It is easy to forget that in the Victorian age of strict family values, well-ordered hierarchical society and straight-laced sensibilities that a sub-culture existed that popularised fairies, seances and ghosts and that was fuelled by the ‘penny dreadful’ publications and one of the most notorious serial killers in History. It was early in this era that the legend of ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ was born.
The ‘Appearance of the Wretch’ – The accounts of Spring Heeled Jacks appearance do remain largely consistent, in that he has ‘red balls of fire for eyes’ he is mainly reported as having ‘metal like long claws’ and usually has some combination of black and white clothing. He is often described as wearing a helmet or a hat and his facial features are described as pointy, with sharp ears and a small beard – much like how you would imagine a devil.
Multiple Sightings The first encounter with Spring Heeled Jack seems to have been reported in the press in 1837 when a Mary Stevens was attacked as she walked through Clapham Common. The spate of encounters during this period all seem similar with Jack targeting women by grabbing them, clawing at their clothes but quickly fleeing when they screamed our fought back. His most famous attribute is his supernatural ability to leap walls and gates, with there even being reports of him scaling buildings and leaping from roof to roof. Sightings of Jack are then reported around the Country, but with more of a hub around London, The Midlands and Scotland and mainly centred around urban areas. There were many sightings of Spring Heeled Jack around my local area of Birmingham and The Black Country particularly from 1877 up until 1886; he was seen leaping buildings, grabbing ladies and generally making a wretch of himself in Blackheath, Dudley, Acocks Green and Old Hill – where he leaped from the The Cross Inn pub roof over the road to what was then the Butchers.
Modern Sightings In the late 1970s, residents of Attercliffe, Sheffield began to complain about a “red-eyed prowler who grabbed women and punched men.” The man was said to bound between rooftops and walk down sides of walls. In south Herefordshire, not far from the Welsh border, a travelling salesman named Marshall claimed to have had an encounter with a similar entity in 1986. The man leaped in enormous, inhuman bounds, passed Mr. Marshall on the road, and slapped his cheek. He wore what the salesman described as a black ski-suit, and Marshall noted that he had an elongated chin. He was sighted again at an unspecified point after by schoolchildren in west Surrey, who claimed he was “all black, with red eyes and had a funny all in one white suit with badges on it.” They also said he could run as fast as a car, and would approach dark haired children and tell them, “I want you.” In February 2012, Scott Martin and his family were travelling home by taxi from Stoneleigh at about 10.30pm, when they saw a “dark figure with no features” run across the road in front of them, before climbing over a 15 ft roadside bank in “seconds”, near Nescot College on the Ewell bypass. The family later likened the figure to the legendary Spring-heeled Jack.
Jack the Gentleman – There are some sightings that do portray a more ‘gentlemanly’ image of Spring Heeled Jack but I believe they are the more sinister for it – I love the description of this encounter, and if you imagine a well dressed man on first glance, that you then recognise to have hideous features it somehow becomes more terrifying. As the Birmingham Post reported in September 1886 “First a young girl, then a man, felt a hand on their shoulder, and turned to see the infernal one with glowing face, bidding them a good evening.”
Examples in other cultures; creatures similar to Jack seem to appear in a wide range of cultures. There is the Uomo Nero from Italy, Der Kinderfrassen from Germany, La Viuda from Chile and then closer to home Jack O’kentchurch from the Welsh Borders who made a pact with the devil. There is also Wee Willie Winkie who originated in Scotland, but certainly in my childhood he was never portrayed as a threatening character to me, so possibly his legend varied throughout the country. I think it is important to note that all of the above although they have resemblances to Spring Heeled Jack they do vary a considerable amount also. A few sources seem to link Jack to the popular Jack-in-the-Green figure however I personally think this stands alone and as part of the wider Green Man folklore and is not connected to Spring Heeled Jack other than in name.
The Legend that has grown out of a time of frequent ghost sightings and mass hysteria, persisted in the form that parents would warn their children that they must go to bed on time and behave or else Spring Heeled Jack would leap up to their bedroom window and watch them whilst they slept. Personally this would have given me another reason why I was reluctant to go to bed! Local burglars and thieves in particular would become known as ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ with many local areas having examples of their own very real characters who gained the name. There was also an ongoing character in the popular ‘penny dreadful’ publications of the time that was called Spring Heeled Jack – although he seems to have been of a more honourable nature than the ‘real life’ sightings reported in the Newspapers throughout the 19th and early 20th Century. For me, most chillingly, and more reminiscent of the general fear that I believe existed around this folklore legend came in 1888, when as part of a series of letters sent to the Metropolitan Police investigating the Jack the Ripper murders, a person claiming to be the Ripper signed himself ‘Spring Heel Jack; The Whitechapel Murderer’.
- Image from http://www.slemen.co.uk