Part 3. - The fakelore of Spring-heeled Jack
Part 1. - The legend of Spring-heeled Jack
Part 2. - Antecedents, parallels and successors
Part 3. - The fakelore of Spring-heeled Jack
Part 4. - Parallel cases in the Fortean and ufological literature
The fakelore of Spring-heeled Jack
Having shown that Spring-heeled Jack may be viewed in a broader context than hitherto, it is necessary to pause briefly to dispose of a number of undocumented episodes, which have attached themselves to his legend.
Proceeding chronologically, the first significant problem we encounter is an alleged assault on the serving girl Polly Adams in the autumn of 1837. So far as I can tell, this incident was first mentioned by Peter Haining, the author of the only full-length work on Spring-heeled Jack. It forms an important part of his story and indeed Haining opens his book with it, devoting the first eight and a half pages to an obviously heavily fictionalised description of attractive Polly (‘a pretty, dark-haired girl endowed with a good figure and a twinkle in her hazel eyes’1) and her awful experience on 11 October, the evening of Blackheath Fair. The main significance of the account, besides the suggestion that Jack was employing what was to become his established modus operandi (complete with fire-breathing and tremendous leaps), at a date when contemporary sources have him still switching between the guises of ghost, bear and devil, is Haining’s categorical assertion that Polly was able to identify her assailant as a pop-eyed, laughing nobleman who had propositioned her earlier in the day:
‘The figure, appearing gigantic in the shadows, bounded towards her on legs that covered such distances with each stride that they scarcely seemed human. Behind it swirled a cloak, which billowed and flapped noisily. But above this cloak, it was the face which caught and held Polly’s attention: a face that glowed like coals and a mouth which spat flashes of blue fire: a face from the very depths of hell... A laugh rang out from the creature. A peculiar, ringing laughter, a laugh which, as she was to recall later, she had heard before that evening. The eyes flashed again and she saw they were distended from their sockets, protruding to such a degrees that she could see the white of the iris around the dark, menacing spots of the pupils. These eyes, too, she had seen not so long ago...’
With this account, Haining begins to set up the theory – first suggested by late nineteenth century sources – that Spring-heeled Jack was Henry, Marquis of Waterford, who as he adequately demonstrates, was one of the principal ‘bloods’ of the late Regency and early Victorian period, a noted sportsman, boxer, equestrian and practical joker. Unfortunately, Haining gives no source for his account of Adams’s experience and it is nowhere mentioned in any contemporary source I have been able to discover in several weeks spent poring over the close-printed columns of every available newspaper for the period. If a source does exist2, it is hard to believe it can be as detailed as Haining’s own account. For this reason it seems prudent to dismiss the Adams case from consideration3.
The filigree ‘W’
A second but equally dubious detail that Haining believes lends credence to the identification of Waterford with Spring-heeled Jack appears in a brief discussion of Jack’s appearance at 2 Turner Street on 25 February 1838. According to this account4,
‘it was the first time he had presented what looked like a real clue to his identity. For under cross-examination the following day, the servant boy swore that on the folds of the man’s cloak, just above the corner which he clutched to his face with his claw-like hand, he had seen an ornate crest of some kind – and below it, in gold filigree, the initial ‘W’5.’
Once again, no source is given for this assertion, and despite a careful search of every London newspaper published between 1 January and 30 April 1838, I found only one 80-word mention of the Turner Street incident6. This makes no mention of a cloak, much less of any filigree lettering, and so once again it seems sensible to set Haining’s assertion to one side to await possible verification at a later date.
The murder of Maria Davis
The last dramatic addition Haining makes to the legend of Spring-heeled Jack is his account of the murder of the prostitute Maria Davis on Jacob’s Island on 12 November 1845. This too does not seem to rate a mention in any earlier sources, nor in the contemporary papers, and I can find no mention of a Maria Davis in the available coroners’ records for the relevant period. While it is true that the death of one young girl in such a fabled den of iniquity would probably not be considered worthy of newspaper coverage, there is another reason for once again doubting Haining’s account. This is the contemporary woodcut showing two men negotiating a ditch on the island in a punt. One of the men bends over an object in the water; the illustration is captioned: ‘Recovering the body of the prostitute Maria Davis from Folly Ditch’7. No source is given for the illustration in Haining’s book, but it was republished in an article on Spring-heeled Jack that appeared in the partwork The Unexplained in 19818. Here the illustration was credited to what is now the Hulton Getty Picture Collection. A librarian at the Collection was kind enough to track down the woodcut for me and confirmed it has nothing to do with the murder of Maria Davis. The caption stuck to the back of the Hulton Getty’s print does state that it shows Folly Ditch, but adds simply: ‘This was an open sewer (once a stream) and only source of free water for drinking and all other purposes in the area’9. Close inspection of a larger version of the print sent to me by the Collection suggests that the crouching figure in the punt is gathering water in some sort of pan and not hauling the body of a murdered prostitute from the mud, as Haining suggests.
