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Illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack leaping over a tall gate

England's most notorious urban legend: The mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack

Image: Illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack | Public Domain

During the Victorian era, Spring-Heeled Jack quite literally leapt into the public eye. Described as an impish ghoul by some newspapers, he has inspired authors like Phillip Pullman and even DC Comics anti-hero Batman.

By 1867, Penny dreadfuls depicting Jack clutching women in one hand and twiddling a vaudevillian moustache in the other were abundant. In a time of macabre tales, this cad kept England hooked, apparently leaping tall buildings in a single bound captures the imagination. When paired with claws, eyes like ‘flaming red wheels’ and the ability to vomit blue flames, it became the making of a legend.

The first attacks

In October 1837, Mary Stevens was walking home across Clapham Common when an unusual figure leapt out, grabbed her and kissed her face before tearing her clothing with claws she described as ‘cold and clammy as those of a corpse’. Alerted by screams, passersby disrupted the attacker causing him to flee. Although described as ‘perfectly sensible’ and ‘not likely to suffer from hallucinations’, Mary found that her story was disregarded, as were similar attacks on nearby Barnes Common.

The following day brought another encounter, a cloaked man jumped in front of a carriage causing serious injury to the driver. The man then casually leapt over a nine-foot wall whilst emitting a high-pitched cackle, which witnesses agreed was unusual.

Panic on the streets of London

In January 1838, barmaid Polly Adams was attacked by a cloaked, devil-like creature that clawed at her on Blackheath. Soon, reports from Ealing, Kensington, and Hammersmith began to pour in with women frightened into ‘dangerous fits’ and ‘severely wounded by claws’.

London’s Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowen, received complaints from Peckham residents where seven ladies had been ‘deprived of their senses’ with two likely ‘to become burdens on their families’. Was this trend a series of misbegotten pranks, or an ongoing wager to scare women? However, information soon came forward suggesting a much darker plan; to kill six women within an allotted time.

Attacks increased with people apparently dying of fright in Brixton and Camberwell as hysteria spread. In February, Jack attempted to strangle Jane Alsop outside her home after posing as a policeman, while Lucy Scales was attacked in March in Green Dragon Alley. Both described being blinded by blue flames and clawed at before he leapt into the night when disturbed.

The middle ground

Now a veritable bogeyman in London, with children being warned that if they misbehaved Spring-Heeled Jack would jump through their window, he moved north. One Northamptonshire victim claimed her attacker was ‘the very image of the devil himself, with horns and eyes aflame'.

Sightings continued throughout the 1850s and 60s in the Midlands, including leaping onto the roof of the Cross Inn in Dudley and disrupting mail coaches in East Anglia.

The Devil walked in Devon

Attacks in Teignmouth in 1847 attributed to Jack were actually the actions of Captain Finch, but in February 1855, it’s believed Spring-Heeled Jack did visit Devon.

That winter was bitter and on 9th February the Sun rose on fresh snowfall, and 100 miles of hoof prints from a creature walking on two legs. Beginning in Totnes and ending in Littleham, the prints were seen by hundreds of people as they zig-zagged through gardens, over rooftops and walls, and sometimes appeared burned into the ground.

Military tactics

After returning to Peckham and Camberwell throughout 1872, Spring-Heeled Jack decided to take on the army.

A sentry posted at Aldershot Garrison’s North Camp reported seeing a man-like creature who slapped his face before cackling and leaping onto the sentry box. The creature evaded capture and enacted a similar encounter with the sentry overlooking the cemetery who opened fire but hit nothing.

Later that year Jack was under fire again, this time from angry townsfolk in Lincoln. Again, he reportedly emitted his high-pitched cackle and made off over buildings unharmed.

A tale of two terrors?

Jack began this year in Everton, perched atop St. Francis Xavier’s Church, but after hijinks on Salisbury Street, it seems he ventured back to his old stomping ground. By now London was in the grip of a new terror: A mysterious killer was butchering women in the East End of London. A letter, signed ‘Spring-Heeled Jack - The Whitechapel Murderer', claimed responsibility for the infamous Ripper murders .

Spring-Heeled Jack’s antics were deemed too trivial to be the real ripper, but the name, 'Jack' stuck to these appalling murders. That we know of, Jack the Ripper stopped killing at five, but the atrocities of that Autumn in Whitechapel were certainly befitting of a devil.

Jack’s last laugh?

Towards the end of the 19th century, Jack’s appearances were solely up north. Reports say a crowd in Liverpool chased him as he leapt from rooftops to cobbles. Some accounts say he disappeared; others suggest children threw water over him first. Either way, most accounts state Spring-Heeled Jack vanished never to be seen again.

However, a handful of sightings have been made in more recent times. A salesman in Herefordshire reported seeing him ‘leaping high hedgerows in great bounds’ in 1986. Then a family on their way to Ewell reported a man leaping away at impossible heights in 2012.

Keep your eye on the rooftops, it may be Jack has spring left in his step yet.