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Spring-Heeled Jack: the Scourge of London

Spring-Heeled Jack
Spring-Heeled Jack, 19th Century [Larger version here]

The Legend:

Reports of an unknown leaping figure began in south-west London in 1837; the descriptions of the strange character made it out to be a man in a shiny suit with helmet and cloak, fiery eyes, hands like iron claws, and the ability to spit flames. "Devil-like" was the only description given of the strange figure that escaped with incredible leaps and bounds after attacking Polly Adams, a farmer’s daughter who worked in a south London Pub; the same description was given of the assailant of another woman in Clapham churchyard. But it wasn’t until early in 1838 that the rumors were terrifyingly confirmed.

        In January 1838, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan, drew public attention to a letter he had received from a resident of Peckham giving details of an attack by the so-called "Spring-Heeled Jack." This public acknowledgement of the rumors by the Lord Mayor immediately led to a flood of letters from individuals who had been too frightened and embarrassed to report their own encounters previously.

        On a February night of the same year, Jane Alsop, who lived with her father and two sisters, was assaulted by a devilish -- some say alien -- being who spat blue and white flames at her and scratched and tore at her with iron claws, only to leap away into the darkness when one of her sisters called for help. Less than a month later, Lucy Scales and her sister met Jack as they walked home through Green Dragon Alley in Limehouse. A tall, cloaked figure leaped from the shadows and belched blue flames into Lucy’s face, blinding her and causing her to collapse. As her sister attempted to help, the cloaked figure walked quietly away.

        Sightings and encounters of Spring-Heeled Jack were reported off and on for more than sixty-six years. He was seen scaling the spire of a London church, leaping away into the darkness after a short time. Rumors spread of him also being seen on the Tower of London. Jack was sighted all over England through the 1850’s and 1860’s (especially in the Midlands). In the 1860’s, according to one report, the villain had been cornered by a mob only to escape by jumping a hedge in one bound. Parents kept their children off the streets for fear of the bouncing terror. In 1877, army authorities set traps for him after he slapped sentries with his icy hands and jumped atop their guard boxes; one sentry reported that he was sure he had shot Jack dead center in the body... but Jack showed no signs of noticing it as he leaped away. On another night in 1877, angry townspeople also tried to shoot him, to no avail. The last time Jack was definitely seen was in Liverpool in September 1904, where he was jumping from street to rooftops and back again. When some brave citizens tried to corner him, he simply leaped away into the darkness.

        Some say that sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack continued until after World War II, but these reports are unconfirmable.

If only it were that simple...

        Above is the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack as it is usually told, though the incidents that get mentioned do vary quite a bit from author to author.

        For those of you new to the topic of Spring-Heeled Jack, just be aware that many, many things have been written about him; enough so that it is not entirely easy to understand and explain exactly how much the story has grown over time. When reports later attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack first appeared in 1837, it was assumed they were caused by a person (or group of people) utilizing costumes to alarm and startle victims. Over time, however, this idea was replaced by a more supernatural one that envisioned Jack as a sort of devil that was amused to torment people... and, in the 20th century, Jack was eventually presented as a possible alien from space trapped on Earth. To make matters worse, some authors started to create new "reported incidents" to either spice up a book or support a pet theory; so there is a large amount of completely false stories about Spring-Heeled Jack as well!

        Despite the confusion around this topic, some of the accounts attributed to the being dubbed Spring-Heeled Jack are truely astounding and forever of interest; and speculation about his identity, motives, and possibly supernatural nature continues to be discussed. Let's start where most of the stories start... with the first public acknowledgement that something unusual was afoot in London.

1838, January 8: A Letter to the Lord Mayor

        London of the 1830's was substantially smaller than the modern megalopolis it is today; it was a large town, surrounded by a number of smaller villages separated by undeveloped countryside. In later years, as London expanded, these small villages became different neighborhoods within the growing city... but that was still years away.

        Early in January, 1838, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, received an unusual letter... unusual enough that the he took a few days to make inquiries about both the letter and its topic before responding to the letter in public on January 8. The details of this letter, and of the responses of the Lord Mayor's audience, were printed in the Times on January 9. It was only after this letter was made public that 'Spring-Heeled Jack' was given a name and that earlier disturbances which were previously ignored were newly considered to have been caused by this troublemaker. The following is the letter:

"TO THE RIGHT HON. THE LORD MAYOR.

        "My Lord, -- The writer presumes that your Lordship will kindly overlook the liberty he has taken in addressing a few lines on a subject which within the last few weeks has caused much alarming sensation in the neighbouring villages within three or four miles of London.

