S P R I N G - H E E L E D J A C K
The demonic figure of spring-Heeled Jack may have been somewhat pushed aside by the explosive entrance of Jack the Ripper in the late 1800s, taking over the mantle as the darkest Jack in town but this fiery phantom haunted the United Kingdom for decades. The first recorded sighting of Spring-Heeled Jack was in the very first year of the Victorian era, 1837. These sightings continued up until the early 20th century, with his demonic presence haunting the streets of England as late as 1904.
There are many theories about what it was this mystical, mischievous, devilish being was - with the legend spreading far and wide, becoming a household name due to the stories of its strange, inhuman features and the almost magical ability to make extraordinary leaps that even the highest jumpers in the animal kingdom would struggle to perform. Because of all of this and the consistent recurrences of his attacks, he became the topic of numerous works of fiction across the Victorian period.
Spring-Heeled Jack was described by those that claimed to have laid eyes on him as having a horrifying and fear-inducing appearance, with long, clawed hands and eyes that resembled red balls of fire in the darkness. Reports varied on his attire and stature, the most common being that he wore a helmet with a fitted garment in white, with a consistent theme throughout most sightings of a devil-like appearance.
Others claimed he was tall and thin, with the appearance of a gentleman - something that draws comparisons to the famous image of Jack the Ripper. Which, I would argue was more down to the consistent anxiety and frustration the working class living in poverty must have felt watching the wealthy live so comfortably so close by. On top of this, on a more abstract level, several reports mention that he could in fact breathe out blue and white flames from his mouth and that his claws were in fact fixtures, sharp metallic weapons attached to his fingertips. Whilst this being never really spoke, a couple of people did claim that he was able, if it came to it, to speak English.
In October of 1837, a young woman by the name of Mary Stevens had left her parents in Battersea and was making her way towards Lavender Hill where she was currently working as a servant. It was when she was passing through Clapham Common that a strange figure reportedly leapt at her from the shadow of the alleys.
He instantly gripped hold of her arms, using his strength to overpower her whilst kissing her face and ripping away at her clothes so he could feel her skin with his claws that she claimed were ‘cold and clammy as those of a corpse’. In the midst of the horrifying panic, Mary screamed for help with all of her might, drawing out several residents - leaving the devilish attacker to disappear with haste. The residents who had gathered continued their search for the attacker but he was never found.
It was only the next day that the demonic presence reportedly appeared again, this time choosing a very different victim indeed. The currently unnamed assailant reportedly jumped in the way of a passing carriage, causing the driver to lose control, crashing nearby and severely injuring himself. According to several eye witness accounts, the figure cackled in a high-pitched ring of laughter as it jumped clear over a wall. One that was over nine feet in height. Over time, the presence of this being spread across the city until it eventually was caught wind of by the press. Shortly after, the devilish man-like creature was given a name - Spring-Heeled Jack.
It was in February 1838 that Spring-Heeled Jack rose to his most infamous, with the events I covered in my retelling of the legend [Found here]. It must be said that I only added dialogue and content where the narrative required it, I did sincerely try to keep it as factually accurate to the reports of the time as possible, including some of the lines used that were straight out of the witness accounts. The events of story I told of Mary and Lucy were covered by the press - most notably a piece in The Times, one of the biggest newspapers in the UK and one that is still going strong as one of the main sources of news to this very day. After these attacks, strong efforts were put in place by the police to find the culprit of these monstrous, strange crimes but it was all to no avail.
It wasn’t long before Spring-Heeled Jack became one of the most popular characters of the Victorian era in a time long before the ripper walked the streets. His continuous exploits were reported in newspapers up and down the country and had become the subject of several penny dreadfuls. He even appeared in a few plays about the events in the cheaper theatres that were running at the time.
The reports of Spring-Heeled Jack became more commonplace and, some would say inevitably, more outlandish. It was in The Brighton Gazette in April 1838, that a gardener at Rosehill in Sussex had reportedly been terrified by a being of otherworldly prospects. This was picked up on by The Times, who also ran the story claiming that the being had somehow made its way to the Sussex coast. This is where the signs of hyperbole come into play as the incident itself bears no resemblance to any Spring-Heeled Jack case before it. The Gardner had claimed that it had appeared in the shape of a bear or some other four-footed animal. It reportedly caught the gardener’s attention by growling before climbing the garden wall and running along it before jumping to the ground and chasing him. Once it had well and truly frightened the life out of the Gardner, it clambered up the wall once again and left into the darkness. I’m not saying that I believed there ever truly was a fire breathing demon man jumping around London - but what I can say with some certainty is that this story, whether a misunderstanding in the dark or a complete fabrication to garner their fifteen minutes of fame, was not an attack of Spring-Heeled Jack.
This legend was taken seriously by officials at the time, and quite rightly so as there was most definitely something going on in the dark corners of the city. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan held a meeting in January 1838 responding to a number of these reports that were continuing to pop up from all over the city; many of which suggested they attacks were those of people disguised as ghoulish creatures. The Lord Mayor had only recently received an anonymous letter from somebody simply marked as a ‘resident of Peckham’ that suggested a number of aristocratic gentlemen had laid wagers with each other to dress up in various disguises and scare young women. Although sceptical of this, The Mayor still ordered an investigation.
