Victorian England, an age of great industry, enlightenment, of learning and of advancement. Equally, it was the age of spiritualism, parapsychology, and restrictive social practices. In the chaotic streets of the suburbs of London, the first Victorian Urban Legend was waiting to be born, beating out Sweeney Todd by a full 9 years, Spring Heeled Jack brewed in the fears of an uncertain populace and burst onto the scene, metal claw and all, stirring a sensation that was far too ripe for anyone to ignore. His was a legend that was overshadowed by only one other when in 1888, Jack the Ripper scribbled his name in blood on the back of a postcard.
Amazon – The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore & Popular Cultures – A pretty heavy, but excellent book on the Legend that digs into the cultural aspects of the creation of Jack.
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Spring Heeled Jack
Victorian England, an age of great industry, enlightenment, of learning and of advancement. Equally, it was the age of spiritualism, parapsychology, and restrictive social practices. In the chaotic streets of the suburbs of London, the first Victorian Urban Legend was waiting to be born, beating out Sweeney Todd by a full 9 years, Spring Heeled Jack brewed in the fears of an uncertain populace and burst onto the scene, metal claw and all, stirring a sensation that was far too ripe for anyone to ignore. His was a legend that was overshadowed by only one other when in 1888, Jack the Ripper scribbled his name in blood on the back of a postcard. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
In the summer of 1837, England saw Queen Victoria take the throne. Her ascension marked a period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military change throughout the country, on one hand opening many doors of opportunity, whilst on the other, tightening social restrictions and causing an uneasy fear on the populace. It was a period of severe duality in many aspects, what were freedoms for some represented intense pressures for others. London was a city of learning and enlightenment, whilst the rural farms still held on to unswayed and increasingly unpopular beliefs.
The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack
In the Autumn of 1837, just three months after Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne, rumours of strange appearances began circulating throughout South London and South-East England. The nights were drawing in as the evenings grew darker and colder as summer faded into a distant memory. In September, on the South-West edge of the City of London in the district of Barnes, chatter was quietly filling the streets and taverns of a series of ghoulish sightings, mysterious ghostly images of a pale white Bull that had been stalking women. A few miles up the road, to the North East of Barnes lie the district of East-Sheen and similar accounts were also circulating there, in East-Sheens, the visage was that of a ghostly Bear, but its nature and intent appeared to contain many similarities. Notably, the ghostly bear of East-Sheens was appearing in the dark evenings, stalking and attacking women, leaving many suffering “most severely from fright”. Whilst this ghost, or apparition bore the shape of a wild animal, speculation flew of it’s true nature, as the stories spread, so too did the form alter, from bull, to bear, to simply “unearthly visitant”. Throughout Richmond, people spoke of their sightings, or of how their neighbours daughters friends had seen and suffered at the feet of the ghost and by the time rumours of sightings began flooding across the fields of suburban Ham and Petersham, it was well known that the ghost was in fact, an “Imp” or “Evil one”. The sightings and stories spread further North still and as they edged closer to the City of London, the visage grew in detail and colour; By the time it had crossed North of the Thames River, sightings of an “Earthly warrior clad in armour of polished brass, with spring shoes and large claw gloves” emerged, in Johns Wood, a similar armor clad apparition appeared, this time with the ability to shapeshift, at times “clad in armour”, whilst others, he was “dressed as a bear”.
As rumour tore through the suburban fringes of the City of London throughout the winter of 1837 and the turn of the year, speculation as to the ghosts origins began to blossom. Whilst many believed it to be of some supernatural origin, not all were convinced. The first newspaper entry linked with Spring Heeled Jack came on the 28th December, 1837 and tied the antics of the apparition to a gang of pranksters.
“Some scoundrel, disguised in a bear skin, and wearing spring shoes, has been jumping to and fro before foot-passengers in the neighbourhood of Lewisham, and has in one or two instances greatly alarmed females. This feat, it is said, is to decide a wager, he having undertaken to play of these freaks for a number of nights in nine different parishes without being apprehended, a sharp lookout, however, is being kept after him, and there is little doubt he will be the loser. He has been named “Steel Jack” by the inhabitants of Lewisham, many of whom are afraid to leave their homes after dark.”
