ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Spring-Heeled Jack: the Terror of Victorian London

Updated on November 16, 2014

Over the rooftops...


Jack be nimble, Jack be quick...

In October of 1837, a young servant named Mary Stevens was walking from her parents’ home in Battersea to her employer’s house in nearby Lavender Hill, London. While walking through a dark alley, a man leapt at her. He held her in his grip, and began kissing her and ripping at her clothes. Later, she described his “claws” as "cold and clammy". Only her screams saved her, drawing people to the scene and causing her attacker to flee. The following day, a man jumped in front of a carriage in a street near Mary’s home. The horses bolted, causing a near-fatal accident. Witnesses claimed that the attacker escaped by jumping over a nine-foot wall, laughing maniacally as he did so. Following this incident, the press filled with reports of ladies fainting and indeed, dying of fright at either seeing or being attacked by a sinister man who had the ability to escape by vaulting over high walls and running across rooftops.

No-one was immune from Jack, it seemed. Gardeners were attacked while working in the confines of their plots, and servants and residents attacked on doorsteps. The case of Jane Alsop was particularly lurid. Alsop opened her door to a man claiming to be a police officer. When she handed him the candle he’d asked for, he threw off his cloak and revealed a hideous face, his mouth spurting blue and white flame, and eyes of red fire. She described his clothes as a white, very tight oilskin. When Jane tried to run away, he ran after her and tore at her clothing with his claws – the same term used by Mary Stevens. Luckily, her sister ran from their house and the assailant ran away. Eight days later, a young woman named Lucy Scales survived a similar attack. Again, the creature spurted flame into her face and again, her siblings rescued her. Later, Lucy’s sister recalled seeing a tall man wearing a cloak and carrying a small lantern of the kind used by the police.

Inspiring writers....

By now, the police were searching frantically for the creature or whoever the attacker was. Magistrates directed dire warnings at would-be pranksters who might have been tempted to dress up and terrifying people. Undoubtedly, pranking did lie behind a number of the sightings. The press did not help by provoking anxious readers with more and more lurid details. By now, sightings of Jack and Jack-type creatures were happening all over the country, from East Anglia to Devon, attacking women and mailcoaches, alike. Writers had a field day, especially the hacks who filled the cheap periodicals known as “penny dreadfuls” with tales designed to inspire shock and awe. At this point, I do wonder about Jack’s influence on established novelist, Charles Dickens. From 1836 to 1838, Dickens was serialising his novel, Oliver Twist. Towards the end of the novel, in the chapters written in late 1838 or early 1839, the infamous Bill Sykes tries to escape justice by running across rooftops. In 1843, just as the Jack hysteria was at its height, Dickens penned A Christmas Carol, the famous story of the miser haunted by three ghosts who transport him across city rooftops and countryside to places that had been significant in his life.

Decades later, sightings in south London caused another wave of Jack hysteria. In 1877, a Jack-type figure approached a group of soldiers in Aldershot barracks. Apparently, shooting at the figure did not arrest its movement and it appeared again, night after night. A similar attack followed in a Lincolnshire town and again, shooting did not deter Jack. The last reported sighting of Jack happened in Liverpool in 1904. Over a century later, there is still no consensus as to who Jack was or what his purpose could have been.

Poverty and progress

One interesting fact about Jack is that he made his appearance just as lighting technology was burgeoning. In 1735, Dr John Clayton had given a lecture to members of the Royal Society, explaining how he burned lumps of coal to release its “spirit”. He captured the spirit or gas in animal bladders, which he set alight to entertain his friends. Nearly a century later, this discovery proved the basis of gas lighting. By 1825, more than 40,000 gas lamps were burning in London.

However, much of the capital still had its areas of darkness, in every sense of the word. In the early 1800s, modernity – as we know it – was in its infancy. In spite of the coming of Enlightenment and the scientific progress of the 1700s, belief in the supernatural persisted. The last witch trial in Britain took place as recently as 1862. The new technology and the lingering superstition provided a volatile cocktail that needed only one prankster who had mastered John Clayton’s party trick, to spark off rumour and hysteria. Misperception also played a part.

Mary Stevens reported her attacker as having cold and clammy, claw-like hands. At the time, London was filled with desperate, poor people, many on the verge of starvation. Any person of a prosperous appearance wandering alone and in darkness was prone to attack. The very thin hands of a starving person with ungroomed fingernails would probably have felt like claws to a young woman taken by surprise. It is interesting, also, that the person fled before he did any real harm. The attack on the coachman happening so soon after and near Mary’s home was most likely a coincidence, seized upon eagerly by a sensation-hungry press and public.

Following this, the pranksters had a field day, most likely undertaken by persons with acrobatic skills and knowledge of pyrotechnics. Incidentally, most types of alcohol, in addition to natural gas, burn blue flames – Lucy Scales’s sister saw a man with a small lantern, remember? Of course, the phenomenon of Jack provided cover for authentic criminals. What were attacks on coachmen, after all, but the nineteenth-century equivalent of the highwayman? By the end of the 1800s, reports of Jack had faded to zero, almost. By now, electricity was replacing gas lighting and the public had been introduced to on-screen illusions, and were less likely to accept lurid tales of rooftop villains. Rather, the new fantasies of benign, urban crusaders were born, giving rise to comic-book heroes like Batman and Superman.

The paranormal

For several decades of the nineteenth century, practically every unexplained entity had been dubbed “Jack” by its witnesses. Even today, we are in the habit of responding to cultural tropes, of using the most convenient name for that which we cannot explain. By the middle of the twentieth century, we were talking about aliens and flying saucers. From all over the world, reports of Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yeti-like creatures, still come. In spite of the more rational explanations, the supernatural almost certainly played a role in the phenomenon of Jack. The apparation seen by the soldiers of the Aldershot Barracks in 1877 seems to parallel many of the reports of “shadow people” that I have heard of. To give just one instance, during the 1990s two young brothers were terrorised by a shadow in the shape of a man that they had seen in a wood near their house. Eventually, the shadow man invaded their bedroom and crept across the ceiling at night. Both brothers described it as having red eyes. It took a spiritual cleansing ritual to force the shadow man to move on.

Overall, I believe that the Jack legend stemmed from a mixture of fear and superstition, poverty and ignorance, coincidence and confusion, pranking and illusion, thuggery and criminality, with a small and very definite slice of genuine paranormal activity added in.


The Dark Ages by Jon Henley, (The Guardian Guide to the Night, October 2009)


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Kimberleyclarke profile image

      Kimberley Clarke 

      5 years ago from England

      Jacktivity! What a marvellous term indeed! Yes, you are quite right about the East End Jack. It is all very fascinating. I'll keep my eyes peeled for the far less murderous Spring Heeled Jack, and let you know if I have any luck!

    • Mary Phelan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Phelan 

      5 years ago from London

      One generation after the first appearance of Jack, the activities of a sadistic murderer "the Ripper" in London won him the name....yes. It seems Victorians reserved that name for anything that they did not understand.

      My regret is that all spring-heeled Jacktivity has ceased and I suspect, the exact truth will never be discovered. Best wishes.

    • Kimberleyclarke profile image

      Kimberley Clarke 

      5 years ago from England

      Fantastic article! There's something very intriguing about Spring Heeled Jack.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)