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Spring-Heeled Jack: A London Terror

Updated on June 14, 2018
Depiction of Spring-Heeled Jack from a Victorian Penny Dreadful, circa 1860.
Depiction of Spring-Heeled Jack from a Victorian Penny Dreadful, circa 1860.

Nineteenth Century London was a fearful place. Shrouded in fog, its streets were no place to roam once night fell. Street toughs and robbers roamed, thefts and murders were frequent, and a man could simply disappear, never to be seen again if misfortune befell him.

In late 1837, a new terror emerged, which spread a ripple of panic across the city. Something was out there, and it was attacking London’s residents. One of the first to see this fiendish form was an elderly lady visiting the cemetery at Clapham, who was approached by a strange and threatening figure. She described how he was clad in a dark cloak, with a hat pulled over his face. Nothing too unusual about that you might think, until he made an ungodly jump over a high fence and disappeared into the darkness [1].

Again in Clapham at night, this jumping character was seen. A servant by the name of Mary Stevens, making her way through Clapham Commons, was leaped upon by a dark figure who appeared suddenly from an alleyway. Her attacker held her firmly and kissed her face, whilst ripping at her clothing with what the maid described as being metal talons “as cold and clammy as those of a corpse”. Her screams fortunately scared her attacker away.

The next night in the same area, a dark-clad man bounded out in front of a passing carriage, causing the horse to panic and the driver lose control and career into a gas-lamp. The perpetrator of the intentional crash escaped the scene by leaping over a nine-foot wall, whilst laughing manically. The driver was nearly killed.

In the same year at Blackheath Fair, now located within London’s Lewisham district, a woman named Polly Adams was attacked. The fiend appeared to her and two other women, and tore at his chosen victim with a look of madness on his “devil-like face” with fingers that Adams described as being long cold iron tips. Ripping off her blouse, he scratched her belly before bounding off into the darkness.

Later that year, Lucy Scales and her sister was accosted by a creature that spat blue flames into her face, temporarily blinding her. It retreated into the darkness before it could be caught.

When the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, first heard about the attacks, through an anonymous letter, he first dismissed them as wild nonsense. But within weeks, his office was flooded with accounts of similar attacks from all across the city. Something was out there spreading havoc and it had to be stopped.

Illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack jumping a gate from a Victorian Penny Dreadful
Illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack jumping a gate from a Victorian Penny Dreadful

On 9th January 1838, a public session was held in the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor who revealed the letter’s contents:


“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 rung the bell, and on the servant coming to open the door, this worse than brute stood in a 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 to become burdens to their families.

For fear that your Lordship might imagine that the writer exaggerate, he will refrain from mentioning other cases, if anything, more melancholy than those he has already related.

The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, papers are still silent on the subject. The writer is very unwilling to be unjust towards any man, but he has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger 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.

Hoping your Lordship will pardon the liberty I have taken in writing,

I will remain your Lordship’s most humble servant,

A RESIDENT OF PECKHAM.”

Sensationalised by London Press, Spring-Heeled Jack was feared as a Devil
Sensationalised by London Press, Spring-Heeled Jack was feared as a Devil

Once revealed, and officially acknowledged, the panic spread. News of these attacks started to reach the flourishing tabloid press. Cheaper printing costs had made newspapers more accessible to the wider public rather than to the breakfast tables of London’s gentlemen. Much like the tabloids of today, they sensationalised these attacks and their frequency. More and more stories came forward, and the attacker was given the name of Spring-Heeled Jack.

Accounts of his physical appearance varied, but the most frequent features of any of his included that he was dressed in a tight oilskin suit worn beneath a dark cloak, and had pointed ears, a hooked nose, sharp claws, and glowing red eyes. He was supernaturally acrobatic and could jump great heights to both attack his victims and retreat to safety. Vigilante mobs roamed the streets in an attempt to protect London’s women, and put an end to this fiend’s devilry, but were never able to catch him.

Interestingly, it was the Sheffield Times in 1808 where the name adopted for this fiend first appeared. In a letter to the editor, a reader had described how “Years ago a famous Ghost walked and played many pranks in this historic neighbourhood,” and described how this phantom was known as the Park Ghost or Spring-Heeled Jack, thanks to its ability to make enormous leaps and using great speed and agility when fleeing the scene of its attacks.

His great acrobatic feats meant Spring-Heeled Jack was never captured
His great acrobatic feats meant Spring-Heeled Jack was never captured

It was the Penny Dreadfuls that enhanced Spring-Heeled Jack’s fearful reputation. With the 1830s came increased levels of literacy, and combined with the improvement in technology, a boom in cheap fiction for the working classes occurred.

Originally named ‘Penny Bloods’, Penny Dreadfuls were highly illustrated stories that were filled with tales of adventure, pirates, crime, and gothic tales. The hysteria of Spring-Heeled Jack caused him to be an instant success when stories of him appeared in these publications for the Victorian reader seeking chills and thrills.

Spring-Heeled Jack was turned into a creature of legend; a Victorian supervillain of epic proportions. Inspired by the accounts of his victims, the Penny Dreadful writers elaborated and exaggerated his fearful appearance and powers. According to these works of fiction, he could leap over an entire building, glowing eyes and horns appeared, even bat wings! And of course, he could spit blue fire from his mouth at will.

Later publications would portray him as an anti-hero, almost if you will, a prototype Batman! Saving women from peril and babies from burning buildings, his fiendish appearance would terrify villains of the streets of London.

