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Spring Heeled Jack

The British have a lot of style. They’ve got not only exotic foods such as gin marshmallows and accents that make their women absolutely irresistible, but when it comes to naming serial killers they’re without peers. I don’t happen to be able to think of any British serial killers other than Jack The Ripper, but you’ve got to admit that’s a better name than ‘the UNA-Bomber’ or ‘The Killer Clown.’ Please allow me to introduce you to another famous Jack from the same era as his much more bloody compatriot: Spring-Heeled Jack.

In 1837 London was in a panic. It seems that a man, or as UFO enthusiasts are quick to say, “something,” was terrorizing young women. Descriptions varied, but there was one constant: he could jump for amazing distances. It’s claimed that he jumped over ten-foot high fences, onto the roofs of 3-story buildings, and over army barracks. Estimates, by which I mean “the foundationless guesses of paranormal enthusiasts” say he could jump 20 or 30 feet straight into the air without a running start.

The constabulary was confounded; they seemed unable to catch the monster, and an all-out panic was on the rise. At the time there were two prevalent theories: that a man had strapped springs to his feet to duplicate this effect, or that the devil himself was, for some reason, enjoying the London nightlife. Today, the paranormal community considers it to be a case, albeit a case obscured by the passage of time, of space aliens muddling about in human affairs.

The accounts of his attacks are all more or less the same: a woman or group of women that are out alone, at night, are accosted by a man. The man seems normal at first, but then throws back his cloak to reveal a shiny, tight-fitting suit. He grabs at them and tries to, basically, molest them. Alerted by the woman’s screams, nearby menfolk or police arrive on the scene and Spring-Heeled Jack gets away by leaping extraordinary distances.

Less accurate are descriptions of the attacker himself: such a wide variety of descriptions were given that the most reasonable answer is that hysteria had gripped London, and that anything out of place was exaggerated and reported to the police. So, like the Chupacabra and Mad Gasser of Mattoon that followed him, Spring-Heeled Jack may have been of normal size or very large; he may or may not have had abnormally long, pointed facial features such as ears and nose; he may have had normal or glowing eyes of a variety of colors; he may or may not have left behind cloven footprints; may have been dressed normally or in a space suit with or without a helmet; and may have had either metal claws or hands. It is my goal in life to find a UFO-related story where all the witnesses describe the same thing, and I fear I may never achieve this.

"The Terror of London: Spring-Heel'd Jack's Daring Leap", Circa 1860.

So let us assume for a moment that the Spring-Heeled Jack, whatever he may look like, exists. What are his motives? Well, in 1837 they were the same as most men: to get a warm, fleshy handful. If all the attacks attributed to the Spring-Heeled Jack are true, he’s responsible for groping dozens, if not hundreds of breasts and several buttocks. Later on, his motives seem to have changed: in 1877 it’s said that he approached an army outpost, slapped the soldiers with a “large, clammy hand” and otherwise made a nuisance of himself. Our randy space visitor had, apparently, had his fill of touching genitals and was now content to irritate soldiers. Well, we all need a hobby, I suppose. Author Daniel Cohen reports that an army officer was arrested on the charge of imitating Spring-Heeled Jack, but the charges were spurious and he was later released. It’s likely that this refers to the 1877 incident, but it’s not entirely clear.

One of Spring-Heeled Jack’s other unique abilities is reported in about half the cases: apparently, he can “squirt blue and white flames from his mouth.” Many claim this to be proof that he was an alien fire-breathing monster, or that he was an alien armed with a laser-gun, which primitive Londoners would not recognize. Why he fired the weapon with his mouth is anyone’s guess. This fire, which he is said to have squirted directly into victim’s faces on a number of occasions, is never said to have left any physical damage, such as burns, except in one case where a woman was “blinded.” The duration of the blindness is not entirely clear.

There are two more singular attacks that require space on this page. In 1845 Spring-Heeled Jack was sighted in, of all places, New York City, where he grabbed a whore and threw her in a sewer, where she drowned. Despite the fact that this incident seems to be, at best, a statistical aberration, and that the attacker didn’t jump, squirt fire, or wear shiny clothing, paranormal enthusiasts still include it as a genuine attack by Spring-Heeled Jack. I’m willing to wager some guy was angry with a whore and killed her, but the paranormal community wants me to believe space aliens have their own secret, nefarious reasons for killing off a single teenage hooker on the other side of the ocean from their principal area of interest. I don’t buy it.

"Spring Heeled Jack: A Midnight Mystery," Circa 1904

The second incident occurred on February 23rd, 1838. A man came to a manor home and asked to see the master of the house. A servant boy turned to go fetch him, but noticed from the corner of his eye that the man was in fact Spring-Heeled Jack. For whatever reason, the monster was afraid of the child and ran away. The boy noticed that Spring-Heeled Jack’s shirt had a monogrammed ‘W,’ which later led police to suspect an Irish lord, the Marquis of Waterford. The theory went that he hated both police and women, and was out for his bizarre revenge. He had friends who studied mechanics, and it was assumed they’d built him a pair of spring-loaded shoes. Quick fun fact: during the first World War, the Germans tried to build spring-loaded shoes to help soldiers move faster. Initial testing resulted in an 85% rate of men breaking both their ankles and limping for the rest of their lives.

Sadly, the Marquis was killed in a horse accident in 1859, after which there were a number of attacks. So it wasn’t him, unless he was but part of a larger conspiracy. There are some accounts that hint at one or more accomplices, but nothing is clear.

In the end, this is an extremely interesting case. Interesting not just because it makes a good story, and a fine boogeyman with which to scare children, but because of an interesting cultural phenomenon: Penny Dreadfuls, the comic books of the 1800s. They cost only a penny and had plenty of entertainment value, even if the plots were a little convoluted. Somehow, Spring-Heeled Jack made his way into them, where he became either a superhero, bounding in to ruin the villain’s day at the last moment, or the devil incarnate, ready to eat your young. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that a monster is, especially in the London of the 1800s, likely to be seen much more often once he becomes famous in comic books. The Spring-Heeled Jack was nothing more than mass hysteria mixed with, in a number of cases, pranks (a good number young men were arrested for trying to duplicate Jack’s crimes by strapping springs to their shoes.) Spring-Heeled Jack was certainly not a space alien, and as is made clear by the wild variations in his description, owes his existence more to exaggeration and fear than anything else.

"Spring Heeled Jack. The Terror of London," published 8 January 1886. Read the sentence underneath. The Olde Englishe sure had an awesome writing style.

First published in The Triangle 21 January2005.