Victorian Folklore Legend: Spring-Heeled Jack

220px-Mothman_prophecies_posterAs a native West Virginian, I grew up on the Mothman prophecies, the story line behind the 2002 movie of the same name, which was intermixed with the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The Mothman was a legendary “Devil-like” creature, who made himself known to many of the town’s people – some claiming the ten-foot moth-like man was an alien. Naturally, when I came across a similar Victorian Era legend, I was completely fascinated by the concept.

Jack6The first claim of a sighting of Spring-heeled Jack came in 1837 in Sheffield, England. The last reported sighting is said to have been in Liverpool in 1904. An entity of English folklore, “Jack” has made appearances in much of Great Britain, including Scotland. Reportedly, a girl by the name of Mary Stevens was returning to her employment in the Lavender Hill area after having spent time with her parents in Battersea. Passing through Clapham Common, the girl was accosted by a strange figure, who leapt at her from a dark alley. According to Miss Stevens, the man held her in a tight grip and kissed her face. He also ripped her clothes and pawed at with claws as cold as those of a corpse. Her attacker fled when she screamed. Residents could find no such attacker when they searched the area.

The same man supposedly attacked a second woman on the following day, very near to Miss Stevens’ attack. Eventually, the legend changed: The attacker would jump in front of a passing carriage, frightening the coachman and the horses, and causing the coachman injury. He would then make his escape over a wall, while babbling with a high-pitched laughter. The press labeled the “man” Spring-heeled Jack.

“The attacker was tall and thin, had pointed ears and fiery eyes, and wore a cloak. He tore at his female victims’ clothes and ripped their flesh with hands that felt like iron. When he escaped, he did not run; he bounced away. Those who saw his feet swore he had springs in his boot heels.” (Science: Spring-heeled Jack)

220px-Jack4On 9 January 1838, Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London, revealed an anonymous complaint at a public session held in the Mansion House. The correspondent, who signed the letter “a resident of Peckham,” wrote…

“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 the 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.” (Simpson, Jacqueline. Spring-Heeled Jack (leaflet, January 2001) International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.)

The matter was reported in The Times on 9 January, with other newsprints following in the next week. The Lord Mayor received a large number of letters with reports of similar pranks. Stories from Hammersmith, Kensington, Ealing, Camberwell, Vauxhall, Brixton, Stockwell, Lewisham, and Blackheath poured in. The Brighton Gazette printed a like story in April 1838.

Similar entities have been reported around the world. In Chile, one finds “La Viuda” or “the widow.” The Spring Man of Prague, Pérák, is spoken of in Czechoslovakia. Other names include Krampus, London Monster, Owlman, Jiangshi, and Jersey Devil.

“In1808, a letter to the editor of the Sheffield Times recounted how ‘Years ago a famous Ghost walked and played many pranks in this historic neighbourhood.’ The writer went on to identify this entity as the ‘Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack,’ and briefly described its ability to take enormous leaps and frighten random passers-by, but concluded, ‘He was a human ghost as he ceased to appear when a certain number of men with with guns and sticks to test his skin.’” (The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack)

ufo-theory-010Two teenage girls were likely the most famous of the victims. Jane Alsop claimed to have answered her father’s door on the evening of 19 February 1838 to a man claiming to be a police officer. Foolishly, she followed the officer to the adjoining lane because he had requested she provide him a light as part of his investigation. Instead, the “officer” threw off the cloak he wore. The girl reported that the man vomited blue and white flames, and his eyes were upon fire. She also said he wore a large helmet and a white oilskin. He tore her gown with his claws, as well as leaving marks upon her neck and arms. The sudden appearance of one of her sisters sent the attacker fleeing from the scene.

Lucy Scales and her sister were approached some eight days later. They were returning home from a visit with their brother, a butcher in Limehouse. As the girls passed Green Dragon Alley, a man in a large cloak spit blue flames in her face, which deprived Lucy of her sight and brought on violent fits. Their brother heard the screams and came to his sisters’ rescues. The difference the Scales’ report was Lucy claimed the attacker was tall, thin, and gentlemanly in his appearance.

