Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Victorian Era English Forklore Legend: Spring Heeled Jack

by Regina Jeffers

As a native West Virginian, I grew up on the Mothman prophecies, the story line behind the 2002 movie of the same name, which was intermixed with the unexplained collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The Mothman was a legendary “Devil-like” creature, who made himself known to many of the town’s people – some claiming the ten-foot moth-like man was an alien. Naturally, when I came across a similar Victorian Era legend, I was completely fascinated by the concept.


The first claim of a sighting of Spring-heeled Jack came in 1837 in Sheffield, England. The last reported sighting is said to have been in Liverpool in 1904. An entity of English folklore, “Jack” has made appearances in much of Great Britain, including Scotland. Reportedly, a girl by the name of Mary Stevens was returning to her employment in the Lavender Hill area after having spent time with her parents in Battersea. Passing through Clapham Common, the girl was accosted by a strange figure who leapt at her from a dark alley. According to Miss Stevens, the man held her in a tight grip and kissed her face. He also ripped her clothes and pawed at her with claws as cold as those of a corpse. Her attacker fled when she screamed. Residents could find no such attacker when they searched the area.

The same man supposedly attacked a second woman on the following day, very near to Miss Stevens’ attack. Eventually, the legend changed: the attacker would jump in front of a passing carriage, frightening the coachman and the horses and causing the coachman injury. He would then make his escape over a wall while babbling with a high-pitched laughter. The press labeled the “man” Spring-heeled Jack.

“The attacker was tall and thin, had pointed ears and fiery eyes, and wore a cloak. He tore at his female victims’ clothes and ripped their flesh with hands that felt like iron. When he escaped, he did not run; he bounced away. Those who saw his feet swore he had springs in his boot heels.” (Science: Spring-heeled Jack


On 9 January 1838, Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London, revealed an anonymous complaint at a public session held in the Mansion House. The correspondent, who signed the letter “a resident of Peckham,” wrote…

“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 the 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.” (Simpson, Jacqueline. Spring-Heeled Jack (leaflet, January 2001) International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.)


The matter was reported in The Times on 9 January, with other newsprints following in the next week. The Lord Mayor received a large number of letters with reports of similar pranks. Stories from Hammersmith, Kensington, Ealing, Camberwell, Vauxhall, Brixton, Stockwell, Lewisham, and Blackheath poured in. The Brighton Gazette printed a like story in April 1838.

Similar entities have been reported around the world. In Chile, one finds “La Viuda” or “the widow.” The Spring Man of Prague, Pérák, is spoken of in Czechoslovakia. Other names include Krampus, London Monster, Owlman, Jiangshi, and Jersey Devil.

“In 1808, a letter to the editor of the Sheffield Times recounted how ‘Years ago a famous Ghost walked and played many pranks in this historic neighbourhood.’ The writer went on to identify this entity as the ‘Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack,’ and briefly described its ability to take enormous leaps and frighten random passers-by, but concluded, ‘He was a human ghost as he ceased to appear when a certain number of men came with guns and sticks to test his skin.’”  (The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack

Two teenage girls were likely the most famous of the victims. Jane Alsop claimed to have answered her father’s door on the evening of 19 February 1838 to a man claiming to be a police officer. Foolishly, she followed the officer to the adjoining lane because he had requested she provide him a light as part of his investigation. Instead, the “officer” threw off the cloak he wore. The girl reported that the man vomited blue and white flames, and his eyes were upon fire. She also said he wore a large helmet and a white oilskin. He tore her gown with his claws, as well as leaving marks upon her neck and arms. The sudden appearance of one of her sisters sent the attacker fleeing from the scene.

Lucy Scales and her sister were approached some eight days later. They were returning home from a visit with their brother, a butcher in Limehouse. As the girls passed Green Dragon Alley, a man in a large cloak spit blue flames in her face, which deprived Lucy of her sight and brought on violent fits. Their brother heard the screams and came to his sisters’ rescues. The difference from the Scales’ report was Lucy claimed the attacker was tall, thin, and gentlemanly in his appearance.

The Times boasted a headline reading “The Late Outrage At Old Ford” on 2 March 1838. It was a report on the Jane Alsop attack. One Thomas Millbank had bragged to his drinking buddies at the Morgan’s Arms that he was Spring-heeled Jack. Millbank was immediately arrested and tried at Lambeth Street court. The arresting officer was James Lea, who had earlier arrested William Corder, the Red Barn Murderer. (See my article on The Red Barn Murder for more details.) Millbank was shown to have been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat on the evening of the attack. The candle he dropped was also located. He escaped conviction only because Alsop swore her attacker breathed fire. Obviously, Millbank could not perform such a “skill.”

Spring-heeled Jack became one of the most popular characters of the Victorian period. He was the subject of several penny dreadfuls, as well as cheap theatricals. In the Punch and Judy shows, the devil was often named “Spring-heeled Jack.” In 1843, a second wave of sightings swept England. Reports of the “devil-like” creature came from Northamptonshire and East Anglia and Teignmouth in Devon. In 1847, Captain Finch was convicted of two charges of assault against women during which his accusers described him as being seen in a disguise with bullock’s hide, a skullcap, horns, and a mask. The legend was linked with the phenomenon of the “Devil’s Footprints,” which appeared in Devon in February 1855. Although sightings have been made into the 1990s, the last major reports came in the 1870s.

No one was ever identified as Spring-heeled Jack. The crimes were never prosecuted. Some believe there must be a logical explanation, while others choose the more fanciful approach. A popular rumor in the 1840s was that “Jack” was an Irish nobleman, the Marquess of Waterford. Waterford was known for his drunken brawls and his vandalism. Reportedly, the marquess was not so beloved by the fairer sex. E. Cobham Brewer, the compiler of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, as well as The Reader’s Handbook, accused Waterford of the stunts, saying the Marquess was known to amuse himself by frightening unaware travelers and others often mimicked Waterford’s efforts. In 1842, the Marquess married and settled in Curraghmore House, County Waterford, and reportedly led an exemplary life until he died in a riding accident in 1859.


“The most recent of a Spring Heeled Jack type creature comes an elementary school in West Surrey. Children only see him there, but they describe him as ‘all black, with red eyes and had a funny all-in-one white suit with badges on it.’ They also said he could run as fast as a car, and would approach dark haired children and tell them ‘I want you.’

“Of course, none of this means Spring Heeled Jack is supernatural, or extra-terrestrial, or anything other than the invention of a few generations of adroit, and lucky, pranksters. Some have claimed that the phenomenon is merely an exaggeration of the activities of an old religious zealot who used to dance on rooftops (i.e., E. C. Brewer). Others have identified possible Jacks: Waterford, a law student named Henry Hawkins, and somebody well connected enough to have a descendant bar the use of his name in connection with the attacks.” (The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack)

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About the Author:

Regina Jeffers is the author of Austen-inspired novels, including Darcy’s Passions, Darcy’s Temptation, Vampire Darcy’s Desire, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Phantom of Pemberley, Christmas at Pemberley, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, Honor and Hope and The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. She also writes Regency romances: The Scandal of Lady Eleanor, A Touch of Velvet, A Touch of Cashémere, A Touch of Grace, and The First Wives’ Club. A Time Warner Star Teacher and Martha Holden Jennings Scholar, Jeffers serves as a consultant in media literacy. Currently living outside Charlotte, North Carolina, she spends her time with her writing, gardening, and her adorable grandchildren. To learn more of Regina's books or her personal appearances visit her website. www.rjeffers.com



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