Stripped of the back-up of an authenticated contemporary illustration, the alleged murder of Maria Davis must also be set to one side, to await possible reinvestigation by someone with a substantial amount of free time to spend among the coroner’s records and in Somerset House.
Private Regan and Spring-heeled Jack
Peter Haining is not the only author to publish unreferenced and uncheckable statements about Spring-heeled Jack. In an article which appeared in Everybody’s Magazine10, the writer and radio personality Valentine Dyall11 introduces the name of John Regan as one of the sentries terrified by Jack during his visits to Aldershot.
Dyall, who incorrectly dates Jack’s appearances to the summer of 1877, gives the following lurid version of events:
‘a tall, thin figure in a tight-fitting suit and huge, gleaming helmet of fantastic design... lunged forward, rising from the ground with the ease of a bird. As it swooped over Regan’s head a stream of thin blue flame spurted from its mouth...’
It need only be said that none of these details appear in any older sources, and that the names of all the regiments stationed at Aldershot in the relevant months are available for anyone with the necessary energy to check the muster rolls for a Private Regan. I have not been able to spare the time.
An alien menace
One mystery for which neither Haining nor Dyall bear responsibility is the problem of how contemporary accounts which portrayed Spring-heeled Jack as a pretend ghost, a bogeyman or a Robin Hood – but always as a human being – mutated into the specifically inhuman figure, either a demon or a UFO occupant, of the secondary ufological Fortean literature.
The following description, taken from Jerome Clark’s valuable UFO Encyclopedia12, may be taken as representative of the informed modern portrait of Jack:
‘According to his victims Jack was, if human, a decidedly odd-looking member of the race. He was tall and thin, with a prominent nose and eyes that were – almost literally – fiery. His fingers felt almost like claws, and he had enormous strength. His ears were pointed. He wore a flowing cloak, a helmet that appeared to me made of metal, and close-fitting, glittering garments. A lamp was strapped to his chest.’
This Spring-heeled Jack might not have been recognisable to Jack’s Victorian contemporaries, to the reasonably well-read generalist of the turn of the century13 or even to the reader of Elliott O’Donnell’s first ‘modern’ accounts of the mystery, published in 1932 and 194814. We know from contemporary sources that Jack was indeed tall and thin, had claw-like fingers and wore a cloak, and also that – at least when he ‘cheated’ by holding a light under his chin – his eyes appeared ‘like balls of fire’15. We also know that he wore some sort of headgear, though the Scales sisters described it as a ‘bonnet’ rather than a helmet16. But the other details – the prominent nose and eyes, cropped ears, glittering garments and lamp – do not feature in the contemporary reports.
Most of these anomalous descriptions appear to have been introduced to the literature in Vyner’s 1961 article for Flying Saucer Review17. This highly influential contribution was written in response to an earlier editorial request for evidence of alien visitors to earth prior to the beginning of the UFO age in 194718, and its general thrust was to portray Jack as an alien stranded on earth by some accident involving his spacecraft. The various ‘assaults’ which occurred in London in 1837-38, Vyner suggested, arose from Jack’s attempts to find a ‘safe house’ and an ‘agent’ who could put him ‘on the path home’.
It is not entirely surprising, then, that Vyner’s description of Spring-heeled Jack was suitably alien, providing the basis for Clark’s later summary of the case:
‘The intruder was tall, thin and powerful. He had a prominent nose, and bony fingers of immense power that resembled claws. He was incredibly agile. He wore a long, flowing cloak, of the sort affected by opera goers, soldiers and strolling actors. On his head was a tall, metallic-seeming helmet. Beneath the cloak were closefitting garments of some glittering material like oilskin or metal mesh. There was a lamp strapped to his chest. Oddest of all: the creature’s ears were cropped or pointed like those of an animal.’
Writing of the Alsop assault, Vyner adds:
‘Jack... cast aside his cloak to reveal close-fitting, shining garments and a flashing lamp at his breast. His eyes resembled red balls of fire!’
In the absence of any source referencing in the article, and of contemporary evidence to back up any of Vyner’s claims, the notion of an alien Spring-heeled Jack at the very least requires further confirmation. Is there anything undeniably supernatural or alien in Jack’s bizarre actions and behaviour?
Anomalies associated with Spring-heeled Jack
The conventional identification of Jack as an alien or supernatural being depends – or at least ought to depend – on the presumption that the remarkable abilities his contemporaries credited him with were accurately reported and could not, either singly or together, have been duplicated – even by a gang of rich noblemen. If it can be shown that our descriptions of Jack are inaccurate or exaggerated, or that his feats could have been matched by contemporary criminals, then the initial presumption should be that Spring-heeled Jack was a human being and not a ghost, a demon or a UFO occupant.
