This is the second post in a (currently) short-running series on weird things from history that I want to see in Fantasy/New Weird/Steam Punk stories. Get on that, ok?
Here’s the first: SPANKO!
And here’s the second: Spring-heeled Jack.
We are continuing the theme of weird assailants from London – Spring-heeled Jack sprung up during the Victorian era, rather than the Restoration, but he was much more elusive than the Whipping Toms. He was probably much more invented than those three men though…
Spring-heeled Jack. The terror not only of London, but of all Britain – spotted in Edinburgh, in Liverpool, and in the Midlands, this leaping demon began his rampage in October, 1837, by leaping on one Mary Stevens in Lavender Hill in Battersea, and, after trapping her in his powerful arms, began to kiss her face and stroke her with his claws, which were “as cold and clammy as those of a corpse.” On the very next day, also in Battersea, Spring-heeled Jack discovered his modus operandi – he leapt in front of a coach-horse, and startled its driver, who then lost control and crashed (he was severely injured, was the driver.) He escaped, by leaping (spring-heeled) over a 9ft high wall, giggling uncontrollably and muttering gibberish.
Although he was not, at that stage, known as ‘Spring-heeled Jack’ – that took until the next January, when Sir John Cowan, the Lord-Mayor of London, read a letter from “A Resident of Peckham” to a public meeting – Spring-heeled Jack then leapt into The Times (on the 22nd of February, 1838). Servant girl Jane Alsop answered a knock at her door on the 19th of February, only to be welcomed by a spectre who “vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth” before he “tore at her neck and arms with his claws.” Reports sprung up from all across London – in Kensington, Stockwell…more than thirty incidents were attributed to Spring-heeled Jack, who would leap prodigious heights to escape from his pursuers.
While some attributed his leaping ability to the fact that he was a demon, or some other, unidentified supernatural creature, the more sceptical ascribed it to the fact that he wore spring-heeled boots.
But although Jack did not strike again in London after the attacks of 1837 – 1838, it appears that his career began to spread across the country. In 1843 he was reported to have attacked people in East Anglia, and in Northamptonshire, and in July of 1847 he struck again in Devon. He escaped from an angry mob in Lincoln, and was spotted dancing on the roof of Saint Francis Xavier’s Church in Everton. The dawn of the 20th century saw the disappearance of Spring-heeled Jack from the United Kingdom, although his legend bears similarities to the adventures of Perak, the Spring Man of Prague, who haunted the city during the Second World War.
Now, excluding Penny Dreadfuls and late 19th century stage productions, Spring-heeled Jack has made a number of appearances in Fantasy and New Weird fiction – he’s taken into China Mieville’s Bas-Lag in the story Jack, from his collection Looking for Jake, as well as being the principal character of Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, in a Philip Pullman novel called Spring-heeled Jack, and in a novellete by one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Bear, entitled The Tricks of London.
Cordingly, D., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
This letter, in Notes and Queries, from 1893