The Strange Tale of Spring-Heeled Jack

by Tom Slemen

In Victorian times, Barnes Common, an eerie, isolated tract of land on the Southern Bank of the Thames, was a place to avoid. Many travellers foolhardy enough to cross the common during twilight hours were often attacked and robbed. The common was also a magnet for the suicidal. One evening in September, 1837, a businessman who had been working overtime at his office decided to risk a short cut across the common on his way home. Even as he passed the railings of the adjoining cemetery, the man's thoughts did not wander onto the subject of the supernatural. His mind was too preoccupied with the mundane matters relating to his business.
A figure suddenly vaulted high over the railings of the cemetery as if propelled from a springboard - and landed with a thud in front of him. The businessman trembled when he saw that the mysterious leaper had pointed ears, glowing eyes, and a prominent pointed nose. Without more ado, the businessman turned and fled.
Three girls encountered the same sinister figure on the following night. Again, he made his appearance by bounding over the railings of the cemetery, but on this occasion, he displayed a violent streak. One of the girls had her coat ripped by him, but managed to flee, followed by one of her screaming companions. The remaining member of the trio tried to scream as the unearthly-looking stranger grabbed at her breasts, then began to tear her clothes off. The victim was later found unconscious at the site of the attack by a policeman.
During the following month the leaping terror struck again. This time the venue was Cut-Throat Lane, Clapham Common. After visiting her parents in Battersea, Mary Stevens, a servant, headed back to her employer's household on Lavender Hill. As she strolled through the entrance of Cut-Throat Lane, a tall figure dressed in black jumped out of the darkness and threw his arms around her, holding her in a vice-like embrace. Before she had a chance to scream, the stranger kissed her face, then dipped his hand into her cleavage, before laughing hysterically. The servant girl let out a scream, and the stranger released her and ran off into the darkness. A number of men hurried to the distressed girl, and after calming her down, they listened to her account of the attack. The men then immediately searched the neighbourhood for the mysterious assailant, but without success. The servant girl was simply dismissed as having an overactive imagination. But on the following night, the attacker appeared again, not a stone's throw from the house where the servant girl worked. That night, her demonic assaulter bounded out of the shadows and into the path of an approaching carriage. The horses pulling the carriage bolted in fright and a terrible crash ensued injuring the coachman. The mayhem-maker then seemed to defy the law of gravity as he jumped effortlessly over a nine-foot-high wall. Not long after that superhuman feat, a mysterious high-jumping man with a cape attacked a woman near Clapham Churchyard, and this time he left a most curious clue behind that could have thrown some light on the secret of the assailant's amazing leaping ability.
At the scene of the attack, the ultra-athletic menace had left two footprints in the moist soil of the churchyard. The impressions were about three inches deep and obviously made by someone who had landed from a great height, and on closer inspection, there were strange imprints within the impressions which suggested that the attacker had been wearing some kind of apparatus on his shoes. There were no forensic investigators in those days, and instead of making plaster casts of the intriguing impressions, the police allowed the weather to erode the evidence.
Gradually, the news of the satanic superman spread, and the public soon gave him a name - Spring-heeled Jack. In February 1838, 18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister Margaret were on their way home at 8.30 p.m., after a visit to their brother's house in the Limehouse area. Lucy, being the biggest of the two, impatiently marched ahead of her dawdling sister as they passed the entrance leading to Green Dragon Alley. Suddenly, the terrifying cloaked silhouette of Spring-heeled Jack leapt out of the darkness and exhaled a jet of blue flames from his mouth that blasted Lucy's face. The teenager screamed and her legs collapsed under her. She fell to the ground, blinded, and suffered a fit. Jack jumped high over his victim and her sister and landed on the roof of a house. From there he bounded off into the night.
A pattern was emerging. Jack seemed to like molesting and terrifying young females. His next attack, which took place two days after the last one, was also on an 18-year-old girl. Her name was Jane Alsop. Jane's house was situated in Bearhind Lane, a quiet back street in the district of Bow, where she lived with her father and two sisters. She was spending the evening reading, when suddenly, just before nine o'clock, the frontgate bell sounded. Jane answered the door and outside in the shadows stood a caped man. He said to Jane, "I'm a policeman. Bring a light! We've caught Spring-Heeled Jack in the lane!"
Jane ran excitedly back into the house and returned to the police officer moments later with a candle. Upon offering the candle to the caller, she beheld a nightmarish sight. The light from the candle illuminated the face of the man purporting to be an officer of the law. It was Jack, and the devil grinned as he studied the girl's shocked expression. Before she could make a move he pursed his lips and spurted out a cone of phosphorescent gas which partially blinded the teenager, then grabbed the girl and started to tear at her clothes. Jane punched his big nose and managed to give him the slip. But the enraged Jack bolted after her and stopped her from re-entering her house by clutching her hair. His claw-like hands sadistically scraped her face and neck, and Jane's screams alerted her sisters, who came running out of the house. By some miracle, one of them managed to drag Jane from the caped attacker. The three sisters retreated indoors with Springy in hot pursuit a couple of feet behind them. In the nick of time the door was slammed in Jack's face.
