The Legend Of Spring-Heeled Jack
While riding the Broad Street subway I began musing about a vacation across the pond and searched the internet for the lowest airfares between Philadelphia and London. I found a very reasonable fare of $156 from Philadelphia International to Heathrow on British Airways, but taxes and fees were an additional $385, more than twice the airfare, raising the total to $541, one way. One way. I began to weigh the cost of the trip against my present circumstances – that fellow over there is taking off his shoe just to pick his feet, isn’t he? My outrage and my fears were short-lived, however, when a quick check of my bank balance revealed that my farthest trip would be limited to the last stop on the subway.
So, the next day I was on the Broad Street subway line again, my vacation underway. Like any urban dweller, I was trying to avoid making direct eye contact with potential homicidal maniacs – like that lemon sitting across from me, for instance – and began staring at an advertisement for BBC America. As I began to daydream about riding the Tube at the end of the 19th century, a story I had read about a leaping Londoner came to mind.
Starting in 1817 and peaking in the mid-19th century, newspaper reports in The Times of London and elsewhere described a “peculiar leaping man” who startled and attacked young women. Initially, few people believed these tales, and today English parents consider it a fable, used to control their misbehaving children. This occurred, after all, in Victorian London, where plague and poverty ravaged the city, and rumors were more persistent than diarrhea.
But in January of 1838, the Lord Mayor of London received a letter from a resident of Peckham describing an attack on Polly Adams on October 11th of the previous year by a man that could leap over fences. The writer referred to the assailant as “Spring-Heeled Jack.”
On February 18, 1838, Lucy Scales, age 18, and her sister Margaret were on their way home at 8:30 that evening after visiting their brother in Limehouse. Suddenly, as they passed the entrance to Green Dragon Alley, the terrifying cloaked silhouette of Spring-Heeled Jack leaped from the darkness and exhaled a jet of blue flames from his mouth that blasted Lucy’s face. The teenager screamed; she fell to the ground, blinded, and suffered a fit. Spring-Heeled Jack then jumped high over his victim and her sister and landed on the roof of a nearby house, from where he bounded off into the night — a prodigious leap at any time of the day, mind you.
Talk of a mysterious leaping madman attacking women quickly circulated around London, and further sightings and attacks were reported. In one especially notorious incident, the leaping miscreant tried to snatch 18-year-old Jane Alsop right out of her own home. Ms. Alsop, who lived in the district of Bow, provided the first reported physical description of Spring-Heeled Jack:
He presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire… He wore a large helmet, and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed… to resemble white oilskin.
Family members who had saved the young woman noted afterwards that the menace did not run, rather he bounced away.
A week after the attack on Jane Alsop, a similar one was attempted. Here, though, a young servant boy witnessed the attack. He described the assailant as tall and thin, with pointed ears and fiery eyes, and wearing a cloak. The boy also noticed a gold filigree ‘W’ embroidered onto the front of the man’s wardrobe. Assuming that it was not a high school letter earned in track and field, the public now had a clue as to the man’s surname, or pedigree. The incident abruptly ended when the boy screamed, alerting neighbors who quickly opened their shutters. Sensing an exit cue, Spring-Heeled Jack rocketed over the roofs on Commercial Road.
When the boy regained his senses, he was interrogated repeatedly by the authorities. His inquisitors wondered what was the significance of the embroidered ‘W’; some conjectured that the glyph was the initial of the Marquis of Waterford, a notorious prankster who in the past had gone to great lengths to perpetrate his hoaxes. The Marquis was also something of an athlete, but even his physical gifts could not equate with a man who could leap 25 feet into the air, as the leaping menace was alleged to have done.
As Spring-Heeled Jack’s infamy grew, more reports appeared in the newspapers. Mary Stevens of Battersea was attacked, as was 18-year-old Lucy Squires in Limehouse, as the leaping menace showed his knack for spotting victims who had reached the legal age of consent. In both instances he tore at his female victims’ clothes and ripped their flesh with hands that felt like iron. Those who saw his feet swore he had springs in his boot heels, meaning that, contrary to Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, they were not just for wandering.
In 1843, Spring-Heeled Jack proved to be an equalitarian menace to society, appearing in Northhamptonshire, Hampshire and East Anglia, where he frightened the drivers of mail coaches by leaping from trees onto their horses. Each time, after riding the spooked animal for a bit and apparently not deviating from the mail carrier’s appointed rounds, he would end the escapade by leaping from the horse into a nearby tree.
Two years later he was seen in West London. Reports came from Ealing and Hanwell of a weird figure leaping over hedges and walls, shrieking and groaning. This perpetrator turned out to be a practical joker from Brentford who spent the next few years shrieking and groaning from Dartmoor Prison.
In November of 1845, Spring-Heeled Jack confronted 13-year-old prostitute Maria Davies in Bermondsy. In full view of frightened onlookers, he “breathed fire into her face” then tossed Ms. Davies off a bridge; she drowned in the open sewer below. Spring-Heeled Jack was now a murderer.
Throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s, the manic leaper was reportedly seen all over England. As fear kept most people off the streets after dark, Londoners willing to take the law into their own hands formed vigilante committees, patrolling the streets at night, trying to track down the miscreant. Not to be outdone, the police put out extra patrols, but no one came close to catching him.
This is not to say, though, that there were no arrests. In 1877, Spring-Heeled Jack appeared at Aldershot Army Barracks. An army officer was arrested on a charge of impersonating the menace, but he was later released. Later, another man was arrested in Warwickshire when he was caught trying to jump to escape; he was wearing a white sheet and a pair of boots with carriage springs attached. The man was later seen in Liverpool jumping on rooftops in September 1904 – being after Labor Day, one wonders if the menace had exchanged his white sheet for a darker one. His last reported sighting had him scaling the steeple of a church before disappearing forever behind a row of houses. That same year more than 100 residents of Everton saw a man in a flowing, non-white cloak and black boots making great leaps over streets and rooftops.
Somewhere along the way, Spring-Heeled Jack gained cult hero status. He appeared in the small theaters of the day, portrayed as a cloaked figure with shiny boots and huge whiskers. He became a star of the cheap weekly periodicals, whose sensationalism amused the working-class. One such saga, Spring Heeled Jack, The Terror of London, by George Augustus Sala, appeared in 48 weekly parts. Mr. Sala’s protean Spring-Heeled Jack reflected the proletarian ethos of the serial’s readers, becoming a superhero who rescued damsels in distress and persecuted those in authority who abused their power. In 1904 the character was revived in another penny-serial novel, The Spring-heeled Jack Library. And in 1946 a film was made about him, The Curse of the Wraydons.
Apparently tiring of the temperate English climate, Spring-Heeled Jack made dozens of appearances in the United States between 1938 and 1945, belching flames and making gigantic leaps, then melting into the darkness. In the 1970’s, perhaps benefiting from the introduction of commercial supersonic flight, he appeared in both the U.S. and the U.K., sporting long hair and minus the cloak – apparently, fashion sense and mayhem are not mutually exclusive. In 1976, at least a dozen residents of Dallas, Texas claim to have seen a ten-foot-tall, thin creature with long ears leap across a football field in a few strides.
Little has been heard about Spring-Heeled Jack since then. Theories abound as to the origin of this urban legend with the bizarre appearance – an alien, a demon, mass hysteria, overheated imaginations. As for me, I prefer to treat the tale with a healthy measure of skepticism, and one eye very wide open.