Five separate anomalies are associated with Jack in the majority of the secondary sources.
|Authority||Leaps||Fiery breath||Gas gun||Talons||Impervious to bullets|
|Reader’s Digest (1975)||
* Haining refers to this feature only in quoting sceptically direct from Vyner
Spring-heeled Jack took his name, and gained his renown, from the great agility and preternatural leaping ability he is supposed to have exhibited from his very first appearances to the moment he vanished from the face of the earth. Indeed, inhuman leaps are the only feat consistently attributed to him in his various ‘incarnations’. They were reported in London in 1837-819, from Peckham in 187220, from Aldershot in 187721, and again when Jack appeared in Liverpool in 190422.
One not untypical account appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph23 during the 1873 flap in that city:
‘[The ‘Ghost’] was described as tall, gaunt and of unearthly aspect... ‘skimming’ over the ground with supernatural swiftness, and as making bounds into the air compared with which the ‘forty feet and three’ of the goblin page of Lord Cranstoun was a mere skip.... One veracious eye witness affirmed that he had seen the apparition clear a wall at a bound, said wall on subsequent measurement proving to be 14ft 3in in height.’
The legend of Spring-heeled Jack is generally rather more vague as to the precise heights and distances that were covered, but leaves no doubt they appeared to be considerably beyond a normal man. Peter Haining has Jack ravishing a victim before ‘speeding away with huge, bounding leaps into the night’24, attacking another after leaping over a stile ‘with a single bound’25 and, most incredibly, springing a good 25 feet from street level onto a rooftop, and from that roof over another street onto the eves of a house opposite26. According to Elliott O’Donnell, Jack could jump over high hedges, walls and haystacks . The ufologist J. Vyner has him soaring over the heads of the sentries at Aldershot barracks and landing noiselessly beside them27.
There is, however, no evidence of Jack’s leaping prowess in the few first-hand reports that have survived. In the Alsop case, the family gathered at an upper window to watch Jane’s assailant escape by ‘scampering across the fields’28, while in Green-dragon-alley, Jack concluded his attack on Lucy Scales by ‘walking away’29. In the autumn of 1837 he was supposedly seen climbing, rather than leaping, the walls of Kensington Palace30.
The author Elizabeth Villiers, who wrote a short chapter about Jack in Stand & Deliver31, a book about highwaymen, stated that she had interviewed a female eyewitness who might have become a victim of Jack’s one night on Tooting Bec Common had she not been protected by an escort of gypsies. Villiers tells her story thus:
‘The lady saw him clearly in spite of the mist, as he went across the open common, jumping over good-sized furze bushes and clumps of grass with no apparent effort, though she came to the conclusion that any greater leap would have been impossible32. He was doing far more than an ordinary man could have accomplished without mechanical aid, but nothing resembling the exploits with which he had been credited by rumour.
‘Had a good horse been near, he could have been overtaken, but as it was he escaped, the mist and gathering night helping him.’
Roman Golicz, meanwhile, in a generally original and well-researched booklet on Jack’s appearances at Aldershot, asserts that the agile criminal jumped the Basingstoke canal ‘on at least four occasions’ in 1877, a remarkable achievement – given that the canal ‘is over 15 paces wide’ – if supported by eyewitness evidence33. Careful reading of the contemporary sources, however, shows that the first reference to this alleged feat did not appear until 1907, some 30 years after the event34, and though Jack certainly did appear on both sides of the canal in 1877, no eye-witness saw him cross it. Maps show that the three-mile stretch that passed through the camp was spanned by at least four bridges at this time, and newspaper accounts dating to the time of the flap simply credit Jack with unusual speed and agility – ‘dodging about in a fantastic fashion’, according to an Aldershot source35, making off ‘with astonishing bounds’ according to The Times36, and ‘hopping and bounding in to the mist’, in the words of the Illustrated Police News37 – without making any claims for specific feats.
There is one modern (1986) eyewitness account which credits Spring-heeled Jack with more, but it is suspect38. Otherwise it is only when we move to second-hand accounts that Jack’s leaps become more impressive; when the reports are third or fourth hand, they become truly spectacular. This pattern is precisely what one would expect were Jack an unusually agile man whose reputation depended largely on terror and the fearful imaginations of his victims.
Nevertheless, if we assume that Spring-heeled Jack’s ability to make inhuman leaps has been greatly exaggerated we are still left with two puzzles: how did he get his name, and did he really wear spring-heeled boots, as his contemporaries seen to have believed?
From the few remaining sources available to us, it appears that the name ‘Spring Jack’ was in use by January 183839, and the full ‘Spring-heeled Jack’40 by the end of February at the very latest. By then it was in sufficiently general use for Jack himself to be aware of it41. All of this suggests the notion of great agility must have been attached to him in the earliest days of his career, even though the descriptions we have of his rumoured appearances as, variously, ghost, bear and devil neither reflect it nor refer to it.
