Imagine this, it's 1838, you are walking home from a country pub late one evening along a dark and lonely lane, your only illumination being the lantern you are carrying. Suddenly you hear a scream and much commotion a little way off in the distance. You quicken your pace, and soon after you make out a figure running towards you along the lane. You stop dead in your tracks as it bounds passed. You only see it briefly in the light of your lamp, but what you see terrifies you, a tall, thin figure with a hideous face and glowing red eyes, it has large hooked nose, and its ears appear to be pointed, you can't make out more as its head is covered with somekind of fitted cap, and it is wrapped in a large black cloak. It looks like the devil himself. As it disappears off into the distance you then see a horde of shouting villagers running up the lane after it, bearing torches and armed with cudgels and farm implements, and a few pistols. The crowd surges by, and two men stop you, demanding to know your activities that night, satisfied with your account they rejoin the chase, taking a narrow path across a field hoping to head off the phantom. You join them. As you catch up with the mob you see they are chasing the figure into a dead end terminated by a high hedge row. Cornered the figure briefly turns and with a ringing laugh claws the air with what appear to be long silver talons, a well dressed man aims a pistol and fires but to no effect. Immediately after the crowd is dazzled by balls of blue fire which seem to shoot out of the phantom's mouth. It then turns and effortless leaps over the 15ft hedge, gunshots ring out but the figure is unhurt. 'Spring Heel Jack has done it again' you hear someone declare as the phantom's sinister laughter fades into the distance.

This is the folk legend of Spring Heeled Jack that we have inherited from some very real events occurring all over England throughout the 19th Century. But what was the truth behind it?

Springald, as he was also sometimes known, was without doubt the most famous 'bogeyman' of Victorian society, and enjoyed a status akin to that of Bigfoot or little Grey aliens do today. He was also the first of his kind. While legends of strange phantoms have existed since the beginning of history, Spring Heeled Jack was the first to enter the official record as a real phenomenon, subject to an official investigation by the police, or at least as one whose supposed witnesses could in principle be found and testify to the veracity of their experience. Part of this originality may have been due to the changing culture of the early nineteenth century and the availability of cheap mass printing. Certainly the growing number of newspapers were largely responsible for the general public's awareness of the events, as were the later Penny Dreadfuls, and probably determined the form they took as well. There were other similar emergences at this time too, for instance the first identifiable witnesses to the infamous 'phantom horse and carriage', as well as the classic 'haunted mansion', also date to the early nineteenth century, perhaps for similar reasons, and even the aforementioned Bigfoot was first spotted in Canada in the mid 1830's, according to some researchers, but none captured the public imagination as Jack did. There was also something unique about him and in many ways he can be regarded as Britain's patron saint of weirdness.

The Beginning

Much nonsense has been written about Spring Heeled Jack since his emergence in 1837. This has largely been due to the tendency of early writers on the legend to produce entertaining mysteries rather than a serious exploration of the actual events. A tendency exemplified by BBC radio's 'The Man in Black', Valentine Dyall, who did much to popularize and sensationalize the legend in the 1950s.  Even journalistic writers, such as Peter Haining, whose 1977 book, The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack, was once the only modern source book, were influenced by this tendency or played fast and loose with the facts to support their own pet narratives. The actual events were only really brought to light by the diligent research of academic historian Mike Dash, and Fortean colleagues, in the 1990s. It was their work in digging up the little remaining contemporary documentation, in newspaper archives and the public records, that makes a serious study possible today. Unfortunately the record remains incomplete and a certain amount of imagination and rational intuition is still required to avoid an over reductive skeptical approach due to the scarcity of data. The methodology of orthodox historical research is of little use when exploring Fortean phenomena, though it is best to start with the facts rather than the fallacies! But the subjective evidence of the case alone forces the open minded to take it seriously.  

Ghost Bear by Cara Mitten

In thought still half absorbed, and chilled with cold;
When lo! an object frightful to behold,

A grisly Spectre, clothed in silver grey.
Around whose feet the wavering shadows play,
Stands in his path!

Stands, too, as huge and hideous as if all the ghosts
of all the bullocks, sheep and pigs and poultry, he
had slaughtered had been rolled into one, and
now shrieked out, like Shakespeare's sprites,

The Butcher is come!
The fierce, the cruel butcher,
who stabbed us in the shop
at Upminster!

Unsourced verse associated with SHJ
in Chelmsfield newspaper report of 1838
Perhaps from a chapbook?

From available contemporary newspaper reports we now know that the events that led up to the beginning of the legend occurred in Barnes in early September 1837.  Here rumours of something spooky going on began with reports of women being attacked on country lanes in the vicinity of Barnes by an unknown creature. According to the Morning Chronicle, a few months later, this creature was initially described as a 'white bull', though it is uncertain whether this was thought of literally as a rogue farm animal or whether it refers to the popular folklore of the Devil appearing in the form of such a creature. The latter is not unlikely, similar stories exist in folklore of phantom 'white horses' being dangerous abductors. A lore that goes back to the Scandinavian 'Brook Horse' and the Scottish Kelpie, which when ridden leaped into the nearest lake or river and drowned its hapless passenger (the only the former was traditionally described as white). In Northumbria a similar goblin called the Brag, which took the form of a horse or calf, was feared well into the 19th century, and a similar shape shifting sprite, the Hedley Kow, was also known in the same locality. This apparition may date back to the Greek myth of the god Zeus abducting the maiden Europa in the form of a White Bull, and Poseidon's association with a White Horse form. More broadly popular superstition in Britain has long associated dogs and cats, and even bears and lions, with supernatural entities, and unusual horned animals in particular had a similar diabolical reputation. Such phantom beasts where invariably of a pale white or dark grey to black hue. Even today in remote rural parts of Ireland a shape shifting goblin called the Pooka is still feared, and typically said to take the form of a black horse or goat, but can also appear as a black or dark coloured dog, a rabbit, a bird or a humanoid goblin. Such lore has to be taken into consideration when reading the first Jack reports. The police claimed to have captured a loose 'white faced heifer' and blamed it for the scare, but this reassurance did little to calm the panic that was spreading from village to village. Soon frightening tales of assaults on people walking the lanes at night, by white bears, baboons and even 'devilish imps', were being told in the local taverns of rural villages to the west of London (today its urban suburbs). By October it was appearing in more human guise, particularly as it impinged on more urbanized areas. At this stage it is described as a 'ghost', usually meaning a frightening figure in white clothes, and often the now cliched white sheet, or again as the 'devilish imp', with its classical demonic features, and sometimes even 'the devil himself'. Most bizarrely it was described on the Hampton side of the Thames as 'an unearthly warrior in polished bronze armour', complete with strange clawed gloves, and wearing horrible red shoes, which attacked several people, ripping into them with metal claws. Over the course of its reign of terror the phantom would appear in various locations to the west of London, apparantly gradually moving west, and curving around the edge of Richmond Park, which seemed to be the initial centre of its operations, before suddenly crossing the Thames at Hampton and heading north and then east along the then green belt around London. From here it would split into two trails, one to the north and one to the south of the metropolis, both heading east and eventually arrive in the East End of London and two villages on the Essex border where events reached a dramatic climax. Many of these attacks were near the edges of big parks, commons and heaths, and sometimes large cemeteries, via which it often made its escape.      