        "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 different 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, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses. At one house he rung the bell, and on the servant coming to open the door, this worse than brute stood in a no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that, the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses, but, on seeing any man, screams out most violently, 'Take him away!' There are two ladies (which your Lordship will regret to hear), who have husbands and children, and who are not expected to recover, but likely to become burdens to their families.

        "For fear that your Lordship might imagine that the writer exaggerate, he will refrain from mentioning other cases, if anything, more melancholy than those he has already related.

        "This affair has now gone on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer is very unwilling to be unjust towards any man, but he has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger ends, but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent. It is, however, high time that such a detestable nusance should be put a stop to, and the writer feels assured that your Lordship, as the chief magistrate of London, will take great pleasure in exerting your power to bring the villain to justice.

        "Hoping your Lordship will pardon the liberty I have taken in writing,

        "I will remain your Lordship's most humble servant,

                "A RESIDENT OF PECKHAM."

        The newspaper article that presented this letter then went on to state that the Lord Mayor was of the theory that his anonymous correspondent was actually one of the seven ladies who had lost their senses -- an assumption he never explains his reasons for -- and the Mayor then encouraged her to come visit him so he could hear more details on the matter. The Mayor stated that he was sure that if the culprit attempted such actions in London proper that the police would certainly detain him, whether or not the press were ignoring the attacks.

        After the Lord Mayor's announcement, a man in the crowd offered that the villain referred to in the letter had been terrorizing servant girls in Kensington, Hammersmith, and Ealing, and had in fact attacked a blacksmith and "torn his flesh with iron claws." These same claws, the man continued, were used to tear the clothing off the backs of females. None of these frightened and/or injured people had reported these attacks, and it was supposed that they simply didn't like to speak of it.

       I want to point out that the Lord Mayor's assertion that this odd culprit would most certainly be detained by the London police if he tried his tricks in that town can also be read as the Lord Mayor telling every neighboring village that he was not going to send London police out to help them... he was merely warning the culprit to stay out of London. All the villages around London were on their own.

The "Early" Disturbances

        In the days after the Lord Mayor's announcement, the Times of London received many letters about the strange villain. These missives seemingly confirmed that the villages to the West end of London were, in fact, being terrorized by a most unusual series of assaults at the end of 1837. The people writing to the newspaper claimed to have seen and encountered a strange character or characters that would jump from nowhere, scare them, then run away. The assaults were alledged for at least eighteen different West end areas near London, and victims reported encountering a wide variety of odd things. The earliest sources I have give this list of bizarre encounters, in this order:

  • In Barnes, a large white bull was encountered
  • In East Sheen, a white bear
  • In Richmond, either a white bear or a figure in brass armor with claw-like gloves
  • In Ham, a figure in brass armor with claw-like gloves
  • In Kingston, a figure in brass armor with claw-like gloves
  • In Hampton, a figure in brass armor with claw-like gloves
  • In Teddington, possibly a figure in brass armor with claw-like gloves (report is unclear)
  • In Twickenham, possibly a figure in brass armor with claw-like gloves (report is unclear)
  • In Hounslow, possibly a figure in brass armor with claw-like gloves (report is unclear)
  • In Isleworth, a figure in steel armor
  • In Uxbridge, a figure in steel armor
  • In Hanwell, a figure in steel armor
  • In Brentford, a figure in steel armor
  • In Ealing, a figure in steel armor
  • In Hammersmith, a huge baboon
  • At Kensington Palace, a huge baboon was seen repeatedly climbing over the forcing houses

In addition to the above, strange sightings were reported for Peckham, St. John’s Wood, and Forest Hill, but no specific details or times were given in these reports.

        As you can see, these reports were confusing and strange. In fact, the only reason these reports were connected together was due to an assumption that they were connected to the Lord Mayor's villain, and the similarity in the mode of operation... in almost every case (ignoring Kensington Palace), a strange character leaped out of nowhere to scare women and children, then ran off immediately, often leaping over bushes or obstacles.

        The overall pattern of these reported scares implied that a person or group of persons were dressing up in a number of fanciful costumes to startle people; which matched up with the what the Lord Mayor's letter reported... strangely though, when the first new reports came in of this culprit - now being called "Spring-Heeled Jack" in the press - the trouble was in the East end of London, not the West end.