One guess might be to suppose that Spring-heeled Jack’s name and abilities may have been suggested by the well-known fairy tale of the man with the seven-league boots, but there is no evidence to support this contention, and the mystery of how he got his name remains unsolved.
The idea that Jack wore spring-heeled boots is also an ancient one. The Morning Chronicle of 10 January 1838 attributes him with ‘spring shoes’42, the Camberwell & Peckham Times of 9 November 1872 with ‘spring-heeled or india-rubber sole boots’43, and the Illustrated Police News of 3 November 1877 with ‘springs to his boots’44. Harleigh Severne, whose children’s book Chums was allegedly based partly on the author’s own encounter with an imitator of Jack’s in Worcester in 1845, has his villain don spring-heeled leather knee boots which made him capable of leaping over donkeys45. There is also an unconfirmed report that a costume comprising a red, shaggy hide and a pair of jackboots fitted with springs in the heels was found in west Norfolk some time during the nineteenth century46.
Yet there is some reason to doubt that the idea of spring-heeled boots is a practicable one. Vyner states, on no known authority, that in 1938 the German army experimented with the idea during the Second World War, supplying its paratroops with such footwear. The result was an alleged 85% incidence of broken ankles47. Even setting this dubious – but not entirely incredible – statistic aside, it seem clear both that the iron springs Jack was said to use could not reasonably have been expected to propel him over high walls, let alone houses, and that there would have been considerable problems of control (Elizabeth Villiers concedes as much in the passage quoted above). Moreover, spring-heeled shoes or boots would have been of little use on anything other than smooth, firm ground, yet the majority of Jack’s recorded appearances occurred in rough terrain: country lanes in early Victorian London, wasteground at Aldershot, fields in Peckham, park-land in Sheffield. Any attempt to use springs in such locations would surely have caused problems of such a magnitude that the whole idea would have been swiftly abandoned by any reasonable perpetrator. In summary, I would concede that, should any credible first-hand accounts emerge of Jack making spectacular leaps, the reports might well prove hard to explain.
Perhaps the most terrifying of Jack’s strange talents was his ability to breath fire into the faces of his victims. Yet contrary to the impression given by several secondary authorities, there are only three direct references to Jack’s fire-breathing, and all come from 1838.
On 20 February 1838, Spring-heeled Jack called on the Alsop family in Bearbinder Lane and assaulted Jane Alsop, who later told the magistrate at Lambeth-street police office that she had brought out a candle at the request of the supposed policeman and
‘the instant she had done so... he threw off his outer garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth.’
A few days later, during the assault in Green-dragon-alley, Jack stood waiting for Lucy Scales and ‘spurted a quantity of blue flame right in her face.’ Another witness, Scales’s sister, added a little more detail, telling the Lambeth-street magistrate:
‘On her sister, who was a little before her, coming up to the person, he threw open his cloak, exhibited [a] lamp, and puffed a quantity of flame from his mouth into the face of her sister.’
While there is one earlier, second-hand report suggesting that Jack was indulging in fire-breathing – involving the appearance, at Dulwich, of a figure ‘enveloped in a white sheet and blue fire’50 and two further mentions of similar behaviour in the vicinity of Old Ford51, and the idea of a fiery ghost proved so exciting that one imitator made a specific attempt to mimic the effect by employing a mask with blue glazed paper stuck to the mouth52, there is no contemporary evidence that Jack breathed flames again after February 1838. Haining has him doing so in the Home Counties around 184353 and Vyner suggests he did so at Aldershot54, but neither on any discernable authority.
It must also be admitted that while both Jane Alsop nor Lucy Scales were plainly terrified by the flames, neither appears to have been injured by them. There is no mention of burns in the surgeon’s report on Scales, nor in Alsop’s testimony; nor does the court-reporter comment on them. On the contrary, one witness, Richardson, specifically stated that Jane Alsop’s account of the assault on the night it occurred did not ‘impress him with the idea that it had been so furious as he subsequently saw it described in the newspapers’55. Indeed Richardson and his fellow witness, Smith, who testified that they were within a few yards of Bearbinder Cottage when the attack took place, were both certain that there had been no balls of fire:
‘Mr Harwick (to Richardson) – You have stated that you distinctly saw a lighted candle brought from the home of Mr. Alsop immediately after you heard the violent ringing at the bell and before you heard the screams of the female.
‘ Richardson – I did, Sir.
‘Mr Hardwick – Now, from the position you were in at the time, can you take it on you to say that if a greater light than that produced by a candle had been exhibited in the garden of Mr. Alsop you must have seen it?
‘ Richardson – I certainly must.
‘Mr Harwick (to Smith) – And are you of the same opinion?
