11. Spring Heeled Jack: A Chronicle of Chaos
“But most of all did he dwell upon some mysterious blazing entity that shook and laughed and mocked at him.”
Beyond The Wall Of Sleep – H. P. Lovecraft
Supernatural? Invader from space? Prankster? Hysteria? Spring Heeled Jack’s notorious crimes that littered 19th Century London remain to this day one of the capital’s most bizarre series of crimes. Here is a brief catalogue of the weird events…
September 1837 – Barnes Common. Over the course of two nights a businessman, and then three girls, were confronted by a fiery-eyed, darkly clad figure. The apparition tore at their clothes and laughed.
Early October 1837 – Cut-Throat Lane, Clapham Common. Mary Stevens, heading towards what was then Lavender Hill, was groped and kissed by a laughing maniac. The following night, a carriage on Streatham High Road was attacked by a creature. Both coachmen and the footman were injured in the crash. A woman walking near Clapham churchyard with her two sons observed a tall, thin and darkly clad gentleman who mocked them.
October 11th 1837 – Blackheath. Polly Adams was assaulted by a mysterious, bounding attacker, described as being cloaked, having glowing eyes and a mouth that spat blue flame. With iron like claws the assailant tore at her clothes, exposing her breasts, and then fled in a rapture of mocking laughter.
Late autumn 1837. Rumours of a stalking spectre at Hampton, Richmond, and Kingston.
Winter 1837. Two young girls were cornered in Dulwich; the clothes were ripped from one. In Forest Gate a couple were confronted; the man had his face slashed whilst a gypsy lady hampered the exploits of the criminal, calling for nearby help before the attacker could strike. He disappeared into the mist.
January 9th 1838. The Lord Mayor at Mansion House addressed the audience with mention of a disguised prankster, appearing also as a ‘ghost’, ‘bear’ and ‘devil’, claiming that the “unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses”. In the same month, rumour spread that the ‘Peckham Ghost’ had attacked and killed in areas of Vauxhall, Brixton and Stockwell. In St John’s Wood the ‘monster’ attacked for two weeks and police believed the criminal would murder six women.
Late January 1838. The name Spring Heeled Jack was born, originating from his ways of leaping, described as ‘springald’ – a jumping jack.
February 1838. Sisters Lucy and Margaret Scales visited their brother Tom at Narrow Street, Limehouse. The girls left Tom at 8:35 pm, and as they walked along a dimly lit passageway, Lucy saw a fleeting figure, which then pounced. She was enveloped in his cloak, the glow of a lantern showing his mouth of blue flame. The figure vanished into the night. Two days later at the home of a Mr Alsop, a knock at the door during a late hour disturbed his three daughters, Mary, 16, Jane, 18, and the married Sarah. Jane went to the door and in the gloom of the shadows saw a tall, dark figure wearing a top hat. “I am a policeman,” the figure muttered, “for God’s sake bring me a light we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane!” he exclaimed. Jane hurried indoors to grab a candle but upon turning around was met by the figure the whole of London had become so fearful of. Again, his eyes were aglow, as was his flaming mouth. He wore a large helmet and tight fitting garb, and with razor claws slashed at Jane’s garments. It was sister Sarah who took on Jack, freeing her sister from his fateful grasp and then screaming for the police, sending the attacker of into the shadows. According to Mr Alsop, the fiend left his cloak behind.
February 27th 1838. A servant boy at Turner Street, off Commercial Road, answered the door to a figure with glinting claws and fiery eyes. The boy screamed and the form fled. The next day whilst under questioning, the boy claimed that upon the chest of the intruder he saw a breastplate showing off some ornate crest and also the letter ‘W’.
1839. Reports of bounding, fiery-eyed attackers come from as far afield as the Midlands.
Early 1840s. A cloaked, spring-heeled figure was rumoured to have terrorised the Home Counties.
August 26th 1843. A cloven-hoofed ‘Jack’ assaulted a man at Commercial Road. However, the victim fought back against the cloaked figure, even setting him on fire, although such a figure seems like a hoax.
November 1845 – Bermondsey. A springing, leaping figure was seen by several witnesses, bounding through Jacob’s Island. The figure then grabbed thirteen-year old prostitute Mary Davis on the bridge crossing Folly Ditch, spat flame in her face and then threw her into the murky depths where she perished. Her body was recovered and she became the first recorded victim of SHJ.
1870s. Reports from 1845 onwards seem a little vague. During the 1870s the ‘Peckham Ghost’ attacked a wagon at Lordship Lane, and was also seen at Dulwich College, but many of these figures seem to appear as pale imitations of the original, sinister terror.
1900s. SHJ haunted parts of Aldershot.
Spring Heeled Jack’s exploits, since their birth, have embedded themselves in world folklore with similar apparitions being sighted across the United States, South America, France and elsewhere in the UK. Many researchers believe that the Marquis of Waterford was the man behind the original London crimes, an eccentric Irish nobleman about whom author Peter Haining claimed, “the exploits of Spring Heeled Jack were wholly within his capabilities”, in his detailed book on the legend (The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack). Waterford died in 1859, although similar attacks occurred in Norfolk in 1877.
Some theorise that SHJ was an extraterrestrial, but whatever your beliefs on alien humanoids, this theory just doesn’t hold weight. Jack was also blamed for the mysterious set of footprints covering snowy Devon in 1855, which could not be attributed to any known animal or means of human capability.
Whether ghost, devil, serial killer or prankster, the crimes and events that many claimed were the work of the infamous shadow will always remain foggy, because, just like Jack The Ripper only a few decades later, Sweeney Todd, the London Monster previous, and many other puzzling mysteries, they are simply best left unsolved, even as they persist to the present day.
By Neil Arnold
Sources: Peter Haining – The Legend & Bizarre Crimes Of Spring Heeled Jack (Muller, 1977); Neil Arnold – Odd-Bodies (privately published, 2003).