1838, February 20: The Jane Alsop Assault

        On a February 20, 1838, Jane Alsop, who lived with her father and two sisters on Bearbind Lane, on the outskirts of the village of Old Ford in the district of Bow in the East end of London, answered a violent knocking at the front gate to their house. A man in the shadows by the front gate identified himself as a police officer, and asked her to bring a light... he’d captured the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack! Excited, Alsop fetched a candle, hurried out to the gate, and handed the light to the policeman. He threw off his cloak and held the candle to his chest; in the flickering light he presented a hideous appearance, his eyes resembling red balls of fire. She noted briefly that he wore a large helmet, and a tight-fitting suit that appeared to be a white oilskin... and then he vomited out blue and white flames.

        Alsop screamed, and tried to run; but Spring-Heeled Jack (for that’s who it was) pinned her head under his arm, and began to rip her dress and body with fingers that felt like iron claws. Still screaming, she freed herself and ran, only to be caught again near the front door. As Jack clawed at her face and neck, and tore out patches of her hair, Alsop’s father and sisters dragged her into the house and slammed the door. The fiend banged on the door until one of Alsop’s sisters leaned out of an upstairs window and called for a policeman. Before anyone could catch him, Spring-Heeled Jack leapt away into the shadows.

        The Alsops reported the assault at the Lambeth street office of the police, which was just a few blocks away, that same evening. The above is essentially the incident as reported by the Alsops to the police, and also a good summing up of how it is typically represented in modern accounts. What most modern accounts tend to forget to mention, however, is that after Jack had run off, a different figure was seen to retrieve Jack’s cloak and run off also... so he wasn’t there alone. Another difference often missed is that Bearbind Lane isn’t inside the district of Bow; it was in fact described as "a lonely spot between the villages of Bow and Oldford," and so a better place for Jack to escape from after the assault.

        It’s very strange that with this incident Jack goes from merely scaring people to actually baiting someone out and physically assaulting them. Miss Alsop was in shock for most of the night after, and in extreme pain for some time after the assault due to the injuries to her arm and the various cuts and scratches over other parts of her body; her dress was nearly torn completely off of her. Miss Alsop’s family was of better standing in the London commmunity than previous victims of the strange attacks; that, coupled with the Lord Mayor’s announcement made a month previous meant that this attack was seriously attended to by the police and fully reported in the London newspapers.

The investigations

        Two separate investigations were made by London authorities of the Alsop attack, and are typically not mentioned in modern tales of Spring-Heeled Jack. One investigation focused on the idea that the attacker was alone, and knew the Alsops by name. The reasons for this was the fact that in the confusion, and with how isolated the Alsops' house was from other structures, there was plenty of opportunity for a single assailent to sneak back for his own cloak. That this assailent knew the Alsops by name came from the fact that, when the young lady had called for help from the upstairs window, three people had set out from the John Bull public house just a little ways off, and the three had come upon a tall person in a cloak as they were climbing the hill to the house; this tall person told them that a policeman was wanted by Mr. Alsop... and the three continued to the rescue, not paying further attention to the cloaked person leaving the scene.

        The general police investigation followed leads that quickly focused them on a carpenter named Millbank, who was seen walking away from the disturbance wearing a white hat and white fustian jacket, accompanied by a bricklayer named Payne. The police waved off Jane Alsop's description of the helmet and white oilskin outfit as a mistake made in the stress of the moment, allowing them to focus on Millbank... plus they had a witness testimony that was very incriminating. James Smith, a coach-wheelwright and the same man who had seen Millbank and Payne walking away from the area of the attack, later ran into the two men again and stated in court:

"Paynes said to the other, ‘It was rascally; I would not have had it done upon any account,’ or words to that effect. I was carrying my work upon my shoulder at the time, and they recognised me, and the man in the shooting-jacket said, ‘There's the –––– who was in the lane.’ He then came up to me, and caught hold of the wheel I was carrying, and pulled it off my shoulder, saying at the same time, ‘What have you to say to Spring Jack?’ I desired him to leave my wheel alone, and then Payne came and took him away."

Millbank and Payne naturally denied the charges, but Millbank also admitted he was so drunk that night he had very little recollection of the evening. When the Alsop sisters were asked to testify, all stated that the man who attacked Jane was not drunk.

        The conflicting testimonies led the magistrates to call for further investigation, but this only made matters worse as a new witness, a shoemaker named Richardson, added new, unknown, suspects to the list... a young man in a large cloak accompanied by a boy, who made a joke about Spring-heeled Jack being in the lane. Worse still, this suspicious character was seen by a witness who also claimed to have met Millbank and Payne previously. Smith insisted that Millbank was guilty; Richardson insisted that Millbank was not. More witnesses appeared with more suspects, and more investigations were called for; but the case seems to have never been legally resolved... Jane Alsop's attacker was never identified.

