16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack

Natasha sheldon - October 29, 2018

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
“Spring-Heeled Jack jumping over a gate.” Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

14. Spring Heeled Jack had strange abilities that were seen to be of either supernatural or scientific origin.

Spring Heeled Jack was supposedly incredibly quick on his feet, allowing him to flee the scene of his crimes without a trace. However, his primary skill was his ability to leap into the air to an improbable height. One of the first descriptions of this ability came in the aftermath of the initial attacks in 1837 when a businessman reported seeing a ‘leaping man’ on Barnes Common. Witnesses credited Jack with the ability to leap over obstacles between six and twenty feet in height. After Jane Alsop’s attack, he was said to have leaped straight into the air- and disappeared. As a result, many people took this as proof that Spring Heeled Jack had a supernatural origin.

However, Spring Heeled Jack left proof of a more earthly explanation. In the aftermath of the Mary Steven’s attack on Clapham Common, investigators discovered three-inch deep footprints near Clapham church- each bearing the marks of a spring. This discovery was followed on December 30thby descriptions by the residents of Lewisham of a figure wearing a bearskin and sprung shoes that allowed him to “jump to and fro before foot passengers.”

However, the ability to jump to great heights was not Spring Heeled Jack’s only alarming ability. For both Lucy Scales and Jane Alsop said that their attacker was able to conjure forth flames from nowhere. Jane Alsop described how her attacker “vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth. ” while Lucy Scales described how hers spurted “a quantity of blue flame” into her face. As a result, Lucy fell to the floor, unable to see and terrified.

During the aftermath of her attack, Lucy Scales suffered from violent fits. The Morning Post reported that the police believed Miss Scale’s indisposition was caused by her assailant “blowing through a tube in which spirits of wine, sulfur, and another ingredient were deposited and ignited.” However, not everyone was so sure that science was the key.

 

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Sike’s burglary. From “Oliver Twist” 1871. Woodcut illustration by James Mahoney. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

13. Part of the terror of Spring Heeled Jack was he made people feel unsafe in their own homes.

Jane Alsop’s story is the earliest clear, contemporary description of one of Spring Heeled Jack’s attacks. The violence of the attack was bad enough. However what made it worse was the fact that Jane’s assailant had explicitly selected her and lured her out of her own home- rather than attacking her on the street. Jane had been inside the house when she heard the “violent ringing” of the house bell. When she went to find out what the commotion was about, she heard a man she thought was a policeman tell her to “bring me a light; we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane.” It was only once Jane opened the door that her assailant attacked her.

Even when Jane was back in the house, having been rescued by her elder sister, Mrs. Susan Harrison, Jack persisted in terrorizing the women by knocking on the door until they managed to call out for the police. If the Alsop case had been an isolated instance, people might have been less concerned. However, later in the month, another home was targeted.

One day in late February 1838, there was a knock at the door of the House of a Mr. Ashworth of 2 Turner Street, Commercial Road. Before answering the door, the servant boy looked out and observed that the unexpected visitor had “a most hideous appearance.” It was so bad; that the boy screamed for help and the mystery caller ran away. Spring Heeled Jack might have been easy enough to drive away if a householder had company. However, for those alone, the prospect of a visitation by a hideous, fire-breathing villain must have been an uneasy prospect.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Public Session at the Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. C 1840. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

12. Spring Heeled Jack’s motive seems to have been to cause fear

The motivation behind Spring Heeled Jack’s attacks was perplexing. For although the attacks were undoubtedly vicious, neither were they rape or robberies. On the whole, society classed Jack’s attacks as ‘pranks’ and ‘outrages.’ However, they were ‘jokes’ that caused a great deal of distress to the victims. In January 1838, just before the attacks on Alsop and Scales, Sir John Cowan, the mayor of London revealed the contents of an anonymous letter he had received to a public meeting in the Mansion House. The letter, simply signed “a resident of Peckham,” revealed amongst other things, that Spring Heeled Jacks’ activities had resulted in at least seven ladies losing of their senses. Two were unlikely to recover. One maidservant answering the door had been sent into a fatal swoon by simply by Jack’s frightening appearance.

There were numerous similar accounts in the newspapers. Reporters undoubtedly exaggerated some of the details for effect. However, Spring Heeled Jack’s attacks did cause genuine trauma. For the cases of Lucy Scales and Jane Alsop were thoroughly investigated and documented by the police. These accounts show that terror and intimidation rather than physical harm were on Jack’s agenda. Jack’s attacks were undoubtedly vicious. He held Lucy Alsop in a headlock and tore out her hair. He also breathed fire at both women and scratched their flesh and tore their clothing. This violence was not designed to cause lasting physical damage. It would, however, have caused immediate, observable terror.

