The curious case of Spring-heeled Jack

The evil Superman with eyes from hell

Out in the mists of night arrived a leaping, bounding superman who terrorized a nation for 60 years.

Initially, he was no more than a mere rumor. People crossing Barnes Common in south-west London first reported seeing an alarming figure that glided through the air in great leaps across their path. But these reports persisted. It wasn’t until February, 1838, when these rumors were astonishingly confirmed to the horror of many.

JANE ALSOP CASE

In a little London back street in Bow called Bearhind Lane, lived a young and beautiful Jane Alsop. Her father and two sisters lived with her. Although she had heard tales of the bogeyman called Spring-heeled Jack, she was too sensible to pay any heed.

One night, there was a violent knocking at the door. When Jane went to answer it, she saw a man standing in the shadows near the front gate swinging round. He introduced himself as a police officer. He added, “For God’s sake bring me alight, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack in the lane!”

Jane was delighted. For once, the stories were true after all. She rushed to fetch a candle, thinking all along that she would get to see the infamous entity being arrested.

But as she reached the gate with the candle, the ‘police officer’ grabbed her by the neck and pinned her head under his arm. Then he ripped at her dress and body. A shocked Jane screamed and tore herself away. He chased her, caught her by the hair and clawed her face and neck. A sister, after hearing the commotion, ran into the street and raised the alarm. But before anyone could do anything to stop the menace, there was no sight of the attacker, for the man, Spring-heeled Jack vanished into the darkness.

Would Jane remain quiet after the incident? She described her inhuman attacker to Lambeth magistrates. “He was wearing a kind of helmet…and a tight fitting white costume like an oilskin. His face was hideous; his eyes were like balls of fire. His hands had great laws, and he vomited blue and white flames.”

This description was repeated over and over again in the following years. The leaps, the flames and the eyes straight from hell were always mentioned.

THE CASE OF LUCY SCALES

Lucy Scales was 18 years old, the sister of a respected Lime house butcher. She had just left her brother’s house one evening on her way home with her sister. As they walked along lonely Green Dragon Alley, a tall figure in a cloak leapt out of the shadows. He spat blue flames at Lucy’s face, blinding her, and so alarmed her, that she instantly dropped to the ground, and was seized with violent fits which continued for several hours.

Her brother would find and take Lucy home. The other sister narrated the whole incident to him. She described the man as being tall, lean, gentlemanly, clad in a long cloak and wielding with him a small bull’s eye lantern similar to those that were used by the police then.

Every effort that the police made to discover the identity of the perpetrator proved futile. Several men were questioned, and were set free.

OFFICIAL RECOGNITION

At a public session held in the Mansion house, Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London revealed an anonymous complaint that he had received several days earlier, which he had intentionally withheld in the hope of obtaining further information. 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 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.

 Thought the Lord Mayor seemd fairly skeptical, an audience member confirmed, “servant girls about Kensington, Hammersmith and Ealing, tell dreadful stories of this ghost or devil”.

Mansion House Public Session

This matter was reported in The Times on 9 January, other national papers on 10 January and, on the day after that, the Lord Mayor displayed a pile of letters from various places in and around London complaining of similar “wicked pranks”. One writer even said that several young women in Hammersmith had been frightened into “dangerous fits” and some “severely wounded by a sort of claws the miscreant wore on his hands”. Another claimed that several people had died of fright in Brixton, Stockwell, Camberwell and Vauxhall and many others had had fits.

One bizarre report from The Brighton Gazette, which appeared in the 14 April 1838 edition of The Times, related how a gardener in Rosehill, Sussex, had been horrified by a creature of unknown nature. The Times wrote that “Spring-heeled Jack has, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast”, even though this report bore little resemblance to other accounts of Jack.

The incident occurred on 13 April, when the creature appeared to a gardener “in the form of a bear or some other four-footed massive animal”. The growl caught the gardener’s attention. The bear-like creature then climbed the garden wall and ran along it on all fours, before jumping down and chasing the gardener for some time. After terrifying the gardener enough, the apparition scaled the wall and disappeared

During the 1850s and 1860s, Spring-heeled Jack was spotted all over England, particularly in the Midlands.

ALDERSHOT

In August 1877 one of the most notable reports about Spring-heeled Jack came from a group of soldiers in Aldershot’s barracks. This story went as follows: a sentry on duty at the North Camp peered into the darkness, his attention attracted by a peculiar figure “advancing towards him.” The soldier issued a challenge, which went unheeded, and the figure came up beside him and delivered several slaps to his face. A guard shot at him, with no visible effect; some sources claim that the soldier may have fired blanks at him, others that he missed or fired warning shots. The strange figure then disappeared into the surrounding darkness “with astonishing bounds.”

The Army authorities set traps after scared sentries reported being terrified by a man who darted out of the darkness to slap their faces with an icy hand, or sprang onto the roof of their sentry boxes. Angry townsfolk in Lincoln shot at him when he appeared in the streets one night in 1877. Always, he laughed and melted away, impervious to the gunshots, stunning all those who had witnessed it.

To this day, not a soul has any clear idea as to who-or what-Spring-heeled Jack was.

Sceptics, as usual, have dismissed these stories as mass hysteria which developed around various stories of a bogeyman or devil which may have been around for centuries, or from exaggerated urban myths about a man who clambered over rooftops claiming that he was being chased by the Devil himself. Other researchers believe that some individual(s) might be responsible for the origin of the story, being followed by imitators later on. Spring-heeled Jack was widely considered not to be a supernatural creature but rather one or more persons with a macabre sense of humor. Others thought he was a demon!

For a while, the eccentric young Marquis of Waterford was suspected. But though the ‘mad marquis’, as he was commonly known, was one of the wild ones of Victorian society who had his problems with women and police officers, he was never really that barbaric.

Marquis of Waterford

Those nasty eyes of hell were last seen in 1904 at Everton, in Liverpool-67 years after the first sightings in Barnes. There he started a panic one night by bounding up and down the street-leaping from cobbles to roof-tops and back. He was briefly seen on the rooftop of Saint Francis Xavier’s Church in Salisbury Street.When some of the braver ones tried to corner him, he simply vanished into the darkness from where he came-this time for good?

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