This report signalled two important milestones for the legend of Spring Heeled Jack. Firstly, it marked the transition from Oral to Written. Until now, the apparitions were merely spoken of and propagated in gossip and rumour. Secondly, the moniker of Steel Jack attempted to name the apparitions as an individual. Perhaps it lacked in originality and failed to ignite imaginations, Jack after all was simply the common-name for an unknown man, a commoner and later, a trickster or prankster, whatever the reason, it failed to stick. This article, did however, pave the way for a wider level of recognition that was soon to come.
On January 8th, 1838, Just over a week after the first report of “Steel jack” hit the papers and as the festivities of the new year waned, The City Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, made a public address concerning a letter he had received from a concerned member of the public, signing off only as a “Peckham Resident”.
“To The Right Hon. The Lord Mayor,
My Lord – The writer presumes that your Lordship will kindly overlook the liberty he has taken in addressing a few lines on a subject which within the last few weeks has caused much alarming sensation in the neighbouring villages within three or four miles of London.”
“‘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 (name as yet unknown), 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. At one house he 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, but, on seeing any man, screams out most violently ‘Take him away! There are two ladies (which your Lordship will regret to hear), who have husbands and children, and who are not expected to recover, but likely to become burdens to their families.”
“For fear that your Lordship might imagine that the writer exaggerates, he will refrain from mentioning other cases, if anything, more melancholy than those he has already stated.”
“This affair has been going on for quite some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer is very unwilling to be unjust to any man, but he has reason to believe, that they have the whole history at their fingers ends, but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent. It is, however, high time that such a detestable nuisance should be put a stop to, and the writer feels assured that your Lordship, as the chief magistrate of London, will take great pleasure in exerting your power to bring the villain to justice. Hoiping your Lordship will pardon the liberty I have taken in writing,
I remain your Lordships most humble servant, A Resident of Peckham.”
A “gentleman” further explained how a “ghost” or “devil” had been terrifying people around the suburban boroughs and at one point had torn a Blacksmiths flesh with iron claws and on another occasion tore clothes from the backs of females. These accounts mirrored other recent reports, whereby a man in polished steel armour and red shoes attacked a carpenter named “Jones” who had been jumped on in “Cut Throat Lane”, Jones, however, who was described as a “powerful man” grappled with the attacker, who “tore his clothes into ribbons”, “casting them to the wind” and then fled. Whoever or whatever the attacker was, he was apparently becoming more violent.
Despite the letter from the Resident of Peckham, which he remarked, was written in a beautiful hand, Mayor Cowan appeared to remain sceptical and as noted as observing that,
“As our friends on the other side of the Atlantic were in the habit of saying, it was “extraordinary, if true.”” He then went on to suggest that the handwriting suggested it were that fo a woman, so perhaps, he followed up, she was a victim of the attacker herself, who had lost her senses. Using the excuse that the attacks were not within the boundaries of the City of London, he gently dodged responsibility, but suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that
“He hoped she would do him the favour of a call, and he would have an opportunity of getting from her such a description of the demon as would enable him to catch him.”
If the Lord Mayor was not to take it seriously, it was a matter of misjudgement that the general population would do the same. By the 11th of January, reports of several communications to the mayor were published in an article headlined simply “The Ghost Story”. One such letter sent to the mayor came from a Mr Thomas Lott who speculated that the prankster was in fact a thief and went on to say,
“It is stated that some individual drives about with a livery servant in a cab, and throwing off a cloak, appears in those frightful forms and is to win a wager by the joke… I shall shortly remove my family from my town residence to that above state, where if I catch Mr Ghost on any part of my premises, I shall administer that to his substantial part that if he ever reappears, it shall be only his aerial essence, or as a ghost in fact.”
