The Visitations of Spring-Heeled Jack
“‘Jack in the Green’ May Day Celebrations, Hastings, May 2014” by vic_burton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Spring Heeled Jack Arrives
Spring-Heeled Jack was seen first in London in 1837 but later when his fame spread, there were sightings all over England and in Scotland too. He appeared in rural areas, such as when he reached out and snatched at a passing nurse in Tallentire, Cumberland, but mainly Jack is a specter of the urban landscape.
He was called Spring-Heeled Jack because he could leap to enormous heights, and so the Victorians wondered whether he had springs in his shoes!
Because Jack’s appearance was so devilish, it’s easy to think that maybe the sightings were due to a devil hysteria in a Christian country, which Britain was in 1837.
The United Kingdom was undergoing an evangelical revival at that time with the growth of Methodism and a building of chapels across the country.
Jack was described as having hands with claws — on one account at least, metal talons — and eyes like balls of red fire. There are some bizarre aspects to his description, though. He had a black cloak. Okay — but underneath the cloak, he wore a skin-tight suit that was shiny like an oilskin. He was also supposed to wear a helmet.
Another almost dragon-like feature was his ability to breathe blue fire.
The story goes that in October 1837, Mary Stevens was walking near Clapham Junction Station heading for Clapham Common in South London when she was attacked by a strange man.
She said he gripped her tightly and tried to kiss her before ripping at her clothes with his cold, clammy claws. Mary shrieked in alarm, and the character fled. Hearing her calls for help several local men appeared but though they searched, they couldn’t find Mary’s attacker.
However, that wasn’t the end of it. This strange character was next seen landing from the sky in front of a carriage and panicked the driver and his horses before jumping off again, allegedly leaping effortlessly over a nine-foot wall, while laughing hysterically.
This report caught the public’s imagination, and stories of the weird Spring-Heeled Jack circulated in local newspapers and penny dreadfuls.
It may also be true that certain mischievous people deliberately dressed up as monsters to scare maids and unwitting travelers on foggy London nights.
That reminds me of the Killer Clown craze of 2016. That was a lot of fun.
There are many accounts of these monsters and ghosts. Still, none really resembles Jack until 19 February 1838 at Bearbinder Lane. The lane is now gone but in 1589, it was described as ‘a place of no great account’.
Bearbinder Lane ran into St Swithin’s Lane at Bow in East London. On the night in question, at quarter to nine, Jane was at home. There came a violent ringing at the gate outside the house.
She went to see who was there and saw a man who said he was a policeman and this man told Jane
“For Heaven’s sake, bring me a light for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”
Jane fetched a candle while the so-called policeman waited and saw by its light this man wore a large cloak. Nothing suspicious so far, he was a policeman after all, and in those days they wore cloaks.
She followed him into the alley, and there was no one there. Still not suspicious, she gave him the candle, and at that instant, he threw off his cloak, and he vomited blue and white flames into her face.
His eyes glowed like red fire, and he wore a tight-fitting oilskin suit and a large helmet. He started to rip at her clothes with his metallic claws, which were like Mary Stevens described, as cold as ice.
Jane screamed and ran, and he pursued her, but her sisters came out of the house and between them, managed to rescue her from Jack, and he fled.
They dragged Jane into the house, and the man stood outside, banging the gate until the sister shouted from an upstairs for the police.
Only eight days after the attack on Jane Alsop, an eighteen-year-old girl called Lucy Scales was walking with her sister not far from the previous episode in East London.
They’d been to see their brother who was a butcher and who lived in Narrow Street, Limehouse, just west of the Isle of Dogs. As they passed Green Dragon Alley (yes, I know Bearbinder Lane and Green Dragon Alley sound right out of Harry Potter, what can I say?) she chanced to see a cloaked figure lurking up there. As she came up, he spurted a blue flame into her face, blinding her.
Lucy fell to the ground in seizures. Her brother, whose house they’d only just left, heard their screams and ran out of his house. He found Lucy on the floor fitting with her sister holding onto her.
The brother didn’t get the full story until both sisters accompanied him home. Lucy said this man was tall and thin, with a large cloak and carrying a bullseye lantern such as used by the police.
Lucy said he appeared to be a gentleman in social standing and that she didn’t remember him laying a hand on her. A search was done by the police, but they found no one.
A report of this attack appeared in the London Times of 2 March 1838 and one foolish man called Thomas Millbank was in the Morgan’s Arms pub and boasted he was Spring-Heeled Jack. He was arrested but set free when he couldn’t breathe blue flame.
There were lots of alarms and hysteria about Jack and sightings were reported across England. Still, none to my mind are particularly convincing.
Then, forty years later, in November 1872, the south London borough of Peckham was terrified by the Peckham Ghost that some said was Spring-heeled Jack returned.
This seemed to stir Jack up, and he was seen again and again.
His final sighting was by a group of soldiers on sentry duty at Aldershot Barracks in Hampshire, thirty miles south-west of London, who reported a visitation.
A sentry at North Camp saw a shadowy figure coming towards him and issued a challenge. At that point, the figure came up beside him and slapped him repeatedly in the face. The guard shot him, but the bullets did not good. Then he disappeared into the darkness ‘with astonishing bounds’.
His last sighting was in Liverpool, but I know of no further sightings in London.
After that, Jack vanished as suddenly as he had appeared. Where he is now, no one knows.
What he was. No one knows. Who he was, we can’t say. Was he real? Well, what does that actually mean? He was real enough to scare the bejesus out of honest folk.
Creatures can be summoned out of pure longing, so just don’t call out Jack’s name, and especially don’t call out his name three times. And for Heaven’s sake, don’t call out his name three times while looking into a mirror.
Even more importantly, don’t ask for him to come calling at Halloween.
He might just answer.