The Leaping Boogeyman Who Terrorized Victorian England

The Leaping Boogeyman Who Terrorized Victorian England

Patrick Lynch - October 24, 2017

Spring Heeled Jack is a well-known part of Victorian folklore. He was first sighted in 1837, and dozens of witnesses claimed to have seen him over the next few decades. Those who saw him say Jack had eyes like red balls of fire and clawed hands and he apparently could make jump incredible distances while also breathing fire. The last sighting was in 1904 and while tales of his remarkable agility and fire-breathing prowess are obviously complete fiction, was there really some kind of caped mischief-maker, or a group of them, causing havoc on the streets of Britain?

Spring Heeled Jack Leaps into Folklore

The first mention of the creature came in 1837 when a businessman in England’s Black County area was stunned when a cloaked figure leaped at him from the darkness in a local cemetery. It proceeded to jump over the high gates, and the frightened man ran away as soon as possible.

His story wasn’t believed until October 1837 when a servant girl named Mary Stevens had a close encounter. She was walking through Clapham Common in London when suddenly, a strange creature jumped at her from a dark alley. He grabbed her tightly and began kissing her while also ripping off her clothes. Stevens later claimed that her attacker touched her body with ‘claws’ and said they were as cold and clammy as a corpse. She screamed, and the noise alerted a crowd. The attacker fled, and a search party was unable to find any trace of him.

The Leaping Boogeyman Who Terrorized Victorian England
Possibly a depiction of the first-ever sighting of Spring Heeled Jack. Anomalies

The bizarre creature struck again the very next day when he leaped in front of a passing carriage. His actions caused the driver to crash into a lamp post. He was lucky not to die, and several witnesses report seeing the figure, clad in black, escape by leaping over a nine-foot wall. He was apparently babbling and laughing maniacally. The media of the day quickly latched onto the story and began calling the creature ‘Spring Heeled Jack.’

The Legend Grows

The next famous encounter with Spring Heeled Jack occurred on February 19, 1838, when Jane Alsop heard someone pounding on her front door. She answered and saw a man in a large cloak who claimed to be a police officer. He told her that he had caught Spring-Heeled Jack in the lane outside and needed someone to bring him a candle. She followed him out, but when she gave him the candle, the creature threw off his cloak and revealed a frightening face complete with red eyes.

Alsop claimed he breathed blue flames and tore at her clothes with his metal claws. She ran back home, and her father and sister managed to pull her inside, but not before Jack slashed her neck and arms. Just one week later, Jack attacked Lucy Scales and her sister in London’s Green Dragon Alley.

The two women saw a man in a cloak standing in the alley; he suddenly leaped in front of Lucy and breathed blue flames in her face. She was blinded and fell to the ground. The girls later said he carried a lantern just like the police in London. The city was now gripped in terror, but the beast had only just begun.

The Leaping Boogeyman Who Terrorized Victorian England
Depiction of Spring Heeled Jack. Ancient Origins

Panic on the Streets of London

Although the attacks perpetrated by Jack were at best embellished and at worst, complete fiction, it is interesting to note that there were a large number of reports about this cloaked figure in London at the time. The situation got so bad that a letter referring to the demon’s deeds was published in The Times. By this stage, ‘Jack’ had attacked a total of seven women.

The Mayor then ordered the police to track down the fiend and offered a reward for any information leading to Jack’s capture. They found nothing and over the years, tales of Jack’s deeds were exaggerated. In each successive story, he became more evil, leaped higher and possessed sharper claws. The story of Jack was so well known that he was blamed for almost every instance where a victim was attacked by someone in the shadows.

Later Sightings

Given the notoriety enjoyed by Jack, it isn’t surprised to learn that a few local fools tried to claim responsibility. One noteworthy instance occurred in the aftermath of the attack on Jane Alsop. Thomas Millbank boasted that he was Spring-Heeled Jack in a pub and was arrested by James Lea, the man who caught the infamous Red Barn Murderer, William Corder.

What’s interesting is the fact that while Millbank obviously wasn’t Jack, he almost certainly attacked Alsop. He had been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat on the night in question and dropped the coat after attacking Alsop. The police even found the candle he dropped but incredibly, he escaped conviction because Alsop insisted that her attacker breathed fire and Millbank acknowledged that he was unable to perform that feat.

Sightings of Jack declined barring a wave of them in 1843. After that, he was spotted every few years in different parts of the UK. In reality, these attacks were carried out by different individuals and the hysteria surrounding Spring-Heeled Jack ensured he received the ‘credit.’ One such instance occurred in 1847 in Devon when a Captain Finch was convicted of assault on two women. During the two separate incidents, Finch wore horns and a mask, a skullcap and a skin coat probably made from the hide of a bullock.

One of the most famous later ‘sightings’ of Jack occurred in 1877 at Aldershot’s barracks when a sentry spotted a strange figure moving towards him in the darkness. After issuing a challenge which went unheeded, the sentry was stunned when the figure leaped at him and began slapping him in the face. The sentry claimed that he shot the figure, but the bullets had no impact. In all likelihood, if he did shoot, he probably used blanks. Finally, the figure leaped away with incredible speed.

Jack was allegedly chased and shot at in Lincolnshire in 1877, while the last ever sighting occurred in Liverpool in 1904. While Spring Heeled Jack was never caught, there are plenty of theories. I will look at one of the most favored on the next page.

The Leaping Boogeyman Who Terrorized Victorian England
Henry Beresford The 3rd Marquis of Waterford. Wikipedia

Was It the Mad Marquis?

The most likely explanation was that the people of Victorian England allowed hysteria to get the better of them. There had been stories of bogeymen and devils for centuries, and it wouldn’t take much to begin such a crazy rumor. A few decades before the first sightings of Spring Heeled Jack, there was a myriad of tales which suggested there were ghosts that haunted the streets of London. One of the most famous was the Hammersmith Ghost in 1803 and 1804.

While some of the ‘victims’ were probably nothing more than attention seekers, there is no question that a number of them were attacked by someone. As I mentioned earlier, Jane Alsop’s attacker was very much human, and two attacks attributed to Jack were perpetrated by Captain Finch. It seems certain that Jack was mentioned every time a person was genuinely attacked in the middle of the 19th century, especially in London.

There is also a suggestion that one person was responsible for the initial London attacks in 1837 and 1838. Even at the height of the hysteria, more sensible souls blamed everything on a group of young aristocrats. The prime suspect has to be Henry de La Poer Beresford, otherwise known as the Marquis of Waterford. He was known as a drunken hooligan and is apparently the inspiration behind the phrase ‘painting the town red.’ Along with a group of equally drunk friends, Beresford vandalized a small town, beat up policemen, stole red paint and threw it all over the town.

His behavior earned him the nickname ‘the Mad Marquis’ and his contempt towards women was well known. Also, Beresford was in London at the time of the attacks, so it isn’t much of a reach to suggest he was heavily involved if not the actual perpetrator. There is also an outside possibility that with his wealth and contacts, he was able to create some device that gave the appearance of fire-breathing although that’s unlikely.

The attacks on London were fairly short-lived, and this fits in with the rest of Beresford’s life. He got married in 1842 and moved to Waterford, Ireland to live with his new wife. By all accounts, he was a changed man thereafter and was well behaved until his death in a riding accident in 1859.

The legend of Spring-Heeled Jack lived on long after his initial London spree, and he became known as a bogeyman in folklore. Tales of his deeds were told to scare children into behaving, and he was featured in numerous publications and comics. Jack has also been used as an inspiration for television programs and video games. There have even been sightings of a monster similar to Jack in other countries around the world including in the United States.