Another came from an unnamed magistrate who recounted the details of an attack in Hammersmith on the wife of a “decent tradesman”.
“At first I, with your Lordship, thought this visitation in the 19th Century so near the metropolis, and with such a well organised police as we now have, too absurd for belief; but, on further inquiry, I ascertain that several young women had really been frightened into fits – dangerous fits – and that some of them had been severely wounded by a sort of claws the miscreant wore on his hands. I expressed my surprise that the attention of the police had not been called to this nuisance. My informant assured me, that repeatedly their vigilance had been aroused on the subject, but the fellow or fellows had been adroit enough to elude capture.”
Neatly summing up the public’s feeling on the matter of both the attacker and the mayor’s attitude towards his capture in his public address, an “Inhabitant of Stockwell” wrote:
“The letter you received a few days ago respecting some person who makes it his delight to frighten the peaceable inhabitants of the suburbs of the metropolis is not without foundation. He has frightened several person sin Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell and Vauxhall, and has caused the death of several, and many instances can be proved of his frightening people into fits. Hoping you will not think lightly of this matter.”
And on and on, in total, six letters were printed in the report, ranging from allegations of murder, pranksters, thieves and of the citizens response, from threats of hunting the ghost for themselves, to fear keeping women and children locked in their houses. One rather scathing letter, signed off by the initials J.C. ends
“There ought to be a stop put to this, but the police, I am afraid, are frightened at him also.”
The mayor may have thought it wise to play down the initial letter concerning the attacks, but in doing so, by addressing it publicly, he instead gave the Oral accounts a legitimacy they had not benefited from in the past. By simply acknowledging the rumours and talk, the mayor had leant his title and all the weight that brings to the story.
At the same time, the details of the attacker were becoming wilder by the day and in the saem report, a description was given of
“a figure clad in a bears skin, which upon being drawn aside, exhibited a human body in a suit of mail, and with a long horn, the emblem of the king of hell himself.”
Whilst it seemed as if the papers and the reports themselves could not quite decide if the attacks were being carried out by a trickster or the Devil,. It mattered little and was a duality that would pay off in the long term. One grounded the fear of attack in a very real possibility, whilst the other gave the story a supernatural edge that would ignite the imaginations of the public for decades to come.
Spring Heeled Jack
Whilst still being referred to as simply “The Ghost” or several other supernatural variants, on the 13th January, the press ran a story concerning the attacks headlined “Spring Jack” which summarised the oral accounts across the various boroughs of greater London, including a curious rumour that children had seen him in the Royal Palace, “dancing by the moonlight” before scaling the walls and disappearing in the direction of the churchyard. The piece was unapologetic in it’s standpoint, declaring that their reporter had met with many supposed victims of attacks.
“The stories were in everybodies mouths, yet no person who had actually seen the ghost could be found. He was directed to many persons who were names as having been injured by the alleged ghost, but, on his speaking to them, they denied all knowledge of it, but directing him to other persons whom they’d heard had been ill-treated, but with them he met no better success.”
Finally the piece wrapped it up neatly by declaring it, without question, a simple hoax. Meanwhile reports continued to roll in in a manner that becoming close to a frenzy. The attacker appeared to be darting across London, from suburb to suburb, now having been seen surrounded in blue flame or at times carrying a lantern. The story that the attacker was a prankster undertaking his wicked deeds for a wager was extended, with the group involved called out as being “connected with high families” and that the wager stood to profit the winner a sum of £500 with success resting on his ability to “ruin the lives of no less than 30 human beings”, including 8 old bachelors, 10 old maids, 6 lady maids and as many servant girls as possible. It might come as no surprise to those familiar with the British tabloids, that this story was printed in The Sun, a paper that has, apparently, not held a shred of credibility for well over a hundred years and the wager theory was backed by no cited evidence whatsoever.