The Times boasted a headline reading “The Late Outrage At Old Ford” on 2 March 1838. It was a report on the Jane Alsop attack. One Thomas Millbank had bragged to his drinking buddies at the Morgan’s Arms that he was Spring-heeled Jack. Millbank was immediately arrested and tried at Lambeth Street court. The arresting officer was James Lea, who had earlier arrested William Corder, the Red Barn Murderer. (See my article on The Red Barn Murder for more details.) Millbank was shown to have been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat on the evening of the attack. The candle he dropped was also located. He escaped conviction only because Alsop swore her attacker breathed fire. Obviously, Millbank could not perform such a “skill.”

Spring-heeled Jack became one of the most popular characters of the Victorian period. He was the subject of several penny dreadfuls, as well as cheap theatricals. In the Punch and Judy shows, the devil was named “Spring-heeled Jack.” In 1843, a second wave of sightings swept England. Reports of the “devil-like” creature came from Northamptonshire and East Anglia and Teighnmouth in Devon. In 1847, Captain Finch was convicted of two charges of assault against women during which his accusers described him as being seen in a disguise with bullock’s hide, a skullcap, horns, and a mask. The legend was linked with the phenomenon of the “Devil’s Footprints,” which appeared in Devon in February 1855. Although sightings have been made into the 1990s, the last major reports came in the 1870s.

No one was ever identified as Spring-heeled Jack. The crimes were never prosecuted. Some believe there must be a logical explanation, while others choose the more fanciful approach. A popular rumor in the 1840s was that “Jack” was an Irish nobleman, the Marquess of Waterford. Waterford was known for his drunken brawls and his vandalism. Reportedly, the marquess was not so beloved by the fairer sex. E. Cobham Brewer, the compiler of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, as well as The Reader’s Handbook, accused Waterford of the stunts, saying the Marquess was known to amuse himself by frightening unaware travelers and others often mimicked Waterford’s efforts. In 1842, the Marquess married and settled in Curraghmore House, County Waterford, and reportedly led an exemplary life until he died in a riding accident in 1859.

“The most recent of a Spring Heeled Jack type creature comes an elementary school in West Surry. Children only see him there, but they describe him as ‘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.’

“Of course, none of this means Spring Heeled Jack is supernatural, or extra-terrestrial, or anything other than the invention of a few generations of adroit, and lucky, pranksters. Some have claimed that the phenomenon is merely an exaggeration of the activities of an old religious zealot who used to dance on rooftops (i.e., E. C. Brewer). Others have identified possible Jacks: Waterford, a law student named Henry Hawkins, and somebody well connected enough to have a descendant bar the use of his name in connection with the attacks.” (The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack)

After these incidents, Spring-heeled Jack became one of the most popular characters of the period. His alleged exploits were reported in the newspapers and became the subject of several penny dreadfuls and plays performed in the cheap theatres that abounded at the time. The devil was even renamed “Spring-heeled Jack” in some Punch and Judy shows, as recounted by Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor:

This here is Satan,-we might say the devil, but that ain’t right, and gennelfolks don’t like such words. He is now commonly called ‘Spring-heeled Jack;’ or the ‘Rossian Bear,’ – that’s since the war.

220px-Springheel_JackBut, even as his fame was growing, reports of Spring-heeled Jack’s appearances became less frequent if more widespread. In 1843, however, a wave of sightings swept the country again. 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 mail coaches became common. In July 1847 “a Spring-heeled Jack investigation” in Teighnmouth, Devon led to a Captain Finch being convicted of two charges of assault against women during which he is said to have been “disguised in a skin coat, which had the appearance of bullock’s hide, skullcap, horns and mask”. The legend was linked with the phenomenon of the “Devil’s Footprints” which appeared in Devon in February 1855.

