Spring-heeled Jack, “the Terror of London,” is a well-known monstrous villain of Victorian urban legend. Though generally human in appearance, Spring-heeled Jack is said to have demonic characteristics such as bulbous glowing eyes, long, sharp claws of metal, and sometimes even horns. He was often seen in England and Scotland in a bat-like, black winged cloak and a tight suit of black and white oilskin, not unlike a twentieth-century comic book character’s costume. Reports of Spring-heeled Jack speaking, or indeed making any sound, are rare, and it is possible he is mute, though there have been reports of victims hearing fiendish laughter. Another unnatural characteristic commonly attributed to Jack is his ability to spit blue flame. Spring-heeled Jack’s most famous attribute, though, is his ability to escape capture by leaping over tall gates and walls.
Reports of attacks by Spring-heeled Jack flourished in the 1830s and continued through the turn of the century and beyond. The earliest accounts are of Jack assailing young women, though he is also known to have created havoc by jumping in front of moving horse-drawn carriages to frighten the drivers, causing accidents and chaos to ensue, before leaping away. Though there have been some reports of Jack’s quarry dying of fright, Jack rarely murders his victims, and is more likely to slap and harass them, or scratch them and tear at their clothes with his sharp metallic claws. His main goal seems to be causing and spreading panic and terror, which he accomplished to great effect in Victorian London—several popular penny dreadfuls of the time serialized tales of Spring-heeled Jack, and newspapers reported accounts of his attacks with fervor.
“First a young girl, then a man, felt a hand on their shoulder, and turned to see the infernal one with glowing face, bidding them a good evening.”
Birmingham Post, September 1886
Spring-heeled Jack sightings were frequent in London in the 1830s and ’40s, but by the 1850s new tales of attacks were more commonly being told in the Black Country of England’s West Midlands. The legends of Spring-heeled Jack became bogeyman tales of a demonic stranger leaping to peer into children’s bedrooms, or later, in the 1870s, stories of army sentries being beleaguered by slaps in the face.
Although the last account of an attack by Spring-heeled Jack in Victorian England was published in Liverpool in the first years of the new century, by that time the legend had already spread to the United States. Jack was sighted in Louisville, KY in the 1880s, and dozens of attacks were reported in Cape Cod between 1938 and 1945, more than a hundred years after his first appearance in the Old World. Assaults and prankish exploits by Spring-heeled Jack continued across the US through the late twentieth century, from Provincetown to Plano, until Jack’s activities seemed to shift back to England in the 1980s. One of the most recent published encounters occurred in Surrey in 2012.
Defense against Spring-heeled Jack
There have been no accounts of the apprehension of Spring-heeled Jack to this day. Potential victims would be wise to try to stay out of reach of his long, sharp metallic claws. Many attacks have been thwarted by the victim screaming for help, at which point Jack will likely leap away to avoid capture, so loudly shrieking is also advised.
Who Was Spring-heel?
While often discounted as nothing more than mass hysteria, other theories of the true identity of Spring-heeled Jack have been suggested over the decades. The earliest attacks, in and around London in the late 1830s, are often blamed on a young Irish nobleman: Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. “The Mad Marquis” was an infamous prankster and troublemaker, and his somewhat bulbous eyes may have also given him the appearance of Jack.
Another persistent conjecture is that Spring-heeled Jack is a demon, and indeed, the illustrations of him in most penny dreadfuls of the time more closely resemble a devil than the paranormal gentleman described by his victims. In the 20th century, once the legends of Spring-heeled Jack migrated to the Americas, a popular published theory was that Jack is in fact an extraterrestrial from a world with a different level of gravitational force than our own, explaining his extranormal leaping abilities.
While the legend of Spring-heeled Jack is often conflated with that of fellow villainous Victorian Jack the Ripper, Spring-heeled Jack has the abilities (superhuman leaping, belching flame) and physical characteristics (claws, red eyes) of a supernatural creature, while the Ripper, though far more deadly than Spring-heel, is assumed to have been a mortal man. Spring-heeled Jack attacks began fifty years before the Ripper’s comparatively short three-year killing spree, and continue to this day—a further testament to his paranormality.
Spring-heeled Jack in Popular Culture
Spring-heeled Jack was an enormously popular figure in the penny dreadfuls, or story papers—a precursor to the modern-age comic book—that themselves became popular in the 1830s as printing technology became more accessible and literacy across British classes increased. At least a dozen penny dreadful series over hundreds of volumes focused on Jack, as did many Victorian-era plays. Below are a few more recent depictions of Jack in popular culture.
Novels: Spring-Heeled Jack is a 2002 children’s book by British novelist Philip Pullman. The text of the book is interspersed with comic-book-style illustrations.
Jack also appears in series by Ysabeau S. Wilce, Mark Hodder, Derek Landy, and others.
Supernatural: Spring-heeled Jack is mentioned as a possible paranormal perpetrator in the first-season Supernatural episode “The Benders,” but upon being captured, Sam Winchester is surprised to find that the true monsters are mere human members of a backwoods family who enjoy capturing people in order to use them as prey in their recreational hunts.
Doctor Who: Spring-heeled Jack meets the eighth Doctor in the 2003 Doctor Who three-part comic “The Curious Tale of Spring-Heeled Jack” by Scott Gray and Anthony Williams, published in Doctor Who Magazine.
As Spring-heeled Jack’s exploits have moved back across the pond to Great Britain in the 21st century, Americans’ memories of his appearances have begun to fade. But if, like a poor young woman named Lucy Scales and her sister in 1838, you find yourself walking down a lonely lane like London’s Green Dragon Alley when a dark-cloaked figure appears from the shadows and spits fire at you, remember that although, unlike the Ripper, he is more likely to try to frighten you than kill you, you should nevertheless go ahead and start screaming bloody murder.
Bell, Karl: The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack, 2012.
Hooper-Scharf, Terry: The Truth About Spring-heeled Jack, 2013.
Matthews, John: The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero, 2016.
Middleton, Jacob: Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Impersonation, Spring-heeled Jack, and Victorian Society, 2014.
Great piece – just like the early 19th C. English to blame it on an Irishman!
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