Map of Area

The Scare Spreads
Following its mostly rural attacks to the west of London the next victims of the phantom appear to have been the maids and servants of the large mansions on the outskirts of London, particularly in the areas of Hammersmith, Kensington and Ealing. In these accounts he would appear as a 'ghost, devil or bear', or any combination there of, either at the doors and windows of these mansion houses, or in the grounds around them. Servant girls were said to be reduced to hysterics by the very sight of him, with some allegedly 'dying of fright' on the spot (emphasising the exaggeration that was obviously occuring). Children too were being terrorised by the phantom, with spurious rumours of infants being torn to shreds in country lanes (tales retold to unruly urchins of the Victorian period for long after). But contrary to popular tales of the time it was not only young girls and children the phantom attacked. Late in 1837 at least three men were targeted in separate incidents. In Hammersmith an 'itinerant muffin man' was attacked in Sounding-lane by a 'ghostly figure', who tore the clothes from his back; a burly blacksmith was severely injured by a phantom assailant with 'iron claws' in Ealing around the same time; and earlier in Isleworth a tough carpenter called Jones had been accosted in Cut-throat lane by a figure in steel plate armour and garish red shoes. In the latter case Jones managed to get the better of his assailant, only to have two more 'ghosts' leap out of the bushes at him in assistance of their fellow spook. Jones was severely thrashed and his clothes torn to shreds. It is in these events we get the first inkling of a very human origin of the phenomenon. Recently these attacks on men by one or more male assailants have been used to refute the common assumption that the attacks were sexually motivated, although this may well be a naive position! Reports of the phantom spread further and by the winter of 1837 he is said to have been spotted climbing the walls of Kensington Palace and Holland Park and 'dancing on the wooded lawns' (both locations famous for their faerie lore, though it was claimed this was really based on another event several years prior). New reports soon emerged from Surrey to the south of London and from the north in St Johns Wood. The phenomena eventually reaching Clapham, Dulwich, Camberwell and Peckham to the south and Kentish Town, Islington and Hornsey to the north. The panic was spreading like a contagion, but when reporters later visited these areas few first hand witnesses could be found, indicating they were either reluctant to come forward or that much of the phenomena was based on rumour. It was in this period that the phantom's odd footwear seems to have become a focus of attention, with some speaking of cloven hooves and others suggesting he had 'springs in his boots', implying, though not yet describing, extraordinary speed or agility, from which he would soon be dubbed Spring Heeled Jack. It was also around this time that rumours began to spread of a 'secret club' amongst the local gentry, who had laid a wager to scare a certain number of people witless within the London borders area within the shortest possible time span.

valentine dyall
Valentine Dyall, aka 'The Man in Black', was the spooky narrator for the BBC Radio 4 Gothic Horror show Appointment with Fear from 1943 till 1955, as well as a regular on the Goon Show in the 1950s, spoofing his radio character as  'The Man in Grey'! He appeared in several horror films as 'Britain's Vincent Price' from the  early 1960s onwards,  and his later roles included the 'Black Guardian'  in Doctor  Who from 1979 to 1983.   He died in  1985.

In 1954 he wrote an article for Everybody’s magazine that due to his  popularity greatly revived interest in the legend of Spring Heeled Jack, but which was far more sensational than journalistic. His  friendship with Spike Milligan is also thought to have inspired the  latter to write his classic spoof 'The Phantom Raspberry Blower of  Old London Town' with Ronnie Barker.

False Leads

But before continuing with this history we need to discount a few false leads. To begin with much has been written of SHJ cases before 1837, but on closer examination it appears that these are all spurious. While there were certainly two famous incidents of 'lane hauntings' in Hammersmith and Southampton, imaginatively dubbed the Hammersmith Ghost (1803 and 1824) and Southampton Ghost (1820s), most of these events were actually quite different in initial appearance and activity to Jack's modus, being simply white clad figures essentially going 'boo' from the bushes, without any attack or molestation, and no spectacular leaps or other anomalies (though interestingly in at least one case he wore a 'cow's hide'). Further more many of the cases can be easily attributed to hoaxers, one of whom was caught and confessed to several 'spookings', as well as to simple misidentification in the heat of the scare (including a famous fatal encounter, see below). While a few of the reports, particularly in Southampton, do appear to be superficially similar to Jack none are supported in contemporary documentation as far as I'm aware and appear to be later embellishments post-Jack. The most we can say about these cases is that they set the scene for Jack and that many of his sightings in Hammersmith are suspiciously similar to the Hammersmith Ghost of thirteen years earlier.  Similarly accounts of Sheffield's 'Park Ghost' (of which more later) often associate it with the by then legendary Spring Heeled Jack (and there are real similarities here), however all confirmed reports date this phantom to the end of the 19th century rather than the beginning, as does one almost certainly misdated account. Another more obvious false start concerns a tall tale dated to 1826, of a masked and caped figure, with cloven hooves, who leapt from a wall in Commercial Rd and set a man called Jack on fire! But this turns out to be ultimately derived from a Penny Dreadful called 'The Old Tar and the Vampire', written in 1843 (it doesn't involve Spring Heeled Jack, but may have been inspired by him). Many other pre-1837 reports, particularly an alleged cluster around 1817, can be traced to an article by Valentine Dyall, better known for his BBC radio show Appointment with Fear, who did much to sensationalize and mystify the legend in the 1950's. But most mysterious of all are the early cases reported by Peter Haining, in his 1977 best seller, The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack. In these a devil-like 'jumping ghost' in a black cape terrorizes people around Barnes, Clapham Common and Blackheath in September 1837, the most famous victim of which being one Polly Adams who was said to have been clawed and sexually assaulted by a mysterious 'devil-like nobleman' at Blackheath Fair. However research carried out by historian Mike Dash reveals no evidence that Miss Adams ever even existed, and the stories do not appear in any of the newspapers of the period that were concerned with the SHJ scare. Further more a date of September for the Blackheath attack seems far too early and certainly no newspaper reports mention any leaps till at least December/January. While something like the Clapham and Blackheath accounts do seem to have occurred later, the Barnes assaults, as described by Haining, appear to be totally unsupported by any other source. Unfortunately Haining lost his research notes and could not remember his sources for these stories. Curiously however I was informed on one of my SHJ tourist walks that Polly Adams appears in one of the oldest 1840s Penny Dreadfuls as a victim of Spring Heeled Jack. If true (and I have been unable to confirm or deny this claim) it may have been Haining's original source! Genuine reports and complete fabrications were often mixed in early fictional accounts of Jack, and this may have been the mistake Haining or his sources made. Either way these Haining accounts are completely unreliable. Once these accounts are cleared away the picture becomes clearer. But there are also other accounts we need to be cautious about too. 
These accounts were collected at the beginning of the 20th century, by Elizabeth Villiers, for her book on highwayman, and nocturnal assailants, Stand & Deliver, published in the 1920s, and were tentatively dated to early 1838. Sources were not given but at least one account was said to have come directly from an eyewitness (by then presumably very old, but perhaps a child witness!?), and the stories were claimed to have been well known at the time. Unfortunately they do not appear in any contemporary newspapers, so their veracity is still an open question. The first account was given by an elderly woman who claimed she had encountered a strange man by a cemetery in Clapham Road (a very long road running from the Oval to the SE corner of Clapham Common). He was dressed in a dark cape, with a hat pulled over his eyes. After he passed by she caught a glimpse of a dark shadowy something jump over the high fence around the graveyard, and on turning around she found the man was no longer there. Odd footprints were later found inside the cemetery (said to be deep enough to be produced by 'spring loaded boots'!). This was in the same area that one Mary Stevens had earlier reported a 'sexual assault' at Lavender Hill (a road running parallel to the north side of Clapham Common), by a mysterious laughing man in dark clothes, who 'leapt extraordinarily high', and near to where the following night a similar man had caused horses to bolt after he leapt across Streatham High St (a fair distance from Clapham Common). All three stories were associated by their tellers with Spring Heeled Jack. No other reports from Streatham appear in any newspaper of the period, I suspect this account may be from a Penny Dreadful, as it sounds more typical of the fictional Jack.

One of the first repesentations of the creature dubbed Spring Heeled Jack to appear in the newspapers of the time.

It appears to be an amalgam of various
contemporary descriptions, the Bull, Bear, Ghost, Imp and Devil are all in there somewhere. As a shared image it would have shaped later perceptions.