When Jane was quizzed by the Lambeth Police Court about the assailant's appearance, she described a very unusual person. She said, "He wore a large helmet, and a sort of tight-fitting costume that felt like oilskin. But the cape was just like the ones worn by policemen. His hands were as cold as ice, and like powerful claws. But the most frightening thing about him was his eyes. They shone like balls of fire."
Two days later, Jane's deposition was strengthened by the testament of a butcher from Limehouse. He was the brother of Lucy and Margaret Scales the victims of the Green Dragon Alley attack.
The accounts of Spring-heeled-Jack's cowardly assaults on the ladies of South London soon featured in the newspaper headlines. The reports scared some Londoners into staying indoors after dark, while others decided to organise vigilante patrols. When the 70-year-old veteran of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington read of Jack's string of attacks in The Times, he decided to come out of retirement, and armed with two pistols, he mounted his steed and charged off into the night to track down the leaping villain. Alas, the supreme strategist soon discovered that even his great military prowess was no match for Jack's cunning and hyper-agility, and so, in the end, despite many brave cat-and-mouse chases with the bounding bogeyman, the ageing Duke had to call it a day.
A week after the attack on Jane Alsop, Jack called at a house in Turner Street, off Commercial Road. A servant boy answered the door, and Jack, shielding half of his face with his cloak as he stood in the shadows, asked the boy in a gruff voice if he could talk to the master of the house. The youngster was turning, about to call for the master, a Mr Ashworth, when Jack made the mistake of moving out of the shade into the lamplight. The boy recoiled in horror when he saw that the caller had bright orange eyes. As he stood there in a state of shock, the boy noticed two other details about the mysterious caller; he had claws for hands, and under his cloak, an intricate embroidered design that resembled a coat of arms, and below this design, the letter W was also embroidered in gold. The boy had heard all the spine-chilling rumours of jack's 'eyes of Hell'. He let out a terrific scream, and within seconds, windows and doors all over the immediate neighbourhood were opening. Jack waved his fist threateningly at the boy, then rocketed over the roofs of Commercial Road. When the boy regained his senses, he was cross-quizzed and interrogated repeatedly by the authorities about his hair-raising encounter. His inquisitors wondered what the significance of the embroidered 'W' was, and some conjectured that the glyph was the initial of the Marquis of Waterford, an individual who was widely known as a mischievous prankster who had in the past gone to enormous lengths in financing notorious hoaxes. The Marquis was also something of an athlete, but his physical capabilities could obviously not be equated with Jack's superhuman stunts. Even the fittest man on earth couldn't leap 25-feet into the air, as Jack was alleged to have done many times. In 1859, the Marquis met his death after falling from a horse. But the reports of the 'Jumping Man' continued to pour into the police stations of London and the newspaper offices. Spring-heeled Jack was still at large.
In August 1877, forty years after the debut on Barnes Common, Jumping Jack turned up unexpectedly one moonlit night at Aldershot North Camp for what would be the most audacious performance in his infamous career. On that night, Private John Reagan was standing in his sentry box, guarding the powder magazine, when he heard what he later described as "the shrill scraping sound of something metallic" being dragged down the nearby road. Regan cocked his rifle and moved stealthily from his box towards the source of the sound. There was nobody to be seen on the stretch of road. After shrugging his shoulders at his colleague in the other sentry box thirty feet away, Reagan turned and walked back to his box. As he reached the sentry box, he felt the clammy ice-cold touch of a hand on his cheek. He screamed with fright, and the other sentry left his box and came charging over to Reagan, toting his rifle. As the sentries met, Springheeled Jack suddenly appeared. His helmet glinted in the moonlight. He jumped into the air, clearing the heads of the soldiers by ten feet. He landed behind them, and stood there, sneering, waiting for the soldiers to make the next move. Reagan's rifle was still cocked. He raised it at the creature and challenged it in a nervous voice, saying, "Who goes there?" After a nerve-wracking pause of silence, the Batman of the 19th century hurdled towards the soldiers. Reagan opened fire, but his rifle was only loaded with blank ammunition, and instead of scaring Jack off, it only angered him instead. Jack vomited a blast of blue flames at the sentry, bedazzling him, then sprang twenty feet into the air, cackling. The two sentries deserted their posts.
Soon after that episode, Spring-heeled Jack went on a terrorizing trek across the country. A month after the Aldershot incident, Jack turned up in Lincolnshire one evening, where he shattered the rustic routines of villagers by leaping over thatched cottages wearing a sheepskin. A mob of yokels confronted the laughing leaper and blasted him with shotguns at point-blank range, but their firepower had no effect on him whatsoever. When the buckshot hit Jack, it sounded as if it was hitting a metal bucket.