One week later, on the 20th January, The Penny Satirist, a weekly paper renowned for it’s sensation and attraction to libel suits, took the earlier “Spring Jack” headline one step further and dubbed the attacker “Spring Heeled Jack”. Whilst it might have aimed to rubbish the reports, the original article dated from the 13th January instead went some way to ensuring the attacker a new level of immortality. Over the coming weeks there were a few deviations in reports, one calling him Long-Heeled Jack, but as the end of February approached, one account would soon cement the name of Spring Heeled Jack for good.
The Attack of Jane Alsop
February of 1838 bought about two relatively important details for the Legend of Spring Heeled Jack. Firstly, there were three documented attacks within The City of London limits. The mayors earlier hand waving would no longer fly and his dodging of responsibility due to attacks taking place outside the remit of the City Police force, forcing his hand into acting upon the matter. Secondly was an attack on the night of Tuesday, February 20th on a young woman named Jane Alsop. This attack stood out chierfly for two reasons, first, it was carried out on a respectable, middle-class family and secondly, they broke tradition of the usually closed lipped, respectable, middle class family by giving a full testimony to Mr Hardwick, the Chief Magistrate and Mr Norton, the investigating magistrate in court at the Lambeth Street police station.
“Yesterday Mr Alsop, a gentleman of considerable property, residing at Bear Blue Cottage, in Bear Bine-Lane, a very lonely spot between the villages of Bow and Old-Ford, accompanied by his three daughters, waited upon Mr Hardwick, and gave the following particulars of an outrage committed on one of them.
“Miss Jane Alsop, a young lady 18 years of age, stated that, at about a quarter to nine o’clock on the proceeding night she heard a violent ringing at the gate in front of the house, andm, on going to the door to see what was the matter, she saw a man standing outside, of whom she inquired what was the matter, and requested he would not ring so loud. The person instantly replied that he was a policeman and said “For God’s sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane.” She returned into the house and brought a candle, and handed it to the person, who appeared enveloped in a large cloak, and whom she at first really believed to be a policeman. The instant she had done so, however, he threw off his outer garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire. From the hasty glance which her fright enabled her to get at his person she observed that he wore a large helmet; and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, appeared to her to resemble white oil-skin. Without uttering a sentence, he darted at, and catching her, partly by her dress and the back part of her neck, placed her hand under one of his, and commenced tearing her gown with his claws, which she was certain were of some metallic substance. She screamed out as loud as she could for assistance, and by considerable exertion fot away from him, and ran towards the house to get in. Her assailant, however, followed her and caught her on the steps leading to the hall door, when he again used considerable violence, tore her neck and arms with her claws, as well a quantity of hair from her head; but she was at length rescued from his grasp by one of her sisters. Miss Alsop added that she had sustained, and was then in extreme pain both from the injury done to her arm and the wounds and scratches inflicted by the miscreant about her shoulders and neck by his claws or fangs.”
“Miss Mary Alsop, a younger sister, said that on hearing the screams of her sister Jane she went to the door and saw a figure, as above described, ill-using her sister. She was so alarmed at his appearance that she was afraid to approach or render any assistance.”
Immediately following the attack, Mr Allsop offered a reward of 10 guineas for information leading to an arrest and this was bumped up by local Member of Parliament Sir Edward Codrington, who offered a further £5. Superintendent Young and Inspector Guard from the polices K-Division, a territorial subdivision of the Metropolitan Police, alongside James Lea, a policeman for Lambeth Street carried out parallel investigations into the attack. On the 22nd February, James Lea reported to magistrates that various attacks on both women and men had been taking place across the district for the previous month by a man wearing a “spanish cape” and occasionally carrying a lantern. He believed the attacker to be a lone wolf, rather than any gang of pranksters and commented on the fact that he fully believed the testimonies of the Alsop family, though all three officers agreed that the description of the attacker had been “much mistaken” due to her fright. He also made specific note of the fact that the attacks had all been carried out between 8pm and 9pm, the precise time the active officers change shift. He ended his report by stating that he did not think it likely that the attacker would strike in the same neighbourhood for some time to come. His other work on the investigation might have been well and good, but on this point, he was wrong.