Particularly interesting are the long claws, beard and goggle eyes that were widely reported.
SHJ image

The Lord Mayor's Letter
However it was on the 9th January 1838 that the legend really took off. It was then that Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London, received a letter from a 'resident of Peckham' informing him of the affair:


'My Lord - The writer presumes that your lordship will kindly overlook the liberty he has taken in addressing a few lines on a subject which within the last few weeks caused much alarming sensation in the neighbouring villages within three or four miles of London.

'It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the higher ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion (name as yet unknown), that he dares not take on 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 dare not 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 seven ladies of their senses...'

The writer briefly describes a typical encounter before going on to say:

'The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer is very unwilling to be unjust to any man, but he has reason to believe that they have the history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent. It is, however, high time that such detestable nuisance should be put a stop too…'

'I remain your Lordship's most humble servant,


Though some people have taken the conspiracy theory expressed in the letter at face value, from today's standpoint we can recognise the kind of alarmed paranoiac theory that emerges in times of insecurity, particularly when facing such events as this, and can understand the anxiety that underlies it (the skeptic is motivated by the same fear but shuts off their imagination rather than allowing it to run away). However we can't dismiss the idea of a group or gang being behind the actual attacks. Though most at the time initially regarded the whole thing as somewhat soft headed. It seems the Mayor took it in a similar spirit, for he first seems to have dismissed it, at a meeting at Mansion House in the City, describing the writer as probably 'one of the women who lost their senses'. The fact that the correspondent wrote to the Mayor at all is bizarre, as the Mayor had no jurisdiction in the areas of the attacks. Presumably the writer's paranoia led him to feel he may be of the class to know something (he was undoubtedly a Mason after all!). But when further witnesses emerged to give corroborative testimonies the Mayor decided to hold another public meeting to discuss the matter. Here he declared his belief that one or more criminals were behind these attacks, but suggested they had been greatly exaggerated. The press, looking for sensational stories to boost their circulations, were enthralled by the accounts, and the London Times carried an in depth report on them for the next two days, with many other newspapers following the same lead. Tax duties on paper and printing were greatly reduced in the early 19th century leading to a boom in the printed media. Both newspapers and Penny Dreadfuls were plentiful and highly influential in this period. This of course only served to magnify the scare, but brought forward even more witnesses and stories. By the time this was public news the phenomena had spread as far north as Hornsey and southeast into Forest Hill, Lewisham and Blackheath (where the phantom was suggestively called 'Steel Jack'). The Mayor had been informed by a 'reliable source' that a serving girl in Forest Hill and been scared into fits by a phantom clad in a bearskin worn over chain mail, and news emerged of a gentlemen offering the princely sum of �5 for the capture of the ghoul that had terrified his daughter into fits in Dulwich. The girl described the figure as 'wrapped in a white sheet and surrounded by a blue flame'.

Vigilante committees are said to have formed to try to capture the phantom, with one allegedly led by a geriatric Duke of Wellington, but though sightings of the rascal were sometimes reported, the phantom always escaped and even seemed impervious to bullets. This bullet proof aspect has become part of Jack's lore, though isn't corroborated in any of the surviving newspaper accounts of the events.  It was also at this point that reports of Jack's incredible leaping ability began to be widely circulated, though often only by second or third hand reporters. Originally he was said to have been seen leaping from a run over 10ft obstacles, but later undoubtedly exaggerated claims have him leaping over entire buildings and even appearing to fly. Alas there are few first hand witness accounts in the available documents of any of his leaps. However both these aspects are deeply held beliefs within the popular legend as inherited, and I think this stands as subjective evidence of a genuine perception of the time. The very fact of the general acceptance of his name, both by the media and public, is evidence of a widely shared belief in his unusual physical abilities. Mainstream historical research often relies too much on objective data, such as primary documented sources, and not enough on the analysis of the subjective aspects of cultural data, such as strongly imprinted beliefs within oral traditions (as opposed to the lighter spin of the tale) and historical psycho-social factors. But thats an issue for the philosophy of historical methodology beyond our current study. 

Despite all these apparently supernatural abilities the press was convinced the whole thing was a hoax, and supported the wager theory, or alternatively thought it the work of a madman, comparing it with the likes of the London Monster, a lunatic who was stabbing young ladies bottoms with a sharp instrument only a few years earlier. The spring-loaded boot theory began to be put forward more seriously now and circulated in press reports. However general public opinion, particularly in the villages, tended to favour a more supernatural theory. This was evidenced not just by the folklore associations that accrued around the phantom, but also the name he was given at this time, variously Spring Jack, Spring Heeled Jack, or just plain Springald.

My Lord,

On reading the letter in the papers of this day recieved by your Lordship, I percieve you are not inclined to give credence to the account furnished by your correspondent.

The villain mentioned in it as appearing in the guise of a ghost, bear or devil, has been within the last week or two repeatedly seen at Lewisham and Blackheath. So much, indeed, has he frightened the inhabitants of those peaceful districts that women and children durst not stir out of their houses after dark.

There ought to be a stop put to this, but the police, I am afraid, are frightened of him also. I have the honour to be your Lordship's most obedient servant


Letter to Lord Mayor, published in The Times Jan 11 1838.

The Name Spring Heeled Jack

The popular view of Jack's name is that it was created in the papers as a reference to the theory that he was using springs in his boots to achieve his alleged jumps, with perhaps some reference to the disturbing toy called the Jack in the Box which had recently become popular. But this is almost certainly wrong and if anything the silly theory of spring loaded boots probably comes from the culturally alienated journalists who misunderstood the reference. In fact folklore is full of examples of sprites and heroes being dubbed 'Jack'. A practice found in examples ranging from the Scandanavian Jack Frost, through Jack-o-Lantern (originally an East Anglian or Irish term for Will-o-the-Wisp) to the West County Jack-in-the-Green and Cornish Jack the Giant Killer. This indicates that historically the name 'Jack' clearly denoted a magical or supernatural entity. The name Jack is generally believed to be derived from the Hebrew Jacob, via the French Jacques (an alternative etymolology takes it from the English John, via Jonkin or Jankin, John's kin, that becomes Jakkin and Jack. This is supported by the substitution of Jack for John in slang. However this use is a 16th century one, much later than the English use of Jack to refer to a peasant, derived from the French Jacquerie, or peasant uprisings of the 14th centry, so seems a later linguistic mistake). The folklorish use is more of a mystery, though some claim it derives from the Celtic term Jakkios, meaning power or vitality (some even imaginatively relate this to the Roman use of the god name Iacchos). A complex set of cultural crossovers is likely. The name thus seems ultimately French, but with possible Celtic folklore associations, pointing perhaps to a Breton / Cornish origin. Though most areas in Britain where it is commonly used in folklore, East Anglia, Scotland and Ireland (and not central Wales) have a mixed Celtic and Scandanavian heritage, and are a long way from Brittany or Cornwall. A simple solution might be found in Norman-Breton influence, which maintained traditional connections with Scandanavian cultures and also found a commonality of folklore when settling in these British areas as well as in Cornwall and the Welsh Marches. 

