History is littered with strange, unexplained happenings. From a Phantom Barber who tormented a Mississippi town during World War II to a man in a bunny suit who inspired an enduring legend, some stories give truth to the old cliche, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” While those examples are all from the US, Great Britain is no stranger to weirdness. Perhaps one of the strangest unexplained incidents on the British Isles occurred in the 19th century, when a mysterious figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack began a reign of terror that some claim has continued into the 21st century.
An agile assailant
The funny business all began back in 1837, in London. The story goes that Mary Stevens was walking home when a strange figure accosted her. He kissed her face and ripped at her clothes with cold, clammy fingers. Mary screamed, and the assailant fled. The next day, the strange figure resurfaced–a stage coach driver lost control of his coach when a figure suddenly jumped into the road in front of him. Witnesses to the incident reported that the figure proceeded to jump over a nine-foot wall, babbling and laughing to itself as it did so.
From there, the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack would take on a life of its own. People reported seeing the humanoid figure on and off up until 1904, and there are some who claim to have seen the creature as recently as 2005. Accounts of encounters varied from witness to witness. Many times Jack was said to scare the living daylights out of coach drivers, as he did the day after his first appearance. He was also commonly said to attack young women, tearing at their clothes and faces with his claws and groping them before disappearing into the night. Now and then he would jump out of the shadows, slap a man in the face several times, and disappear again before the victim knew what happened.
Oddly, descriptions of the mysterious assailant were fairly consistent. Jack was described as being a tall, lean figure of gentlemanly appearance. Some described Jack as wearing oilskins, a helmet, and a heavy cloak, attire similar in appearance to the police uniforms of the day. When Jack would strike, he did so with clawed hands and blue-white flames that he spewed out of his mouth. Some accounts claim Jack’s face sported an elongated chin, and most accounts claim that his eyes glowed red while he attacked.
Obviously, some of the physical descriptions of the mysterious assailant varied depending on witness testimony. The one common feature amongst all the reports though was Jack’s phenomenal jumping abilities. More than one story described how Jack could jump inhumanly high. Often, when the miscreant was cornered by an angry mob, he would use his springy heels to avoid a death by pitchfork. There was no way (so the argument goes) a mere human could perform the high jumping feats attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack, such as performing a standing jump nine feet in the air. A human lacks the musculature to jump that high, and even if they could they’d likely break their ankles when gravity inevitably dragged them back down to earth.
Spring-Heeled Jack become quite the sensation back in his day. He was the star of countless penny dreadful novels and serials, and more than one gaudy stage show. His story gained a air of legitimacy when newspapers reported on it; even the Lord Mayor of London looked into the phenomena, although admittedly His Lordship was skeptical.
Was a bored aristocrat responsible for the attacks?
With all the excitement and fear surrounding the odd occurrences in England, it was natural that all sorts of explanations would crop up. Even today, there is a lot of speculation as to what actually occurred.
The hypotheses range from the plausible to the plain odd. Modern skeptics fall back to the old stand-by explanation–collective delusion, better known (somewhat erroneously) as mass hysteria. They believe that Spring-Heeled Jack was a miscreant and a prankster with a penchant for harassing women, and stories of his exploits became exaggerated as panic spread.
There is some evidence to support this notion. The Lord Mayor of London himself believed something similar. He received an anonymous complaint describing a wager among three young noblemen who planned to cause general mischief of the sort attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack. Indeed, there was even a named suspect in the conspiracy. The man was the Marquess of Waterford, the so-called “Mad Marquess”, and he had a nasty habit of drunken disorderly conduct along with a bad track record of behaving badly toward women.
But then, if Jack was a mere man, how could anyone possibly perform the jumping feats attributed to the creature, and how could they spit blue-white flame from their mouths?
Modern skeptics again claim mass hysteria. The crimes perpetrated by the Mad Marquess became inflated in the popular imagination, both by being sensationalized by the media of the day and by being conflated with traditional English folklore. Like the London Monster or the New Jersey Ghost Sniper, Spring-Heeled Jack was a “phantom attacker.”
Those of a less skeptical frame of mind would disagree, and they tout out all sorts of different explanations. One that I found particularly amusing was the alien explanation. Some claim that Jack was actually some sort of an extraterrestrial. As for why some being from another world would come all the way to Earth to grope Victorian English women, proponents of the hypothesis have no real explanation.
A more common supernatural explanation was that Jack was a demon or devil of some sort; indeed, some believed he was the Devil, summoned by occult practitioners who were supposedly quite common in London back in those days.
Whether he be a devil, an alien, or the product of mass hysteria, there can be no doubt that the people of Victorian England at least believed that a devil skulked in their midst. Real or not, Jack had a life all his own in the culture of his day, a life that continues to this day because of the enduring legend of Spring-Heeled Jack.
“Spring-Heeled Jack.” Scotsman.com. October 6, 2006. The Scotsman. June 21, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/spring-heeled-jack-1-1143415
Upton, Chris. “Local Legends: Spring-Heeled Jack.” BBC.co.uk. February 2004. BBC News. June 21, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/black_country/article_1.shtml