Just about everyone in the English-speaking world – and probably the entire world – is familiar with the story of Jack The Ripper, the mysterious serial killer that haunted London’s Whitechapel district in the second half of 1888. But many have never heard of another Jack that terrified the entire English nation decades before the Ripper. He was, in a way, much more frightening than Jack The Ripper, even if this Jack didn’t kill anyone. This is because hundreds of people saw him and were terrified by what they saw. Ladies and gentlemen… meet Spring Heeled Jack.
He was called Spring Heeled Jack because of his ability to effortlessly leap over walls that were 8, 10 or even 15 feet high. But that’s not what scared people. It was his appearance – like that of a devil – that put the fear of God into people. He was tall and thin, with claws for hands, pointed ears and eyes that glowed red in the night. Some even said that he could breathe white or blue flames. The few that were unlucky enough to actually be touched by Spring Heeled Jack reported that his skin was ice cold.
Reports of Spring Heeled Jack exist from as early as 1817, but he didn’t become a phenomenon until September of 1837, when reports of bizarre happenings hit the London press. A perfectly upstanding businessman reported that Jack had jumped over the tall wall of a cemetery and landed right in his path. Shortly thereafter, a group claimed that a man with similar features had attacked them, and one of the party even had her coat ripped by the unknown assailant. Another of the party – a barmaid named Polly Adams – wasn’t so lucky. She was found bloodied and unconscious in the same spot hours later with her blouse torn and deep scratches in her belly. A few weeks later, a girl named Mary Stevens was assaulted on Clapham Common by someone (or something) meeting Jack’s description, and in much the same fashion as Polly Adams had been. Jack returned the next day, this time by leaping from a wall to block the path of a moving horse carriage, causing it to crash. A few days later, Jack struck yet again… and this time he left physical evidence: police noted two footprints “around three inches deep” in the immediate area. This implies someone jumping from a great height. Upon further examination, one police officer noted “curious imprints” within the footprints which led him to believe that springs or some other gadget might have been involved. Sadly though, the concept of “forensics” hadn’t developed yet, so casts were never made of the prints.
Hysteria about Spring Heeled Jack ran rampant in London, so much so that in January of 1838 Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London, held a public meeting on the issue. He was incredulous about the stories, but during the meeting at least one person related similar stories of the tall devilish man that could leap ten feet or more in the air. London’s newspapers – hitherto skeptical about the matter – ran stories about the Lord Mayor’s meeting and the next day Cowan’s office was flooded with letters about Jack sightings from citizens in Kensington, Hammersmith, Ealing, Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell, Vauxhall, Lewisham and Blackheath. Even with all these letters, Cowan remained skeptical… until a close friend that he apparently trusted related yet another Spring Heeled Jack story. Cowan ordered police to search high and low for Jack, yet nothing was ever found. And Jack’s attacks only became bolder and more frequent as a result.
After Jack attacked two girls – Lucy Scales and Jane Alsop – news of Spring Heeled Jack went national, and reports of a similar ghoul-like creature started popping up all over England. Interestingly, the frequency of Jack’s “attacks” seemed to decrease as they happened over a greater area, leading some to wonder if Jack was a single person, although many copy cats were also suspected. No matter – Jack became a regular in newspapers and pulp fiction, even in plays.
But who – or what – was Jack? Some believe that Jack was no more than a myth, possibly based on an old folktale of a mental patient that claimed to be the devil and danced on rooftops. Others suspect Henry de La Poer Beresford, the Marquess of Waterford, who was allegedly publicly humiliated by a woman and a police officer and thought up Spring Heeled Jack as a way to “get back” at them both. Beresford had the time and money to pull it off. He also had several friends with mechanical knowledge who could have helped him design some shoes with springs in them. He even had an elaborate “W” as a personal crest – one that was quite similar to one spotted underneath Spring Heeled Jack’s cloak during one of his attacks. Beresford, however, was in Ireland when Scales and Alsop were attacked, and Jack’s attacks continued long after the Marquess’ death in 1859. It is possible, though, that Beresford originated the character and others “filled in” for him. Since one of Jack’s most famous sightings dates from 1877 – almost 40 years after the first reports in London – one assumes that more than one person was indeed involved. In any case, the mystery of Spring Heeled Jack continues to this day.
BONUS TRIVIA: The Marquess of Waterford is not only known for possibly being Spring Heeled Jack… he also gave the English language a phase that remains popular to this day. The Marquess was an avid hunter, and after one particularly successful hunt, the Marquess and his party had a few (OK, several) drinks. Whilst looking for more booze, they stumbled upon several cans of red paint… which they proceeded to splash all over the buildings on main street in Melton Mowbray… thus “painting the town red”.