Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Creature of the Month - Spring Heel Jack by Dr. Bob Curran



London during the early and mid-19th century was a ghostly place. In places such as Cripplegate, Southwark and Hammersmith it was not unusual to see human-like figures appear and disappear, leap over walls and even houses or appear in doorways to grasp at passers-by. Others simply appeared in front of startled travellers, often assuming a menacing position but jumping away if approached. Some, however, did attack certain individuals although usually not fatally. The accounts of such encounters are therefore many and varied. In other towns too, such as Sheffield, people were wakened from sleep to find strange spectral figures standing over them only to bound away through open windows as soon as they stirred. Some even speak of such “phantoms” leaping over buildings which were over ten feet high, in such flight. One of the most famous of these creatures was Spring Heel Jack.



The first accounts of this fantastic creature appeared around 1830 as snippets of newspaper articles. In general, they conformed to the general type of “London ghosts” with the exception that Jack had an almost Devil-like appearance and that he could jump fantastic heights. At first, he was simply described as a “man-like” figure but around 1837, descriptions of him began to become clearer and more specific. It was stated for instance, that he wore a dark cloak and long black leggings ending in bulky, heavy-looking boots. Beneath this cloak he wore what appeared to be some tight-fitting costume made out of what seemed to be a black oilskin-like material. Some descriptions have the bring sprouting enormous bat-like wings which enabled him to fly over the rooftops. His “fingers” were also made of a hard iron-like metal which could inflict a nasty scratch. Many accounts speak of his eyes which were red and glowing like balls of fire. With these the being terrorised and sometimes transfixed his victims before either assaulting them or springing away.

Jack first struck on a night in September 1837 when he attacked three women making their way home in the dark. During the attack, he tore the blouse of one Polly Adams, scratching her stomach with his metallic claws as he did so. The women described him as being extremely tall – taller than an average human – with burning eyes and with fire coming out of his nostrils. He appeared to be extremely strong and forced a couple of them back against a wall at once. The next month, he assaulted a second woman, Mary Stevens at Lavender Hill. A serving maid, she had been on her way to visit her parents in Battersea when the attack happened. Mary described his touch as being cold and clammy “like that of a corpse”, something she had experienced at first hand as the entity was trying to kiss and grope her before bounding away. That same month, a gentleman on his way home and passing Barnes Cemetery, saw a cloaked figure leaping over the railing with a single bound. It disappeared into the cemetery, leaving the gentleman wondering.  The very next day, the same figure leapt in front of a passing carriage, causing it to crash and the coachman to severely injure himself.

Throughout November and December of 1837, Spring Heel Jack made frequent attacks on groups of girls going about London usually after dark. Most of his victims were serving maids and washerwomen who were of the “lower orders” – the being did not put in an appearance to high-born ladies. Nevertheless, there was an outcry and numerous articles started to appear in the London press on the matter. By the beginning of 1838, few servant girls would venture out after dark for fear of encountering the Thing.

On 9th January 1838, the Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan revealed at a public meeting that he had received a letter from “a resident of Peckham” which declared that Spring Heel Jack was nothing more than a trick put together because of a wager. A certain high-ranking individual, said the letter, had laid a bet with a “daring but foolhardy companion” that he <his companion> would not appear to the populace of a number of villages around London in three different disguises – a ghost, a bear and a devil. The villain had appeared in several of these guises to several young women, depriving them of their senses. He had even appeared at the doors of several grand houses, causing the servant girl who answered his ringing in each case, to swoon away. The Mayor therefore declared this so-called “Spring Heel Jack” <as the Thing was coming to be known> a public menace and nuisance.

Although the Mayor seemed sceptical, others remained convinced that the apparition had supernatural origins. Servant girls about Hammersmith, Ealing and Kensington and even further afield told diabolic tales of this “ghost”.  Throughout 1838, a pile of letter flooded into the Mansion House <the Lord Mayor’s official residence> complaining about the “wicked pranks” of the miscreant and about the numbers of ladies throughout the City who were “reduced to a state of nervousness” by his antics. And although it was said that Spring Heel Jack was no more than a sexual prevent, stories such as that of a respectable doctor who had answered the screams of a young girl who was being attacked by the fiend and had then seen him leap away over a nine foot wall <which no human could possibly do> only added to supernatural speculation.