1838, February 25: The Turner Street Scare

        The next incident didn't get as much press as the Alsop attack... in fact, it's seems to have only appeared in one local paper, the Morning Herald. According to the report, on February 25, 1838, a knock was heard at the door of 2 Turner Street, off the Commercial Road, and just a short distance of the village of Old Ford. A man's voice at the door was asking for Mr. Ashworth, the master of the house, but a servant-boy answered the door... only to find himself facing Spring-Heeled Jack, who threw down his cloak and 'presented a most hideous appearance.' Spring-Heeled Jack was apparently taken off guard by how loudly and suddenly the boy started screaming, for the miscreant quickly left without doing anything more1. Why Jack was targeting Mr. Ashworth was never stated, and probably not known.

1838, February 28: The Lucy Scales Assault

        On February 28 (which is the most likely correct date2), 1838, 18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister had just left the house of their brother, a butcher in Narrow Street, Limehouse, to walk home. Around half past eight at night as the two walked through Green Dragon Alley, Lucy, who was a bit ahead of her sister at the time, saw some person standing in an angle of the alley... and when she drew close, the cloaked figure spurted blue flames into her face, depriving her of her sight and her senses: she collapsed, and started to have a seizure on the spot. Lucy's sister, who was attempting to hold and protect Lucy, could only watch as their assailant walked away without a word and without attempting further mischief.

        Having heard loud screams so shortly after his sisters had left his house, Mr. Scales came running immediately to investigate; and he and his sister soon had Lucy home. The sister described the assailant to be of "tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance," enveloped in a large cloak, and carrying in front of him a "bull's eye," or small lantern similar to what the police carried.

        Mr. Scales and Lucy made a report of the incident to the Lambeth office of the police -- the same office that Jane Alsop and family had reported to -- and the assault was also investigated... but though several people were taken in and questioned, none could have the incident pinned on them and all were released.

        And this ends the initial incidents that can be knowingly attributed to 'Spring-Heeled Jack'... from here, things gets stranger.

The Story Grows

        Thanks to the attention the Lord Mayor's letter and the Alsop assault received in the press, Spring-Heeled Jack had become something of a national phenomena... and he started to be reported everywhere. On April 13, 1838, a bizarre occurrence in Brighton, 53 miles from London, was reported in a local paper... a gardener and his dog witnessed a growling beast in the shape of a bear mount a garden wall and run across the top of it - despite broken glass on the top meant to prevent such - before the creature jumped down and chased the two of them. The beast eventually left, having merely scared its victims half to death. The Brighton newspaper opened it's account of this odd attack with "'Spring-heeled Jack' has, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast," which seems to have set a precedent; from then on, almost any strange report had the ability to be blamed on the mysterious villain [for more, follow the 'Brighton Beast' link below this article].

        Within two years of the 1838 assaults, there was a racehorse named "Spring-Heeled Jack;" and soon Jack was a character in many "penny dreadfuls," a cheap literature popular with boys of the time, full of sex, violence, adventure, and horror. Then came a number of stage plays based on Jack. It can be taken as a sign of how much Jack had captured the imagination of the average London citizen that from 1838 up to the present day, anyone who jumps about in a crazy fashion or springs out to surprise people is still referred to as a "Spring-Heeled Jack"... and therein lies a problem.

penny dreadful

penny dreadful

penny dreadful

A few typical Spring-Heeled Jack 'penny dreadful' covers

        Due to all of the ways that the phrase ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ came into popular use, there was a steady appearance of the name in English newspapers all through the latter half of the 19th century. What this means, realistically, is that a casual researcher might find five articles entitled "Spring-Heeled Jack Attacks Again," and make note of another set of appearances of the devilish character... when the articles might actually be about racehorses winning races, books or plays being released, segments of a continuing story, or just tongue-in-cheek references to someone being surprised in a humorous way.

        I mention all this because, chronologically, we’ve reached a historic time period between Jack’s attacks in 1838 and the next well-reported occurrences in 1877 where many modern writers give vague references to the leaping terror’s supposed continuing activities. For example:

"During the 1850’s and 1860’s, Spring-Heeled Jack was sighted all over England, particularly in the Midlands."

        Statements like the above are probably due to the overuse of Spring-Heeled Jack’s name in the newspapers of the time. Do note, however, that there were some very distinct incidents said to involve Spring-Heeled Jack during this period... but to assert the villain was seen often and everywhere is a gross exaggeration.

1877: The Aldershot Affair