‘Smith – I am sir; I saw no light but that of a candle.’
This exchange caused the Lambeth-street magistrates some problems. They were plainly unwilling to doubt Jane Alsop, who had struck them as a believable witness and one who had evidently been traumatised by what had occurred; on the other hand, Richardson and Smith were quite adamant that she must have been mistaken. Hardwick continued to grapple with the problem to the end, eventually inclining himself to believe Jane’s testimony. As the court report went on57:
‘Mr Hardwick admitted that there might be a little exaggeration, but it was quite impossible he could get rid of the solemn and repeated assertions of these respectable individuals on oath, and that, too, without any earthly assignable motive, and assume at such a conclusion as that expressed. He felt bound to give credence to the testimony of the Misses Alsop, as the violence of which they complained would be in itself sufficiently alarming when committed by a ruffian without the addition of artificial lights. But, besides, there were other circumstances which went in corroboration of their statement. It would be recollected that a very intelligent girl, and in whose probity her mother and mistress had placed the utmost reliance, had on the last examination given an accurate and detailed description of a person dressed in pantomimic costume, that she had seen not very far from this neighbourhood and who appeared to vomit forth similar lights to those spoken of58. There was another female, he understood, who had witnessed something similar, but who was not now present, close to the residence of Mr Alsop. So that the case of the Misses Alsop was not a solitary instance of such practices.’
Presuming that the flames did exist, what might they have been? If Jane’s blue-and-white balls of fire and Lucy Scales’s blue sheet of flame were essentially the same thing, the obvious solution is that Jack was using an alcohol-based liquid to effect his fire-breathing. This was a possibility which did not escape contemporary investigators, who directed some questions to various members of the theatrical profession. Mr Farrell, the proprietor of the Pavilion Theatre, was called as a witness at Lambeth-street and explained ‘that the dropping of certain strong acids on a sponge charged with spirits of wine would produce such appearances as those described, and that the colour of the flame emitted would depend on the peculiar quality or description of acid.’ Officer Lea of the Lambeth-street office reached a similar conclusion, having watched staff at the London Hospital produce an effect similar to Jack’s ‘by blowing through a tube in which spirits of wine, sulphur, and another ingredient were deposited and ignited.’59
This is an important point only insofar as there has been a general presumption in many secondary sources that there was something definitely supernatural about Jack’s fiery breath. In his recently-published The Unexplained, Karl Shuker concludes60:
‘Comparing his flame-spitting talent with that of fire-eaters is futile too, because fire-eaters cannot generate fire inside their mouths in the way that Jack did.’
The truth is that the fairly precise descriptions we have of Spring-heeled Jack’s actions in Bearbinder Land and Green-dragon-alley form some of the best evidence we have that he was definitely human. In particular, it is at once apparent that, far from being some sort of demon, Jack needed a naked flame to effect his trick. In the Alsop case he specifically requested a candle, postponing his attack and increasing the risk of detection by doing so; when one was brought, he held it at chest level and then began to breathe his blue-and-white flames. Similarly in Green-dragon-alley he lifted a lantern to the same height just before attacking Lucy Scales61. This behaviour is highly reminiscent of that of a carnival fire breather.
There are two problems with the assumption that Spring-heeled Jack’s ability to vomit flame was no more than a circus trick. The first is that one would assume the lantern used in Green-dragon-alley would have been enclosed, to prevent the flame blowing out, yet there is no suggestion in the account of either witness that Jack paused to open the lantern and expose the flame before shooting his blue fire into Lucy’s eyes. The second is the danger of breathing fire in an uncontrolled exterior environment.
Carnival people call Jack’s fire breathing trick the ‘human volcano’ or ‘fountain of fire’. It involves spitting a jet of inflammable liquid into a blazing torch, and since it is probably the most dangerous part of a fire-eater’s repertoire, and is normally performed either indoors or in a dead calm. The consequences of getting it wrong can be very serious, as Dan Mannix, himself a former professional, notes in the opening pages of his autobiographical Memoirs of a Sword-Swallower62:
‘I probably never would have become America’s leading fire-eater if Flamo the Great hadn’t happened to explode that night in front of Krinko’s Great Combined Carnival Side Shows... Taking care to hold [his] lighted torch well away from his body, he filled a drinking glass half full of petrol from a scarlet tin marked DANGEROUS... I’d seen fire-eaters work before, so I guessed that Flamo was going to do the Fountain of Fire. I’d never seen a fire-eater do the stunt except in a dead calm. He took a mouthful of petrol and stood waiting for the wind to die down. Suddenly a little trickle of petrol leaked from the corner of his mouth and ran down his chin. Instantly a tiny flash of fire from the torch leaped towards it, running through the air like an invisible fuse as it ignited the petrol vapour. The tiny trickle blazed up and his whole mouthful of petrol exploded. I was blinded for a second by the flash. The fire-eater’s whole face was burning and he threw himself off the platform and rolled on the ground...’