On the 25th February, whilst the police were still investigating the attacks on Jane Alsop, Spring Heeled Jack struck once more. Spring Heeled Jack was at this point, a wanted man with a price on his head and many locals of the Alsop family were on the case, one, a “most respectable gentleman, holding a position high situation in the Bank of England” had high hopes that he would be able to produce the “miscreants” in question to the police in just a day or two. That Sunday night however, Spring Heeled Jack made his presence known once more when he knocked at the door of Mr Ashworth of 2 Turner Street at around 8pm, a stones throw from the Alsops. This time, the door was opened by the houses young servant boy who screamed loud enough to frighten off the attacker after he had cast aside his cape, but escaping without causing any harm.
The Attack of Lucy Scales
Spring Heeled Jack once again proved the authorities wrong with great aplomb, when he attacked Lucy Scales and her sister as they walked home from their brothers house in Green Dragon Alley on the 28th February, just three days after the attack in turner street and 8 days after the Alsop attack. It was around 8:30 pm when 18 year old Lucy and her sister, left the home of her Brother, a Butcher who lived in Limehouse, London. They were walking the short distance to weeks place, where they resided. As they entered the alleyway, they noticed a person who they first mistook for a woman, taking the strange headgear they were wearing as a bonnet of some kind. As they drew closer, the true picture opened up before them.
“She described the person to be of tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance, enveloped in a large cloak, and carrying a bullseye, similar to those in the possession of the police. On her sister, who was a little before her, coming up to the person, he threw open his cloak, exhibited the lamp, and puffed a quantity of flame from his mouth into the face of his sister, who instantly dropped, and such was the effect of the light upon her eyes that she had to cover them with her hands for a minute or two, when she sent to the assistance of her sister. She also stated that the individual did not utter a word, nor did he attempt to lay hands upon them, but walked away in an instant.”
The sisters Brother heard their screams for help and ran down the alley, but upon meeting them, found only Lucy laying on the floor, apparently in fits, his second sister, crouched at her side. The alleyway itself was entirely empty otherwise. A surgeon, Charles Pritchel passed a written statement to police stating that he had visited Lucy Scales on the night of the attack and found her “suffering from hysterics and great agitation, in all probably the result of fright.” Whilst inspector Lea, still working on the Alsop case, commented on a demonstration he had seen that very morning at a London Hospital that utilised sulpher, wine and another mystery ingredient that police saw fi not to publish, that could be blown down a glass pipe to produce a flame. After seeing the demonstration, he seemed perfectly satisfied that this was the more than likely the technique used by Jack in his attacks.
In the end, the case of Lucy Scales was overshadowed by the Alsop investigation in the press. The lack of witnesses played a part in this, though one might presume class also played a role, despite the papers calling Mr Scales a “respectable Butcher”. The most interesting observation following the attack came from judge Hardwick, who concluded that all the attacks were from a single individual, rather than a group or gang of pranksters.
The Alsop Inquiry
On the 28th February, the same day as the Lucy Scales attack, the inquiry into the Alsop took place in the Lambeth Street station courts. Crowds queued down the street, such was the interest now gathering for the story of Spring Heeled Jack. It wasn’t only the conclusions to the investigations that garnered so much public attention, but the news that the investigative police were to present two men apparently linked to the attacks as suspects, a Carpenter known as Mr Milbank and a Master Bricklayer named Mr Paine. Paine and Milbank had been out shooting together during the day of the attack and after, had spent the evening drinking in the White Hart pub. Milbank had got so drunk, in fact, that his entire defence rested on the point that he was entirely unconscious for his return home, so drunk he had no recollection of the nights events. A further witness, a wheel wright named James Clark who saw the pair in the street after the attack identified them as the men and claimed that they had grabbed him and said “What do you think of Spring Heeled Jack now?”, though Mr Paine denied the accusation and said they were there because they had heard screams and gone to help. The hearing concluded that Paine and Milbank had caused the highest suspicion and called for further proceedings the following Friday. Curiously, a large point was made concerning the fact that all investigating parties were at a loss as to how the attacker could have enveloped himself in a supernatural blue flame and Mr Stock, the County Magistrate, said that independent of his own knowledge of chemistry, he had since made inquiries to other independent chemists. His conclusion was that
“He did not think that a drunken man would be able to produce such a light about his person as that described.”
