history

Eminent Victorians: Spring-heeled Jack

Urban legend, prank, or supervillain?

This here is Satan, we might say the devil, but that ain’t right, and gennelfolks don’t like such words. He is now commonly called ‘Spring-heeled Jack;’ or the ‘Rossian Bear,’ – that’s since the war.— Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

The first sighting of the being known as Spring-heeled Jack occurred in London in 1837. A man jumped out and grabbed Mary Stevens, tore at her clothes, and touched her with claws that were “cold and clammy as those of a corpse.” A clear-cut case of sexual assault. The next day, the same man leaped out in front of a coach, causing it to crash, and, according to several witnesses, escaped over a 9ft wall, babbling and laughing. More sightings followed and the mysterious attacker was even featured in a Times article.

What did he look like? Some accounts describe him in tight-fitting oilskin, others in the attire of a gentleman. Most agree about the claws, voluminous cloak, and general devilishness of his appearance. Accounts of subsequent attacks grew increasingly outlandish. Jack is said to have spewed blue and white flames from his mouth (a professional or amateur fire-breather, perhaps?), possess eyes of fire, and metallic claws that he used to tear women’s clothes. He also once appeared in a bearskin (which I feel gives my fire-breather/performance artist theory even more credence). However, the likeliest suspect in the early attacks is the Marquess of Waterford (commonly known as The Mad Marquess).

In 1838, an arrest was made (not the marquess) but, despite a confession and evidence that he committed at least one of the crimes, the man had to be released because he didn’t know how to fire breathe. Gradually attacks became less frequent until a new wave occurred in the 1840s and again in the 1870s. The last sighting of Jack was in Liverpool in 1904. A copycat? Or–an idea that gained increasing momentum among those who claimed to see him–a ghost?

Illustration of Spring-heeled Jack, from the 1867 serial Spring-heel’d Jack: The Terror of London , via Wikipedia.

One of the problems with parsing the Spring-heeled Jack sightings is that he quickly became a literary sensation, the star of numerous plays and penny dreadfuls. The stories of him running about on the rooftops of London, masked, cloaked and performing supernatural leaps, quickly mixed with and obfuscated genuine sightings of what seems to have been a budding sex offender who enjoyed dangerous pranks or, even more likely, a series of similar criminals. (I’m not one for the ghost theory, but your mileage may vary).

Whatever you believe, the stories themselves, the fiction that grew up around Spring-heeled Jack, have ensured that he’s passed into legend.

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