Much like my doubt of the legitimacy of the gardener's run-in with the phantom flame, the police themselves were not convinced that there was a single individual causing such havoc amongst the public. With many believing it was a combination of lies, copycats, opportunists, and those who had started it - a group of people dressing up and carrying out the attacks.
Much later into the decade, at the early doors of the 1870s, the sightings perked up once more in several places across the UK. In November 1872, a report was published in the News of the World about the commotion created in Peckham by what had been labelled the ‘Peckham Ghost’, a mysterious figure, quite alarming in appearance. In this article, they wrote that it was in fact ‘Spring-Heeled Jack, the being who had terrified a past generation’.
Similar stories popped up from several places, each claiming sightings that would later be attributed to that of our spring-heeled friend. With numerous sightings reported in Sheffield in April and May of 1873.
At around 1888, when the world was edging closer to end of the 19th century and Jack the Ripper was now terrorising the streets of London. Further up north, in Liverpool, Spring-Heeled Jack was allegedly spotted on the rooftops of St. Francis Xavier’s Church. In 1904, more reports were put forward of appearances nearby to this; it seemed as if this devilish being would never be away from our thoughts and fears, forever haunting the dark corners of Britain. That was until the horrors of humanity came into our lives through the great wars - and with them, the story of Spring-Heeled Jack sprung away just as fast as he had arrived.
For decades, the influence of Spring-Heeled Jack lived amongst the households of Britain throughout the Victorian years; most notably in London where the name was very much equated with the boogeyman. Children would be told the tales that if they were not to behave as expected of them, they may very well be welcoming Jack to leap up and peer at them through their bedroom windows throughout the night - enough to unsettle the hardiest of children.
Many sceptical investigators, quite rightly have asserted that the story of Spring-heeled Jack was in fact an exaggeration of the truth, altered through mass hysteria. A perfect storm of confusion, fear, imagination, anxieties, and many other sociological issues that contributed to its story. If we were to watch the true events that had occurred on those eye witness accounts in real-time, we would most likely see something far tamer than the Urban Legend it became would suggest.
It is likely that some of these stories are true to the extent that these individuals were in fact attacked, that is something that we must remember - that there were real victims amongst the chaos. It is just harder to appreciate, understand, or see, amongst the city smog that crept down every crevice of this story, filling it with so much that it blurs the lines of fact and fiction. Britain has always been a mixture of countries built upon folklore and tales of mythological beings. Superstition is very much in our blood and our will to believe without question clouds our clarity when an event occurs that we wish to be true, even against our better judgement.
The streets of London in the 19th century were rapidly changing due to the industrial revolution. Mechanics that ran with water and steam led to Britain becoming the leading commercial nation of the world. Factories must have seemed to those that walked the streets to be being built on every corner, towers blowing dark smog into the air, blocking so much natural light with the grey smoke of the new age. The newly created trains and forms of transport across the country created what must have felt like a smaller, more connected Britain, with more and more people heading into the capital, looking for an opportunity to better themselves and their lives. Bringing with them their different cultures, ideas, folklores, and tales from every town and village and slamming them together into the mixing pot of a city. The streets had grown crowded and cramped with disease and illness running wild across the working-class families due to a mixture of poverty, poor hygiene, and an undeveloped understanding of medicine and with all of this would come anxieties and fears that manifest themselves into the stories we tell.
Essays have been written time and time again about how cinema reflects the times of our society. With joyful, happy films, filled with laughter and music coming shortly after the war. With what seems like every action film having an evil Russian as they bad guy in the late 80’s - early ’90s during the Cold War - to the camp superhero movies of the ’90s that changed in a full U-Turn to a dark, serious world after the events of 9/11. Those in the 19th century had no cinema’s to head to, no televisions to represent their fears and anxieties to release them in some cathartic manner. Instead, they were told and retold in the form of stories. Perhaps somebody took this to the extreme, becoming the embodiment of these fears like a real-life supervillain. In a new world of smoke, metal and fire, it all seems far too coincidental that the being that the country feared for so long was himself pieced together with metal and fire.
Although I do not believe in the devilish creature that is Spring-Heeled Jack, I am fascinated by the psychology at play regarding the events of the Victorian period. Several claims to the origins of this paranormal being have been put forward, bringing out vastly different interpretations and beliefs. Some believe that Jack was an extraterrestrial entity with a body that closely represents ours with key differences. This belief suggests that its eyes were in fact reflective and this is what would confuse the victims into believing they were seeing fire shining from inside their sockets. The belief continues to explain that its breath was phosphorus and that its superhuman ability to jump so high was due to a high-gravity world in which it originated from, requiring far stronger legs than we needed on earth. Others suggest that the origin is more supernatural than Sci-fi, claiming that it was in fact a demon that had either accidentally or purposefully been summoned into this world by those who were practitioners of the occult. It had even been suggested that it was perhaps manifested to our plane purposefully, with no other agenda than to create turmoil and chaos amongst the citizens of London and further afield.
There is no denying that there was objectively a large amount of hyperbole regarding this Urban Legend - to that, most agree, with the reality mixing with the caricatures that had been created in the penny dreadful’s, or the stories being retold with accidental embellishments as it misremembered and misreported, only opening themselves up for accidental and yet inevitable changes. Although most agree on these indisputable facts of the days gone by; where the voices differ is simply where the fact ends and the fiction begins.