The last reports
In the beginning of the 1870s, Spring-heeled Jack was reported again in several places distant from each other. 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 editorial pointed out that it was none other than “Spring-heeled Jack, who terrified a past generation”. Similar stories were published in The Illustrated Police News. In April and May 1873, there were numerous sightings of the “Park Ghost” in Sheffield, which locals also came to identify as Spring-heeled Jack.

This news was followed by more reported sightings, until in August 1877 one of the most notable reports about Spring-heeled Jack came from a group of soldiers in Aldershot’s barracks. This story went as follows: a sentry on duty at the North Camp peered into the darkness, his attention attracted by a peculiar figure “advancing towards him.” The soldier issued a challenge, which went unheeded, and the figure came up beside him and delivered several slaps to his face. A guard shot at him, with no visible effect; some sources claim that the soldier may have fired blanks at him, others that he missed or fired warning shots. The strange figure then disappeared into the surrounding darkness “with astonishing bounds.”

Lord Ernest Hamilton’s 1922 memoir Forty Years On mentions the Aldershot appearances of Spring-heeled Jack; however, he (apparently erroneously) says that they occurred in the winter of 1879 after his regiment, the 60th Rifles, had moved to Aldershot, and that similar appearances had occurred when the regiment was barracked at Colchester in the winter of 1878. He adds that the panic became so great at Aldershot that sentries were issued ammunition and ordered to shoot “the night terror” on sight, following which the appearances ceased. Hamilton thought that the appearances were actually pranks, carried out by one of his fellow officers, a Lieutenant Alfrey. However, there is no record of Alfrey ever being court-martialled for the offence.

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.

By the end of the 19th century the reported sightings of Spring-heeled Jack were moving towards the north west of England. Around 1888, in Everton, 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.

Modern sightings
In the late 1970s, residents of Attercliffe, 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.

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 at an unspecified point after 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.”

In February 2012, Scott Martin and his family were travelling home by taxi from Stoneleigh at about 10.30pm, when they saw a “dark figure with no features” run across the road in front of them, before climbing over a 15 ft (4.6 m) roadside bank in “seconds”, near Nescot College on the Ewell bypass. The family later likened the figure to the legendary Spring-heeled Jack.

No one was ever caught and identified as Spring-heeled Jack; combined with the extraordinary abilities attributed to him and the very long period during which he was reportedly at large, this has led to all sorts of theories of his nature and identity. While several researchers seek a rational explanation for the events, other authors explore the more fantastic details of the story to propose different kinds of paranormal speculation.

Sceptical positions
Sceptical investigators have dismissed the stories of Spring-heeled Jack as mass hysteria which developed around various stories of a bogeyman or devil which have been around for centuries, or from exaggerated urban myths about a man who clambered over rooftops claiming that the Devil was chasing him.

Other researchers believe that some individual(s) may have been behind its origins, being followed by imitators later on. Spring-heeled Jack was widely considered not to be a supernatural creature but rather one or more persons with a macabre sense of humour. This idea matches the contents of the letter to the Lord Mayor, which accused a group of young aristocrats as the culprits, after an irresponsible wager. A popular rumour circulating as early as 1840 pointed to an Irish nobleman, the Marquess of Waterford, as the main suspect. Haining suggested this may have been due to him having previously had bad experiences with women and police officers.

220px-Marquess_of_Waterford The Marquess was frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes and vandalism, and was said to do anything for a bet; his irregular behaviour and his contempt for women earned him the title “the Mad Marquis”, and it is also known that he was in the London area by the time the first incidents took place. In 1880 he was named as the perpetrator by E. Cobham Brewer, who said that the Marquess “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example.” In 1842, the Marquess married and settled in Curraghmore House, County Waterford, and reportedly led an exemplary life until he died in a riding accident in 1859.

Sceptical investigators have asserted that the story of Spring-heeled Jack was exaggerated and altered through mass hysteria, a process in which many sociological issues may have contributed. These include unsupported rumours, superstition, oral tradition, sensationalist publications, and a folklore rich in tales of fairies and strange roguish creatures. Gossip of alleged leaping and fire-spitting powers, his alleged extraordinary features and his reputed skill in evading apprehension captured the mind of the superstitious public — increasingly so with the passing of time, which gave the impression that Spring-heeled Jack had suffered no effects from ageing. As a result, a whole urban legend was built around the character, being reflected by contemporary publications, which in turn fuelled this popular perception.

