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Spring-Heeled Jack (fl. 1837–1838), mystery assailant, was first reported, though not named, in early January 1838, when the lord mayor of London made public a letter he had received, signed ‘A resident of Peckham’:
It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the higher ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion (name as yet unknown) that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three disguises—a ghost, a bear and a devil; and, moreover, that he will not dare to enter gentlemen's gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses. (The Times, 9 Jan 1838)
The publication of this letter elicited a host of reports of incidents, dating from the autumn of the previous year, from all around the periphery of London. Though the correspondents who answered the lord mayor's call for more information shared the belief that a malicious prankster was responsible, plainly many of their informants (frequently their servants) did not, but believed the incidents supernatural. They involved a mysterious figure who appeared, always after dark, chiefly in the forms of a bear, a man in armour, or the devil himself, and either frightened or attacked people by lacerating them or, more commonly, tearing at their clothing with his talons. His most usual target was young women.

By mid-February 1838 the assailant was known as Spring-Heeled Jack. The first first-hand report of an attack was published: an eighteen-year-old named Jane Alsop had answered the door at her father's house in Old Ford, near Bow, and been attacked by a figure who ‘vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth’ and ‘tore at her neck and arms with his claws’ before scampering away across the fields (The Times, 22 Feb 1838). An inconclusive investigation followed: one witness cast doubt on the severity of the attack and on the possibility of the fire-breathing; another told of seeing an unidentified ‘young man in a large cloak’ nearby; and the principal suspect, a carpenter called Millbank, was so drunk on the night of the attack that he could remember nothing of what had taken place.

The scare was now at its height. There had been reports from upwards of thirty locations around London. Rewards were posted; the police baffled; and, in parts of London, ‘females … afraid to move a yard from their dwellings unless … very well protected’. More incidents followed—some obviously the work of lacklustre imitators (two were arrested); others more serious. In one, Jack breathed blue fire at one Lucy Scales in an alley in Limehouse, leaving her, according to the doctor who was called to examine her, ‘suffering from hysterics and great agitation, in all probability the result of fright’ (Morning Post, 7 March 1838).

Though there were no further attacks in this, the original, panic of 1837–8, Spring-Heeled Jack lodged in the popular consciousness and stuck there. He was celebrated on stage and in penny dreadfuls, and took on a new folkloric persona as a waylayer of solitary travellers. An assault on a woman in Teignmouth in 1847 gave rise to a ‘Spring-Heeled Jack investigation’; his name was also associated with the Peckham ghost of 1872 and the Sheffield Park ghost of 1873, and when Aldershot Camp was plagued by series of ghostly visitations in 1877 the perpetrator was labelled Spring-Heeled Jack. He last appeared in Liverpool in 1904 (Dash, 66–97).

In the reports of all the incidents from the second part of his career, after 1838, Jack's principal characteristic is his agility: he moves with incomparable swiftness and leaps over obstacles 6, 8, and even 15 or 20 feet high. Those who believed he was of flesh and blood ascribed this preternatural ability to his wearing boots with springs in their heels. But, curiously, his christening as Spring-Heeled Jack predates any reference to his jumping ability or spring-heeled shoes, and why he was so named is unknown. It may simply have referred to the light elastic shoes which—naturally enough for one so elusive—he was originally described as wearing; it certainly connoted that elusiveness. Later generations, to whom the name's original force had been lost, reinterpreted it, and it informed their reports of his exploits.

Who, then, was the original Spring-Heeled Jack? The notion that he was a nobleman fulfilling the terms of a bet was a popular, and entirely reasonable, contemporary explanation of the scare of 1837–8. It excludes the supernatural; it explains how the perpetrator could manage the logistics of the enterprise and (through intimations of a cover-up) how he had escaped justice; and it makes some sense out of what would otherwise have been entirely random and meaningless events. The chief suspect was (and, for some, remains) , the hottest blood of the day (N&Q Haining, chap. 4).

Yet there is no direct evidence for this explanation. The notion of a wager was only ever a hypothesis, necessary because the alternative—that a monster, or the devil himself, was walking abroad in Peckham—was ‘too absurd for belief’. And the hypothesis fails to explain why, as contemporary reporters complained, no first-hand witness to Spring-Heeled Jack could be found in early February 1838, although the story was on everyone's lips. To the sceptical folklorist, this absence suggests that the story was a rapidly disseminating urban legend—or rather, two legends: among the servant and working classes, from whom Jack selected his victims, a straightforwardly supernatural story of a polymorphous monster (very like traditional accounts of diabolical spirits visiting the earth); and, among the letter-writing middle classes and metropolitan newspaper men, a rationalized version, involving a young blood, a well-stocked costume cupboard, and a wild wager. Viewed in this light, both tales, as befit the products of the mythopoeic imagination, reveal a number of societal concerns—most interestingly, perhaps, given the historical context, a tension between the irrational countryside and the rational town.

The extreme of this sceptical position would be to deny that there was any truth in the story; to label it a narrative of hysteria, sprung from some small trigger that, once sprung, gathered its own momentum. As part of this momentum (to which the lord mayor contributed the decisive shove) imitators abounded, and assaults which appeared to fit the pattern were assimilated to it. The fact that, just before she was attacked, Lucy Scales had been reading about the Alsop case consorts neatly. Corroboration, too, might be found by comparison with the cases of other mystery assailants, such as the Halifax Slasher, who provoked hysteria and vigilantism in equal measure in Halifax in November 1938, or the Monkey Man, who terrorized areas of New Delhi in May 2001. In both cases, in the end, the police stopped looking for the attackers and announced that they did not exist.

Yet this explanation of Spring-Heeled Jack as a hysterical chimera leaves some questions unanswered (why the name? why—and what was—the blue flame?) and simply postpones others. Most importantly, the question of who (the devil) was Spring-Heeled Jack simply metamorphoses into the equally puzzling question of why (on earth) did his story catch on? It may be the most reasonable explanation for the phenomenon available, but it fails to go to the heart of the matter.

Rupert Mann

Sources  

M. Dash, ‘Spring-Heeled Jack: to Victorian bugaboo from suburban ghost’, Fortean Studies, 3 (1996), 7–125 · The Times (9 Jan 1838) · H. Hems, ‘Marquess of Waterford as Springheel Jack’, N&Q, 10th ser., 8 (1907), 455 · P. Haining, The legend and bizarre crimes of Spring Heeled Jack (1977) · M. Goss, The Halifax Slasher: an urban terror in the north of England (1987) · E. Showalter, Hystories: hysterical epidemics and modern culture (1997)