THE LEGEND OF SPRING-HEELED JACK
Posted March 12, 2012on:
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It is very easy to dismiss the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack as oneo of those hoary old chestnuts from the fog-choked streets of Victorian London, but it would seem to be not as straightforward as that. The case has opened up again in very recent times, with fresh sightings of this extremely bizarre apparition.
The legend began in September 1837, when he was alleged to have been responsible for attacking four people, three of whom were women, who were crossing Barnes Common. Later, barmaid Polly Adams claimed she had been attacked around that time, as she was walking across Blackheath. She said she had had the top of her dress torn, and she related that her attacker had icy-cold fingers that felt like iron. He was described as being red-eyed, tall and thin, spitting blue flames, and able to leap great distances into the air.
The story of this monstrosity became of sufficient concern that the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan, publicly declared him to be a menace in January 1838, after receiving a letter from a terrified citizen of Peckham, and set up a special Spring-Heeled Jack vigilante squad to try and catch him. Even the elderly Duke of Wellington got on horseback and went riding around looking for him apparently.
On 20 February 1838 he put in his most memorable appearance, when he appeared at the gate of a private residence in Bearhind Lane, Bow, shouting “for God’s sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack in the lane!” Eighteen-year-old Jane Alsop saw his cape and assumed he was a policeman, so she obligingly went to fetch a light. When she returned her visitor threw off his cloak. He wore a tight garment, resembling a white oilskin. He lunged at Jane, spitting blue flames. Jane’s sister pulled her back into the house and slammed the door. “Jack” tried to get in, but the family shouted for help from an upstairs window. Jack scarpered, dropping his cape in the process.
This is the only instance I’ve read of Jack actually speaking, which leads me to think it was the work of a copycat prankster. The whole case certainly has the fingerprints of that all over it. Many think the entire legend was the work of a practical joker, and the finger of suspicion pointed firmly at the eccentric Mad Marquis Of Waterford, an Irish aristocrat, famed for getting up to mischief with his equally time-wasting posh chums. The fact that many of Jack’s victims were young women also leads to this conclusion. Waterford and friends liked to go out attacking female pedestrians.
A few days later, on 28 February, Lucy Scales was returning home from visiting her brother. She was walking along Green Dragon Alley, Limehouse, accompanied by her sister, when she noticed a figure loitering nearby, wrapped in a large cloak. The figure lunged at her, spitting blue flames. Lucy fell to the ground, but was saved by the presence of her sister, and by their brother, who had come along to see what was the matter. Lucy said that her silent attacker had been carrying a bulls-eye lantern, like those carried by policemen at the time.
Again, this makes me think this was a very Earthly attacker. The prime suspect though, Waterford, died in a riding-accident in 1859, but sightings of Jack continued (although admittedly much rarer). Although it is entirely feasible that Waterford could have donned a black cape and false talons in the winter of 1837/38, and gone out on his “merry japes”, it has been pointed out that there is no evidence he was behind the bizarre attacks at all.
In 1860 two women were walking along a road in the moonlight, when they saw a figure clad in “some very fantastic garment”. The figure jumped over a hedge and landed in front of them. It then leapt over a hedge on the other side of the road and ran off.
Jack’s sightings were not just confined to London, in fact after 1860 he was seen all over England. He was sighted in Sheffield in 1861. He was seen bounding from rooftop to rooftop in Caister, Norfolk, in 1877, and was described as having huge ears and wearing sheepskin. In August of that year he confronted soldiers on sentry-duty at Aldershot, and slapped their faces with icy-cold hands. They opened fire on him (although seemingly with no effect).
He was seen in September 1904, in the Everton district of Liverpool. When a few courageous souls tried to corner him he “melted into the darkness”. And that seems to have been the final sighting of him for several decades. Until the summer of 1986 in fact, when he was sighted on a country road somewhere in the English/Welsh borders. A man witnessed him leaping over hedgerows. The figure glided towards him, and then slapped him before gliding off, laughing.
On 4 June 1996, a witness told paranormal author Jenny Randles that she had seen what she thought was a sack floating at rooftop height that evening. Looking closer, she saw it was a short man dressed in Victorian-style clothing!
Spring-Heeled Jack entered the public consciousness very thoroughly. He was said to have been used to warn children in Sheffield to be good “or Spring-Heeled Jack will get you”, and I once even heard him mentioned on the old 1970s sitcom “Sykes”! At the end of the 19th century he took on heroic status, appearing in Penny Dreadfuls (cheap novels) as a sort of anti-hero (it has been pointed out that Jack seemed to delight in mocking establishments the Victorians held dear, such as the army and the Church), and in the latter half of the 20th century he was perceived as a lost ET, somehow abandoned here on Earth, and running around attacking people in bewilderment.
In 1969 Ufologist Jacques Vallee linked the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack in with the legend of the Mothman, and other sightings of big, weird, winged creatures. That the description of Jack as a helmeted, cloaked figure in a tight-fitting costume, shining a light, and leaping great distances, sounds to us almost like an archetypal “spaceman” figure, a category that Jack’s unfortunate victims in the 1830s would certainly not have been familiar with.
Very recently, on Valentine’s Day 2012, Jack was out and about again. Scott Martin (40), was being driven in a taxi along the Ewell by-pass, Surrey, with his wife and 4-year-old son, at 10:30 that night, when he saw a figure appear by the side of the road. The figure jumped over the centre fencing, and ran across two lanes. It then climbed the bank on the other side, and was gone within seconds.
The figure was “dark … with no real features”, recalled Mr Martin “But fast in movement with an ease of hurdling obstacles I’ve never seen”. All the occupants of the taxi saw this strange figure, and were spooked by it. Scott’s 4-year-old son refused to sleep on his own when they got home, and the cab-driver admitted he didn’t want to drive alone after seeing it.
All of this sounds like a classic “road ghost” sighting, (although as Jack didn’t try to hitch a lift, not of the Phantom Hitch-Hiker sort). The story was published in a local newspaper, and was hugely popular. The ‘Epsom Guardian’ described it as one of the most read articles on their website. One reader theorised that Jack was an alien who had been a criminal on his own planet, and had been abandoned alone here as a punishment. “With only one of his kind here it would be a kind of hell”, he said.
It’s certainly an interesting theory, but what I would like to know though is what happens to Jack in the long stretches of time between each sighting? Where does he go? (Not exactly the sort of person who can mooch about incognito anywhere!). How does he live?
When, and where, will he appear again??