But what ever the origin the most interesting use of the folklore name is found in two popular characters, Jack-o-Kent and Jack-o-Lantern. The latter was originally a term for an East Anglian ghost-light or fey-light, which in Ireland became linked both with ghosts carrying lanterns (refer to the Scales encounter with Jack here) and the pumpkin goblin lantern which scared them off. While the former was a devil-bating wizard from the Welsh borders (not found in Wales proper), or in some early stories an elvan spirit or giant who competes with the devil (much like the Seasonal mythology of the old Spring Festivals where the sprite Robin Goodfellow battled the Green Man of Winter for the flower maiden). His equivalent witch-like character in Ireland, 'Drunk Jack the Blacksmith', became one origin of the wandering Jack-o-Lantern ghost (as he was too bad to go to heaven, but had tricked the devil out of claiming his soul!)  On the Welsh borders Jack-o-Kent's legends were often used to explain natural features (perhaps indicating deeper pagan origins). Most curiously he was said to have created the cleft in the western part of Ysgyryd Fawr with his heel, as he jumped onto it from the Sugar Loaf Mountain. This heel connection can also be traced back to the very name of Jacob, after from the prophet who according to Jewish lore had his name derived from Ya`aqob or Ya`aqov, meaning "heel-catcher", "supplanter", "leg-puller", or "he who follows upon the heels of one", from the Hebrew: עקב, `aqab or `aqav, "seize by the heel", a wordplay upon the Hebrew: עקבה, `iqqebah or `iqqbah, "heel". An Arabian legend about Jacob is even more suggestive, as it claims that after his biblical battle with the angel he gained the trait of 'his heels never touching the ground'. An idea that could have come home with the crusaders. More prozaically it has also been claimed that Spring Heeled Jack was a term used in Scotland for a swift or agile footpad long before the London Phantom emerged, and that this usage also had older folklore connotations too. Perhaps the journalist who dubbed Jack was simply Scottish, or more likely the name reflects older beliefs held by the villagers he haunted, but it certainly did not originate in the springed boot theory. There were certainly two perceptions of Jack, a superstious traditional view at the grassroots, and an over-educated reductivist view held by the middle classes and the media. Both groups were highly contemptuous of each other. All part of the social changes of the period, modern vs traditional, urban vs rural, the battle of 'ignorant industrialism' vs 'archaic agriculture' that we shall return to later.

stingy jack pumpkin
Traditional Irish Turnip 'Jack-o-Lantern'

Spring Heeled Jack and Fiction

Not surprisingly Spring Heeled Jack caused a wave of panic to spread not only across 19th century London but the whole country, the result being that any odd occurrence was quickly attributed to him, and local traditional bogey men were often eclipsed or absorbed into the new stereotype. Such a figure was bound to capture the imagination of creative artists and from as early as the 1840's he would be adopted as the subject of various gothic horror plays, and the subject of those early graphic novels called 'Penny Dreadfuls'. This would in turn shape the subsequent public perception of Jack, and generations later, as we have discovered, it became quite hard to seperate the historical and fictional Jack within the cultural memory. But this was not just a secondary phenomena. As early as the initial attacks in Barnes the first Penny Dreadfuls were being published. At first consisting of popular gothic tales of murderers and highwaymen, by the time of the Spring Heeled Jack scare was at its height they were publishing strange stories of ghosts, and even vampires, in short cliff hanger installments for a penny each. These were the cheapest publications on the market and all the rage among the enthralled populace. These undoubtedly played a role in the escalating panic and probably shaped the public perception of the phenomena. It is thus not surprising that Jack should in turn be absorbed into them. From the very beginning there was a dialectic between fiction and fact in the Spring Heeled Jack saga.

The first fictional account seems to have been as early as 1840, a play called 'Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London', by John Thomas Haines, in which Jack is a dastardly villain who attacks women after he is jilted by his sweetheart. It was soon followed a few years later by the W. G. Willis play 'The Curse of the Wraydons', in which Jack is a traitor during the Napoleonic War who spies for Napoleon, and stages murderous stunts to deflect attention. Later in the 1840s came the first Penny Dreadful to feature Jack, also entitled 'Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London' which appeared in weekly episodes and was written anonymously. It too made Jack a villain, and drew as much from the plays as it did reality. An earlier Penny Dreadful from 1843,'The Old Tar and the Vampire' had featured a mysterious fiend who leapt around the streets of the East End of London, and set at least one person alight with his pyromaniacal skills, but he was not overtly identified with Spring Heel Jack. In 1863 another play, 'Spring-Heel'd Jack: or, The Felon's Wrongs', was written by Frederick Hazleton. Between 1864 and 1867 'Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London' was reissued in a rewritten version. 1878 saw the third Penny Dreadful which appeared in 48 weekly instalments, probably written by George A. Sala or Alfred Burrage under the pseudonym of Charlton Lea. It kept the same title, but totally transformed the story. Jack is no villain in these stories; he uses his powers to right wrongs, and save the innocent from the wicked. Here he is in fact a nobleman by birth, cheated of his inheritance, and his amazing leaps are due to compressed springs in the heels of his boots. He is dressed in a skin-tight glossy red outfit, with bat's wings, a lion's mane, horns, talons, massive cloven hoofs, and a sulphurous breath, he makes spectacular leaps, easily jumping over rooftops or rivers, and is immensely strong. In 1889 this version was reprinted, and in 1904 Charles Burrage's version was published. Finally a remake of 'The Curse of the Wraydons', was written in 1928 by surrealist Swiss author Maurice Sandoz, and later made into a film. Jack has appeared in a variety of fictional mediums ever since, including a recent award winning multi-part radio play, 'The Strange Case of Spring Heel'd Jack' (available on the Wireless Theatre Company website). What is particularly interesting about the publication dates is that they were often published around a year after a wave of SHJ reports, indicating they were feeding on the reports as much as the other way around, despite their influence on Jack's image.

One interesting aspect of the later fictional stories is how they arguably manifest the first notion of the 'superhero'. This primary image survives in the prototypes of the spooky 'masked crimefighters' of a later age, such as the Shadow, and even more so in their more famous culmination. As an heir of a wealthy family, who initially seeks revenge for some wrong done, disguising himself in a tight jumpsuit with a bat like cape and a pointy eared cowl, and using sophisticated gadjets he has invented to give him superhuman abilities, Jack is not too dissimilar to another well known character of almost exactly a century later, Batman, who appears to have been particular influenced by him. The reality of course was very different.

Spring Heeled Jack and the East End Terror

The most dramatic and confirmable encounters with the original Spring Heeled Jack occurred in what is now the East End of London. This should not be surprising as any glance at a map showing the spread of Jack reports reveals them spreading out from Barnes in an orbit around London before curving round pincer like on the east end from both sides. This area also saw the last events in the scare, which can be fairly said to have climaxed here. Again the initial focus was not in London itself but in villages to the east of the city, primarily Bromley by Bow, a small hamlet amidst farmland on the main road between London and Essex. It was here that rumours of Jack's latest antics began to circulate, and sightings reported of a strange caped figure carrying a small lantern in Bow Fair Fields (shades of Jack-o-Lantern), formerly the site of a local fair as the name implies. Similar sightings were reported from the nearby village of Old Ford (the original crossing of the Lea river, and its marshes, before the medieval bow bridge was built at Bromley) as well as in a long quiet country road called Bearbinder Lane (now Tredegar Road). It was here at 1 Bearbinder Lane, on the 21 February around 8:45 in the evening, at the home of one of the areas most well to do families, that the most infamous Spring Heeled Jack encounter occurred. Jane Alsop, the 18 year old daughter of the then invalid John Alsop and his wife, was at home with her two sisters, when she heard an urgent ringing of the bell at the gate. On investigating it, a black cloaked figure in the path exclaimed, "I'm a policeman. For Gods sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane". Jane went to fetch a light for the man. She returned with a white candle and as she was handing the light to the man, it shone on his face and she 'realised that it was Spring Heeled Jack'. The man is then said to have grabbed the candle and cast off his dark cloak, revealing him to be wearing a white oilskin-like coverall and large helmet which fitted him very tightly. His face was 'most hideous and frightful' according to Jane, and his eyes glowed a fiery red. Without warning he spat balls of a blue and white fire into her face, stunning her, before grabbing her neck and proceeding to assault her with his metallic claws. She attempted to run back into the house but he held her firmly in head lock and began tearing into her flesh and clothes with his claws. Freeing herself in the struggle she fled back up the stairs, but Jack held tightly to the back of her hair, ripping a large chunk of it from her head. Fortunately one of her sisters, alerted by her screams, managed to pull her out of his grasps and drag her back into the house, slamming the door in the phantoms face. Jack continued banging loudly on the door for some time, before hastily leaving when the family yelled for the police from the upper windows of the house. Unidentified witnesses claimed that Spring Heeled Jack left quickly, dropping his cloak in a field by Jane's home. It was later also claimed that an 'accomplice' retrieved the cloak, but this is not mentioned in any contemporary report. The first people on the scene appear to be a group from the nearby John Bull pub in Roman Road, a parallel lane to the north running to Old Ford, who had heard their cries for help on leaving for home. It was later said that they had passed a man in long black cloak on their way, who had told them to hurry to the scene as Spring Heeled Jack was at Mr Alsop's house and the police were needed (no one but Alsop and attacker knew this!) The family reported the event before magistrates at Lambeth Street, and a police investigation was launched which confirmed the attack was genuine.