To cause and enjoy the palpable fear of his victims seems to have been Spring Heeled Jack’s primary aim. It was for this reason he stayed outside Lucy Alsop’s home after her rescue, to watch the women of the house panic over his presence. According to one report, the wager according to which Spring John plays his pranks, runs that he is to kill six females with fright.

Then there was the aftermath of his attacks. For through the newspaper’s Jack would have learned that Lucy Scales was left “suffering from hysterics and great agitation, in all probability the result of fright.”These newspaper stories allowed Spring Heeled Jack himself to enjoy the lasting effects of his outrages long after he had left the scene of the crime.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Sir Edward Codrington, a hero of Trafalgar, by Henry Perronet Briggs. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

11. Such was the fear of Spring Heeled Jack that Napoleonic Heroes organized special patrols and took to the streets to hunt him.

The public, faced by the prospect of being frightened senseless by a leaping maniac from which not even bricks and mortar could protect them were undoubtedly alarmed. Pressure grew on the authorities to do something- especially when the attacks reached the city of London itself and began to threaten the affluent classes. The Lord Mayor of London, after initially believing that newspaper accounts had made “the greatest exaggerations” regarding Spring Heeled Jack’s activities changed his mind and decided the matter needed serious attention.

The police were instructed to hunt down Spring Heeled Jack. Special patrols were organized to roam the streets. One of the organizers of these vigilante groups was reputed to be the Duke of Wellington. Now aged seventy, the victor of Waterloo had supposedly taken to horseback armed with his pistols to hunt down the vicious nuisance. The Duke’s private papers, however, do not substantiate his involvement in any search for Spring Heeled Jack. But, another Napoleonic hero is known to have involved himself in the hunt for Spring Heeled Jack. Admiral Edward Codrington, who fought in the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Navarino, did not take to the streets himself. However, he did offer a reward for Spring Heeled Jack’s capture.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Early Victorian Gentlemen. Google Images.

10. Some people believed Spring Heeled Jack was, in fact, a group of aristocratic tricksters

However, the matter of Spring Heeled Jack was complicated because no one was certain if they were looking for one man- or a whole group. Some witnesses claimed that Spring Heeled Jack had an accomplice who helped him. After Jane Alsop’s attack, Spring Heeled Jack reputedly dropped his cloak in the lane- and left it behind as he fled the police. However, when the officers went to investigate, the garment had disappeared, leading them to suspect someone had retrieved it for him.

Others, however, believed the attacks were the work of a group rather than one individual. On Sunday, February 25, The Morning Herald’ described the attack on Mr. Ashworth at Commercial Road as being perpetrated by “one of the ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ gang.” Despite being frightened, the servant boy who observed the visitor noted a family crest adorned the visitor’s cloak. This exclusive motif leaned credence to a growing theory that the’ gang’ were aristocrats, getting their kicks from frightening the ordinary people of London.

The letter to the Lord Mayor of London had started this belief in aristocratic involvement when its author, the mysterious “resident of Peckham” described how the attacks began as the result of a wager laid by individuals from “the highest ranks of life.” However, the letter did not suggest those who laid the wager were directly involved in their attacks- only a “mischievous and foolhardy companion.” Rumors began to spread about the identity of that individual.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Miniature of the Marquess of Waterford dressed in Eglinton armor by Robert Thorburn, c 1840. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

9. Others believed that Spring Heeled Jack was The Marquis of Waterford.

The idea that Spring Heeled Jack was an aristocrat began to grow out of the earliest reports of his crimes. Lucy Scales and her sister described how he had the demeanor of a ‘gentleman” However, even before Lucy’s attack, reports were coming in that substantiated the assertion of the letter received by the Mayor of London that Spring Heeled Jack was an aristocrat. The Times, on January 10, 1838, reported how a Thomas Lott of Bow Street had reported “some individual gentleman” who “drives about with a livery servant in a cab and throwing off a cloak, appears in these frightful forms and is to win a wager by the joke.”

Early Victorian London had the perfect candidate for an aristocratic Spring Heeled Jack: Henry Beresford, The 3rdMarquis of Waterford. An Irish nobleman, Waterford was considered eccentric at best. In the 1830’s he had a reputation for drunken brawling, vandalism- and rather unpleasant jokes. In 1880, E. Cobham Brewer, the original author of Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fables noted how the Marquis liked to “amuse himself by springing on travelers unawares, to frighten them.”

