Have you ever walked home alone at night and been convinced that someone is watching you, ready to creep up and surprise you at any moment? In 19th-century London, this feeling was known all too well. From the early 1800s, a fire-breathing demon—known as “spring-heeled Jack”—was reported to have plagued the city’s boroughs and beyond, leaping from walls and frightening citizens into fits.
This demon was called “spring-heeled Jack” because of his uncanny jumping abilities, which enabled speedy escapes from the many scenes of his mischief. Those that claimed to have witnessed him described him as having a terrifying appearance: he is said to have had eerily clawed hands and eyes like “balls of red fire.” The period’s contemporary imagery reflects this: he is typically depicted in the suitably scary outfit of a long black coat, helmet, and a tight-fitting oilskin garment.
While this is the renowned appearance of Spring-heeled Jack, he did not always look this way. Rather, this particular depiction was one that originated from sightings of a ghostly bull in South East London in 1837. As rumors of this “Suburban Ghost” began to spread throughout the city, its itinerant form began to change into a myriad of different animals and mythical creatures. By this time, the press had capitalized on this novel concept and, using alleged witness accounts, informally christened him “spring-heeled Jack.” This namesake gave him individuality in a period rife with ghost stories and transformed him into a memorable urban legend that was reflected in the period’s popular culture. Used as both the subject of the period’s popular “penny dreadful” literature and as a name to scare children into behaving (much like the modern-day “bogeyman”), spring-heeled Jack straddled the line between urban legend and, if alleged witness accounts are to be believed, a real-life criminal.
A Victorian villain
Indeed, spring-heeled Jack had real-life victims, with a preference seemingly for lone and vulnerable women. The first account of his misdemeanors came to light in 1837 when a young servant girl named Mary Stevens reported that a figure leaped out at her while walking through Clapham Common to work. According to her account, he then immobilized her with his arms before trying to kiss her and rip off her clothes with claws she later described as “cold and clammy as those of a corpse.”
Her attacker did not wait long before choosing his next victim. Just a day later, there was a report of an eerie figure having deliberately jumped out in front of a traveling coach, causing the coachman to lose control and crash. Witnesses of the scene allege that the person responsible fled the scene in haste by jumping over a 9-foot (2.7 m) wall, all while omitting a high-pitched and hysterical cackle. News of these bizarre and unprovoked attacks quickly spread, and the press soon picked up on them. This catapulted spring-heeled Jack into notoriety, where he became prominent in both the papers and local gossip.
The Alsop and Scales case
One of the most renowned incidents involving spring-heeled Jack was in the cases of Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales, two teenage girls who both claimed to have been attacked by the leaping assailant in February 1838. Alsop alleged that a man came to her door claiming to be the police, who informed her they had found spring-heeled Jack in a nearby alley outside her home. However, as she accompanied him to the scene, she noticed he was wearing an unconventional uniform of a black cape. This telltale sign was glimpsed all too late, and Alsop said the man proceeded to vomit blue and white flames from his mouth and eyes before attempting to attack and undress her.
A similar fate happened to Lucy Scales just nine days later. Upon returning home from visiting her brother in the affluent and well-respected borough of Limehouse, Scales said that a man dressed in similar attire to Alsop’s “policeman” appeared before her, where he too, blew colored flames from his face. Scales reported great distress at this encounter, to such an extent she claimed to have lost her sight and descended into violent fits.
A public nuisance
Just as we today prefer not to have a repeat offender walking free (never mind one with claws and a penchant for vomiting flames), reports of the sightings made Victorian citizens uneasy. Even prior to the attacks on Scales and Alsop, spring-heeled Jack had become so prevalent within society and its contemporary press that he became the subject of a public meeting in 1838. On January 9, the Lord Mayor of London at the time, Sir John Cowan (1774–1842), spoke of an anonymous complaint made by a resident within Peckham: apparently, a servant girl of an affluent family had been frightened by a mysterious entity so much that she had not properly recovered.
The incident prompted a stirring within the audience, with several members coming forward to regale of similar incidents that happened to other servant girls in the Kensington and Hammersmith area. Unsurprisingly, this was an ideal story for the press, and The Times ran a story on it. Much like the public meeting, the publication caught the attention of its readers, with many sending in letters echoing similar content, all claiming to have seen, or knew someone who had, the infamous Victorian villain. It was evident that someone was terrorizing the streets of London, but just who exactly was it, and why were they doing it?
So just who was the man beneath the cape?
Various theories have been put forth over the years regarding the identity of spring-heeled Jack. These come from different realms, including skepticism, medicine, and even the paranormal. Some researchers, for example, believe he was the product of mass hysteria, a sociogenic illness that causes large groups of people to exhibit similar physical or emotional symptoms. This “conversion disorder” causes the individual to exhibit physiological symptoms in the absence of a physical cause and prompts groups within the same community to believe in abnormal crazes.
Others have retained a more skeptical perspective and consider that he was one or several individuals who had coincidentally or deliberately committed similar crimes.
Indeed, one individual that came under speculation as being the possible perpetrator is the Irish nobleman the Marquess of Waterford (1811–1859). He was known for his misogynist behavior towards women and had a poor reputation among the police because of his often alcohol-fuelled bad behavior. As a result, he was no stranger to being in the news, where his drunken exploits included vandalism and beating police constables. Such debauchery earned him the catchy title of “the Mad Marquis’,’ and he reportedly found great amusement in “springing on travelers unawares.” Such activity is suspiciously similar to that attributed to spring-heeled Jack.
The role of the press
It is, however, important to remember the context in which the concept of spring-heeled Jack was born. The Industrial Revolution had seen improvements in printing technology, and the increased access to public education had caused illiteracy rates to drop. These developments, in turn, created a higher number of readers and reading material, leading to a wider circulation of books, literary magazines, and, importantly, sensationalist newspapers. As 19th-century Britain experienced drastically high crime rates, this was the perfect environment for these papers to flourish and profit by running sensationalized stories that were often all too readily believed by their readers. Given that the press (and other forms of news circulation such as the penny dreadful) were important ways in which the story of spring-heeled Jack rose to prominence. It is, therefore, little wonder that this urban legend was genuinely believed and gained such traction in Victorian society.
The legend lives on
The examination of spring-heeled Jack and his role in 19th-century Britain offers a fascinating insight into contemporary British society’s strong history of folklore and attitude towards crime. It shows us how the press was an important tool in shaping and perpetuating the legend. Whether or not spring-heeled Jack was simply a figure of folklore or something more sinister, he nevertheless remains a figure we would rather avoid on our lone walk from home.