A map of Bromley by Bow at the time of the attack. 1 Bearbinder Lane is slightly off the map by the red mark at the eastern edge of the map. Beyond it is Bow Fair Fields (now an industrialised north south road), beyond that is the village of Old Field. To the north parallel to Bearbinder Lane ran Roman Road, the oldest lane in the area, running straight to Old Ford and containing the John Bull Tavern (it connected to Bearbinder Lane by the road shown and one further east off map). The Morgan Arms is marked by the red dot off Coborn Street). The main road is Bow Road connecting Bow Bridge and Mile End and further west Whitechapel. Note the development along main road which dates to this time, the Necropolis to the south was under constrution and is now Tower Hamlets Cemetery. 

The subsequent police inquiry was inconclusive alas. The official investigators, both Superintendent Young of the Metropolitan Police and the famed detective James Lea acting for the Lambeth St Magistrates (who had earlier caught the Red Barn Murderer), considered the assailant to have been a local man, as he must have known the area and the Alsop family quite well, but while a few suspects were flagged they could not positively identify any culprits. It was established that a man in a black 'spanish cloak' had been haunting the lanes for around a month before the attack, and had been nearly caught by vigilantees in Bow Fair Fields but had escaped with great speed and agility. One strong case was made against a bricklayer called Payne and a carpenter called Millbank. Their accuser was one James Smith, a wheelwright, who claimed to have been the first person on the scene and to have witnessed part of the attack. He said he had encountered Payne and Millbank on
Bearbinder Lane that night, the latter dressed in a white hunting suit and carrying a candle, who were leaving the scene of the crime in some hurry, and later again saw them in the crowd which had gathered outside the Alsop's house talking with Mr Alsop (an unlikely thing for the assailant?) Later still he claimed to have spoken to them again near the Morgan Arms pub in Coburn Street, across the road from Millbank's residence, and alleged they had all but confessed to the crime before entering the pub. Both men denied all this however, and claimed they had been hurrying to the scene attracted by the screams from the house, and had inquired of Mr Alsop what had occured. The publican of the White Hart Pub in Old Ford claimed they had in fact been on his premises at the time of the crime, though had left shortly after, and confirmed that Millbank had bought a candle at a nearby store to light his way home. This candle was later found in his pocket. This appears to be a good alibi however it need be born in mind that clocks were not accurate, or well synchronised, in this period. Both said they had both been drunk, particularly Millbank, who said himself he could remember little of the night in question. However Jane Alsop had said her assailant was most definitely not drunk and very much in charge of his senses, nor could she recognize either of the suspects as the attacker (one of whom, Payne, was a former employee of her father) and considered her assailant taller and slimer than Millbank. Details of Smith's witness account of the attack also differed slightly to Alsop's, declaring it to have been less violent than she claimed and to have not involved any flame other than the light of a candle. Why Smith would lie about this is unknown, it may be that he had a grudge against Millbank and Payne, but not enough to accuse them of a more serious assault, or perhaps he was just mudding the waters, knowing Milbank would not be convicted. A friend of Smith's, a shoemaker called Richardson, had claimed he had also encountered a strange man in a long cloak, accompanied by a young boy, near the Alsop residence just after the attack, who laughingly declared that 'Spring Heeled Jack was in the lane that night', but he also failed to identify either Millbank or Payne. Confusingly this man was later identified as a Mr Fox, who said he was too ill to attend the hearing, but sent a letter to the magistrates declaring his belief that he was the man with the boy, but had worn no cloak, and was merely attracted to the house by the screams. A strange aspect to this is that no one had said the assailant was Spring Heeled Jack on the night of the attack, though it would not be hard to guess. Millbank had also left the scene along Bearbinder Lane according to Smith, while the party from the John Bull pub, in Roman Road, who encountered a caped figure, must have approached the house along another country lane, now Parnell Street, and not Bearbinder Lane. The magistrate, Mr Hardwick, quized both Smith and Alsop closely and she insisted flame had been blown into her face, contrary to Smith's strong denials, and suceeded in convincing him this was true. Further investigations were made and unconfirmed reports were recieved of a 'man in fancy dress' practising fire breathing on Bow Fair Fields earlier in the week, but he could not be traced. Hardwick was convinced that neither Milbank nor any other suspect was capable of this feat and closed the inquiry. The police abandoned the investigation soon after.

Many researchers, such as Mike Dash, are of the opinion that the Bow Attacker was the same person responsible for the encounters to the west of London, due to the similarities between the two sets of attacks. But I can find no real evidence to support this and suspect the events were local in origin. But to call them copy cat events would not be appropiate as they far out shone the original attacks and must have had consideable resources behind them.

By this time Jack seems to have been a familiar figure further west in the east end of London, as a report from the Chelmsford Chronicle, a local Essex newspaper, dated 23 February 1838, describes an encounter (probably occurring on the 13th Feb) under the heading 'a Cockney Ghost in The Country'. Here a butcher from Upminster reported a midnight encounter a huge 'grisly spectre' clothed in silver grey. The butcher for some reason is said to have identified this 'hobgoblin' with an amalgam of all the animals he had ever slaughtered. He attempted to escape but found the creature blocking his path at every turn. He finally fled the way he had come. The newspaper identified the spook with Jack but also displayed a mocking scepticism towards the report which it regarded as a hoax.
On the 25 February at around 8pm there was a knock on the door at 2 Turner Street, in the wealthier quarter of Whitechapel in the heart of the East End. The servant who answered the door was asked, by a tall shadowy figure in a long black cloak, if his employer Mr Ashworth was at home. On answering the figure cast off its cloak to reveal itself as a horrendous fiend. The servant fell back inside and slammed the door, and his terrified cries alerted the house and whole neighbourhood. Unidentified witnesses claim to have seen the figure bound off down the street (a later account declared it then 'leapt over a house' in its flight). Haining claims the servant saw a crest on the creature's costume, a large W, that was later identified as that of the Marquis of Waterford. None of these more sensational and elaborate details appear in contemporary news reports however, which stick to the basic story from the servant, and it is likely they derive from the fictionalised retelling of the story.

Three days later on the 28th at about 8:30pm Lucy Scales, the 18 year old sister of a Limehouse butcher, was walking along Narrow Street, returning with her younger sister from her brother's house. As she turned into Green Dragon Alley, 'the second on the left about nine doors down from Mr Turner's wharf, leading into Risby's rope walk', she was confronted by a tall, thin figure in a large black cloak, standing at an angle in the passage. She approached him and noticed he was carrying a bulls eye lantern and seemed to be wearing a bonnet (for which reason she initially assumed it was a woman). No sooner than she had noticed this the figure spat a quantity of blue flame and fumes into her face, and she collapsed on the floor in fits. Her younger sister screamed upon witnessing this and soon her brother came running along Narrow Street, to find her trying to assist Lucy who was having violent fits on the pavement. There was no sign of the stranger. This incident was also investigated by the Lambeth Street magistrates who found that the two sister's descriptions of the event matched exactly, and that it was supported in part by her brother's testimony, and declared their belief that this was a real occurrence and that the culprit was the same as in of the Bow and Whitechapel attacks. A doctor also testified that Lucy's fits had lasted for several hours after the attack, and that she had been 'temporarily blinded' by the blue flames. Curiously the brother declared they had been reading a newspaper report of the Bow incident minutes before leaving the house and he had assured them that Jack would never dare visit Limehouse. Some reports say the figure bounded away after the attack, but Lucy's sister testified that it turned silently and left, though with extreme speed.