These unrestrained and erratic behaviors earned Waterford the epithet the “mad Marquis.” His persona fitted that of Spring Heeled Jack to a tee. He was just the sort of person to be roaming about in disguise playing frightening tricks upon people- especially women for whom he reputedly had nothing but contempt. However, although he was wild, the ‘mad Marquis” was never vicious. All that linked Waterford to Spring Heeled Jack was his reputation. However, the evidence suggested they could not be the same person. For when Jack was carrying out attacks in April 1837, The Marquis was being tried at the Derby assizes for an assault at Croxton Park Races.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
The former magistrate’s Court, Lambeth, London. Picture by Reading Tom. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

8. The Authorities never Convicted anyone for the Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the case of Spring Heeled Jack for the populace of London was that the courts never convicted anyone for his crimes. That is not to say that there was any shortage of suspects. Shortly after the Jane Alsop incident, a man called Thomas Millbank was tried at Lambeth Street Court for her assault. For Millbank had been overheard boasting in a local pub, the Morgan Arm’s that he was Spring Heeled Jack.

The arresting officer, James Lea who had also arrested the Red Barn murderer, was sure he had the right man. When Lea arrested him, Millbank was wearing white overalls similar to those worn by Jane Alsop’s attacker. Investigations uncovered a discarded great coat and candle nearby. However, Millbank escaped conviction because Jane Alsop insisted that her attacker had breathed fire out of her mouth- and Thomas Millbank admitted he could do no such thing.

Another potential suspect was Charles Grenville whose case was reported by The Examiner newspaper. Grenville’s appearance certainly fit the bill. The Examiner described him as “a tall, ill-favored young man” who fitted descriptions of Spring Heeled Jack gangly, unusual appearance. Grenville was caught after frightening a number of women and children with behavior similar to the “silly and dangerous pranks of Spring-heeled Jack.” However, no one seriously believed Grenville could be Spring Heeled Jack. For the young man was too simple-minded to have orchestrated his crimes, undetected across London.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Aldershot Barracks, North Camp, Centre Road (1866) Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

7. Spring Heeled Jack began to appear all over the British Isles.

Whoever he was, Spring Heeled Jack did not restrict himself to London. Soon he was spreading north, passing up through the Midlands into the north of England- even Scotland. One of Jack’s most notable non-London appearances was to a group of soldiers at Aldershot Barracks in Hampshire. One night in August 1877, a sentry was on guard duty in the North Camp when he observed most peculiar figure “advancing towards him” out of the darkness.

The soldier challenged the mysterious individual and ordered them to halt and identify themselves. The person did no such thing. Instead, they audaciously approached the solider and slapped him about the face. Once he had recovered, the startled soldier fired warning shots at his assailant. Unharmed and “with astonishing bounds” the audacious prankster disappeared once again into the darkness.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack were especially prevalent in the Midlands of England, especially the area around the industrial Black Country between 1855 and the 1880s. One of Jack’s earliest sightings in the region was in Sandwell, near Dudley. Jack was seen leaping from the roof of the Cross Inn onto that of a neighboring butcher’s shop. However, when he was not leaping about the rooftops, Spring Heeled Jack continued to terrorize young women. In September 1886, The Birmingham Post reported how a young girl suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder. When she turned around, she was terrified to find herself face to face with “The infernal one with a glowing face,” who bid her “a good evening.”

Spring Heeled Jacks’ last reported sighting was in Everton in Liverpool in 1904. He was seen leaping up and down the streets before jumping onto the rooftops and bounding away, never to be seen again. However, it was not just the fact that the phenomenon of Spring Heeled Jack was spreading countrywide that was alarming but the time frame over which he continued to appear. For Jack materialized in various places at various times over a seventy-year period. During this time, Spring Heeled Jack never aged, continuing to manifest as a young man, agile man. There were various explanations for this.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Beatrix Potter by Charles King, c 1913. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

6. Spring Heeled Jack may have kept on manifesting over a seventy-year period because he spawned a series of Copy Cats.

The first explanation for the continued manifestation of Spring Heeled Jack was the alarming possibility that the original had inspired a new generation of copycats. In November 1872, Peckham was left “in a state of commotion” due to the appearance of a Spring Heeled Jack wannabe known as the “Peckham Ghost.” The News of the World described this new urban terror as “Spring Heeled Jack who terrified a past generation.” Some people may well have been taken in by this sensationalist headline and believed that Jack was back in London. However, many other people were cynical.

