|A Ripperoo Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperoo, the flagship magazine of the Australian Cloak and Dagger Club. For more information, view our Ripperoo page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperoo for permission to reprint this article.|
By Leanne Perry
‘Spring Heeled Jack’ is mentioned in the book: ‘Jack the Ripper, Letters From Hell’ as a FICTIONAL villain ‘featured in the Penny Dreadfuls’ of the first half of the nineteenth century’. Because of the parallels of this character to the methods used by the Whitechapel murderer of 1888, ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ is seen by the authors as being the inspiration behind the invention of the name: ‘Jack the Ripper’.
‘Letters From Hell’ by Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner, tells readers that ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ has: ‘vague real-life origins’ of an attacker of women, who’s identity was never known, so I consulted my library and the Internet to find out more about this real-life villain:
Over a period of nearly 70 years, a leaping madman startled and attacked young women. His attacks were often reported in the local and national press of England, however few people believed these tales when they started and today it is thought that he was just a made up bogeyman, used by parents to warn and control their misbehaving children.
Press reports of a ‘peculiar leaping man’ appeared as early as 1817, then on October 11th of 1837 Polly Adams was attacked by a man that could leap over fences. In January of the following year, a resident of Peckham sent a letter to the Lord Mayor of London describing an attack by a creature he called ‘Spring Heeled Jack’. From then on, the press references to the attacker changed from ‘Leaping Terror’, and, ‘Suburban Ghost’ to ‘Spring Heeled Jack’.
The first well-documented attack occurred on February the 18th 1838, when 18 year old Lucy Scales was attacked while walking through London’s Limehouse district. A black figure leapt out from the dark shadows, spat a blast of blue flame in the girls face, then leaped onto a nearby rooftop and vanished. Talk of a mysterious leaping madman who attacked women was circulating around London, however ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ never caused the same paralyzing fear to the whole country that ‘Jack the Ripper’ would cause some 50 years later. This ‘Jack’ was never known to rape, murder, or cause any permanent injury to his victims.
Further sightings and attacks by this man/creature were reported. One attack was on 18 year old Jane Alsop, in the district of Bow. Jane described her attacker as wearing a tight-fitting black cape or cloak, that felt like oilskin. On his head he wore a helmet, his hands were icy cold with sharp claws, he had staring, orange eyes that protruded from his head. A week after her attack a similar one was attempted, when a servant boy noticed a gold filigree “W” embroidered on the front of ‘Jack’s’ costume. Jack’s infamy grew and his activities were reported in many newspapers. One attack was on Mary Stevens in Battersea, and another was on 18 year old Lucy Squires in Limehouse.
In 1843 ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ appeared in Northhamptonshire, Hampshire and East Anglia, where he frightened the drivers of mail coaches. Two years later he was seen in West London. Reports came from Ealing and Hanwell of a weird figure leaping over hedges and walls, shrieking and groaning. This perpetrator was caught and turned out to be a practical joker from Brentford.
In November of 1845, a fire-breathing ‘Jack’ confronted a 13 year old prostitute named Maria Davies in Bermondsy. He breathed fire into her face then threw her into a ditch where she drowned. The residents of the area branded Jack as a murderer.
Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, this strange creature was seen all over England. People stayed off the streets at night. Concerned Londoners formed vigilante committees, to patrol the streets at night and try to track down the miscreant. Police put out extra patrols in search of the villain, but no one even came close to catching the menace.
This legendary figure was a dream-come-true for authors, playwrights, theatre managers, comic artists and publishers, advertisers and even early film makers. He appeared in the small theatres and ‘gaffs’ of the 1840s onwards, portrayed as a cloaked figure with shiny boots and huge whiskers. He became the Star of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, which were penny-part novels and cheap weekly periodicals, full of sensational adventure for the amusement of working-class boys. One titled: ‘Spring Heeled Jack, The Terror of London’ by George Augustus Sala, appeared in 48 weekly parts. Sala turned him into a super-hero, a rescuer of damsels in distress and a persecutor of those in authority who abused their power. In 1904 the character was revived in another penny-serial novel titled: ‘The Spring-heeled Jack Library’, then in 1946 a film was made about him titled: ‘The Curse of the Wraydons’.
In 1877 he appeared at Aldershot Barracks. An army officer was arrested on this occasion, on a charge of impersonating ‘Spring Heeled Jack’, but he was later released. A young man was also arrested in Warwickshire when he was caught wearing a white sheet and trying to jump to his escape, wearing a pair of boots with carriage springs attached. He was last seen on Liverpool in September of the year 1904 jumping on rooftops, then a few weeks later he scaled the steeple of a church, before disappearing behind a row of houses.
‘Jack’ made dozens of appearances between 1938 and 1945 in the U.S., belching flames and making gigantic leaps, then ‘melting’ into the darkness. In the 1970s he returned to England while at the same time he was still seen in the U.S., but by this time he had grown his hair long. In 1976, at least a dozen residents of Dallas saw a creature that leaped across a football field in a few strides. He was 10 feet tall, thin and had long ears.
Imaginative writers have been convinced that ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ was from another dimension or planet, because of his reported superhuman abilities. He could make gravity-defying leaps and spat fire at his victims. I and others prefer to believe that this ‘Jack’ was the disguise for several different men, (a scapegoat). For example the man who scaled the church in Liverpool, was not the same man attacked Lucy Scales in Limehouse. A popular theory identifies the original menace as Henry de la Poer Beresford the Marquis of Waterford, who was an eccentric Irish nobleman and a well known prankster, who was “daring to the verge of insanity”. He may have been behind the first few attacks, then the creature he created caught the imaginations of pranksters and criminals thereafter. Henry had strangely protuberant eyes and was known to be in the area of many of the reported attacks at the time. This would explain the embroidered ‘W’ that was spotted by the servant boy in 1838. The technique of the circus fire-eating acts, was well known in 1837 too.
The Victorian era was one of new scientific theories, like that of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was hard to accept for some people. ‘The Origin Of The Species’ was published in 1859, but Darwin initially formed the idea of natural selection twenty years earlier, which was about the time of the first well documented attack. Some may not have wanted to believe that humans may have originated from the animal kingdom, and this probably lead practical jokers and men who just wanted a thrill to create weird costumes, attach springs to their boots, (something that was done by some of the German soldiers during World War 2), and get away with having their antics blamed on a myth.
‘Jack the Ripper, Letters From Hell’ - Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner.
‘The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack’ - Peter Haining.
‘Spring Heeled Jack’ - Mark Brodie: http://theshadowlands.net/jack.htm
A Victorian Nightmare—Kevin Farmer: http://freespace.virgin.net/kevin.farmer/Strange-Planet/Jack.html
‘Unexplained People: Spring-Heeled Jack’ http://www.madladdesigns.co.uk/unexplained/people/springheeledjack.htm