This was the last event in the East End Scare, though perhaps not the last that would be heard of Spring Heeled Jack.

Jack Returns or Does He?

Following the events in the East End and neighbouring areas nothing was heard of the 1837 style Jack for several years (although one off scares were reported in various parts of the country). There were however various obvious hoaxes and some successful arrests of copy cat assailants in this period. The first was as early as March 1838 in Marylebone where a youth was accosted by two Jacks, both tall men in long black cloaks, their faces speared with red brick dust, whom he claimed he narrowly escaped from. Such copy cats were also active through out the 1840s but no attacks as dramatic or strange as the 1838 assaults were reported. Then it seems to have started all over again. New mysterious encounters with Jack were alleged through out the 1840s and it was feared he had returned. They occurred all over Britain, particularly in the Midlands and Home Counties, but were also quite different. For one they seem to have been totally ignored by contemporary newspapers (though researchers still search the archives to little avail), in fact all the available accounts suspiciously come from secondary sources of a later date. On close examination the only notable feature of these accounts is the occasional suprising agility of the assailants, but no claws, blue flames or any other features of the earlier attacks were described. The form of the assailants also varied almost as much as the original sightings, and apart from their agility, the only feature that generally identified them as Jack were their black cloaks or white clothes. A more dramatic encounter was allegedly reported in 1847 however when a 'goblin-like form, in a bull's hide, with a white moustache', is said to have been encountered by a terrified woman in Teignmouth, before it quickly fled with 'great agility'. Significantly however no act they performed was incompatible with that capable of an experienced hoaxer. Nor have the reports been confirmed yet of actually occuring, they may be much later fabrications. The 1850s and 60s seem relatively free of any phenomena genuinely attributable to Spring Heeled Jack, though various mysterious deaths in this period were blamed on him, particularly those whose bodies were found in inaccessible places, or on remote country roads, and those few with 'deep scratches' or 'strange burns' on the body, but with little if any other evidence of who the culprit was. Some of these were later found to have other more common criminal explanations.

The situation was a little different in the 1870's, when a real scare began again, with the reign of the 'Peckham Ghost' of 1872 and the Sheffield 'Park Ghost' of 1873, and later the singular 'Aldershot Ghost' and 'Newport Jack' of 1877, which do have genuinely strange aspects, not least the presence of poltergeist phenomena associated with the Peckham attacks. All of these phantoms were associated in the public imagination with Spring Heeled Jack, simply due to Jack's reputation, and the fact that they were said to be commited by some phantom who was extremely agile when chased, and was sometimes said to leap great heights, though this aspect was seldom reported in the press, with only the sensationalist News of the World and Illustrated Police News describing the spooks as Spring Heeled Jack attacks. Their appearance was only superficially like Jack's as well, being generally tall figures in various kinds of white clothing, sometimes including the stereotypical white sheet. Alas most sound like unimaginative hoaxers again (even the poltergeist phenomena was often associated with pranksters throwing stones at buildings). Though the Peckham phantom, often seen in his 'natty white costume and feathered cap' sounds at least a little more imaginative than either the white shrouded Sheffield or Aldershot spooks. He was also encountered on Jack's old stomping grounds Peckham and Nunhead, where the phantom had allegedly jumped a six foot fence in a path next to Nunhead Necropolis, after previously appearing nearby with a 'flaming face'! A few days later at Herne Hill a leaping figure was said to have been encountered wearing 'dark clothing', which he could somehow remove to reveal his ghostly white suit beneath. But no bizarre masks, claws, capes or fire breathing were noted in any of these encounters. The modus of the 70s spook was also unlike that of the original Jack, being content to leap out on victims and scare them rather than physically attack them. With only the Aldershot Ghost physically interacting with his victims, solders on nocturnal guard duty at the barracks, and then only with a slight slap to the face before bounding off dodging the bullets! While these figures are very interesting and worthy of a dedicated study in their own right, I don't think they can be regarded as a continuation of the original Spring Heeled Jack phenomena, despite their similarities. The reign of the Peckham Ghost ended with the arrest of a hoaxer dressed as the phantom had, though encounters were reported for a little while after, and the one off Aldershot attack was also similarly dismissed as a prank. The Newport Jack case was a short series of alleged sightings of a figure in a lambs fleece jumping across roof tops and walls, and particularly associated with the Roman Arch in the town, but again no report of this has ever been found in a contemporary newspaper, other than the unreliable Illustrated Police News and so its veracity is uncertain.  

Spring Heeled Jack's last accredited British performance was said to be in Liverpool in 1904. But the details of this are vague. An undescribed figure refered to as 'Jumping Jack' was certainly reported in the area in 1888, specifically in Shaw Street, Everton, at one time climbing the spire of a local church. But Mike Dash's research in local newspaper libraries only reveals tales of a poltergeist at the same site in 1904, which locals attributed to the then legendary Spring Heeled Jack who had been encountered at the very same spot. But there appear to be no first hand accounts of any phantom in Liverpool at this time. At the same time that Jumping Jack was being reported in Liverpool Jack the Ripper was beginning his gruesome reign in Whitechapel. False associations between several unexplained deaths in the 1860s and Spring Heeled Jack led some locals to fear he was the murderer (one early hoaxed letter supposedly from the Ripper was actually signed 'Spring Heeled Jack'!). The association was soon dismissed but it may have played a role in the final dubbing of the Whitechapel Murderer.

The last time anything like Jack seems to have been experienced in Britain was in the 1920s, when the Bradford Ghost eluded his pursuers with amazing agility and speed in the September of 1926. Like his earlier predecessors this phantom was a figure in white, this time a sheet and cowl, making him look like a member of the Klu Klux Klan according to some witnesses. Again the figure haunted the area for a short time before vanishing never to be heard of again.

Other phantoms of a similar nature have been reported worldwide since then, with one, the Provincetown Phantom, being almost a Canadian clone of London's Jack, but these will be explored in an attached appendix below.

What was Behind the Mystery?


The fact that some of Jack's antics were actually the work of pranksters is undeniable. Many individuals have been named as suspects, and the most famous will be explored in a moment. But we don't really have to look for great individual pranksters. In the newspapers of the 1840s reports of the apprehension of several Spring Heeled Jack hoaxers and copycats, as well as the veiled identification of 'suspected pranksters', is common place. For example, a wave of sightings of Jack around 1843 in Epping Forest, in the form of a black caped, 'fire breathing' figure spooking travellers, were attributed to the high jinks of an unnamed local man, whose identity is still said to be held secret by his family (how he performed the fire breathing is not said). As early as March 1838, a youth of Kentish Town, called Daniel Granville, was cautioned for impersonating Spring Heeled Jack by donning a 'hideous mask' with blue glazed paper at the mouth to simulate flames, and an 18 year old potman from Kilburn was fined £4 for leaping out at people in white sheet, mask and false beard. in 1845 a Worcester man, Thomas Lowland, was sentenced to three years hard labour for impersonating Spring Heeled Jack and terrorising his neighbourhood (including the local police, which perhaps explains his atypical sentence); in the same year a butcher in Brentford, Richard Bedford, was cautioned for jumping out on a young woman disguised as a ghost. In 1845 a feverish, elderly man named Purdy had 'inadvertently' created a scare in Yarmouth when he wandered into the street in a sheet, only to be killed by a terrified local youth. A few years later in 1847 another elderly man, Edward Finch, was convicted in Teignmouth of several sexual assaults while disguised as Jack. Earlier an Islington blacksmith, named James Priest, was been sentenced to three months hard labour for indecent assault on several young women while impersonating Jack. These were probably only the tip of the iceberg of many other apparent pranks that were taking place all over Britain and whose perpetrators went undetected in the 1840s (far too many for a small group of organised hoaxers). This pattern would be repeated in the subsequent 'Spring Heeled Jack' scares of the late 19th century. It is thus likely that Jack's entire history, was peppered with such hoaxes. The interest fact here is that all these perpetrators were loners from humble backgounds no organised gang or well to do hoaxer was ever caught.

Some of course claim these hoaxers were just amateur copycats and that the real pranksters were far cleverer and responsible for more ingenious hoaxes. Such claims often draw on the story of the aristocratic wager. However these claims have very little evidence behind them. The wager theory crops up again and again across the decades in different places, without any supporting evidence, indicating that it is probably just an urban myth. It is not impossible that some of the hoaxers came from the upper classes, in fact it is quite plausible given that pranks have no class distinctions and the bored idle rich always have the spare time and resources. But despite claims in fictional a semi-factual works no convincing suspect has ever been found. The most infamous suspect being the Marquis of Waterford, Henry de La Poer Beresford, an Irish nobleman residing in London, then notorious for his riotous drunken behaviour and high jinks, who has been seriously put forward as a likely culprit since at least 1880 (though rumours are said to have existed as early as the 1840s). This view is supported by the fact the Marquis left London in 1842 and no more similar assaults took place after this (though the attacks stopped four prior to his departure). However no evidence links him to the scares, and none of his other known behaviour matches Jack's predilections. Haining's book, 'The Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack', tries to point the finger at him, but is undermined by false evidence, such as the Polly Adams encounter and the myth of the W on the attackers cape in the Whitechapel case. Furthermore his known whereabouts at certain times counter the possibility of his being involved, at least as a lone assailant.Curiously the later Penny Dreadfuls spend an inordinate amount of time exonerating Waterford, pointing out this fact that he was often known to be elsewhere when Jack struck. This may have been due a need to dispel popular rumour or earlier fictional claims, in order to strengthen a new plot, either of which could have been Haining's ultimate source. Another popular candidate is the High Court Judge, later Baron Brampton, Sir Henry Hawkins, who was said to have been a Spring Heeled Jack impersonator in Hitchin while a bored law student. But as this was in 1836, a year before the first sighting, and included an alleged confession to the use of spring loaded boots, it is an unlikely claim! The biggest flaw with the any such theory though is its claim that the spectacular leaps were made with the aid of spring loaded boots. As anyone with even the slightest engineering knowledge will realise this is extremely unlikely, especially on uneven ground. An unsourced but plausible report claims that the Germans tried to create an identical pair of boots for use by their special forces in WWII, over a century later, but the technology proved impossible, with 85% of the 'test pilots' breaking their ankles!
Of course such hoaxing didn't begin or end with Spring Heeled Jack, there are accounts of people dressing up as ghosts and scaring their neighbours going back to the year dot. In fact immediately before the Springald phenomenon began there was at least one other famous case. This occurred in Hammersmith in 1803, when a figure dressed variously in a white sheet or animal skins disturbed the town for several weeks as the 'Hammersmith Ghost' before being apprehended.  Prior to his capture a bricklayer called Millward, dressed in white, was mistaken for the ghost and shot dead (ironically his ghost is now thought to haunt the area!). While in at least one other case a prankster himself was shot and killed. It seems a sport of 'ghosting' existed at this time, a rural pastime of spooking the gullible, albeit a dangerous one. Given the use of animal skins, as well as perhaps masks, this may be associated with the related ancient tradition of 'guising' - the origin of 'trick or treating', carried out as part of various rural festivals, especially during Halloween, and believed by some to have pagan origins. There is even the old suspicion that it may have also had a practical purpose on occasions, when country people wanted to keep others away from the scenes of some of their less than lawful activities. Certainly the forms taken by the early Jack were all those known to have been used as costumes in traditional guising or in mumming plays, that is: people in animal skins or horned headdresses, knights in armour, devilish looking characters and spooks of all kinds.
Note: I'm grateful to Steve Wilson for pointing out that those who would have have the greatest access to such props, as well as perhaps clawed gloves and theatrical skills, were the acting profession and those who assisted them in the theatre, and that in the 1830s the latter were then organised into a secretive mutual aid and drinking society known as the Order of Buffaloes. Further research reveals that the first degree of this order was called The Kangeroo! The society maintained its own mythic origins in a 'bull cult' of Ancient Egypt, supposedly passed down through the knightly orders of the crusades to showmen! It is likely that a lodge of this 'secret society', also known as 'the working man's freemasonry', was associated with Bow and Greenwich Fairs.
Similarly traditional craft guilds such as those of Blacksmiths and Wheelwrights were known for their arcane rituals and also organised and took part in Mumming Plays at such fairs.

A Local Conspiracy in Bow?

Given this old tradition another possible motive raises its head. Smith the chief accuser on the Bow investigation was a Wheelwright, and several of the arrested attackers were Blacksmiths (who could easily fabricate the metal claws). Both of these would have in this period been part of their local craft associations and so a plausible network can be identified. 

The original medieval guilds had vanished by the 18th century, however they would continue for at least another century as mutual aid societies between members of certain crafts, many preserving their ancient initiation rituals. It may be significant that the social tension present between rural communities and incoming urbanites overspilling from an overcrowded London was at its height at this time. Many of these 'townies' were industrialists, or their employees, who sought to 'modernise' the areas they moved into. Bow in particular seems to have been a particular hotspot, with the newcomers banning a 'noisy and unruly' fair that took place every year on Bow Fair Fields (and was coordinated with a simultaneous fair in Greenwich, with participants crossing the river between them).  Bow Fair Fields soon after became a centre of industrialisation in the area (in 1861 becoming the site of the Bryant and May match factory scene of Annie Besant's Match Girl Strike in 1888).

Such a fair would have dated back to medieval times and been central to the local community and so its banning a great source of tension. It would also probably have employed many locals as carnivalesque performers and guisers in May. These events were not long after the Captain Swing riots of 1830, when the introduction of farm machinery impoverished many tenant farmers and led to arson attacks on the developers. Captain Swing was the signature of a 'Robin Hood' type figure who signed various threatening letters associated with these arson attacks. Many middle class radicals and country gentry also supported this movement and some even encouraged it broader 'revolutionary' excalation. It failed with many of the rioters being This is of course speculation, but no more so than the 'aristocratic wager' theory. The Jacob connection mentioned earlier is also interesting in this respect, not only is Jacob (and so Jacques and Jack) punned with 'heel', but is also said to mean 'protector' in Hebrew folklore, and is biblically connected with two related groups fighting over territory (something more than relevant given the social circumstances of rural Britain in the1830s). 

We might speculate further on this line if only because I don't think anyone else has. The major landowners in Bow at the time were the Morgan family of the Barons Tredegar of Monmothshire (after whom several new roads in the area were named, as well as the Morgan Arms Pub, Bearbinder Lane itself was later renamed Tredegar Rd). Though by 1840 they had sold off a lot of their property in the area to developers. Several of the Morgan family were Conservative MPs for Breconshire and although of Welsh origin often resided in London duing the late 18th and 19th centuries (perhaps in the one of the expensive mansion houses in Bow's Tredegar Square, just west of the Morgan Arms pub, built in the early 1830s). What role they may or may not have played in the events is uncertain (
there is no hard evidence any of the Morgans were even in London in 1838). They straddle both camps, Conservatives made richer in Wales through their close association with Welsh industrialists, they were never less descended from the medieval aristocracy of the Welsh borders and as MPs many were staunch defenders of the welfare of the lower classes. A particular interesting member of the family was Octavius Morgan the eccentric younger brother of Charles Morgan, 1st Baron Tredegar. He was a president of the Royal Archaeological Institute (and a patron of the British Museum in London), as well as a Fellow of the Masonic Royal Society as well as one of the richest men in London. He was well known for his interest in novel mechanisms and automatons, as well as an expert on clocks and lock mechanisms (though presumably springed boots were even beyond him). He is believed to have resided in London between 1832 and 1839 when he left for Wales, where he lived in The Friars, a former Camelite Monastry converted into a Tudor style mansion, that he completed with antique Elizabethan furniture and a complex mechanical system of locking doors, Here installed a strange octagonal pulpit from which he delivered religious sermons to his staff. He became a Justice of the Peace in Monmouthshire and became the regions MP in 1841, presumably returning to London when parliament was sitting. Curiously the first owner of the Friars was Dr Anthony Hawkins a distant relative of the Judge Sir Henry Hawkins, a one time Spring Heeled Jack suspect. The Morgan family produced a few eccentrics down the years, the last was Evan Morgan, Baron Tredegar, who was well known as a bohemian and was an associate of Aleister Crowley - being a practising occultist himself, before converting to Catholicism. He was particularly renowned for the managerie of animals that lived with him in his home. His mother was another eccentric, who allegedly believed she was a kingfisher, while his sister droped out of society completely, becoming a drug addict, before commiting suicide in the Thames at Limehouse. An unusual family but  one of London's richest, which could also boast of several royal connections. Their home was famous for its soirees, which some of the most bohemian members of London society regularly attended.

