Legends of Spring Heeled Jack, the Uncatchable Demon of Victorian England
Before Jack the Ripper began to kill, Victorian England was terrorized by another uncatchable demon: Spring Heeled Jack. It is not certain if Jack was a man or beast. Witnesses report him having long, sharp fingernails that looked almost like claws. His eyes had a crazed look about them that some said glowed red as he was about to strike. Whenever townsfolk tried to catch him, he would easily get away, running swiftly down crowded alleys, jumping over fences, and disappearing into the night as though he were a ghost. As the tale of this creature of darkness became widespread, his attributes became more demonic. Reports said that he had horns and a pointed goatee, that he could leap over rooftops, and that he could breathe fire. Whether man or beast, Spring Heeled Jack was never caught.
First Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack
Spring Heeled Jack was first reportedly seen in 1837 in the Black Country, an area in the West Midlands that was the heart of the 19 th-century industrial revolution in England. According to the BBC account of the legend, Jack was simply an invention that clever preachers fed to foolish peasants in order to discourage drinking alcohol: “The Black Country of the 19 th century was a somewhat superstitious, inward-looking place; some would say that it still is. It was very easy for stories - true or imagined - to spread like wildfire and, as is the case in a largely oral culture, to become embellished along the way. Nor is it surprising to read of Spring-Heeled Jack being seen on the roofs of pubs or churches; his image was certainly being employed by local preachers as a warning against the perils of drink.” (Upton, 2016) And yet the number of eyewitness accounts of the demon may suggest otherwise.
Image taken from page 229 of 'Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London. A romance of the nineteenth century, by the author of the “Confederate's Daughter” ... Illustrated, etc' ( The British Library / flickr )
In 1837, a local man was going home after work, same as every other evening. His path took him past the town’s cemetery, which was normally of little concern. However, on this night, a cloaked figure emerged out of the darkness of the graveyard. The businessman stood terrified as the figure leaped over the high cemetery gates and landed softly in the lane. Before waiting to see what happened next, the man ran home as fast his legs could carry him.
Spring Heeled Jack Strikes Again
Few believed his story until a few months later when a young woman named Mary Stevens was attacked on her way home from work in the factory. A dark figure emerged from an alleyway and grabbed the girl. “He began to kiss her face and attempted to cut her clothes off with his talon-like fingernails, his hands ‘cold and clammy as those of a corpse’” (Padden, 2014). The girl began to scream hysterically, causing a number of people to come to her aid. The figure retreated into the darkness and could not be found, despite strident attempts to track him down.
In one account, Spring Heeled Jack grabbed a girl, but disappeared into the darkness when she screamed ( public domain )
Jack’s Fame Spreads
Now, this demon/ man began to be seen more frequently. In particular, he sought young women but the damage he caused affected all manner of ordinary people. One night, he jumped in front of a carriage. The horses reared in fright and the driver was seriously injured. Witnesses say the figure escaped by jumping over a fence, thus earning him the name Spring Heeled Jack. The press began to report Jack’s doings and soon the story began to gain traction. Jack’s fame grew wider still when the Lord Mayor of London made public a letter relating Jack’s deeds, a letter which The Times later published:
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.