In January 1879, a man was driving his cart home from Woodcote, Shropshire, at 10 pm. As he crossed a bridge on the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, a black, hideous-looking creature with large luminous eyes leapt out of a tree and landed on the horse's back. The man tried to knock the oddity off the horse with his whip, but the creature managed to hold on to the frightened animal, which broke into a wild gallop. When the man got the cart back under control the black bug-eyed 'thing' darted into the air and disappeared into the trees.
By the end of the 19th century, the geographical pattern of sightings of Spring-heeled Jack indicated that he was moving in a westerly direction across England, towards Lancashire. In September 1904, the bouncing blackguard turned up in the south of Liverpool, where he was seen hurtling down from the roof of a reservoir. It was in the Everton district of Liverpool where Jack gave a typical performance. One night he was seen clinging to the steeple of St Francis Xaviers in Salisbury Street. Before the awe-struck crowds filling the streets below, Jacko jumped suicidally from the steeple and landed somewhere behind a row of houses. The mobs stampeded to see where he had landed, and a rumour spread that he had killed himself. The Evertonians were subsequently startled when a helmeted 'egg-headed' figure in white suddenly ran down the street towards them. As several women in the crowd screamed, Jack lifted his arms and flew over William Henry Street. After that memorable night, Jack made himself scarce for 16 years.
Late one evening in 1920, a man dressed in a 'radiant-white costume' was seen by scores of witnesses in Warrington's Horsemarket Street, jumping back and forth from the pavements to the rooftops. He finally cleared the town's Central Railway Station in one mighty leap and was never seen in the north of England again.
In 1948, the last recorded sighting of a sinister leaping figure took place at Monmouth in the south of Wales. Locals who saw a 'strange looking man' leaping over a stream near Watery Lane surmised that he was the spectre of a man who had drowned in the stream, but the few Welsh folk who were later unfortunate enough to encounter the leaper at close quarters swore he was too solid to be a phantom.
Who or What was Spring-heeled Jack? Many bizarre theories have been advanced to answer this question. Some said he was an insane acrobatic fire-eater, while others believed him to be a dressed-up kangaroo, or a mad inventor who had built an anti-gravity device. But one theory that does fit the facts is the alien hypothesis. If we suppose that Jack was from another planet, this would explain his alien appearance, behaviour, his jumping ability, and his longevity. When the American astronauts first landed on the Moon, they discovered that the easiest way to move around the lunar surface was by hopping, because their legs were too powerful to walk in the Moon's weak gravity-field. In fact, the astronauts could have jumped over thirty feet in height had they wanted to. Perhaps Springheeled jack had found himself at a similar advantage. His home planet may have been much larger than Earth, and possessed a greater gravitational pull. After being reared in his environment of high-gravity, Jack would experience the Earth as a low-gravity world, just as the Moon is to Earthlings. Going back to the first lunar astronauts; during their stay on the Moon, many of these well-trained men became over-excited and would often sing and talk gibberish. And it wasn't solely because of the momentous achievement they were experiencing. Psychologists have noted how astronauts and cosmonauts have exhibited symptoms of 'Solipsism Syndrome' a mental condition where the space-travellers just cannot believe they are off the Earth. They report feeling unreal, and light-headed. Jack reacted in an identical way in his new environment. He was often heard screaming and laughing hysterically. This strange behaviour could have also resulted from the inhalation of our terrestrial atmosphere. It's a well-known fact that any inhibition of a creature's respiratory system directly affects its brain-activity. In the early days of aviation before the employment of the oxygen mask, many pilots climbing to high altitudes found their mental faculties severely impaired to such an extent, that they could not remember what the altimeter dial signified. This was due to their brains being starved of oxygen. Similarly, Jack's brain might have found our atmosphere of 78 per cent nitrogen and 21 per cent oxygen deficient in certain gases vital for its correct functioning.
The descriptions of Spring-heeled Jack's fiery gaze seem to indicate that he had retro-reflective eyes, similar to a cat's, which would suggest that he was ideally suited to a nocturnal environment. His fire-breathing isn't easily explained. Perhaps what Jack really breathed into his victim's eyes was not real fire (for none of those attacked suffered burns, nor did the 'fire' ever singe a single hair), but a type of odorous phosphor. This isn't as far-fetched as it seems. Many species of insect and marine life are endowed with bioluminescence, which means that they can radiate light through the action of certain compounds in their metabolism. One example that comes to mind is the glow worm. Furthermore, Jack's alien body may have been capable of generating bioelectricity. If this was so, his exhalations could have been electrically charged, which would account for the stunning effect his victims experienced after he breathed the shimmering blue gas into their faces. Again, here on Earth we have examples of bioelectricity in the electric ray fish and the electric eel, which can generate a paralyzing shock of up to 300 volts.
Another unanswered riddle is the fate of Jack. If he was a misunderstood alien, marooned on our world, was he finally rescued, or did he die a lonely death here? We will probably never know.

©Tom Slemen 2009.