Paranormal conjectures
A variety of wildly speculative paranormal explanations have been proposed to explain the origin of Spring-heeled Jack, including that he was an extraterrestrial entity with a non-human appearance and features (e.g., retro-reflective red eyes, or phosphorus breath) and a superhuman agility deriving from life on a high-gravity world, with his jumping ability and strange behaviour, and that he was a demon, accidentally or purposefully summoned into this world by practitioners of the occult, or who made himself manifest simply to create spiritual turmoil.

Fortean authors, particularly Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark, list “Springheeled Jack” in a category named “phantom attackers”, with another well-known example being the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon”. Typical “phantom attackers” appear to be human, and may be perceived as prosaic criminals, but may display extraordinary abilities (as in Springheeled Jack’s jumps, which, it is widely noted, would break the ankles of a human who replicated them) and/or cannot be caught by authorities. Victims commonly experience the “attack” in their bedrooms, homes or other seemingly secure enclosures. They may report being pinned or paralysed, or on the other hand describe a “siege” in which they fought off a persistent intruder or intruders. Many reports can readily be explained psychologically, most notably as the “Old Hag” phenomenon, recorded in folklore and recognised by psychologists as a form of hallucination. In the most problematic cases, an “attack” is witnessed by several people and substantiated by some physical evidence, but the attacker cannot be verified to exist.

In popular culture
The vast urban legend built around Spring-heeled Jack influenced many aspects of Victorian life, especially in contemporary popular culture. For decades, especially in London, his name was equated with the bogeyman, as a means of scaring children into behaving by telling them that if they were not good, Spring-heeled Jack would leap up and peer in at them through their bedroom windows, by night.

However, it was in fictional entertainment where the legend of Spring-heeled Jack exerted the most extensive influence, owing to his allegedly extraordinary nature. Three pamphlet publications, purportedly based on the real events, appeared almost immediately, during January and February, 1838. They were not advertised as fiction, though they likely were at least partly so. The only known copies were reported to have perished when the British Library was hit during the Blitz, but their catalog still lists the first one. The titles were:

“Authentic particulars of the awful appearance of the London Monster, alias Spring–heeled Jack, together with his extraordinary life, wonderful adventures and secret amours. Also an account of his horrible appearance to Miss N— and his singular letter to the Lord Mayor of London”

“The surprising exploits of Spring-Heel Jack in the vicinity of London, etc.”

“The Apprehension and Examination of Spring-Heel’d Jack, who has appeared as a Ghost, Demon, Bear, Baboon, etc.…”
Several plays where he assumed the main role were staged as well.

The most notable fictional Spring-heeled Jacks of the 19th and early 20th centuries were:

A play by John Thomas Haines, in 1840, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London, which shows him as a brigand who attacks women because his own sweetheart betrayed him.

An 1863 play, Spring-Heel’d Jack: or, The Felon’s Wrongs, written by Frederick Hazleton.

Spring-heel’d Jack: The Terror of London, a 40 part penny dreadful published by the Newsagents Publishing Company in 1863, then reprinted in 1867. The only known almost complete version of this penny dreadful is in the British Library, and even it is missing part 14.

Spring-heeled Jack: The Terror of London, a serial published in Charles Fox’s paper,The Boys’ Standard,1st Series, vol. 5, April, 1878. Written either by veteran author of dreadfuls George Augustus Henry Sala or by Alfred Burrage (as “Charlton Lea”). Reprinted in “The Boy’s Standard” in 1885.

Spring-Heel Jack; or, The Masked Mystery of the Tower, appearing in Beadle’s New York Dime Library #332, 4 March 1885, and written by Col. Thomas Monstery.

“Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of London,” A 48-part serial published in 1886, reprinted in 1889. This was published by Charles Fox, who also published “The Boy’s Standard.” but the two stories are completely different. Written by Alfred Burrage (as “Charlton Lea”) Fox also collected the parts together as a hardback book.

“The Mystery of Springheel Jack; or, the Haunted Grange,” by S. Clarke Hook, The Marvel,volume VIII, No. 189, June 1897. London: Alfred Harmsworth.

“Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of London,”The Boys’ Monster Weekly, 1899. A reprint of The Boy’s Standard version.

“Spring-Heeled Jack”, also known as the “Spring-Heeled Jack Library.” 1904. Twelve weekly issues with color covers, published by the Aldine Publishing Co.; Written by Alfred Burrage under the name, Charlton Lea.

Director Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924) presents the character as an amalgam with Jack the Ripper.

A play based on the Aldine penny dreadfuls entitled The Curse of the Wraydons, written in 1928 by surrealist Swiss author Maurice Sandoz.

Later Springheel Jack is the central, titular figure of The Wireless Theatre Company’s award-winning radio series, The Springheel Saga. The first series entitled The Strange Case Of Springheel’d Jack, starred Julian Glover, while Nicholas Parsons features in the second, called The Legend Of Springheel’d Jack. A third series has also been recorded.

More recently, Spring-heeled Jack was a major character in Mark Hodder’s Steampunk novel The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack published in 2010 as the first of three novels in the “Burton & Swinburne” series. In this book many of the seemingly bizarre appearances described above are explained in the context of time travel.

Spring-Heeled Jack is a children’s novel published in 1989 by Philip Pullman.

Spring-heeled Jack is the name of a recurring secondary antagonist that has abilities similar to the legend, in the dark fantasy book series, Skulduggery Pleasant.

He is the often mentioned nemesis of the DC Comics characters Knight and Squire, having been blamed for killing Knight’s father and setting fire to London, amongst his other crimes

Originally published in 1997, characters from the Predator: Nemesis comic book micro-series refer to the predator antagonist as “Springheeled Jack.”

Spring-heeled Jack appears in the Jackie Chan Adventures episode, “The Return of the Pussycat.” He is depicted as a short troll who always speaks in rhyme.

“Spring-Heeled Jack” is the title of a humorous song by Lemon Demon from the album View-Monster.

In the video game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion during the Thieves Guild quest line you are asked to retrieve the boots of a dead thief named Springheel Jak from the family crypt of a man called “Jakben, Earl of Imbel” (an allusion to the poem Jack Be Nimble).

Spring-heeled Jack can be summoned in the video games Scribblenauts and Super Scribblenauts.

In series five of the TV show Primeval, a raptor enters London in 1868 via an anomaly and is mistaken for Spring-heeled Jack.

The 2012 album Horseplay by UK band Lazarus & The Plane Crash features the track “Spring Heeled Jack” telling a narrative from the perspective of the monster. It references several historical accounts of Spring-heeled Jack.

Chapters 27 and 28 of the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, which focus heavily on the character Jack Hyland, are titled “Spring Heeled,” in reference to the legend.

Featured as a gruesome supernatural serial-killer in the Cal Leandros novel Slashback.

In the second series of the BBC One show, Luther, Luther pursues a serial killer who emulates Spring-heeled Jack.

In the Stephen King’s anthology Night Shift, a serial killer who leaves no tracks in the snow is referred to as “Springheeled Jack”.

Wizards of the Coast released a card called Springjack Pasture for Magic The Gathering in the July 2008 set Eventide.

Spring-heeled Jack appears as a villain in the popular urban fantasy series, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Spring-heeled Jack was used as a vigilante super hero in the style of Batman by the UK based The Hotspur comic in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Flora’s Dare, the second of the Flora Segunda series by Ysabeau S. Wilce, features Springheel Jack as a wanted criminal whose power derives from a pair of possessed cowboy boots.

In episode 15, series one (“The Benders”) of the American supernatural drama series Supernatural, the protagonists refer to an entity known as a Spring-heeled Jack.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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