Almost everyone knows of Jack the Ripper and his fearsome reputation as one of the most notorious (and un-caught) serial killers of all time. Fewer people have heard of a character who was equally infamous, and feared, about fifty years before the time of Jack the Ripper: Spring heeled-Jack. This was the name given to the entity which terrorized London and later the whole country in a string of bizarre incidents which occurred with most frequency between 1837 and 1843 but were reported again every few years until the last sighting in 1904. Despite this large span of years, each incident was strikingly similar: on every occasion a young woman was the victim and Spring-heeled Jack was described as having the same characteristics – the ability to jump inhumanly long distances, the capacity to disappear without trace, and a frightening countenance variously described as bestial, demonic and even extra-terrestrial.
The very first appearance of Spring-heeled Jack was in 1837 in London. His victim, a young maid called Mary Stevens, described her encounter in terms which would later become definitive for any encounter with ‘Jack’. Mary was on her way home at night when out of nowhere a terrifying form appeared, one which seemed vaguely man-like from a distance but up close was anything but – as his ‘wings’, bone-white face, fangs, claws, horns and fiery breath attested. Despite his diabolical appearance, the creature’s subsequent attack on Mary was fairly innocuous – after ripping at her clothes with his long claws and breathing blue-white flames in her face he leaped away, thus earning himself the ‘Spring-heeled’ moniker. The entity reappeared twice more in London in the next year or so, assaulting a butcher’s girl called Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales, the daughter of a respectable businessman, in incidents which were virtually identical to the attack on Mary Stevens. Spring-heeled Jack sightings continued throughout the 1840s, becoming more frequent and widespread as the decade progressed. Hysteria hit the nation as fathers locked their daughters away each night and, from Northampton to Liverpool, Sheffield to Lincoln, a leaping figure with devil horns was spotted again and again. There seemed to be no doubt that every sighting was of the same creature – it was believed that Spring-heeled Jack could appear to be in lots of different places at the same time owing to his impressing jumping ability!
From the above you will probably notice that there are similarities as well as differences between the legend of Spring-heeled Jack and the later, all-too-real murderous rampage of Jack the Ripper. Both individuals targeted women, although Spring-heeled Jack’s victims were from fairly respectable backgrounds (and he left them shaken but alive), while the Ripper’s were famously prostitutes who ended up dead and horribly mutilated. Both Jacks seemed to be very active for short periods before disappearing, although in the case of the Ripper, perhaps mercifully, he never reappeared again. Lastly, neither were ever caught or identified. Both also spawned lots of conspiracy theories. One of the most popular early theories concerning Spring-heeled Jack was that he was the Marquess of Waterford, a notorious aristocrat nicknamed ‘The Mad Marquis’, who loved brawling and womanising. Some say that he was nothing more than an urban legend inspired by the uncertainty of the times, when a horned bogeyman was a useful scapegoat for the ills of a society struggling to adjust to the twin challenges of urbanisation and industrialisation. Most intriguingly, many have made links between Spring heeled-Jack and sightings of fairies, little green men and Bigfoot as examples of mass hysteria taking the form of mythical or archetypal figures in common human race memory. Given Spring-heeled Jack’s nebulous nature – no sighting of him has ever been verified – it is likely that we will never really know the truth. Unless he reappears of course…
(Like almost everyone these days, Spring-heeled Jack has his own website – click here to check it out!)