluding the case
Most of the evidence seems to be both exaggerated by terrified witnesses and embellished by the press of the day. The most likely explanation seems to be that a foolish prank carried out by a young aristocrat grew out of proportion by word of mouth and by an over enthusiastic press. Similar incidents were then routinely attributed to a shady figure known as Spring-heeled Jack and the incidents snowballed with each report, spreading beyond London to many other parts of the land.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia