The strange case of Spring-Heeled-Jack.
The villain, appearing in the guise of a ghost, a bear and a devil, has been, within the last week or so repeatedly seen at Lewisham and Blackheath. So much, indeed, he has frightened the inhabitants of those peaceful districts, that women and children durst not stir out of their houses after dark!
-Extract from the Times newspaper, 11th January 1838.
The Victorian age was a time of great invention, scientific discovery and reform. It was also an age of great interest in tales of Spiritualism and ghosts. Seances were very much in vogue and paranormal research was on the increase. The Ghost Club, for example, was formed in 1862, the group was set up to evaluate, using a scientific approach, the existence of ghosts. At the same time they were also trying to expose charlatans and fake mediums. One of the most popular books at the time was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published 1818.
Jack the Ripper had slashed his way to notoriety during the late 1880's. The gruesome murders were splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the land. Some had thought the murders so inhuman that the hand that wielded the knife must have belonged to the Devil himself?
However, some fifty years before 'Jack the Ripper' there was another Jack, a spring heeled version.
Much has been written about the attacks and exploits of this phantom of the night. There is little or no real substantive evidence or satisfactory explanations of who, or indeed, what the perpetrator of several attacks was? There appears to be some confusion here, the attacks appear to be random, but the physical description of the attacker is rather alarming, so much so that the victims were unsure if it was human?
I will now make an attempt to unravel the twisted cords of truth. I will peel back the curtain of time and delve into these seemingly motiveless attacks. I will apply logical deduction, eyewitness accounts, police statements and modern investigative techniques in an attempt to shed some light on the legend that is, Spring-Heeled-Jack!
Early sightings of a strange figure appearing at night across West London began in 1837. A strange spectre was seen in Brentford, Isleworth, Ealing, Hanwell, Richmond, Barnes, Twickenham, Ham, Kingston and Hammersmith. Many of these early sightings were reported to be of a tall figure of a man dressed in armour, with claw like apparatuses attached to its gauntlets?
The common connection of these early sightings is that the figure was said to appear out of nowhere, and then to almost immediately disappear by taking gigantic leaps and bounds.
April 1837: Barnes, West London. The first 'Jack attack.'
Barnes Common in West London, during the Victorian era, was a place that was unwise to visit during the hours of darkness. The area was notorious for its high number of robberies, or what we would call today 'muggings.'
Before we start I must stress that many of these old stories/cases contain a certain amount of discrepancies in the time and dates of the said occurrences.
According to a police report there was no doubt that one dark night in April of 1837 a man, while taking a short cut through a churchyard in Barnes had encountered something extremely scary. Although the gentleman was not attacked on this occasion, a caped, red eyed, leaping figure had cleared the high railings that ringed the cemetery in one bound and blocked his path. The gentleman immediately turned and ran for his life and told the police of his extraordinary encounter.
19th February 1838: 21-00hrs:
Jane Alsop, a young woman of 18, was about to settle down for the night when she was disturbed by the incessant ringing of the bell at the front gate. It was late for callers and so she was a little reluctant to open the door, but eventually she did, as the man outside had announced that he was a policeman. He'd also said that he needed a light as he had just apprehended Spring Heeled Jack, she opened the door and handed the man a lighted candle.
The figure that greeted her was tall, had red eyes, pointed ears, a cloak and some kind of a lantern strapped to his chest.
OK, this is where things get weird. The strange figure turned toward her and spat blue flames into her face and began to tear at her clothing and hair with metallic claws. Jane had put up a fight and when her sisters heard her cries for help they fought him off. Jack had her in a headlock and was scratching at her face and chest. They managed to wrestle her free of his grasp and slammed the front door on him, terrified they shouted for the police from the upstairs window as the figure bounded away into the night.
28th February 1838 20:30hrs: Limehouse, London: Jack was back.
Two young women, Lucy Scales and her younger sister were walking through Green Dragon Alley in Limehouse East London. A dark figure suddenly appeared before them. Without a word the strange tall figure spat blue flames into Lucy's face temporarily blinding her which induced her to have a violent fit. As the two girls screamed out in terror the figure leaped away without laying a hand on either of them? The description given to the police shortly afterwards matched the attacker of Jane Alsop.
A police investigation was now initiated and these attacks were for the first time being taken seriously and a top detective was dispatched to apprehend the culprit. Detective James Lea was one of the best detectives in London, Lea was an experienced detective and had single-handedly solved the perplexing murder case of Maria Marten in Suffolk. Lea never let up and eventually tracked down the murderer in London and arrested William Corday at a girls' school in Brentford West London.
