Exploring the vast urban legend surrounding this enigmatic figure, John Matthews explains how the Victorian fascination with strange phenomena and sinister figures paired with hysterical reports enabled Spring-Heeled Jack to be conjured into existence. Sharing original 19th-century newspaper accounts of Spring-Heeled Jack sightings and encounters, he also examines recent 20th and 21st-century reports, including a 1953 UFO-related sighting from Houston, Texas, and disturbing accounts of the Slender Man, who displays notable similarities with Jack. He traces Spring-Heeled Jack’s origins to earlier mythical beings from folklore, such as fairy creatures and land spirits, and explores the theory that Jack is an alien marooned on Earth whose leaping prowess is attributed to his home planet having far stronger gravity than ours.
On October 4, 1888, police investigating the notorious “Ripper” murders in London received a letter. It was one of several purporting to be from the killer, but this one was different. It was signed “Spring-Heeled Jack--The Whitechapel Murderer.”
Despite the fact that Jack the Ripper was active several years after the story we are about to tell, and that Jack the Ripper was a merciless and horrific killer while Spring-Heeled Jack did very little serious harm to anyone, the association would not have been lost on Inspector Frederic Abbeline, the lead detective in the Ripper case.
The exploits of the character known as Spring-Heeled Jack, for the most part, took place over a period of a hundred years. They were far from forgotten in the time of the Ripper murders, and assuming the letter was not a forgery (which most researchers think unlikely), it is significant that the homicidal killer of prostitutes should choose to identify himself with the older, well-established figure of Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack made his first appearance in January 1838, and the last reported sighting--excluding for the moment, modern appearances--was in 1904. He literally leapt to public attention, springing over hedges and walls, from dark lanes and dank graveyards, to frighten and sometimes physically attack women. He showed up first in the twilight world of Victorian London, only gradually moving further out to towns such as Bradford and Sheffield. He moved through a world, which, though well connected by roads and canals, was not yet fully served by the new railways, a world where the night was un-illumined by gas or electricity, and where messages took time to get from place to place.
The reports of the mysterious leaping man in both national and local newspapers fueled a hysterical response and lead to copy-cat attacks, ghostly tales, and extraordinary claims to his real identity ramping up the paranoia and boosting Jack’s appearance from a white bear to a fire-breathing man.
Despite a catalogue of appearances in graphic novels, audio plays, TV, and film--attracting writers as different as Philip Pullman, Mark Hodder, and Stephen King--Spring-Heeled Jack remains one of the characters from the archives of the strange and unexplained about whom almost nothing is known.
Spring-Heeled Jack was described by people who claimed to have seen him as having a terrifying appearance with bat-like wings, clawed hands, and eyes that resembled wheels of fire. Other reports claimed that beneath his black cloak he wore a huge helmet and a tight-fitting white garment apparently made of oilskin. Others said he was tall and thin with the appearance of a gentleman. Several reports mentioned that he could breathe blue flames.
In more recent times various researchers have attempted to suggest who he might really have been, including an alien visitor from another planet. But none of these theories hold up to close scrutiny. Instead, we should look for the origins of Spring-Heeled Jack among much earlier mythical figures conjured into being through hysterical newspaper reports and the Victorian obsession with strange phenomena and sinister figures.
A vast urban legend built itself around Spring-Heeled Jack--influencing and influenced by many aspects of Victorian life for decades--especially in London. His name became equated with the bogeyman as a means of scaring children into behaving. Surprisingly, in our own times, new sightings have been reported, while the recent disturbing stories of the Slender Man can be seen to display notable similarities with those of the older Jack. It is these parallels, as well as the original reports, that tell us the real story of Spring-Heeled Jack. I have sought to retell it, as far as possible, in the words of the original newspaper reports.
The Birth of a Legend
The story begins, quietly enough, on January 9, 1838. Several column inches of the London Times newspaper contained a report, along with a letter, concerning some strange events that had apparently taken place in Peckham, a quiet suburb of the metropolis.
T U E S D A Y , J A N U A R Y 9 , 1 8 3 8
TO THE RIGHT HON. THE LORD MAYOR
The writer presumes that your Lordship will kindly overlook the liberty taken in addressing a subject which within the last few weeks has caused much alarming sensation in the neighboring villages of London. It appears that some individuals have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion (name as yet unknown), that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three disguises--a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and, moreover, that he will not dare to enter gentlemen’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has however been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving sevenladies of their senses. At one house he rung the bell, and on the servant coming to open the door, this worse than brute stood in a no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that, the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses, but, on seeing any man, screams out most violently: “Take him away!” There are two ladies who have husbands and children, and who are not expected to recover, but likely to become a burden on their families.
This affair has now been going on for some time, and strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. It is high time that such a detestable nuisance should be put a stop to and the writer feels sure that your Lordship, as the chief magistrate of London, will take great pleasure in exerting your power to bring the villain to justice.
Hoping you’re Lordship will pardon the liberty I had taken in writing,
John Matthews has authored over 60 books, including The Grail: Quest for Eternal Life and The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom. A foremost expert in the Arthurian legends and esoteric wisdom of the Celtic traditions, he teaches and lectures around the world. He resides with his wife, Caitlin, in Oxford, England.
“Probably no one in the world but John Matthews could have written this book. His scholarship is, as always, of the highest order yet joined to a deep love of stories. His unwillingness to make artificial separations between traditional folklore and popular culture allows Spring-Heeled Jack to come vigorously to life.”
– Rachel Pollack, author of The Child Eater
“John Matthews intrigues, disturbs, and delights us with his detailed account of the legendary Spring-Heeled Jack who, whether real or not, terrified victims amid the shadows of Victorian London and beyond. Leaping into the fears of the unwary, such figures persist in the modern imagination, and Matthews gives us much to chew on with regard to our fascination with untamed, semi-animal, evil in superhuman guise. Victorian supernaturalism, ghost stories, Jack the Ripper, the Green Man, demonic lore, and much else illuminate the shifting image of ‘Jack’ in Matthews’s crepuscular romp through the ginnels and repressions of fervid times, where unearthly clawing and ripping threatens to confront us with the archetypal fiend.”
– Tobias Churton, author of Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin
“Thoroughly researched, John Matthews’s writing is effortlessly accessible for both newcomers and those familiar with London’s original bogeyman. This book could and should become one of the definitive texts about Spring-Heeled Jack in the years to come.”
– Jack Bowman, cowriter of The Springheel Saga audio dramas
“For a fascinating guide to the history and mystery of England’s most famous phantom attacker, look no further than John Matthews’s remarkable book.”
– Robert Valentine, cowriter of The Springheel Saga audio dramas
“This detailed and comprehensive account of--and inquiry into--the unsolved mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack is scholarly, highly entertaining, and deeply impressive. It’s easily the best study available.”
– Mark Hodder, author of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
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