Saturday, 11 February 2012


`Spring-Heeled Jack` was a creature straight out of Victorian British mythology, or was he?

The first reported sightings of him was in October 1837 when a servant girl called Mary Stevens was returning on foot from visiting parents in Battersea to her place of employment in Lavender Hill, London.

She alleged that as she was passing through Clapham Common  a strange figure leapt at her from a dark alley. After immobilising her with a tight grip of his arms, he began to kiss her face, while ripping her clothes and touching her flesh with his claws, which were, according to her account, "cold and clammy as those of a corpse". In blind fear and panic, the girl screamed, making the attacker quickly flee from the scene. The commotion brought several residents who immediately launched a search for the aggressor, who could not be found.

The following day this character was alleged to have attacked another girl close to where Mary Steven`s resided, and on this occasion he jumped in the way of a passing carriage, causing the coachman to lose control, crash, and severely injure himself. Several witnesses claimed that he escaped by jumping over a nine-foot-high wall while babbling with a high-pitched, ringing laughter.

Gradually, the news of the strange character spread, and soon the press and the public gave him a name: `Spring-heeled Jack`.

Jack`s exploits soon spread through London bringing more reports and sightings, and of course more accounts from witnesses who claimed either they had seen, or were subject to assault by him.

Perhaps the best known of the alleged incidents involving Spring-heeled Jack were the attacks on two teenage girls, Lucy Scales and Jane Alsop. The Alsop report was widely covered by the newspapers, including a piece in The Times,  while fewer reports appeared in relation to the attack on Scales. The press coverage of these two attacks helped to raise the profile of Spring-heeled Jack.

And it was through their descriptions of `Spring-Heeled Jack`, that the character die was struck on Jack`s demonic appearance.

Here are some details of the Times report in February 1838 of both attacks.

Jane Alsop reported that on the night of February 19, 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 most hideous and frightful appearance", vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled "red balls of fire". Miss Alsop reported that he wore a large helmet and that his clothing, which appeared to be very tight-fitting, resembled white oilskin. Without saying a word he caught hold of her and began tearing her gown with his claws which she was certain were "of some metallic substance". She screamed for help, and managed to get 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`.

Eight days after the attack on Miss Alsop, on February 28, 1838, `18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister were returning home after visiting their brother, a butcher who lived in a respectable part of Limehouse. Miss Scales stated in her deposition to the police that as she and her sister were passing along Green Dragon Alley, they observed a person standing in an angle of the passage. She was walking in front of her sister at the time, and just as she came up to the person, who was wearing a large cloak, he spurted "a quantity of blue flame" in her face, which deprived her of her sight, and so alarmed her, that she instantly dropped to the ground, and was seized with violent fits which continued for several hours.

Her brother added that on the evening in question, he had heard the loud screams of one of his sisters moments after they had left his house and on running up Green Dragon Alley he found his sister Lucy on the ground in a fit, with her sister attempting to hold and support her. She was taken home, and he then learned from his other sister what had happened. She described Lucy's assailant as being of tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance, covered in a large cloak, and carrying a small lamp or bull's eye lantern similar to those used by the police. The individual did not speak nor did he try to lay hands on them, but instead walked quickly away. Every effort was made by the police to discover the author of these and similar outrages, and several persons were questioned, but were set free.`

It is questionable as to whether Lucy`s report was based upon what she read from the earlier Times report, but the legend that was `Spring-Heeled Jack` was struck into the psyche of Victorian sensibility.

A Londoner, Thomas Millbank was shortly overheard in a pub to claim that it was he who attacked
Jane Alsop, and on the flimsiest of evidence, Millbank was arrested and tried at Lambeth Street court. Millbank had been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat, which he dropped outside the house, and the candle he dropped was also found. He escaped conviction only because Jane Alsop insisted her attacker had breathed fire, and Millbank admitted he could do no such thing.

Soon accounts of Jack were reported across England, and there were many spurious reports of him written by the publishers of `Penny Dreadful`s` which were the forerunner of modern scandal newspapers. Accounts of his activities became more lurid as his reputation spread, and in some strange way, `Spring-Heeled Jack` became a Victorian `celebrity`.

From then on there were many reports of Jack, but few if any bore any resemblance to the earlier London accounts until a most notable incident witnessed by a soldier in August 1877.

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."

In the autumn of 1877, Spring Heeled Jack was reportedly seen at Newport Arch, in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, wearing a sheep skin. An angry mob supposedly chased him and cornered him, and just as in Aldershot a while before, residents fired at him to no effect. As usual, he was said to have made use of his leaping abilities to lose the crowd and disappear once again.

The last authenticated reports of Jack was reported in Everton, north Liverpool, when in 1888 he allegedly appeared on the rooftop of Saint Francis Xavier's Church in Salisbury Street. And finally in 1904 there were reports of appearances in nearby William Henry Street.

No person was ever identified as `Spring-Heeled Jack`, and it is fair to say that the reports given variously by witnesses became more outlandish as the years passed into the 20th century.
It should be added that who, or what this creature was, he never actually caused any serious harm to any of his victims.

Whether `Spring-Heeled Jack` existed, or was merely the result of mass hysteria will never be known. But unlike many Victorian legends, `Spring-Heeled Jack` is one that will never fade away.

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