One of those cynics was the writer and artist Beatrix Potter. On March 1, 1877, Potter noted that: “There has been a most singular nuisance going on since Christmas around Manchester. A gang of young men calling themselves Spring-heeled Jacks have been going about in the dusk and frightening people. They wore India-rubber dresses which would puff up at will to a great size, horns, a lantern and springs in their boots.” These counterfeit Jacks terrorized both men and young women- and stole to boot- the one factor that differentiated them from their early Victorian inspiration.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
“Man Frightened by a Ghost” from “The Wild Boys of London; or, the Children of Night,” 1866. Wikimedia Commons. Originally posted to Flickr by The British Library. No known copyright restrictions.

5. However, many people believed Spring Heeled Jack was of Supernatural Origin.

However, other people believed the original Spring Heeled Jack had never gone away- because he was no mere mortal. Right from the first moment, Jack had ‘sprung’ into the public eye, many of the general public believed he was a supernatural entity. The Morning Chronicle of 1838 described how the residents of Peckham believed they were being plagued not by a man but by ‘the pranks of the ghost, imp or devil”. In these accounts, Spring Heeled Jack took on the shape of a white bull or bear and would prey upon helpless women and children- or anyone who went out at night without a lantern or a stoat stick.

People credited Spring Heeled Jack with a supernatural origin because, despite advances in science and technology, many people in late Georgian and early Victorian England still had one foot in the superstitious past. In the early years of the nineteenth century, some even believed that malignant spirits roamed the streets of London. Not content with lurking in the shadows, these specters were thought to actively terrifying passers-by.

Some of the ghosts simply frightened their victims by stalking them through the fog and poorly lit streets as they walked alone by night. Others however actually attacked them. In 1826, a figure known as the Southampton ghost was reputed to have assaulted its victims. Described as being masked, wearing steel armor and able to jump over 10ft walls, the ‘ghost’ bore many of the characteristics later attributed to Spring Heeled Jack.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Spring Heeled Jack. Google Images.

4. Other people thought that Spring Heeled Jack was a Madman – or an Alien!

The crimes committed by Spring Heeled Jack were so bizarre that many people believed the perpetrator – or some of the imitators, at least- were insane. Many years after Jack made his final appearance on the rooftops of Liverpool, another version of this particular appearance of Spring Heeled Jack emerged. In this version, Jack was not merely leaping from roof to roof and showing off to passers-by. Instead, he was a mentally ill man fleeing the police.

The 1967 newspaper article explained that the individual in question was a man suffering from religious mania. As he leaped across the rooftops he was supposed to have been heard to cry, “My wife is the devil.” This story may have been twentieth-century society’s attempt to retrospectively lend the concept of Spring Heeled Jack a more rational explanation. How accurate it is of the multitude of ‘Jacks’ who sprang up over the years is debatable.

Another, less rational twentieth-century explanation of Spring Heeled Jack is that he was neither a human or supernatural being but a creature from another world. From the 1950’s onwards, theorists have suggested that Spring Heeled Jack could have been a humanoid alien, stranded on earth, therefore offering an explanation for his odd clothes, features, abilities- and the fact he kept appearing over a long period.

It is significant that a high proportion of those who saw him was convinced that he was not of this world, but either a spirit or a visitor from some distant planet,” said British Radio presenter Valentine Dyall in Everyman Magazine in 1954. This article prompted a response from Inman Race of Sheffield who suggested that Jack’s alien origins explained why he could jump so high. “A Being, reared on a planet where gravity was far greater than on earth would be able to leap colossal distances on THIS planet.‘ he maintained.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Punch cartoon, The Nemesis of Neglect, by John Tenniel, relating to the Ripper Murders. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

3. Spring Heeled Jack Gave his name to ‘Jack’ the Ripper

Although violent, Spring Heeled Jack never inflicted physical injuries upon his victims that would have killed them. However, that did not stop locals in the poorer areas of London from associating him with violent crimes. In the 1860’s, Jack became tenuously associated with the murder of Maria Davis, a prostitute from the slums of Jacob Island in Bermondsey. One of Maria’s clients reputedly killed her by pushing her over a bridge into an open Sewer called Folly’s Ditch. Although the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘Death by Misadventure’ and Maria’s death was quite unlike any of Spring Heeled Jack’s normal attacks, the locals maintained he was the culprit.