On Friday, the inquiry continued. Mr Milbank continued his solid defence that he was so blind drunk that he could not remember anything of the evening, however, a new witness, a Mr Richardson, a shoemaker who was also in the street on the night of the attack, could not positively identify Milbank as the man he saw. The inquiry concluded with the magistrates deciding that neither Paine nor Milbank were the men guilty of carrying out the attack, but noted that the offense being so serious, they would endeavour to investigate it fully.
Over the following weeks, there were numerous appearances of a Spring Heeled Jack figure throughout London, however, many were caught and later found to be hoaxers playing on the media frenzy., some were men dressed in white sheets scaring children whilst others, like Charles Grenville, were described to be “of weak mind, but perfectly harmless”, were given a warning to quit their antics and sent on their way. The narrative that formed around these jokers was one of imitation, whilst those caught were always considered to be mortal pranksters, the real Spring Heeled Jack was always told to be elsewhere, carrying on his supernatural antics for real.
The Rise and Fall of Spring Heeled Jack
As the Winter thawed and the Spring of 1838 fell, Spring Heeled Jack began spreading his wings outside of London and by the end of May, was seen right across the South East, from the city of London, right down to the coast, he even showed up in my very own city of Brighton in one of the earliest reports, harkening back to the earlier reports, as he was “in the shape of a bear” an apparition which scared a local gardener before scaling a wall and making his escape. By June, his theatrics were being reported nationwide. This may have had the effect of greatly amplifying his fame throughout the country, it also stretched the credulity that it was a singular individual, a point not missed by some elements of the press. On the 2nd June, The Bristol Mercury printed a piece that stated:
“Spring Heeled Jack, having left London and its neighbourhood, in now visiting the more distant parts of the country. This mischievous personage seems endowed with ubiquity, for, according to the county press, he was last week, at the same time, in most of the the boroughs, villages and cities in England.”
With rumours of his attacks gaining localised, nationwide press attention, Spring Heeled Jack conversely, slowly began fading from the pages of newspapers on a regular basis. No longer as sensationalist as it once was, between the 1840s and 1860s, the legend of Spring Heeled Jack hit a steady cycle of Oral rumour, interspersed with brief episodes of press coverage helping to fuel the rumours and simultaneously keeping Spring Heeled Jack alive in the imaginations of the public. In this period he was seen and had brief reports through all major cities and boroughs of England. In 1841, he attacked a young woman in Camden, London, “attacking them in the most shameful and indelicate manner, taking indecent liberties.” One of the more salient points of this article being that it bore a direct, at least for the Victorians, reference to sexual assault, a subject we will broach a little later.
In the early years of the 1840s, Spring Heeled Jack once again added characteristics to his supernatural arsenal. In one report, he was seen tossing fire into the streets from his hands as he escaped into a graveyard, chased by police and in a second, he burst down a door to a family home, terrifying the inhabitants inside. When he made his escape, he presumably leapt onto the roof of the house from the ground, as the family reported hearing his footsteps as he dashed away, thumping across the ceiling. In 1842, police in Suffolk succeeded in capturing Spring Heeled Jack, but via yet another newly acquired supernatural ability, he vanished entirely from his holding cell, the story was printed in the Ipswich Journal and told of the escape:
“Not content with ihs place of rest, Jack, whose knowledge of his profession here proved of great avail to him, soon contrived to make his escape, and has not since been heard of. It is supposed he has fled to Naples. Some suppose that by some chemical process, Jack was converted into a spirit, and so managed to make his escape.”
