London’s history is littered with characters both fictional and real, however the story of Spring Heeled Jack is bizarre even by London’s standards.
In January 1838, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan held a meeting responding to a number of reports of people being attacked by individuals disguised as a ghost, a bear and a devil. The Lord Mayor had a few days earlier received an anonymous letter from a “resident of Peckham” that suggested a number of Aristocratic gentlemen had laid wagers to dress up in various disguises to scare young women. Although sceptical the Lord Mayor ordered an investigation and demanded that any culprits be arrested.
Although the sightings had originally named the culprit “the suburban ghost”, after the Times reported on the Lord Mayors meeting, other newspapers tended to refer to the culprit as Spring Heeled Jack because in some reports he was seen to leap over high walls to evade capture.
In February 1838 at Bow, Spring Heeled Jack made a new appearance attacking a Miss Jane Alsop the case was reported in a local newspaper
“Miss Jane Alsop, one of the young ladies, gave the following evidence:–” “About a quarter to nine o’clock on the preceding night she heard a violent ringing at the gate in front of the house; and on going to the door to see what was the matter, she saw a man standing outside, of whom she inquired what was the matter.” “The person instantly replied that he was a policeman, and said, ‘For Heaven’s sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane.'” “She returned into the house and brought a candle and handed it to the person, who appeared enveloped in a large cloak.” “The instant she had done so, however, he threw off his outer garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire.” “Miss Alsop added that she had suffered considerably all night from the shock she had sustained, and was then in extreme pain, both from the injury done to her arm, and the wounds and scratches inflicted by the miscreant on her shoulders and neck, with his claws or hands.” This story was fully confirmed by Mr. Alsop, and his other daughter said– “That the fellow kept knocking and ringing at the gate after she had dragged her sister away from him, but scampered off when she shouted from an upper window for a policeman.”
A few days Spring Heeled Jack made an appearance in Limehouse. Once again a local newspaper reported what happened :
“‘THE GHOST, alias ‘SPRING-HEELED JACK’ AGAIN.–At Lambeth-street office, Mr. Scales, a respectable butcher, residing in Narrow-street, Limehouse, accompanied by his sister, a young woman eighteen years of age, made the following statement relative to the further gambols of Spring-Heeled Jack:–”
“Miss Scales stated that on the evening of Wednesday last, at about half-past eight o’clock, as she and her sister were returning from the house of their brother, and while passing along Green Dragon-alley, they observed some, person standing in an angle in the passage.”
“She was in advance of her sister at the time, and just as she came up to the person, who was enveloped in a large cloak, he spurted a quantity of blue flame right in her face, which deprived her of her sight, and so alarmed her, that she instantly dropped to the ground, and was seized with violent fits, which continued for several hours.”
“Mr Scales said that on the evening in question, in a few minutes after his sisters had left the house, he heard the loud screams of one of them, and on running up Green Dragon-alley he found his sister Lucy, who had just given her statement, on the ground in a fit, and his other sister endeavouring to hold and support her.”
“She was removed home, and he then learned from his other sister what had happened.”
“She described the person to be of tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance, enveloped in a large cloak, and carried in front of his person a small lamp, or bull’s eye, similar to those in possession of the police.”
“The individual did not utter a word, nor did he attempt to lay hands on them, but walked away in an instant.”
“Every effort was subsequently made by the police to discover the author of these and similar outrages, and several persons were taken up and underwent lengthened examinations, but were finally set at liberty, nothing being elicited to fix the offence upon them.”
After these two attacks in East London, many newspapers were full of the exploits of Spring Heeled Jack and a large number of copycat attacks began to happen leading to number of arrests of mostly young men attacking young women. The police were convinced that there was not one Spring Heeled Jack but a number of people dressing up to carry out the attacks. In support of this view was the fact that attacks were reported all over the country.
However even when the attacks grew less frequent, the legend of Spring Heeled Jack grew to become possibly the first Victorian Urban legend. In many areas especially London, Spring Heeled Jack became a bogeyman figure used to frighten children so they would behave.
From the 1860s plays about Spring Heeled Jack were produced and in the mid to late 19th Century the character began to appear in the Penny Dreadfuls magazines sometimes his character is changed that he fights evil as a sort of prototype Superhero. However in the 1880s the emergence of a real life murderer Jack the Ripper overshadowed the fictional Spring Heeled Jack and led to a decline in interest.
However to show that you can’t keep an urban legend down, in the late 20th and 21st century Spring Heeled Jack has had a resurgence with an appearance in a book from Philip Pullman, a novel by Mark Hodder, featured in number of comic books and is often mentioned in TV and films.