William Lindsay Gresham makes a similar point in Monster Midway, his history of carnival life63:
‘The great enemy of the fire-eater is wind. A sudden backdraft... or a shift of the wind... can send the flames of the torch right across his face.’
From such accounts, it would appear that Spring-heeled Jack would have been taking a considerable risk in ‘performing’ the Fountain of Fire outdoors, even though the evening of 20 February appears to have been a very calm one64.
Perhaps that ever-present danger explains why Jack never subsequently exhibited his fire-breathing elsewhere. At the very least, it certainly suggests that the Spring-heeled Jack of 1838 was not the Spring-heeled Jack of 1877 or 1904, a finding that reinforces the conclusion that Jack was a human prankster-criminal rather than an alien super-being.
There is another way of interpreting Spring-heeled Jack’s fire-breathing, which was first suggested in Vyner’s 1961 article. It has been repeated several times in other UFO and Fortean books, and seems to support the theory that Jack was an extra-terrestrial.
The relevant passages of Vyner’s article concern the Alsop and Scales assaults and read as follows65:
‘Springheel Jack... cast aside his cloak to reveal close-fitting, shining garments and a flashing lamp at his breast... Jack at once spurted balls of fire into the girl’s face and fled.’
‘[Lucy Scales’s] sister came up in time to see his long cloak flung aside and a lantern flashing on the startled girl. There was no time to scream; Jack’s weird blue flame spurted into his victim’s face.’
Vyner offers a novel interpretation of these incidents:
‘Is the blue fire a stupefying gas? Or is it the visible product of a magnetic effect transmitted along a beam of polarised light from Jack’s mysterious lantern? Intense magnetic fields produce effects comparable to those experienced by Jack’s victims – and by those who have ventured too near grounded saucers.’
He concludes: ‘If he were an impostor, then he was at least a super-impostor, who carried a super-weapon – a raygun.’
The suggestion that some sort of alien technology was involved was made more specifically by Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman in a 1972 issue of Fate: Jack, they wrote, ‘knocked his victims unconscious with a burst of ‘blue fire’, which he shot from a strange gun’66. Yet there is absolutely nothing in the contemporary sources to support the idea that Jack wore a lamp strapped to his chest, much less that the fire he spat came from anywhere but his mouth. The suggestion that he was equipped with some sort of gas-gun is based entirely on Vyner’s misreading of his scant sources, which has been repeated by other authors ever since without being checked against contemporary material.
There seems, on the other hand, to be no reason to disbelieve reports that Spring-heeled Jack was equipped with talons or claws, rather than fingers, which he used to tear at his victims’ clothes and hair.
The suggestion was first made our the very earliest known source, The Times of 9 January 1838, which notes: ‘Servant girls about Kensington, and Hammersmith, and Ealing, told dreadful stories of a ghost, or devil, who, on one occasion, was said to have beaten a blacksmith, and torn his flesh with iron claws, and in others to tear clothes from the backs of females.’67The Morning Herald observed the next day that Jack wore ‘large claw gloves’ to effect his crimes68, and Jane Alsop, who had a first-hand experience of just such an attack, told the magistrate at Lambeth-street police office that ‘without uttering a sentence, he darted at her, and catching her partly by her dress and the back part of her neck, commenced tearing her gown with his claws, which she was certain were of some metallic substance.’69
Jack’s claws do not appear to have been unsheathed again, although at Aldershot he is said to have ‘slapped’ a soldier ‘several times in the face’70 and (less reliably, by the Illustrated Police News) ‘passed his hand (which is arranged to feel as cold and clammy as that of a corpse) over the face of the sentinel.’71 It might be thought that both these actions would have been difficult to execute with a taloned hand without leaving scratches on the victim, and that these might have been mentioned in a press report.
In fact, there is nothing in the evidence to suggest that Spring-heeled Jack’s claws or talons were anything other than specially adapted gloves, as was suggested in the press in 1838. There is certainly no need to see anything supernatural or alien in them, though it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that they were designed to complement Jack’s demonic appearance, as well as being dangerous and effective weapons. Finally, the fact that Jack seems to have worn claws only in 1838 is further evidence that the original Spring-heeled Jack was not the same person (or being) as the Jack who bounded through the rest of the Victorian period – and that the original was considerably more sophisticated and better equipped than his successors.
The bullet-proof bogey
The secondary authorities tend to make much of the assumption that Spring-heeled Jack was supernaturally impervious to bullets. During the Aldershot scare, according to Jerome Clark, ‘one guard fired on Jack but – so he claimed in subsequent testimony – the bullet went through him without effect’72. Peter Haining, from whom Clark seems to have drawn his details, adds that two soldiers ‘took aim at him but when their bullets seemed not to have the slightest effect, they turned on their heels and fled’73.
