Previously published in the August/September 2010 issue of History Magazine.
Laura Grande looks at the myth behind one of England’s most enduring urban legends.
The 19th century was an age of science and reason; however, superstition remained a persistent school of thought, throughout the decades.
Before Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel in 1888, a different sort of terror was said to be roaming the streets of England. The stories of a tall, cloaked man with glowing red eyes who was able to reach spectacular heights with only the slightest of leaps, made its first reported appearance in 1837.
From the moment this figure made its first appearance, this strange phenomenon has gripped a nation, and baffled historians, for more than 60 years. Dubbed Spring-heeled Jack by media outlets eager to latch onto the story of a superhuman villain, this ghostly figure has remained one of England’s most enduring urban legends.
The First Sightings
Barnes village was a notoriously dangerous place to travel by night. This once remote area of London (now a riverside suburb) was the location of the first sighting of Spring-heeled Jack.
On a chilly April night in 1837, an unidentified businessman was late for work when he spontaneously decided to take a shortcut through a nearby churchyard. Aware of the risk he was taking, the businessman picked up his pace. It was then that a dark figure leapt clear over the graveyard’s railings, landing directly in front of the frightened man.
The moment the businessman saw the dark phantom’s bulging red eyes he fled. This was to be the first of many recorded sightings over the years. Minor reports were published in newspapers in the months following the Barnes attack; however, few can be definitively identified as the apparition known as Spring-heeled Jack.
On 19 February 1838, Spring-heeled Jack made another appearance, this time in the outskirts of Old Ford, closer to the city of London. Around 9:00 pm, 18-year-old Jane Alsop heard a knock on her front door. Unaccustomed to such late-night calls, Alsop was reluctant to open the door. She only consented when the man on the other side identified himself as a police officer.
“For God’s sake,” the man pleaded with Alsop, “bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane.”
Alsop went to fetch a candle before opening the door. However, the moment she swung the door open, she was greeted by an unnaturally tall, cloaked figure with what appeared to be a lantern strapped to his chest. The glow from the lantern bathed his face in light and Alsop could see he had red eyes, pointed ears and a strange helmet on his head.
Before Alsop could react, the dark figure emitted blue flames from his mouth and began tearing at her clothes with metallic claws. At the sound of Alsop’s screams, her two sisters came running and found her in a headlock, as a dark figure scratched at her face and clothing. Alsop, with the help of her sisters, managed to free herself and slam the door in the intruder’s face. The three young women called for the police from their window, while Spring-heeled Jack slipped into the shadows and disappeared.
On 28 February, Spring-heeled Jack allegedly attacked 18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister in Green Dragon Alley, a respectable area of Limehouse. Around 8:30 pm, the young women were confronted by a dark figure that released blue flames from his mouth, temporarily blinding Scales and sending her into a series of violent fits. As the sisters screamed, the mysterious figure quickly vanished, having never laid hands on either of the Scales sisters. Their description matched the one Jane Alsop had given to the police only days before.
This was the last generally accepted appearance of Spring-heeled Jack.
On 9 January 1838, a few months after the graveyard confrontation with the businessman and prior to the attacks involving Alsop and Scales, the potential of Spring-heeled Jack being a genuine cause for public concern was addressed at a public session at Mansion House.
Sir John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London, had received an anonymous letter signed “Resident of Peckham.” The writer claimed that they had knowledge of a wager that had been laid amongst some young noblemen. According to the “Resident of Peckham”, the wager involved having the young noblemen appear in nearby villages in the disguise of a ghost or a devil. These noblemen were, in the opinion of the letter writer, “rascals with high families” and “bets to the amount of 5,000 (pounds) are at stake.”
The letter went on to describe specific instances where people had been frightened out of their wits by ghostly apparitions. Once a skeptical Cowan mentioned the issue at the session, other letters began pouring in to the Lord Mayor’s office in the following days, all claiming to know of examples where people were being attacked by a devilish figure.
Cowan was more inclined to believe the attacks were part of an elaborate prank, instead of a ghostly apparition, and ordered a police inquiry.
Two lengthy investigations were set up, one by the newly established Metropolitan Police, the other by James Lea, formerly of the Bow Street Patrol. Lea had earned the reputation of being one of the best detectives during the 1830s and was known for having solved the infamous Maria Marten murder of 1827.
Lea interviewed Jane Alsop and concluded that, “in her fright, the young lady had much mistaken the appearance of her assailant” and the whole matter was the “result of a drunken frolic.” Despite having reached this conclusion, Lea continued looking for the perpetrator, arresting and interviewing dozens of suspects. The trail eventually went cold as the majority of those Lea arrested were town drunks who could hardly recall where they were on the days of the Alsop and Scales attacks. With little more to go on, Lea was forced to drop the inquiry.
The abrupt halt in the investigation did little to quell the public’s desire to learn more about Spring-heeled Jack. Reports continued to be prominently featured in newspapers throughout the city. Several Penny Dreadful publications picked up on the story, thus turning the cloaked phantom into a popular fictional character, hailing him as “The Terror of London.”
Aldershot Barracks and Other Reported Sightings
On 1 March 1838, there were reports of women being attacked by men in disguises both in London and nearby villages. Men were being charged and slapped with fines on an almost daily basis in the days following the attack on the Scales sisters. The name Spring-heeled Jack had become synonymous with ‘bogeyman.’