Cover of a Victorian Penny Dreadful
Cover of a Victorian Penny Dreadful

By 1838, everyone had heard of Spring-Heeled Jack. He had grown bolder in his attacks and one evening in London’s East End, a rather disturbing scene unfolded.

A lady by the name of Jane Alsop heard a knock on the door one night, with a voice from outside exclaiming, “I’m a police officer – for God’s sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack in the lane!” Eager to assist, Jane opened the door and ran outside, offering a candle to a tall thin man stood by her gate. Dressed like a policeman with helmet and cloak, the man took the candle from her before it became apparent to the unfortunate woman that he was in fact the villain himself. As the light from the candle illuminated his form, Alsop could see that he was wearing tight white oilskin clothing beneath the cloak, and he had glowing red eyes.

With relish he spat blue and white flames at her, before grabbing the poor woman and holding her head under one of his arms. With his other hand, he began to tear at her face, neck and clothing with claws. Hearing screams, Jane’s sister ran outside, and attempted to fight off the attacker, before bravely dragging the hysterical woman back into the house.

Spring-Heeled Jack followed, and waited at the door, knocking it loudly for several minutes. He only fled when alarmed neighbours arrived at the house. In his haste, he dropped his cape which was witnessed being picked up by an accomplice who too also escaped capture. Quite a crowd had gathered during this alarming episode, and witnesses described at the time how they had seen Spring-Heeled Jack leaping over the rooftops during his escape, clearing great gaps between each street in a single bound. Some even described seeing him climbing up a church steeple.

With an accomplice at hand, there were many who were convinced that Spring-Heeled Jack was no demon, but a mortal man in costume. It was speculated that the blue fire which he could spew forth at his victims was alcohol spat out and ignited through the flame of a candle or small lamp for dramatic effect. But if it was a man, then who could it be?

Spring-Heeled Jack strikes again!
Spring-Heeled Jack strikes again!

With numerous sightings around London, the Police rounded up multiple culprits in a bid to put a stop to these terrifying attacks. A bricklayer named Payne was suspected, as was a carpenter named Millbank who had boasted in the Morgan’s Arms after Alsop’s attack that he was Spring-Heeled Jack. He had dropped white overalls, a greatcoat, and a candle outside Alsop’s House shortly before his arrest. The trial at Lambeth Street Court fell through only when Millbank admitted that he could not breathe fire; Jane having insisted that the man who had attacked her had breathed flame into her face.

The anonymous letter sent to the Lord Mayor had provided another clue. That it was the cruel hi-jinx of a bored noble and his peers. The letter seems to have described poor Jane Alsop’s attack, and a wager that had been made to startle women.

Soon, rumours about aristocrats living in the city spread, with the chief suspect being Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquis of Waterford. The man was famed for his outrageous behaviour and hellraising antics. Having been asked to volunteer to leave Oxford University in his youth, his drunken vandalism, duelling, fighting, and stealing were widely reported in the press which described him as ‘The Mad Marquis’.

In one episode, he had the heels of a parson’s horse painted with aniseed and then hunted the poor animal down with bloodhounds. The phrase “painting the town red” is attributed to the Marquis after he and his fox-hunting friends vandalised Melton Mowbray’s town centre during a drunken rampage, daubing the town centre with stolen red paint. Traces of the paint can still be seen to this day.

At the time of Spring-Heeled Jack’s reign of terror, Henry was young and athletic. A former boxer with a particularly cruel streak and sadistic sense of humour, he was described by E. Cobham Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable of 1880 as a man who “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example.”

The Marquis lived in the area of London where the first attacks occurred in 1837, and after he left London in 1842 to marry and settle down in Ireland, sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack diminished.

Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, dressed in Eglinton armour, by Robert Thorburn (1840). Victoria & Albert Museum.
Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, dressed in Eglinton armour, by Robert Thorburn (1840). Victoria & Albert Museum.

Yet still sightings did occur, and attacks continued, perhaps in copycat fashion. The most serious attack attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack was the murder of a thirteen-year-old prostitute named Maria Davis.

Jack vanished for a number of years until he was sighted in Northamptonshire in 1843. By 1904, the fiend had been spotted all over the country from London to Liverpool, Birmingham to Brighton, and even seems to have appeared in America, escaping every attempt to capture him.

Whether this was a case of a character entering legend and folklore, or copycats seeking to replicate his exploits, Spring-Heeled Jack is still out there; the most recent sighting occurring in Surrey in 2012, when a family was returning home by taxi after a night out. To their alarm, a dark figure darted across the Ewell Bypass in front of their taxi before leaping over a 15 foot embankment [2].

1986 saw him up to his antics in Herefordshire near to the Welsh Border where a former British Army Officer was enjoying a bike ride along a quiet country lane. Noticing movement in the fields to his left, he looked across and saw to his amazement, a man leaping over hedgerows with a single bound. Noticing the cyclist, the dark clad creature then changed his course and raced towards the road, slapping the cyclist hard enough to knock him from his bike, before disappearing. The shocked victim was left with a stinging red handprint on his face for hours.

It would seem that Spring-Heeled Jack lives on in life and legend alike.

Depiction of Spring-Heeled Jack from a Penny Dreadful
Depiction of Spring-Heeled Jack from a Penny Dreadful
The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures
The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures

Winner of the 2013 Katharine Briggs Award, I'd recommend this book as an excellent reference for those wishing to study Spring-Heeled Jack further.

 

© 2018 Pollyanna Jones

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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article. The mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack is definitely intriguing!

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