This association between Spring Heeled Jack and attacks on women lingered. Then the late 1880s, the Whitechapel murders began. As with the Maria Davis case, the only thing the Ripper murder’s had in common with the activities of Spring Heeled Jack was that the victims were women. For Jack may have roughed his victims up and ripped their clothes. However, the physical injuries he inflicted never went beyond a few scratches.

However, in the popular mind, Spring Heeled Jack immediately became associated with the attacks. In fact, the murderer- or someone pretending to be him even began to use his name. One of the earliest letters sent to the Metropolitan police, supposedly from the Ripper himself was signed Spring Heel Jack: The Whitechapel Murderer.” Soon, the anonymous letter writer was signing himself just ‘Jack.’ This new “Terror of London” traded on not only the name but the reputation of Spring Heeled Jack. And so, Jack the Ripper was born.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Ad for a Spring Heeled Jack penny dreadful – January 8th, 1886. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

 

2. Spring-Heeled Jack became the New Bogeyman of Victorian Society

The Ripper Murders were just one example of how Spring Heeled Jack had become Victorian society’s new bogeyman. Parents began to use the threat of Spring Heeled Jack to scare their children into submission. However, the danger of a brush with Spring Heeled Jack was not just used against children. In the Black Country, local preachers used Spring Heeled Jack as a warning against the perils of getting drunk- or drinking at all.

It was not just the temperance movement that employed Spring Heeled Jack. For he also became a crucial player in Victorian morality tales. One such story appeared in Franklin’s Miscellany in 1838. In “The Spring Jack” written by a “Peter PiperSpring Heeled Jack visits a pub in Peckham Rye where his devilish antics force the landlord to mend his ways. After Spring Heeled Jack melts his pots and burns his provisions, the landlord begins to “punctually attend the neighboring church.” He also ensures that he stops cheating his customers by making sure he “filled his pots and given good measure.”

In short, Spring Heeled Jack’s story captured the popular imagination. Henry Mayhew in his Labour and the London Poor shows the character of the devil in Punch and Judy shows was renamed Spring Heeled Jack. Jack also became the villainous subject of several plays. The perfect embodiments of this were the popular Penny Dreadfuls, cheap magazines of sensationalist stories. Here, Spring Heeled Jack was portrayed either as an object of horror- or a kind of Victorian superhero.

16 Frightening Details in the Story of Spring Heeled Jack
Spring Heeled Jack, English Penny Dreadful, c 1890

 

1. Ultimately, Spring-Heeled Jack had his roots in the past and grew as a reaction to social change

The fear surrounding the phenomenon of Spring Heeled Jack was the result of a conflict between progress and tradition. On the one hand, the Victorian age was an era of technological development. The industrial revolution was in full swing and humanity was more in control of its environment than ever before. These changes were accompanied by a vast shift of the majority of the population from country to town. Many of these urban migrants still believed in the power of the supernatural. So, they brought their rural superstitions went with them.

The character and name of Spring Heeled Jack found his echo in many ancient mischief-making figures of rural British Culture. “Jack-in-the-Green,” another name for Puck or the Green Man, was one, an anti-hero or mischief maker who accompanied the May Queen in May Day processions. Another was Jack O’Kent, a figure from the Welsh borders who made a pact with the devil. Mischief-making aside, Spring Heeled Jack’s speed can be attributed to another legendary character, Jack Robinson. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1811 described this character as “a very volatile gentleman..who would call on his neighbors and be gone before his name could be announced.”

These rural traditions moved into the town from the country in much the same way as the concept of Spring Heeled Jack moved from the rural fringes into London itself. Here, as people tried to make sense of the strange new world they found themselves in, these old beliefs and fears mutated. As such, Spring-Heeled Jack can be seen as a hybrid of ancient and modern, town and country, old fears and new.

 

Where Do We Get this Stuff? Here are our sources:

Spring Heeled Jack, Wikipedia

Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained, Una McGovern, Chambers, 2007

Spring-Heeled Jack, Chris Upton, Black Country: Legacies, Local to you (BBC), 2003

Spring-Heeled Jack, Ellen Castelow, Historic UK

Spring-Heeled Jack, The Scotsman, October 7, 2006

Spring-Heeled Jack: the Terror of London, Mackley, J. S, Aeternum: the Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies. 3(2), pp. 1­20. 2324­4895, 2016

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero, John Matthews, Simon, and Schuster, 2016

Bogeyman or Spaceman? The legend of Spring-heeled Jack, Dr. David Clarke, Paranormal Magazine, March 2010

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Adrian Room, Cassell, 2001

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