Spring-Heeled Jack: the Terror of Victorian London
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.
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.
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)