‘From out of nowhere a dark figure pounced at her, running his cold, claw-like hands over her body’
We regard the Victorian era as an age of science and reason, not unlike our own. However, another Victorian age was running parallel with this, an age that believed in reading fortunes via bumps on the head, fairies, ghosts, and seances. And a lot of Victorians believed in a man called Spring-Heeled Jack.
The story begins in 1837 when an eighteen-year-old girl was walking through southwest London. From out of nowhere a dark figure pounced at her, running his cold, claw-like hands over her body. The figure darted away when she screamed, but Spring-Heeled Jack was far from forgotten. In the following decades, witnesses attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack a variety of features, including the ability to scale high walls, a mouth that spat fire, a dress of bear fur, a high-pitched laugh, a pair of horns, and flaming eyes.
Perhaps the most famous episode came two months after the first sighting, involving a young woman named Jane Alsop. Alsop reported that on the night of 19 February 1838, she answered the door of her father’s house to a man claiming to be a police officer, who told her to bring a light, claiming ‘we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane’. She brought the person a candle and noticed that he wore a large cloak. The moment she had handed him the candle, however, he threw off the cloak and ‘presented a hideous appearance’, vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth, while his eyes resembled ‘red balls of fire’. Miss Alsop reported he wore a large helmet and that his clothing appeared to be tight fitting, and resembled a white oilskin. Without saying a word, he caught hold of her and began tearing her gown with his claws, which she was sure were ‘of some metallic substance’. She screamed for help and got 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.
Paranoia about Spring-Heeled Jack became so strong that the Lord Mayor of London called a meeting in his official residence, to discuss ways of dealing with the new menace. The police did not dismiss these stories and even the Duke of Wellington, although aged nearly 70, went out armed on horseback to hunt and kill the monster!
In the days following the first report, many repeated the suspicion that the ‘monster’ was a gentleman. According to this theory, he’d taken to dressing up and scaring people to win a bet. Considering the exploits of some upper classes at the time, this isn’t entirely beyond the bounds of reason. Some people went further, theorising Spring-heeled Jack wasn’t a single figure. Instead, it was a group of such ‘gentlemen’. The idea that Jack was a collective helped explain later sightings as the work of copycats.
Spring-Heeled Jack inspired a fascination. Cheap theatres produced plays about him, while illustrators rendered the demonic figure scores of times. He was also the supposed character of a famous ‘penny dreadful’ booklet, Spring-Heeled Jack: The Terror of London.
No one was ever caught and identified as Spring-heeled Jack; combined with the extraordinary abilities attributed to him and the very long period during which he was reported at large, this has led to many and varied theories of his nature and identity. While several researchers seek a normal explanation for the events, other authors explore the story’s more fantastic details to propose different paranormal speculation. And though the original furore eventually died down, the fear persisted for decades. The last sighting of Spring-Heeled Jack is reported to have taken place in Liverpool, in 1904.
TALES OF LONDON’S DARKER HISTORY
Paul Asling takes us on a captivating journey around London, to discover some dark tales that have shaped the city’s compelling and turbulent past.
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