The first claimed sighting of Spring-heeled Jack was in 1837, during the Victorian era. Later sightings were reported all over Great Britain and were especially prevalent in suburban London, the Midlands and Scotland. This urban legend later became the topic of several works of fiction, due in no small way to his ability to leap great distances and his bizarre appearance. The questions as to his nature and identity has spawned many theories.
Though Jack’s legend began in London the last reported sighting of him is said to have taken place in Liverpool in 1904.
October 1837 Encounter:
Mary Stevens, a servant who worked at Lavender HIll, was walking to work from her parents’ home in Battersea when a strange figure leapt from a dark alley on her way through Clapham Common. Gripping her tightly, he began ripping at her clothes and touching her flesh with cold clammy hands. When she screamed in terror her attacker fled the scene. On hearing the commotion, several residents appeared on the scene and launched an immediate search for her attacker. Despite their quick response, they could find neither hide nor hair of him.
The following day he reappeared, this time leaping in front of a passing carriage, causing the coachman to lose control and crash. The coachman was severely injured in the incident. The incident was witnessed by several people who claimed Jack escaped by leaping over a 9 ft (2.7 m) wall. As he made his get-away, the witnesses heard a high-pitched, ringing laughter coming from him.
Bit by bit, the news of the sinister character spread, and soon the press and the public gave him the name “Spring-heeled Jack”.
later sightings of Jack were reported all over Britain, including the Midlands and Scotland. His hunting ground was expanding. He was described by people who claimed to have seen him as having a terrifying and frightful appearance, with diabolical physiognomy, clawed hands, and eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”. Other aspects to this seemingly supernatural entity are as follows:
He had eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”.
Beneath a black cloak, he wore a helmet and a tight-fitting white garment like an oilskin.
That he possessed a “Devil-like” aspect.
That he was tall and thin, with the appearance of a gentleman.
That he could breathe out blue and white flames and that he wore sharp metallic claws at his fingertips.
That he was able to speak comprehensible English (according to at least two witnesses).
Forerunners To Spring-Heeled Jack.
In the early 19th century, there were reports of ghosts that stalked the streets of London and preyed on lone individuals. These human-like figures, some writers have argued, formed the foundation of the legend to be Spring-heeled Jack. The first was the Hammersmith Ghost, which in 1803 and 1804 was reported in Hammersmith on the western fringes of London.
Another apparition, the Southampton ghost, was also reported as attacking individuals in the night. This particular entity bore many of the characteristics of Spring-heeled Jack, and was reported as jumping over houses and being over 10 ft. (3.0 m) tall.
Some months after the first sightings in 1838 Sir John Cowan, the then Lord Mayor of London, revealed at a public session held in the Mansion House that he had in his possession an anonymous complaint that he had received several days earlier, which he had held back in the hope of obtaining more information. The anonymous correspondent had signed the letter simply as “a resident of Peckham”. In it the writer had penned:
‘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, 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, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.
At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in 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.
The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent’.
Make what you will of the foregoing tales. Are they true? To my way of thinking what they appear to represent is the birth of a legend, based on an hysterical response to the acts of pranksters. With each telling of the tale more embellishments appear in the narratives, no doubt fuelled by the Press and subsequent 19th century “penny dreadfuls”. From ghostly phantasms he morphed into a living, breathing entity with supernatural abilities. By the end of the century, he was firmly rooted in the nomenclature of frightful figures in English folklore.
SPRING HEELED JACK, FICTION BASED ON FACT
By Leanne Perry
‘Spring Heeled Jack’ is mentioned in the book: ‘Jack the Ripper, Letters From Hell’ as a FICTIONAL villain ‘featured in the Penny Dreadfuls’ of the first half of the nineteenth century’. Because of the parallels of this character to the methods used by the Whitechapel murderer of 1888, ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ is seen by the authors as being the inspiration behind the invention of the name: ‘Jack the Ripper’.
In the 1950s Jack took on a new incarnation – that of an alien marooned on Earth. It was a solution that struck a cord with a generation who were mesmerised by the burgeoning space race and flying saucer mystery.
In the spring 1961 issue of flying Saucer Review an article was published, credited to one ‘J. Vyner’, bearing the title “The Mystery of Spingheel Jack”. The author presented a somewhat eccentric and muddled summary of the legend which lacked a single primary reference to his source material. The various assaults that occurred during 1837-38 suggested that Jack was trying desperately to locate somewhere safe to hide, or was perhaps looking for a friendly ‘agent’ who could assist him in locating his misplaced flying saucer.
It strains all credibility to imagine that a supposedly intelligent alien looking for somewhere to hide, or friendly agent to assist him, would then go out and terrify the locals, thereby calling unnecessary attention upon himself.
© David Calvert 2016