I first came across the legend of Spring-heeled Jack while watching the TV series Sanctuary. There, he is depicted as a gray-skinned, predatory creature with tremendous jumping abilities. I recently became acquainted with the Spring-heeled Jack of history when researching ghosts of the Victorian era for a presentation I was working on. It turns out he’s a rather interesting and mysterious figure.
Accounts of Spring-heeled Jack first started appearing in English newspapers around the autumn of 1837, when people in villages along the Thames noted a spectral, clawed figure or figures that made mischief and terrorized women. On a night in February 1838, Jane Alsop answered the door of her cottage in Old Ford, which is now part of Greater London. A tall man in a cloak said he was a policeman and announced that they had cornered Spring-heeled Jack nearby and asked for a lamp. She retrieved the lamp and handed it to the stranger. He then brought the lamp close, at which point Jane realized this was no policeman. He had strange, glowing eyes and wore a helmet. He immediately vomited forth blue flame. He lunged at her and tore at her clothes and hair with claws like metal. Spring-heeled Jack ran away when Jane’s sister approached.
Jack next appeared a few days later on London’s East End. He knocked on a door. The serving boy screamed so loudly, Jack fled without doing anything more. Jack made one last appearance at the end of February 1838. Lucy Scales and a friend were walking along Green-dragon-alley when Jack leaped out at her and spit his blue flames which blinded her, but did not attack her with his claws. Instead he ran away while Lucy’s friend helped her back home.
After that, Jack pretty much disappeared until the 1870s. In 1872, a man walking along London’s Brixton Hill Road encountered a spectral entity, who sprang lightly away, faster than an ordinary human. The man was described as wearing black “he transposes into white when needful.” GHR Davidson, the man who encountered Jack said, “He also has spring-heeled or india-rubber soled boots, for no man living could leap so lightly, and, I might say, fly across the ground in the manner he did last night.” There were a few other similar sightings through 1874, but one of Jack’s most famous sightings would wait for three more years.
In March 1877, a ghostly figure was spotted at the British Army camp at Aldershot, East of London. The sentry hailed him and when he refused to identify himself or retreat, the guard fired, having no effect. He then repeated his visit to several other sentries. Jack again vanished for a time until the end of the summer. At that point, he again pestered the sentries at Aldershot. This time, he even approached one, “slapping his face with his deathlike hand.”
So what or who exactly is Spring-heeled Jack? Apparently springy ghost-demons were actually a “thing” in 18th and 19th century Europe and Spring-heeled Jack was the most common name for the incarnation who people saw in the London area.
As far as the specific cases which were reported in newspapers of the day, it seems reasonable to suppose there were at least two Spring-heeled Jacks. The one from 1838 seems to have been a serial assaulter, possibly with a few magic tricks up his sleeve. The one from 1877, seems more like a prankster who liked to mess with sentries. Did those sentries really shoot at him, or did they just say they did to cover themselves? Who knows?
In recent years, members of the UFO community have even suggested he’s an alien whose blue flames are a ray gun and he’s impervious to bullets because of his space armor. He’s “spring-heeled” either because he’s from a high-gravity planet or he has some kind of rocket-assisted leaping. That said, little in the best reports about Jack suggest a supernatural entity. If not for the seriousness of the 1838 assaults, I could easily picture a prankster who would be very much at home in a steampunk story.
If you’d like to learn more about Spring-heeled Jack, I highly recommend Mike Dash’s free article, which you can find at http://www.mikedash.com/extras/forteana/shj-about. The article contains the original source material I quoted and does a great job examining both real and apocryphal Spring-heeled Jack sightings.