Eventually, the original public furor over the attacks of 1837 and 1838 died down as sightings became fewer and far between. Spring-heeled Jack now came perilously close to disappearing from the memories of the general public forever.
The period between 1838 and the 1870s are what historians consider to be the “lost years” of Spring-heeled Jack. There were only a few reported sightings throughout England, none of which proved conclusive. This period was likely poorly documented because the attacks that were reported occurred outside of metropolises and away from newspapers. There is only one precisely dated incident associated with Spring-heeled Jack during this interval.
On 12 November 1845, in the decaying tenements of Jacob’s Island, on the south bank of the River Thames, an ominous figure approached teenage prostitute, Maria Davis. The dark figure clawed at Davis’ clothing before lifting her up and throwing her off the bridge. Davis drowned and witnesses recall seeing a figure quickly bounding down the street. For those who believe this was the work of Spring-heeled Jack, the brutal attack on young Maria Davis made him into a murderer.
One of the most famous reports of a Spring-heeled Jack sighting occurred in August 1877, at Aldershot Barracks in Surrey, 60 km outside London. Aldershot was the headquarters of the British army; home to 10,000 troops at any given time. One evening, a young sentry was on night watch duty at the northern end of the camp when he spotted a hooded figure in the distance. The sentry later recalled hearing the faint sound of metal clinking together as the figure walked, as though it were wearing armor.
Just as the sentry called out to the hooded figure, the specter vanished. The sentry turned around to alert his superior officers when the apparition suddenly reappeared, standing next to the soldier in the sentry box overlooking the camp. The startled sentry slapped at the hooded figure’s hand, which had stretched towards him. The soldier later recalled that the hand he had struck was ice cold. The sentry screamed.
As several soldiers came running at the sound of the scream, the hooded phantom took a running leap over their heads and over the side of the sentry box. Landing on his feet, the figure took long, leaping bounds across the field and out of sight.
In the following weeks, many soldiers claimed they saw the hooded figure late at night while on watch duty. The fear became so great that the sentries were purportedly given ammunition and told to shoot any intruder on sight.
The Illustrated Police News, a tabloid dedicated to sensationalized reports of gruesome murders, eerie supernatural sightings and lurid drawings of violent crimes, featured accounts from Aldershot Barracks three times in 1877. Even Sheldrake’s Aldershot and Sandhurst Military Gazette saw fit to publish the reported sightings.
After a couple of months, the reports stopped coming in and the phantom believed to be Spring-heeled Jack never returned to Aldershot Barracks.
His Final Appearance
Three decades would pass before Spring-heeled Jack made his final curtain call. Nearly 70 years had gone by since the cloaked figure made his first appearance in a graveyard in 1837. The mystery of Spring-heeled Jack had been lost in the chaos surrounding the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, a case that enveloped London in a cloud of fear in the final months of 1888. After the grisly and shocking nature of the Ripper crimes, how could a ghostly apparition even begin to compare to that type of diabolical evil?
It was September 1904, when a crowd of people witnessed a strange figure leaping across the rooftops on William Henry Street in Liverpool. This sighting, if it truly were Spring-heeled Jack, would have been the farthest north the phantom had ever traveled. The figure brazenly attempted this feat in broad daylight, unlike every other sighting.
It is unlikely that the figure, which was never caught, was the same specter as the one spotted for the first time in 1837. Over the decades, Spring-heeled Jack had become a term used to describe anything supernatural or threatening in nature.
It would be another 60 years after the Liverpool sighting before the truth about that day would come out. A Mrs. Pierson, an Everton pensioner who had lived in the district all her life, revealed to the Liverpool Daily Post in 1967 that the man seen leaping across rooftops was, in fact, a mentally unstable local man. Pierson had witnessed the event herself as a child and felt that the record should be set straight, even after so much time had passed.
And, on that disappointing note, Spring-heeled Jack was officially never heard from again.
Man or Myth?
Despite his fiendish appearance, the most startling characteristic of Spring-heeled Jack was his effortless ability to clear walls up to 20 feet in height in a single bound. Did this mean the cloaked phantom was a supernatural being or simply a man with springs on his boots?
Contrary to popular belief, some men did come forward to admit they think they had been attacked by the mysterious figure. If it was, in fact, the same person who committed all of the crimes associated with Spring-heeled Jack, it seemed as though his victims were random, regardless of the victims’ gender or age. At least one gentleman reportedly said he thought he saw springs on the boots of his attacker.
There are no known reports of stolen items, nor did the mysterious figure ever ask for money or jewelry. The murder of prostitute Maria Davis does not fit the pattern of Spring-heeled Jack; therefore, historians often dismiss the idea that she was his victim. The early days of Spring-heeled Jack, in particular, seem to suggest a gentleman playing a prank.
The chief suspect for a time was Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. The raucous Irishman had the tendency to gamble, drink and play elaborate hoaxes on his friends. No charges were ever laid.
In the end, Spring-heeled Jack’s true identity is lost in a web of erroneous reports, rumor and conjecture. How many Spring-heeled Jacks were there over the course of nearly 70 years? Was it one man or dozens? Was it all some elaborate hoax by one group of individuals or a handful of imitators, young men looking for thrills? Or, was it just vivid imagination resulting from widespread panic? There are even those who believe Spring-heeled Jack was a supernatural being or an alien visitor, which would explain his jumping abilities and glowing eyes.
The mystery of this leaping madman continues to live on as a part of English folklore.