It all started in September 1837…
A group of girls crossing Barnes Common reported that a man dressed in a dark cloak vaulted the railings surrounding the churchyard, tore at their clothing then ran off laughing. Similar assaults took place the following month on Clapham Common. This time the cloaked assailant left footprints showing “machines or springs” built into his shoes. On October 11th a barmaid was assaulted at Blackheath Fair by a man with ‘fiery eyes who spat blues flames and smelt of sulphur’. He too ripped at her clothes with what felt like iron claws then ran off laughing. The barmaid said that “he looked like a nobleman”.
By the end of month reports of related attacks were coming in from Richmond, Teddington, Twickenham, Hounslow, Uxbridge, Isleworth, Brentford and Ealing. They consistently described a tall, athletic figure in a long cloak and high-heeled boots, with fiery eyes, fingers as hard as claws, and sometimes pointed ears. Other reports spoke of the villain being disguised as a white bear, a white bull and a ghost. Apart from the torn clothing none of the women attacked were seriously harmed - although they were extremely frightened. One victim, a servant girl called Mary Stevens said that Jack’s hands were “as cold and clammy as those of a corpse”. Another witness, Jane Alsop, said the creature “presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled red balls of fire”.
By January 1838 this terrifying character had gained a name, Spring-Heeled Jack, inspired by his ability to leap great heights and a place in popular mythology.
In 1840 a play, “Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London” by John Thomas Haines, depicted him attacking women because his own sweetheart had jilted him. Another play, “The Curse of the Wraydons” by W.G Willis, has him as a spy for Napoleon, who attacks women as a cover. In the 1870’s a series of stories written by George A. Sala has Spring-Heeled Jack as a nobleman, cheated of his inheritance, who uses his power, and a pair spring heeled boots, to protect the weak, save the innocent, and generally do good. Some writers say that this depiction of Spring-Heeled Jack was the inspiration for comic superheroes like Captain Marvel and Superman.
The idea of Spring-Heeled Jack being a nobleman was also behind the most popular and persistent theory of who he might actually be.
On 9 January 1838 the Lord Mayor of London made public a complaint from an anonymous “Resident of Peckham”
“It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest 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 enter a gentleman’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 the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in 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…
The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger ends, but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.”
With these references to “individuals from the highest ranks” and the press not picking up on the story because of “interested motives” the public soon started looking round for a possible upper bracket culprit. Before long the finger settled on the young Marquis of Waterford. He had been frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes, and vandalism, including, it was said, covering Melton Mowbray with red paint, originating the term “painting the town red”. Rumour suggested that following a humiliating experience with a woman and disliking the police in general the “Mad Marquis”, only 26 years old, created the Spring Heeled Jack character for a bet - and as a way of getting even.
The Marquis was in London when the first “Spring Heeled Jack” attacks took place in September 1837 and it is known that he had attended the Blackheath Fair on October 11th when the barmaid was attacked by someone who ‘looked like a nobleman’. Years later, in 1880, the Rev. E.C Brewer, the creator of “Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”, stated confidentially that the Marquis “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example.” A widely reported attack in the Commercial Road by a creature with ‘orange eyes’ and an expensive cloak carrying a large “W” monogram only increased the suspicion that “Spring Heeled Jack” was the Marquis of Waterford. Even though the attacks still continued after the Marquis died following a horse riding accident in 1859 it is now generally accepted that he was responsible for the first attacks and others simply followed his example.
Eventually the “Spring-Heeled Jack” panic in London died down but sightings of demonic looking creatures with eyes of fire and hands like claws that could leap great heights and vomit flames continued up and the country for the next 30 or 40 years, some accompanied by acts of violence. In Yarmouth in 1845 a confused man who was wandering about in his nightshirt was beaten up after being mistaken for Spring-Heeled Jack. The poor man died the following day. Another sighting in August 1877 was by sentries at Aldershot Army Barracks who were alarmed by a fire-spitting masked figure in a tight-fitting oilskin suit vaulting around on the barrack walls and roofs. In the 1880’s in Warwickshire, a coal-merchant’s son, “a youth not overburdened with common sense”, was reported leaping out at people as a prank, using shoes fitted with powerful and silent springs. As late as 1887 it was reported that servant girls working in Cheshire were unwilling to venture on the streets carrying their annual wages because “there are so many of these spring-heeled Jacks about.”
Spring Heeled Jack is now largely forgotten, replaced in the darker corners of our minds by other semi mythical characters whose names still inspire fear and panic - the ‘hooligans’ of Victorian times, the ‘razor gangs’, and the ‘spivs’ of the 1940’s, the ‘Teddy Boys’ of the 50’s, and today’s ‘muggers’ and ‘hoodies’ - real but not real, haunting our streets, unnerving us. I wonder what Jack is up to tonight?
– from Martyn Day