• Jon Mackley

The return of Spring-Heeled Jack: The Terror of London

Over the past several years, I have been collating and transcribing stories that I’ve started to publish as The Spring-Heeled Jack Library.

My academic interest began in 2015. I’m co-organiser of a Fantasy Symposium between Richmond University in London and the University of Northampton. Previously I’d been working on British Mythology and folklore and Spring-Heeled Jack must have struck me as interesting that year because I chose to present a paper on the subject. I’d known a little about Spring-Heeled Jack before then because of a short publication I’d found that was written in 1878. This was a story of a young man who had been defrauded of his family title and estates and who set about establishing his birth right. The story itself was moderately interesting, but I knew that there had been historical accounts of a REAL Spring-Heeled Jack, and this was definitely a fictional account. So, as part of the research paper, I started to dig.

By their nature, conference papers are limited in the amount of research they can cover. I started by writing about some of Jack’s early sightings: the first assault in 1837 where a young woman named Polly Adams was assaulted in Blackheath; two linked assaults in early 1838 on Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales, and then the murder of a 13-year old prostitute named Maria Adams in Bermondsey in 1845, and definitive identifying the Marquis of Waterford as the alter ego of Spring-Heeled Jack. This was all cracking stuff! And I’d read online that Jack had been seen in Northampton, and I thought that would be an interesting local focus. But aside from brief overviews – “One notable appearance in Northamptonshire in 1843” – there were hardly any details.

It was at this point that I saw that one of the major studies on Jack had been written by Mike Dash published in Fortean Studies. I wrote to him and asked if he could offer a little more insight into what had happened in Northamptonshire. His incredibly prompt answer surprised me. He explained that in 1977 an author called Peter Haining had written his publication The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack and had simply fabricated evidence. Dash refers to this kind of fabricated evidence as “fakelore”.

Haining had presented a fictionalised version of the first assault, that on Polly Adams, as she walked home towards the end of 1837. But this was not just fictionalised. It was wholly fabricated. It never happened. Likewise, the murder of Maria Adams also never happened. Dash’s study covers these in detail to explain how there is no evidence for these assaults ever happening. And, as Dash explained, there was also no evidence for this “notable appearance” of Spring-Heeled Jack in Northamptonshire. Not only had I lost my local slant, but it also meant that significant swathes needed to be re-written. This is why it’s so important to check your sources!

The reference in Haining’s book reads as follows: “The following year [1844] reports began to be received from a still wider area. A man in a mask with whitened figures was for several weeks said to be leaping out on young girls in Northampton, while a figure ‘the very image of the devil himself with horns and eyes of flame’ ran riot on the highways of Hampshire.” In the internet sources, this is often presented as as “A report from Northamptonshire described him as “the very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame” (Wikipedia) (and sometimes this is changed to “A report from Northamptonshire, in Hampshire, described him as ‘the very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’.”)

There is a common belief that the Spring-Heeled Jack assaults were committed by Henry de la Poer Beresford, the “Mad” Marquis of Waterford who was known for his extravagant lifestyle and antisocial behaviour. It is true that the earliest complaints suggest that the perpetrator is from the “higher ranks of life” and Jack’s antics are considered similar to those of the Marquis. However, even very early on, there was considered very little evidence for this and the Marquis was dismissed as a suspect, despite multiple suggestions in Peter Haining’s book creating fictional links between the Marquis and Jack. No one has ever been identified as the perpetrator of the early Spring-Heeled Jack assaults. The Marquis died in 1859.

The symposium article was written and then published in the Æternum Journal in 2016, and during this time, I started to find out a bit more about Jack. There were three “blocks” of sightings that were generally attributed to Jack, although the likelihood was that these were committed by different people. There was a string of complaints made to the lord mayor of London in January 1838 concerning a leaping man who was terrorising the villages around London. He was seen in different guises as a “ghost, a bear and a devil”. Sometimes in armour, but always terrifying. Although there were plenty of such claims, when they were investigated, there was no one who could honestly claim to have witnessed these first-hand. There were two major assaults that were taken very seriously, however. Two young women, Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales were attacked by a man in a mask who seemed to breathe fire. Jane, in particular, was physically hurt by her assailant tearing out her hair and scratching her with claws, while Lucy fell into a swoon. These assaults were investigated by the police and although two men were taken to court, all charges against them were dropped.

The second series of appearances were in 1877-78 at the military barracks in Aldershot and later at Colchester. There were numerous sightings of a “ghost” who scared sentries on night watch and slapped them in the face. This became the subject of several strongly-worded newspaper reports, and for a while the appearances desisted, although when the garrison moved from Aldershot to Colchester, so the sightings of the ghost began there instead. Once again, no one was charged, although it was believed that this was a subaltern officer who was caught and disciplined, but his details were never released.

The two final incidents, although linked in theme, were decades apart. In 1878 a report in the Illustrated Police News suggested that a man had been terrorising the neighbourhood in Lincoln, leaping a Roman Arch - Newport Arch - to the north of the city. In 1904, there was also the report of a man leaping across the roofs of house in Liverpool. Given that the Illustrated Police News has been accused of being sensationalist in its reporting, and this is the only publication that covered the story, one may assume that there is little veracity in the account. On the other hand, it was later reported that the man in Liverpool was “slightly off balance mentally” and had been shouting that his wife was the devil, and somehow the facts had become twisted into another sighting of Spring-Heeled Jack.

There were, of course, many imitators and many other crimes that were attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack or “Spring-Heeled Jack-like” antics. But these three blocks are the ones that considered as “canon” by Spring-Heeled Jack scholars.

That’s the historical background, but in revising the article for Æternum, I found out a lot more about the serial fiction which features Spring-Heeled Jack, commonly known as “Penny Dreadful fiction”.

The various studies of Spring-Heeled Jack discuss some of the serial stories in which he appears (many of them called “Spring-Heeled Jack: The Terror of London”!) The first of these was published in 1863 (some 25 years after the original assaults) in 40 weekly instalments. This is, in my mind, probably the best of the stories. Jack is very much both the hero and anti-hero of the story: he acknowledges his past wrongdoings and recognises that he can atone for some of these. His true identity is never revealed, although there are suggestions that Jack is indeed the alter ego of the Marquis of Waterford (even though Beresford was dead by the time of publication.) However, in this text Jack is portrayed as a masked aristocratic vigilante. He becomes a defender of the vulnerable and the oppressed, and punisher of the corrupt and oppressive. That said, he is still happy to play tricks on the unsuspecting as he goes about his business. By the end of the story, the poor and virtuous characters have been elevated, and the malicious characters get their come-uppance. As Oscar Wilde later said: the Good end happily and the bad end unhappily. And the story is brought to a satisfactory conclusion. A link to the first volume can be found here.

The 1863 version of the story is exceptionally rare. In fact, the copy in the British Library in London is the reprint from 1867, and even that is missing a single issue. Part of the research for the Spring-Heeled Jack library was to locate the missing issues so that when the story was published it would be complete for the first time in around 150 years. A copy of the missing issue of this serial was eventually located in the library in the University of Los Angeles in California.

The second of the Spring-Heeled Jack serials was published in 1886 over 48 issues and runs to over 500,000 words (it is for this reason that it’s published over two volumes for the Spring-Heeled Jack Library). The copy in the British Library is so fragile that one needs special permission to view it, consequently, it’s very pleasing to be able to make it accessible to a general readership again.

Instead of being the principal character in the story, Jack is just a shadowy figure. Instead the focus is on Ralph Ashton a young man intent on proving his birth right and his claim to the Ashton Estates, which are currently being controlled by his distant relative, Sir Roland Ashton. Seeing his tenuous grip on his lands and title is slipping, Sir Roland goes to great lengths to blacken Ralph’s name with accusations of forgery and corruption; he also tries to fortify his own claim by marriage [to Ralph’s fiancée] and by murder. The plot then follows Ralph and two vulnerable women as they flee from Sir Roland’s web of corruption. Each time it is vain, Sir Roland eventually finds them, and it falls to the rest of the group, with the help of Spring-Heeled Jack, to liberate each other and ultimately to bring the corrupt to justice. Readers are likely to be put off by its length, the number of characters, and the frequency that the main characters get themselves into difficulties and fall into the clutches of Sir Roland and his henchmen. However, like the previous 1863 serial, it is a self-contained narrative and the mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack is sustained until the end (although both the clues and the red herrings as to Jack’s identity are scattered through the story). A link to the first book of the second story can be found here.

The final volume in the first part of this series is a collection of short fiction and articles that have were published between 1838—when the first investigations began—and 1897. These include newspaper articles, a morality tale and a retrospective overview from Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round which gives an insight into how Jack’s antics were perceived and described at the end of the nineteenth century. It also contains three “longer” pieces, one, which I have named the “Origin Story” —the account written in 1878 which first drew my attention to the Spring-Heeled Jack serial fiction. Originally published in The Boy’s Standard, this gives an account of how and why Jack first constructed his Spring boots—again this is to assert his claim on his birth right. There are two other pieces where Jack is a shadowy figure. In one story, he ultimately achieves justice for the protagonist, and in another, he is a sinister, terrifying and malign figure. One of these stories was published as a standalone publication in Beadle’s Dime Library in New York, and is novel-length in its own right (although considerably shorter than the serial stories). A link to the third volume will be added shortly.

There are still five volumes left to publish, one of them, originally published in 1904, is a another tale where Jack protects the heritage of a man, Bertram Wraydon, who has been defrauded of his ancestral home. Although the British Library collection is missing issue 4 from this series, it has been supplied by the Ohio State University Library in Columbus. Of the other serials, Spring-Heeled Jack is the nickname of a “witless lad” who uses a long pole to spring and cover great distances very quickly; in The Human Bat, Spring-heeled Jack is one of the monikers adopted by a criminal intent on proving the hypocrisy of British society; and the final serial The Winged Man is heavily influenced by The Human Bat, although the main character is only referred to as Spring-Heeled Jack on a couple of occasions. The first volume contains a couple of novellas from the early twentieth century where Spring-Heeled Jack is investigated by the famous detective Sexton Blake.

The mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack was never solved. After his first appearances were investigated in February and March 1838, he vanished from the public view in April 1838, although there were many copycat assaults and the activities of many criminals are compared to Jacks antics. Initially, his exploits were described as “pranks” but his deeds were violent assaults against women and he remained in the public consciousness through these serial stories and a number of plays that were performed featuring him. His name is no longer synonymous with the terror he spread around London, but nearly two centuries after his first appearance, he still appears in popular culture (including an enjoyable cyberpunk novel by Mark Hodder entitled The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack), a comic book series, and as the identity assumed by a serial killer in the BBC Crime Drama, Luther. Clearly there’s still a lot of interest in the Spring-Heeled Jack stories and it’s been a pleasure to see how the character has developed over the decades.


© 2020 Jon Mackley