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.
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 specter 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.
Ad for a Spring Heeled Jack penny dreadful - January 8th, 1886 ( public domain )
Hysteria in England
Witnesses and victims poured forth to corroborate the story and a public panic looked set to ensue. The Mayor ordered his police force to track down the villain and offered a reward for anyone who could assist in the capture. The tabloids had a field day with ever more horrible tales of attacks. The story persisted for decades, with one of the last reported sightings of Jack occurring in 1877 when the bouncing demon taunted sentries at the Aldershot Barracks (other sources say that sightings have occurred as recently as 1997). For all the terror he caused, Jack did little harm, aside from the reports of shredded clothes, fits of hysteria, and heart attacks. By the 1880s, Spring Heeled Jack was eclipsed by a far more lethal villain, Jack the Ripper.
Spring Heeled Jack as depicted by anonymous artist ( public domain )
Who Was Spring Heeled Jack?
There are several theories as to the identity of Spring Heeled Jack, although none are definite. Some say the initial occurrences were perpetrated by an “Irish nobleman the Marquis of Waterford, a.k.a. ‘The Mad Marquis,’ known for his contempt of women, willingness to do just about anything if someone would bet that he wouldn’t, and thinking it funny to jump out at random travelers to scare them” (Padden, 2014). Another theory holds that the initial accounts of a jumping demon were none other than “Joseph Darby, later to be the World Spring Jumping Champion, who had been practicing at night in a pit helmet” (Upton, 2016). In any case, the later incidents were most likely copycats and/or crimes wrongly attributed to Spring Heeled Jack. The jumping devil’s legacy lives on in the popular imagination to this day, notably in the mischievous little toy known as the Jack-in-the-Box.
Top image: Spring Heeled Jack as depicted by anonymous artist ( public domain )
MacGown, Doug. "Spring Heeled Jack." Historic Mysteries . Historic Mysteries, 24 May 2011. Web. http://www.historicmysteries.com/spring-heeled-jack/.
Padden, Kathy. "The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack." Today I Found Out . Daily Knowledge, 07 Aug. 2014. Web. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/08/legend-spring-heeled-jack/.
Upton, Chris. "Myths and Legends - England - Black Country - Spring-Heeled Jack." BBC News . BBC, 2016. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/black_country/article_1.shtml.