In November of 1945, Jack was once again in London and this time, he was under fire for carrying out a murder in the capitol. He breathed fire into the face of a prostitute named Maria Davis, then threw her from a bridge into the River Thames. This report appears to have little basis in fact however, and could very easily have been complete fabrication, as all reports appear to be little more than the printing of an oral rumour.
In 1850, Spring Heeled Jack began leaving behind a scent trail a sulfurous brimstone as he made his getaways from bemused police and in one report in Wakefield, he was described as a “Goblin, trotting around at unearthly speed”, walking on cloven hoofs. He was eventually forced to flee after a local priest “sprinkled plenteous holy water” around the scene of his attacks.
The 1860s saw Spring Heeled Jack hit popular entertainment, with a stage play at the London Grecian Theatre, bearing his namesake, a trend that continued in 1868, when portrayed as a perverse, Victorian version of Batman, Spring Heeled Jack was the focus of attention in a play named “The Terror of London”, where he was portrayed as a figure embracing the loveable rogue stereotype, with a sense of vigilante justice.
The 1870s saw a brief revival in attacks across the country. Jack was seen and reported as carrying out attacks as far North as Edinborough, where as a ghostly apparition, he “bounded the canal at a leap” in his escape from police. In 1877, he carried out a sustained attack on British military posts, stalking lonely sentries carrying out their nightly watches. This was so ubiquitous, that the men began loading live ammunition in their rifles, shooting freely towards the apparitions, but never striking. One report in August told of how he
“Nearly frightened a sentry out of his wits by slapping his face with his death like hand, before disappearing, hopping and bounding into the mist.”
These attacks promptly ended, however, after one sentry finally caught Jack, skewering his leg on his bayonet, only to find out that it was another member of his regiment in disguise.
Still, popular entertainment would not be put off from utilising Jacks name by these false reports and 1878 saw him as the main character in a 40 part serial fiction in the Penny Dreadful “The Boys Standard”.
The 1880s saw a noticeable shift in press coverage and general narrative towards Jack. Once viewed as a terrifying spirit, a supernatural demon, or a flesh and blood embodiment of chaos, he was now assumed widely as a mere prankster, and not a glamorous one at that. In 1881, The Illustrated Police News in the same edition that ran with an illustration of “The Garstang Ghost” on the front cover, mentioned Spring Heeled Jack briefly,
“Some years ago, a Spring Heeled Jack – The most vulgar and unromantic ghost imaginable – took to ;laying pranks in one quarter of London, to the great alarm of its feminine inhabitants. But its success brought into the field a crowd of rivals who were speedily found out, and the originator of the deception retired from business in disgust.”
This was followed by a piece in The DAily News that merely called Jack,
“A mere vulgar ruffian, fond of horseplay.”
Whilst all this negative press and dismissal attempted to steer the narrative in the direction of the absurd, or to frame Jack as a lower form of base criminality, his legend did continue to an extent within Wales, where he terrified a town to such a degree that the local Colliers would not walk to work alone. In 1888, however, another jack hit the scene. This monster would overshadow almost all other Victorian tales of terror right up until today, A murderer was hitting the dark alleyways of Whitechapel, killing prostitutes with abandon whilst slipping from the grasp of the authorities under the cover of shaded alleyways. Jack the Ripper was the new kid on the block and his sensationalist, popular appeal was second to none. Slowly Spring Heeled Jack took the backseat in the imaginations of the people. In 1904, he made his last large contribution to the press in England when he carried out an attack in Everton. In a report that bordered on prophecy, Jack made an escape following an attack in Stitt High street
“He was seen to jump clean over the terrace houses from Stitt High Street to Haigh St. and then hop back across the slate roofs to Salisbury Street, after which he was never seen again.”
As much as it would be poetic to end the story of Spring Heeled Jack there, it was not quite to be. Going out with a prolonged whimper rather than a bang, he showed up from time to time in reports right up until the second world war, though never was it on a level quite the same as his Victorian heyday and rather than spoken of as an exact, individual entity, he was more often referred to only by name as a description of a certain type of prank attack. His end was a slow descent in the minds of the people until eventually, he fell from the narrative entirely, cemented as a legend, but far away from the true fears of everyday people.