In fact, as the original sources make clear, Jack’s invulnerability to bullets probably owed more to a combination of poor shooting and blank rounds. Nowhere in the available contemporary material is there any suggestion that bullets passed straight through the leaping terror.
‘[A] soldier, in his excitement, loaded his rifle and fired, but missed his aim. From here the ghost went towards the military cemetery and in a similar manner attempted to frighten a private in the 100th Regiment, who was on guard by a powder magazine; and was again fired at, but without being hit.’
Some time later, Jack appears to have escaped injury at Aldershot when a sentry fired a blank warning shot at him76.
At Newport Arch, if the Illustrated Police News is to be believed, two more shots either missed or failed to penetrate the animal hide Jack wore77. But the most interesting comment on Jack’s supposed invulnerability to bullets appears in the Police News’s coverage of the Aldershot scare78:
‘The sentries had lately been ordered to fire on the ghost, and were loaded with ball, but this precaution had lately been given up [and] ‘Jack’ pursued his old tactics on Friday last...’
If correctly reported, this suggests not only that the reason why Jack waited from April until August to renew his activities around the barracks may have been an actual fear of being shot, but also that he was in a position to know when the order to load with live ammunition had been rescinded. The implication is that the Aldershot Spring-heeled Jack was – as many contemporaries supposed – himself a member of the garrison.
1 Haining op.cit. pp.1-9, 53-73.
2 Haining himself is unable to resolve the problem. Responding to a letter asking if he could identify his sources, he wrote: ‘I am afraid that all my research material for the book was (ill-advisedly as it has transpired) loaned to a scriptwriter who was planning a film around the character. This was some years ago and all my efforts to trace him subsequently have proved as elusive [sic] as the subject of the story himself!’ Peter Haining, personal communication 8 Aug 1996, author’s files.
3 Haining enlivens and embroiders other accounts with circumstantial detail that was nowhere reported at the time and which he cannot possibly know is accurate. Writing of Spring-heeled Jack’s attack on Lucy Scales he suggests that ‘Lucy had walked purposefully up the street with Margaret skipping behind playing hopscotch... [she] brushed some strands of her long blonde hair out of her eyes and took a few steps forward...’ [Haining pp.47-8], where Scales’s own account to the Lambeth-street magistrates is less elaborate: ‘She and her sister were returning from the house of their brother , and while passing along Green Dragon-alley, they observed some person standing at an angle in the passage. She was in advance of her sister at the time...’ [The Morning Post 7 Mar 1838]. There is no assertion of purposefulness, no mention of hopscotch, and we are given no idea of the colour of Lucy’s hair. There are dozens of other instances of embroidery in the book, none of which would much matter – we can allow for Haining’s need to be a storyteller, after all – were it not for the fact that the author laces his embroidery with outright invention which is nowhere admitted to, and which has passed into the Fortean literature without being questioned. We are never told the name of Lucy’s sister, to give one example – but in Haining’s hands she becomes ‘Margaret Scales’.
4 Ibid. p.52.
5 Italics in the original.
6The Morning Herald 27 Feb 1838. I am unable to offer any explanation as to how the Turner Street report ever found its way into the secondary literature. Leaving aside the original source itself, the earliest reference I have discovered to the incident is Vyner’s 1961 contribution to Flying Saucer Review. There is no indication that Vyner did any archival research before writing his article, and the solitary 1838 report is so obscure and so easily missed that I can only assume he or some other authority he consulted had access to another, almost certainly contemporary, published account of Jack’s early activities that has otherwise been lost.
7 Haining, op.cit. p.85.
8 Paul Begg, ‘The terror of London’, The Unexplained 39, 1981, pp.770-3.
9 Hulton Getty Picture Collection, personal communication August 1996, author’s files. The caption adds that the original source of the illustration was a book titled Old and New London.
10 Valentine Dyall, ‘Spring-heeled Jack – the leaping terror’, Everybody’s 20 Feb 1954 pp.12-13, 38-39. The letter column of Everybody’s for 6 Mar 1954 featured several communications from readers: C Demoya of Torquay theorised that Jack was a lunatic circus acrobat, Inman Race of Sheffield that he was an visitor from a high-gravity planet (the first suggestion of an alien Jack that I have been able to discover) and J Morris of Wealdstone (on the authority of his father) that the Aldershot incidents were caused by an eagle, and the Liverpool sightings by a kangaroo.
11 He was well known for presenting mysteries and thrillers under the pseudonym ‘The Man in Black’.
12 Jerome Clark, The Emergence of a Phenomenon: UFOs from the Beginning Through 1959 – the UFO Encyclopedia Volume 2 ( Detroit 1992) pp.318-20.
