Deeply ingrained in the media of the time, the story of Spring-Heeled Jack has become a hybrid between truth and fiction. Eyewitness accounts have become jumbled with plots from the comics in which Jack appeared over the years, creating an almost impenetrable mish-mash of fact, fiction and folklore.
Media as we know it was in its infancy when Jack first bounded into the public eye. The widespread use of mass printing technologies allowed for the first affordable, widely available, regular newspapers and comic strips to circulate among the lower classes. The relative novelty of these media combined with the shocking sightings of Jack quickly created a sort of Spring-Heeled Jack mania among Londoners (although Jack would soon be sighted outside the capital.)
This mania in turn caused Jack to be featured in not only the news but also in the fiction of the time. It is this which makes Jack such a hard character to pin down, it is difficult to ascertain where the supervillian of the penny dreadfuls ends and where the real Jack begins.
The road to Spring-Heeled Jack begins in Barnes in mid-1837, rumours began to circulate of women being attacked on country lanes by a unknown creature. It is unclear if these attacks were the work of Jack. A peculiar mix of creatures were blamed including a white bull, a white faced heifer, a white bear and even a baboon.
By late 1837 a rash of attacks had began occurring across the more affluent areas of West London. The maids and servants of the wealthy families who occupied the large homes in these areas seemed to be targeted, rather than the rich homeowners themselves. In these early sightings the attacker would appear in a variety of forms, a ghost, a devil or a bear according to the reports of the time. Unusually, the attacker would scare but not kill his victims, often he barely hurt them at all leading many to believe the attacks to be the work of a prankster.
At this point it would be easy to assume that each attacker was a different individual, but the primarily non-lethal nature of the attacks combined with the location and reliance on conspicuous costumes leads many to believe they were the work of a single individual.
An equal opportunities phantom, Jack did not only attack women and girls. In late 1837 a man was attacked by what he described as a ghost. The alleged ghost displayed an all too human corporeality when it tore the clothes from the terrified victim's back. It was around this time that the public began to develop an image of Jack from the eyewitnesses.
Tall, thin, with bulging eyes, a pointed nose and chin, a high-pitched laugh and usually wearing a black cloak. On top of his unusual but not necessarily inhuman appearance Jack was capable of incredible leaps, easily clearing walls and obstacles over six feet high. Metal claws and the ability to breathe fire completed Jack's hellish public image.
Jack's most dramatic antics occurred in the East End of London, specifically in Bromley by Bow, then a small village, now a part of London's Tower Hamlets area.
It was mid-evening on the 21st February 1838 when Jane Alsop famously encountered Spring-Heeled Jack. The 18-year-old daughter of one of the area's most wealthy families was a very different target to the serving girls and working class men Jack seemed to usually favour. The attack, it would transpire, would be very different as well.
Jane heard an urgent ringing of the bell on the house's gate. When Jane, expecting some sort of emergency, went outside to investigate she met a figure in a heavy black cloak. The mysterious figure told Jane to fetch a light, claiming to be a policeman and insisting "we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane".
When Jane returned with a candle the figure's face was illuminated and she realised from his "most hideous and frightful appearance" that the stranger standing before her was none other than Spring-Heeled Jack himself! Allegedly the attacker then threw off his cloak revealing a strange helmet, tight white clothing and glowing red eyes. He then reportedly spat blue flames into Jane's face and set about her with his metallic claws, ripping her gown and tearing into her arms and neck. Her screams were heard by her sister who dragged her inside, Jack continued to beat the door and fled only when the women shouted for the police.
Jack followed up this dramatic encounter with an equally disturbing and vicious attack. On February 28th 1838 18-year-old Lucy Scales was attacked near her home by a tall, heavily cloaked figure who spat blue flames into her face. She was so gripped by fear she began to fit, hearing the commotion Ms. Scales brother ran outside and Jack, once again, fled.
After the Scales and Alsop attacks Jack rose to the height of his fame, several of London's Punch and Judy shows even renamed their devils after Jack. This increase in publicity did not fuel a spike in Jack sightings as you might expect, instead the sightings became more widespread. Reports trickled in from all over Britain but Jack never again terrorised London like he did between 1837-1838.
It is the short timeframe of Jack's reign of terror combined with the long lasting media attention that created the reams of Jack- based fiction which make him such an enigmatic and sensationalised character. But who was Spring-Heeled Jack? Some suspect a fraternity of showmen and acrobats, that would explain the fire-breathing, the costumes and the agility. Others claim Jack was an alien or demon and some think that Jack's antics were merely the result of mass hysteria and he never existed at all.
Whatever the truth, Spring-Heeled Jack will always remain an intriguing and enigmatic character in London's history and I for one, enjoy the mystery.
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Oliver and Show and Stay.