So just what was Spring Heeled Jack? Was he a merely a mortal man or a Demon? A loveable, anti establishment rogue or base criminal? There is much evidence to suggest he was all and none at the same time and it is precisely these qualities that allowed his Legend to persist for so long and with such potency.
Spring Heeled Jack embodied characteristics of the supernatural, whilst also remaining entirely grounded in common criminality. He blurred the lines between reality and fiction, as his legend continued, he appropriated new, terrifying supernatural powers, whilst his continued prankster narrative always kept him in the realms of distinct possibility. Even the most sceptical could not turn a blind eye to the fact that if he was not spirit, he could just as easily be a flesh and blood miscreant, a feature which kept Spring Heeled jack forever in the backs of the minds of many.
In the early days, he showed signs of being ghost, beastman, imps and even the devil, never one, but very possibly all and as laws tightened and science advanced, enlightenment brought alongside it an appeal to older beliefs. Spiritualism boomed and paths of supernaturalism and parapsychology promised excitement within the realms of the inexplicable. The same enlightenment too freed the concept of the Devil from Archaic biblical context, allowing new interpretations to imagine him anew and with these new conceptualisations, he became more amorphous. To take on forms of figures such as Spring Heeled Jack held a certain level of appeal, fueled by romanticism and Gothic Horror.
The 1820s, the “Newgate Novel” saw the boom of the romanticisation of the “loveable rogue”, a criminal against authority, making fools of police, glamorising criminals like Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin. Largely seen as a reaction to the tightening laws that were expanded and upheld throughout the Victorian era, Spring Heeled Jack held a popular appeal along the same vein. Likewise, in his later 19th Century revival, he can easily be seen as a figure in Gothic Horror, a genre now distilled throughout fiction from literature to Penny Dreadfuls. Spring Heeled Jack stalked in the shadows of the Urban underworld, escaping into the dark from whence he came.
His legend has more than a little to do with his name too. Anchored by the moniker of Spring Heeled jack, he was thus allowed the ability to shapeshift between bear, demon, imp and human whilst retaining a coherent narrative as an individual. His was a story that was both open to interpretation and embellishment, whilst retaining a blurred line between fiction and reality. All of these qualities ensured his legend would continue to evolve and appeal, across decades and generations.
And what of his attacks? Whilst many were seen as harmless pranks, many caused physical and very real harm on the victims, once again within the attacks, we see a duality which blurred the lines between fantastical and a very real threat, leaving none to feel settled or comfortable with the possibility of a nocturnal meeting. In opposition to the idea of a prankster, there are possibilities that cast a darker picture of the attacks. One retrospective theory is that many of the females attacked were frightened into “fits”, though these fits, were perhaps, a subtle evasion of having to publicly explain rape or sexual assault. In an age where women were not to speak of sex in public, whether it be consensual or not, the concept of falling into a fit, or being frightened into a stupor can be viewed as a way for the victim to either allude to the fact, or to dodge it altogether. This was also a time when women were often at the sharp end of victim blaming. The streets were dangerous places and a woman out alone at night, especially one in an alleyway or similar shady, slightly less well-to-do area, would certainly have had her character questioned. Those were the territories of men, drunks and prostitutes. When viewed through this lens, the attacks by Spring Heeled jack move swiftly away from a rogue-like, anti-establishment character, to something entirely unlovable.
In short, Spring Heeled Jack was the embodiment of many fears, real, social and imagined. He was the embodiment of the turmoil felt by many, a product of gossip, surveillance culture, increasingly restrictive laws, lifestyles and belief systems. He was precisely as real as the next story, either read in print or spoken of in pubs across the country. A deep untrust of the metropolis drew him into the cities, whilst a population in the rural counties who still maintained old beliefs helped to propagate him nationwide in tale and song.
“I came from Pandemonium,
If they lay me I’ll come back,
Meanwhile around the town I’ll jump,
Spring Heeled Jack.”