13 A series of letters about the mystery published in Notes & Queries make it clear that by 1907 Jack’s original appearances in 1838 had been all but forgotten, though the Aldershot scare was well-remembered and several contributors had recollections of the folklore that had grown up around Spring-heeled Jack by the mid-nineteenth century. N&Q 10S, VII, 206, 256, 374-5, 496 + 10S, VIII, 251, 455.
14 Elliott O’Donnell, Ghosts of London ( London 1932) pp.146-9 and Haunted Britain ( London 1948) pp.73-6.
15The Times 22 Feb 1838.
16The Morning Post 7 Mar 1838.
17 Vyner, op.cit.
18 Clark op.cit. p.320, citing Flying Saucer Review v6n6, Nov-Dec 1960.
19The Morning Chronicle 10 Jan 1838.
20Camberwell & Peckham Times 9 Nov 1872. Spring-heeled Jack was reported to have jumped a six foot fence to escape a party of pursuing navvies.
21Sheldrake’s Aldershot & Sandhurst Military Gazette 17 Mar 1877l The World 11 Apr 1877; The Times 28 Apr 1877.
22News of the World 25 Sep 1904.
23Sheffield Daily Telegraph 31 May 1873.
24 Haining op.cit. p.9.
25 Ibid p.37.
26 Ibid p.144.
27 Vyner op.cit.
28The Times 22 Feb 1838.
29The Morning Post 7 Mar 1838.
30County Herald & Weekly Advertiser 20 Jan 1838.
31 Elizabeth Villiers, Stand & Deliver ( London 1928) pp.238-52.
32 Meaning obscure. Judging from the context of the description, though, the witness’s intention appears to have been to imply not that Jack’s agility was beyond compare, but that any attempt to make more ambitious leaps would have caused him to injure himself.
33 Roman Golicz, Spring-heeled Jack: A Victorian Visitation at Aldershot (Farnham: Don Namor Press, 2004) pp.2-3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 14.
34 Ibid; ‘Spring-heeled Jack’, Notes & Queries 22 Jun 1907, 10S, VII p.496
35Sheldrake’s Aldershot & Sandhurst Military Gazette 17 Mar 1877.
36The Times 28 Apr 1877.
37Illustrated Police News 8 Sep 1877.
38Haunted Scotland 1, Jul 1996; Fortean Studies 3 (1996) p.112n.
39Greenwich, Woolwich & Deptford Gazette 13 Jan 1838.
40The Times 22 Feb 1838.
42The Morning Chronicle 10 Jan 1838.
43Camberwell & Peckham Times 9 Nov 1872.
44Illustrated Police News 3 Nov 1877.
45 Harleigh Severne, Chums: A Tale for the Youngsters ( London 1878), cited in Haining op.cit. pp.98-9.
46 Springs in his boots’, Reader’s Digest Almanac of the Uncanny ( Sydney, 1995) pp.286-7.
47 Vyner, op.cit.
48The Times, 22 Feb 1838.
49The Morning Post 7 Mar 1838.
50The Sun 20 Jan 1838.
51The Times 3 Mar 1838.
52The Morning Post 20 Mar 1838; The Examiner 25 Mar 1838.
53 Haining, op.cit. p.77.
54 Vyner, op.cit.
55The Times 3 Mar 1838.
58 Frustratingly, this testimony appears nowhere in the published newspaper accounts of the case.
59 Ibid; for Lea’s experiences, see The Times 3 Mar 1838.
60 Karl Shuker, The Unexplained: an Illustrated Guide to the World’s Natural and Paranormal Mysteries ( London 1996)p.36.
61The Times 22 Feb 1838; the Morning Post 7 Mar 1838.
62 Daniel Mannix, Memoirs of a Sword-Swallower ( London 1951) pp.1-3.
63 William Lindsay Gresham, Monster Midway ( London 1954) p.198.
64 Jane could hardly have handed Jack a lighted candle if the night had been blustery; and we can be sure that the light she provided was not a lantern, since officer Lea reported that he had found ‘the candle and candlestick which she had handed to the man’ lying outside the gate. [Essex & Sussex Times 2 Mar 1838.]
65 Vyner, op.cit.
66 Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, ‘The mad gasser of Mattoon’, Fate, February 1972 pp.38-47.
67The Times 9 Jan 1838.
68The Morning Chronicle 10 Jan 1838.
69The Times 22 Feb 1838.
70The Times 28 Apr 1877.
71Illustrated Police News 8 Sep 1877.
72 Clark, op.cit. p.319.
73 Haining, op.cit. p.90.
74Sheldrake’s Aldershot & Sandhurst Military Gazette 17 Mar 1877.
75The Times 28 Apr 1877.
76Illustrated Police News 8 Sep 1877.
77Illustrated Police News 3 Nov 1877.
78Illustrated Police News 8 Sep 1877.