Lea was now given the task to find Jane Alsop's and Lucy Scales's attacker. He started his investigation by interviewing Jane Alsop, but was not convinced by her account, and believed that this incident was some kind of prank. However, he did continue to pursue the case for some time and interviewed dozens of suspects. But none of them were ever charged with any offences and after having exhausted all possible enquirers detective Lea allowed the investigation to grind to its inevitable halt.
The interest in these attacks had become popular with the public who simply couldn't get enough of old Jack's antics. This was mainly due to the newspapers who fuelled the fires of fear and gave the reports of further sightings of Spring Heeled Jack prominent headlines, which kept up the mythical status. Also, a popular publication at the time called 'Penny Dreadful' serialised Jack and his exploits, further cementing his folklore status. Another popular publication, which featured Jack's exploits, was called the Illustrated Police News.
12th November 1845: Jacobs Island London: Jack the killer.
On the south bank of the river Thames a place called Jacobs Island once existed. It was by all accounts a dreadfully run-down area. The place was occupied by the downtrodden and lower elements of society. Living conditions were some of the worst in the country and the place was affectionately referred to as 'the capital of cholera.'
Maria Davis, a teenage prostitute, was a resident of the Island. Maria was plying her trade one cold, dark evening when she was approached by a strange tall figure. According to eyewitness accounts she was suddenly and violently attacked. The attacker was said to begin the attack by spitting blue flames into her face and then proceeded to tear at her clothing with claw like appendages. And then in one movement, and with seemingly little effort, he lifted the terrified girl above his head and tossed her into the putrid river and then bounded away at great speed.
Maria Davis drowned in the filth of the river. No one was ever arrested for her murder. This one leaves a bitter taste, and I have to say that up to this point I was indifferent to old Jack's capers. Jack was not seen again for over 20 years.
August 1877: Aldershot Barracks, South East England.
The most famous sighting of Spring Heeled Jack occurred at Aldershot Barracks of all places. The Barracks are still in existence and are the HQ of the British Army, where thousands of soldiers are billeted. Late one warm August night back in 1877 a hooded figure was spotted by a sentry on guard duty. The sentry was alerted to the figure not only by its strange hooded appearance, but also by a distinct metallic sound as it moved, as if it were wearing armour? Later that month a sentry was said to have been slapped by a hand that felt like ice which came out of nowhere. On another occasion a sentry spotted Jack approaching. The soldier ran to the nearest sentry box to hide, only to find Jack standing next to him reaching out for his throat in the darkness.
The sightings and physical encounters at the Barracks continued. Jack would suddenly appear and then quickly slap a sentry in the face and then leap over the wall. He was once seen to leap over the heads of two sentries and onto the roof of their sentry box, and then escapes by bounding across the fields. These attacks were taken very seriously, as they were not only incredibly strange but were serious breaches of security. The soldiers were therefore given the order to shoot Jack on site, which they did on the next occasion. However, their musket balls either missed or were not able to penetrate Jacks armour, and he once again escaped. These were the last real sightings of Spring Heeled Jack.
So, could all of this be the work of some kind of drunken prankster, who simply decided to dress up and frighten a few locals out of their wits for a bet. Maybe?
But that doesn't explain the ability to leap over high railings, walls and fences, out run pursuers and dodge bullets with ease. I don't believe that a person under the influence of alcohol would be able to leap around at speed without injuring themselves or for that matter have the ability to make numerous successful escapes. At no point had any of the victims said there was a smell of alcohol on Jack's breath. As for the fire breathing and amazing jumping ability, could Jack have been linked to some kind of side show act, a circus performer, an acrobat perhaps? Circuses were very popular during the Victorian era. But that still doesn't explain the why?
Having studied much evidence in this case I am driven to the conclusion that some of the sightings are without doubt that of pranksters, copycat Jack's. However, the 'close encounters' the seemingly random attacks themselves are definitely not the work of a joker.
Jane Alsop, Lucy Scales, poor Maria Davis and the soldiers at the Aldershot barracks were attacked by this creature, that is a fact. The attacks caused injury, much distress and in one case death. And why play around at an army barracks? Risking your life by being shot at by soldiers who were under orders to shoot to kill? There's got to be more here, more than just a search for cheap thrills, surely?
I believe this is something else, something that is beyond reasonable comprehension.
And so, in conclusion, it does seem that the real Spring-Heeled-Jack and his/it's motives and identity are likely to remain a mystery forever.