Spring Heeled Jack
What is Spring-Heeled Jack? He was seen first in London in 1837 but later when his fame spread, there were sightings all over England and in Scotland too, but mainly he is a spectre of the urban landscape.
He was called Spring-Heeled Jack because he could leap to enormous heights, and so of course, the Victorians wondered whether he had springs in his shoes! Because his appearance was so devilish, it’s easy to think that maybe the sightings were due to a devil hysteria in a Christian country, which Britain was in 1837, and in fact the United Kingdom was undergoing an evangelical revival with the growth of Methodism and a building of chapels across the country.
Jack was described as having hands with claws – on one account at least, metal talons — and eyes like balls of red fire. There are some bizarre aspects to his description though. He had a black cloak – fine – but underneath the cloak he wore a skin-tight suit that was shiny like an oilskin. He was also supposed to wear a helmet. Another almost dragon-like feature was his ability to breathe blue fire.
The story goes that in October 1837, Mary Stevens was walking near Clapham Junction Station heading for Clapham Common in South London, when she was attacked by a strange man. She said he gripped her tightly and tried to kiss her before ripping at her clothes with his cold, clammy claws. Mary shrieked in alarm and the character fled. Hearing her calls for help several local men appeared but though they searched, they couldn’t find Mary’s attacker. However, that wasn’t the end of it. This strange character was next seen landing from the sky in front of a carriage and panicked the driver and his horses before jumping off again, allegedly leaping easily over a nine foot wall, while laughing hysterically.
This report caught the public’s imagination and stories of the weird Spring-Heeled Jack circulated in local newspapers and penny dreadfuls. It may also be true that certain mischievous people deliberately dressed up as monsters to scare maids and unwitting travellers on foggy London nights. That reminds me of the Killer Clown craze of 2016.
There are many accounts of these monsters and ghosts but none really resembles Jack until 19 February 1838 at Bearbinder Lane (now gone, but apparently in 1589 ‘a place of no great account’). The lane ran into St Swithin’s Lane at Bow in East London. On the night in question at quarter to nine, Jane was at home when there came a violent ringing at the gate outside the house. She went to see who was there and saw a man who said he was a policeman and this man told Jane “ For Heaven’s sake, bring me a light for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane.’ Jane fetched a candle while the so-called policeman waited and saw by its light this man wore a large cloak. Nothing suspicious so far, he was a policeman after all and in those days they wore cloaks.
She followed him into the alley and there was no one there. Still not suspicious, she gave him the candle and at that instant, he threw off his cloak and he vomited blue and white flames into her face. His eyes glowed like red fire and he wore a tight fitting oilskin suit and a large helmet. He started to rip at her clothes with his metallic claws, which were like Mary Stevens described, as cold as ice. Jane screamed and ran and he pursued her but her sisters came out of the house and between them, managed to rescue her from Jack and he fled. They dragged Jane into the house and the man stood outside banging the gate until the sister shouted from an upstairs for the police.
Only eight days after the attack on Jane Alsop, an eighteen year old girl called Lucy Scales was walking with her sister not far from the previous attack in East London. They’d been to see their brother who was a butcher and who lived in Narrow Street, Limehouse, just west of the Isle of Dogs. As they passed Green Dragon Alley (yes, I know Bearbinder Lane and Green Dragon Alley sound right out of Harry Potter, what can I say?) she chanced to see a cloaked figure lurking up there. As she came up, he spurted blue flame into her face, blinding her. She fell to the ground in seizures. Her brother, whose house they’d only just left, heard their screams and ran out of his house. He found Lucy on the floor fitting with her sister holding onto her. The brother didn’t get the full story till both sisters accompanied him home. Lucy said this man was tall and thin, with a large cloak and carrying a bullseye lantern such as used by the police. She said he appeared to be a gentleman in social standing and that she didn’t remember him laying a hand on her. A search was made by the police, but they found no one.
A report of this attack appeared in the London Times of 2 March 1838 and one foolish man called Thomas Millbank was in the Morgan’s Arms pub and boasted he was Spring Heeled Jack. He was arrested but set free when he couldn’t breathe blue flame.
There were lots of alarms and hysteria about Jack and sightings were reported across England, but none to my mind are particularly convincing. Then, forty years later, in November 1872 ,the south London borough of Peckham was terrified by the Peckham Ghost that some said was Spring-heeled Jack returned.
This seemed to stir Jack up and he was seen again and again until a group of soldiers on sentry duty at Aldershot Barracks in Hampshire, thirty miles south west of London, reported a visitation. A sentry at North Camp saw a shadowy figure coming towards him and issued a challenge, at which point the figure came up beside him and slapped him repeatedly in the face. The guard shot him but the bullets did not good. Then he disappeared into the darkness ‘with astonishing bounds’.
His last sighting was in Liverpool, but I know of no further sightings in London.