On 20th February 1838, there was an incident at the gate of a house on the edge of London. A strange figure standing by the gatepost was heard to shout “Bring a light! We have caught Spring Heel Jack!” In response, eighteen year-old Jane Alsop ran outside with a candle to investigate. She was confronted at the gate by the figure who had called and whom she described as a “tall man dressed in a black cloak”. The figure simply spat fire at her – blue and white flames – and made a grab for her dress with metallic-looking claws. Jane’s sister appeared and dragged her back into the house. Strangely enough the attacker followed them and rapped on the front door several times before disappearing. In the turmoil, Jane’s sister claimed that he had dropped his cloak by the gate but that this was gone when they returned later. The Alsop case was later reported in The Times and caused a sensation all across London.



Eight days after the Alsop case, on 28th February, eighteen year-old Lucy Scales was returning with her sister from visiting her brother who was a butcher in Limehouse.  As they passed through Green Dragon Alley, a little way from their brother’s house, they encountered an individual standing at angles to the line of the alley. It looked like a man in a heavy cloak. Lucy who was a little way ahead made to pass him whereupon he threw wide the cloak and spurted fire at her, temporarily blinding her. She fell to the ground and her sister rushed forward but the assailant bounded away, taking giant leaps. Lucy’s brother, hearing the screams, also ran out but was unable to stop the fleeing figure. After this occurrence, gangs of vigilantes were formed to search for the eerie bring but Spring Heel Jack eluded them all.

By now stories of the being were appearing everywhere in London and in other towns and cities from Brighton to Liverpool. However shortly after the Alsop case a certain Thomas Millbank was arrested after boasting in the public house that he was Spring Heel Jack. The arresting officer was James Lea who had been involved in the celebrated Red Barn Murder in 1827. Millbank was brought to trial but the case against him collapsed when Jane Alsop was adamant that her assailant had breathed fire and Millbank said that he could do no such thing.

For a while Spring Heel Jack appears to have vanished and there were no further sighting around London. Nevertheless, he did reappear in November 1872 where he turned up in Peckham as “the Peckham Ghost” which newspapers identified as being Spring Heel Jack. He was identified as “an aristocratic figure” that leapt over high walls in order to escape capture. Newspapers such as The News of the World claimed that this figure had Peckham in a state of terror. Shortly after, early in 1873, he seemed to have appeared in Sheffield where he was known as “the Park Ghost” and was observed leaping over fences in local woodland parks. In 1877 he appeared at the Aldershot Barracks and slapped a soldier on guard duty, bounding away despite several shots being fired at him. In the latter half of the 19th century he also appeared in Lincolnshire and Liverpool. The last recorded sighting of him was on the Welsh Borders in 1986 when he leapt across the road in front of a travelling salesman’s car. The salesman said that he was wearing what looked like a black rubber ski-suit type garment.

So who or what was Spring Heel Jack? 

Many commentators, even at the time, thought that it was some sort of trick. Popular opinion fell on an Irish noble Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquis of Waterford <1811-1859> known as “the Mad Marquis”. He was known to do anything for a bet including daubing the High Street of Melton Mowbray with red paint after a fox hunt <the origin of the phrase “painting the town red”>. In 1842, however, he married and settled down to an exemplary life until his death in a hunting accident in 1859. The connection with Spring Heel Jack however was very strong and he may have been the aristocratic figure referred to in the letter to the Lord Mayor of London.

Or was the being merely some sort of bogeyman stirred up in the popular mind? The mid to late 19th century was a time when the working classes of England were finding their own identity and were beginning to look on the upper classes with suspicion. This emerging class struggle can be seen in some of the “monster figures” of the time – Dracula, Jack the Ripper etc. Was Spring Heel Jack just another personification of this in the working mind – it is interesting that he’s always described in aristocratic terms and always preyed on the “lower classes”. Whatever he was the idea of the bounding, dark-caped figure, breathing fire, perhaps still lurks somewhere deep within the English mind. 

Dr. Bob Curran was born in a remote area of County Down, Northern Ireland, but left to travel and work in the United States., France, Italy, Mexico, North Africa, Spain, Holland, and parts of Eastern Europe. This has given him insight into the cultures and beliefs of people around the world. Living again in Northern Ireland, he holds several university degrees and acts as a consultant to such bodies as the Office of First, Deputy First Minister, and Tourism Ireland Ltd. He is author of many popular books on folklore such as Zombies; Werewolves; Man-Made Monsters; The World's Creepiest PlacesLost Lands, Forgotten Realms; and due in August 12 A Haunted Mind. He can be found musing on drbobcurran.blogspot.com.

1 comment:

  1. The 'emerging class struggle' may have played itself out in the pages of Dracula and other such writings, but Jack the Ripper was a real psychopath. He should not be added to the list of 'penny-dreadful' monsters, being in a class all his own.

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