Mythical Monday: Spring Heel Jack by Mae Clair

light in the nightFor today’s Mythical Monday, I’m visiting an era steeped in gas lanterns, cobbled streets, carriages, and gentleman callers in top hats.

Enter Spring Heel Jack, a macabre phantom who terrorized the English countryside in the 19th century. First sighted in 1837, he gained notoriety during the height of the Victorian era.

This maniacal creature was described as a tall, thin man with powerful bony fingers resembling claws. He favored the appearance of a strolling actor or opera-goer, usually spotted wearing a long flowing cloak. Beneath, his clothes were tight-fitting and of a material that several witnesses said resembled white oil skin.

His name was earned from the springs he attached to his boots which enabled him to leap great distances and hop towering eight-foot high walls. A tall metallic helmet and a small lantern strapped to his chest completed his bizarre outfit. Some reports say he breathed blue and white flame, others that he had a devil appearance and eyes that resembled red balls of fire.

In all instances Jack seemed set on terrorizing those he came in contact with, usually preying on females.

On February 19, 1838, eighteen-year-old Jane Alsop was attacked by Jack when she answered the front door of her home after being summed by the violent ringing of the bell. The man who waited on the threshold demanded a lantern, snapping, “For God’s sake bring me a light for we have caught Spring Heel Jack here in the lane.”

When Jane gave the man a candle, he tossed his cloak aside and applied the flame to his breast, “vomiting forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth.” The man seized Jane and began tearing her dress with claws she reported as being metallic in nature. She managed to get away from him and was later rescued by one of her sisters but suffered scratches to her shoulders and neck. Her assailant even ripped out a length of her hair.

Jack_the_Devil_Penny_Dreadfuls_1838

By Penny Dreadful Newspaper (Penny Dreadful Paper 1838) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eight days later, eighteen-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister were passing Green Dragon Alley in Old Ford when a man in a large cloak stepped into their path. He squirted blue flame into Lucy’s face, temporarily blinding her. Unable to see, she fell to the ground and was overcome by a violent fit which continued for several hours. Lucy’s sister said their attacker had a gentlemanly appearance, wore a large cloak and carried a small lantern.

Jack made several notable appearances during the 1870s, including one where he was shot at by a soldier on guard duty. The bullets had no effect on him and he disappeared into the darkness with “astonishing bounds.”  As his exploits spread, he became a popular subject for newspapers, “penny dreadfuls” and small theatre.

Despite his infamy, some believe Jack was nothing more than a myth given birth by a culture prone to embrace folklore of faeries and impish creatures. Others believe he was the product of mass hysteria and hallucination. Still others insist there was nothing remotely supernatural about him – that he was a disturbed man with a ghoulish sense of humor.

For a time the Marquis of Waterford, an Irish nobleman was considered a prime suspect. An aristocrat who’d had numerous run-ins with the police for public brawling, he was a heavy drinker known to have a strong contempt for women.

Spring Heel Jack was never caught and remains a fixture of myth. He has appeared in literature, movies, comics and even video games. Whether man, phantom or demon, he has left his mark in everything from archaic legends to pop culture.

Have you heard of Spring Heel Jack?