The other day I learned about a strange phenomenon that I had never heard about. Spring-heeled Jack.
Mrs. Mary Fantina, who grew up in Newfoundland years ago, told me how he reportedly visited Newfoundland around the turn of the 1900s. He would leap into the air, two or three stories high, and peek in the windows of unsuspecting ladies.
Who Was Spring-heeled Jack?
Well that’s the $64 question. To this day no one is certain, but many have speculated as to his identity.
It all started in 1837 in London, England. In October of that year, Mary Stevens was returning to her job as a servant girl at Lavender Hill after a day off. As she passed through Clapham Common a man leapt out from an alley, held her tight and proceeded to kiss her while he tore at her clothes with claws that were cold to the touch.
She screamed and local residents came to her aid, but her assailant escaped without a trace.
Then the next day in the same area, he tried a different tactic. The same figure supposedly leapt out of an alley into the path of an oncoming carriage. The coachman lost control of the carriage and he was seriously injured in the ensuing crash. Nearby witnesses said the figure then jumped over a nine foot wall (nearly 3 meters) and they heard him “babbling with a high pitched, ringing laughter.”
The press dubbed him “Spring-heeled Jack” due to his ability to leap high into the air.
It took the London officials some time to acknowledge the problem Spring-heeled Jack was causing, but on January 9, 1838 the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, reported a complaint that he had received concerning this mysterious individual.
Sir John remained skeptical, but at an open meeting another citizen reported “servant girls about Kensington, Hammersmith, and Ealing, tell dreadful stories of this ghost or devil.” By January 11, the Lord Mayor had a stack of letters from aggrieved citizens all around London and surrounding areas.
It wasn’t until a trusted friend told him about an encounter that his servant girl had with the rogue, that he began to change his mind. Reports claimed Jack appeared as either a ghost, bear, or devil, but from what I’ve read, it seems he appeared mostly as his “strange” self.
His Reputation Grew
The two most famous reports of encounters with Jack are referred to as the Scales and Alsop reports. The Alsop case in particular received heavy press coverage and greatly increased Jack’s reputation throughout England.
February 19, 1838: Jane Alsop answered the door and found a man who said he was a policeman who needed a light. She retrieved a lit candle and as she made to give it to the cloaked figure, he threw aside the cloak and spewed blue and white flames from his mouth. She was horrified by his appearance and further added that his eyes were “red balls of fire”.
Jane said he wore a helmet and a tight fitting outfit that looked like white oilskin. He grabbed her and began to tear at her clothes with claws that she said were made from some metallic substance. She screamed and got away but he grabbed her again, this time tearing at her neck and arms with those fake claws. Her sister ran to her aid and the miscreant disappeared.
February 28, 1838: Lucy Scales (18 years) and her sister left the home of their brother, a butcher in London, and headed home. As they passed Green Dragon Alley, she noticed a figure lurking in the alley wearing a large cloak. She said he spewed blue flames towards her face and temporarily blinded her. She fell to the ground and thereafter suffered “violent fits” for several hours more.
Their brother had heard the commotion and quickly came to the sisters aid but their attacker had disappeared. The other sister described him 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.”
As his reputation grew, reports of his terrible behavior began to spread farther afield. They died down for a while, but resumed in 1843 with another cluster of reports from all around England.
The stories continued through the late part of the 19th century, ranging from a soldier’s encounter with him in August 1877, a mob chasing him in Newport Arch in Lincoln, Lincolnshire until he leapt out of sight, then in Everton, north Liverpool, in 1888 where he appeared on the roof of a church. In 1904 he supposedly reappeared in Everton, this time on William Henry Street.
Things quieted down in England at that point, but as I mentioned at the start of this post, he may have shifted his focus to Newfoundland for a while. Mrs. Fantina said those reports ended around 1900.
According to Wiki, he may have re-appeared again in Attercliffe, Sheffield in the late 1970s. Residents complained about “a red-eyed prowler who grabbed women and punched men.” They also claimed he “bound between rooftops and walked down sides of walls.”
In 1986 a travelling salesman said he encountered Jack in South Herefordshire, who added that Jack had slapped him. The interesting aspect of this report is that the salesman said Jack had an elongated chin. Sounds like a classic cartoon villain, doesn’t it?
Finally, in February of last year near Nescot College on the Ewell bypass, the Martin family witnessed what they believed was Jack on the move again. This time he leapt across the road in front of them and scaled a 15 foot wall, disappearing in seconds.
What to Think
Over the years there have been many theories to explain the appearance and conduct of Spring-heeled Jack, none of which seem entirely plausible.
At one point, the story was told about a group of noblemen who laid a wager that one of their colleagues couldn’t or wouldn’t be up to the challenge of creating this character and carrying out his misdeeds. The man accepted the challenge and set about making Spring-heeled Jack a reality. But that was never proved, or disproved.
After the Alsop incident, one man claimed he was Spring-heeled Jack and he was arrested and tried for his crimes. He had been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat and police had found the candle he allegedly dropped, but eventually his case fell apart because Jane Alsop insisted this man had breathed fire and the man on trial admitted he wasn’t able to do that. So the case fell apart and he was freed.
In the 1830s an Irish nobleman, the Marquess of Waterford (portrait left), was said to be Spring-heeled Jack because of his already tarnished reputation due to drunken brawling, nasty jokes, and damaging other people’s property. He also was known for treating women badly. He eventually married and settled down, and still the reports of Spring-heeled Jack continued without him.
Then we have the paranormal crowd who think Jack is some kind of devil or instrument thereof, because of his red glowing eyes and ability to breathe fire, not to mention his ability to leap tall buildings in a single – oh wait a minute, that’s another story! LOL!
Did you ever hear of that old circus act, The Flying Wallendas? They could jump and leap about in fantastic ways. So some people do have an extraordinary athletic ability. Plus there have been people who used props, like springed devices to jump on.
As for “breathing fire” – that sounds like a magician’s trick to me. Remember in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles how the phosphorous was used to create a ghostly glow? People can make a lot of mischief with basic chemicals.
Red glowing eyes – these people didn’t have the lighting we have today to see at night. Who knows how they looked in the dark by gaslight or candle light? We know animals’ eyes will glow red at night when hit with a spotlight or flashlight (think nighttime Bigfoot sightings) – so it could happen with humans, too, I suppose.
I personally think the legend of Spring-heeled Jack is a composite of characters created by “boys behaving badly” during a very morally and socially strict time in history. Any incidents after that are probably just copycat perpetrators looking to make mischief or have some fun.
What do you think?