It’s January 1838, and London is in the midst of a terror, of a man with claws and clammy skin who leaps at people and attacks in the dark.
A devilish creature of frightful appearance, with clawed hands, eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”, and could breathe blue flames. Some reports suggested he wore a tight fitting oilskin under his cloak, and others that he was tall and thin.
Whoever Spring-healed Jack was, he — or possibly, they — seemed to haunt London for a number of years, although he also appears in a number of other parts of the country. The last recorded sighting was in Liverpool in 1904.
It’s likely that this is all an urban legend, and may have been an evolution of preexisting talks of ghosts that were stalking the streets of London in the couple of decades preceding Jack’s arrival. Certainly, there are some similarities between the two tales, particularly their joint abilities to leap high walls in a single bound.
Jack seems to be ghost made flesh.
Some early sighting were reported in October 1837, but it was January 1838 when Jack Mania took hold in London, with even the Lord Mayor getting involved, although he was a sceptic.
Reading a letter sent to him a few days earlier from Peckham, he said that “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.”
Servant girls working in places as wide-ranging as Kensington, Hammersmith and Ealing, were all said to report dreadful stories of this ghost or devil.
It was suggested that this was, in fact, a prankster being paid by a wealthy man to visit a number of villages around London scaring people, the leading suspect being the Marquess of Waterford. The Lord Mayor declared that he was confident the person or persons involved in this “pantomime display” would be caught and punished.
Even the august Times newspaper joined the penny dreadfuls in reporting on the alleged attacks.
Two of the more famous attacks took place in February 1838.
Jane Alsop opened the garden gate of her father’s house near Old Ford in East London, to a man who then threw off the cloak and “presented a most hideous and frightful appearance”, vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled “red balls of fire”. Miss Alsop reported that he wore a large helmet and that his clothing, which appeared to be very tight-fitting, resembled white oilskin.
Without saying another word he caught hold of her and began tearing her gown with his claws which she was certain were “of some metallic substance”. She screamed for help, and managed to get away from him and ran towards the house. He caught her on the steps and tore her neck and arms with his claws. She was rescued by one of her sisters, after which her assailant fled.
A few days later, in Limehouse, Spring-heeled Jack struck again, this time attacking Lucy Scales and her sister, who were returning home. In a police report, she said that a man wearing a long cloak spurted “a quantity of blue flame” in her face, which deprived her of her sight, and so alarmed her, that she instantly dropped to the ground, and was seized with violent fits which continued for several hours.
It’s speculative, but it’s possible that a man was blowing a mouthful of alcohol at women, which was being ignited by a flame held near the mouth.
Over the next few months, media hysteria about the figure reached new heights, with the tabloids regularly reporting even the least likely of reports feverishly as proof of a fresh attack.
So widespread were the tales that he even supplanted the Devil puppet in contemporary Punch and Judy shows.
This here is Satan,-we might say the devil, but that ain’t right, and gennelfolks don’t like such words. He is now commonly called ‘Spring-heeled Jack;’ or the ‘Rossian Bear,’ – that’s since the war.
However, sightings in real-world were fading just as they were increasing in the press. He seemed to nearly vanish for a number of years until one notable appearance in Northamptonshire in 1843, then nothing until the 1870s when there were a spate of attacks.
His last reported sighting took place in Liverpool, in 1904, although his name was still being cited for many years afterwards, such as the case of the Stockport dog poisoner of 1929, who was given the same name.
Whether there really was a figure who dressed as Spring-heeled Jack and attacked women, or it was a case of mass hysteria whipped up by the media is something that is unlikely to ever be solved.
The story of Spring-heeled Jack and the way the early media leapt onto the story to sell more papers is a foreshadowing of a more notorious Jack who was also to gain dubious fame from media hype – Jack the Ripper. And, like his more violent namesake, both Jacks were to be for some time almost caricatured into theatre and film characters far removed from their origins.
However, whatever the cause, 180 years ago, London was gripped by terror of Spring-heeled Jack.
- The Times – Saturday 03 March 1838
- Bell’s New Weekly Messenger – Sunday 04 March 1838
- Morning Post – Wednesday 07 March 1838
- Kentish Mercury – Saturday 23 November 1839
- Illustrated Police News – Saturday 03 November 1877
- Illustrated London News – Saturday 13 September 1884
- Hull Daily Mail – Tuesday 01 October 1929