Unfortunately if there was an organised group behind Spring Heeled Jack we may now never discover them. The apparently impossible leaps and speed, resistance to bullets and fire breathing would also be a considerable problem for any would be hoaxer.

swing swing rioters

The Swing Rioters of 1830 torching a landowners haystacks (right) and a modern steampunk version of Captain Swing (left) by Raulo Caceres (linked with Spring Heeled Jack in graphic novel CAPTAIN SWING & THE ELECTRICAL PIRATES OF CINDERY ISLAND )

Mass Hysteria?

It seems unlikely that the hundreds of alleged encounters were all hoaxes, not least because such hoaxes seem not all that common and the scare was so unprecedented and widespread. As even the newspapers admitted, something must have started it. Another reason being the difficulty in hoaxing some of the attributes of the phenomena, the apparently impossible leaps and the fire breathing in particular. There may however be another explanation for these that explains much of the phenomenon as a whole. Many have suggested the apparently paranormal elements were exaggerated, and this is probably true with the many second and third hand stories. But given the hysteria they caused in several of the victims this seems unlikely to explain all the bizarre cases. But the clue may be in the hysteria itself. Psychologists have long known of a rare phenomena they have called Psychogenic Disorder. In reality this may be rather more common than they realise. The term basically means 'born in the mind' and covers a wide range of so called psychosomatic conditions. Its most dramatic forms however are Mass Hysteria and Collective Hallucination. The latter is recognised as a symptom of the former in many cases and there was certainly a lot of hysteria around in 1837.

The following condensed information is based on information distributed to universities, with a few additions, and gives a general idea of the nature of the phenomena (highlights added):

Information Concerning Mass Collective Behavior and Psychogenic Illness

Kerckhoff and Back (1968) suggest that there are collective human behaviors which produce different kinds of activities and phenomena. These include crowd or mob behaviors, panics, movements, crazes and fads. These types of behaviors often occur under stress or when the ordered reality of a culture or group is disrupted (Conner, 1989). They are often associated with irrational rumours.

Another type of collective behavior according to Kerckhoff and Back (1968) is a "hysterical contagion". It consists of the quick dissemination within a collection of people of a symptom, or a set of symptoms, for which no physical explanation can be found. Typical cases today include illness caused by alleged food poisoning, insects bites, toxic fumes, or environmental pollutants for which no pathogenic agent can be found. In this type of collective behavior something happens to affected individuals and they view themselves as victims. This type of behavior is typically referred to as " mass hysteria" or "mass psychogenic illness". "Mass psychogenic illness" or "contagious psychogenic illness" is defined as the collective occurrence of a set of physical symptoms and related beliefs among several individuals without an identifiable pathogen (Colligan and Murphy 1982:33). Symptoms included fits, convulsions, twitching, muscle spasms, abdominal cramps nausea, and headaches).

Symptomology and Characteristics of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses 

There is a remarkable similarity between the symptomology of the mass psychogenic illnesses no matter what the triggering event. Some of the major characteristics common to psychogenic illness include:

1. Sudden onset with dramatic symptoms, rapid spread and rapid recovery. All studies reporting psychogenic illness discuss the rapidity of the onset of the illness. Most of these epidemics are gone in a few hours or days.

2. Predominantly young female populations. From 60 to 90% of victims of psychogenic illnesses have "historically been young females" (Colligan and Murphy,1982:41).

3. Victims often know each other or are in the same friendship circles. Observing a friend become sick is the best predictor of the development of symptoms (Small, et al 1991; Colligan, Pennebaker, Murphy 1982;Stahl and Lebedun, 1974)

4. A triggering stimulant. An auditory or visual triggering stimulus is generally found. Victims interpret this stimulus as a toxic fume or gas, tainted food, bug bites or toxic pollutant. Upon investigation, when an odor can even be detected, cleaning solvent, painting, machinery or repair liquids, unfamiliar construction or fumigation odors have sometimes been found (Rockney and Lemke, 1992; Colligan, Pennebaker, Murphy 1982).

5. Underlying psychological or physical stress. Individual stress from an unfamiliar environment or performance anxiety; social stress including war, rapid technological change, or epidemic diseases; and school and work related stress including the beginning of the school year are common (Sirois 1982; Rockney and Lemke 1992; Colligan, Pennebaker, Murphy, 1992).

6. Boredom, or perceived boredom. Worker boredom with routine tasks has been found in many cases of illness (Kerckhoff and Back 1968).

7. A felt lack of emotional or social support. This is more likely to occur among new members in a community of people (Kerckhoff and Back, 1968).

8. Any unsolved mystery can lead to anxiety, fear, spread of rumor and even possible litigation (Brodsky 1988). Therefore, it is important that individuals working a university environment understand the potential consequences of this psychogenic phenomena.

Another, though apparently rarer, form of psychogenic phenomena is Collective Hallucination. This is broadly similar to Mass Hysteria and over laps with it to a certain extent. Its unique feature is the production of shared hallucinations (visual, audial or cognitive) in a group of people. The delusion is usually found initially in one person but can spread by contagion. The phenomena is most common in affinity groups at the site of some shared activity. Otherwise it is similar to Mass Hysteria.

A possible explanation of the SHJ phenomena can be seen in all this. Given the right psychosocial background an appropriate trigger (such as an aggressive young bull in Barnes) could led to a mass psychogenic event which included hallucinations of 'phantom assailants' rather than of the toxic fumes, microbes or insects that inform many modern cases. Physical symptoms and distorted memories associated with these attacks could have subsequently been produced psychosomatically. The forms the hallucinations took may have been shaped by folklore, local rumour and particularly media reports. The strongest evidence for this possibility is the number of teenage girls involved in the phenomena and the fact that many went into fits after the 'attack' (the Scales case at Limehouse sounds like a classic example). Another common feature is the spread of 'irrational rumours' while the phenomena remains unexplained (including both 'supernaturalism' that of the 'aristocratic wager').

However counter indications include the fact that the phenomena spread very widely before newspapers reported it and retained a basically consistent form (magazines and chapbooks are an alternative carrier, though none have yet been found that match the early sightings closely enough). Rumour may have been a factor in this but the area covered was unusually large and discontinuous. Also the 'epidemic', lasting at least six months is atypically long for this kind of phenomena. There were also other sightings of a 'mystery man' near Limehouse at least a month before the 'attack' (a stimulus perhaps but a curious one). Most damning of all was the fact that some victims were not young women but mature adult males who received severe physical wounds from the attacks. However the way the phenomena spread out from Barnes in all directions, before homing in on an area with the largest population density, is characteristic of an 'psychogenic contagion'.

What seems a highly likely explanation for this is that the phenomena was a 'symbiotic' combination of hoaxing and hysteria, both feeding off each other and extending the panic. But while we have seen that hoaxing was commonplace, and that a psychogenic contagion was a highly plausible component of the scare, there are other questions that need to be answered before we jump to such an easy conclusion. Were all the physical events possible for hoaxers, are all the reports of 'paranormal phenomena' explicable through psychogenic explanation, and were the necessary conditions for such psychogenic contagion really present? 

Possible Anomalous Phenonema?

The problematic elements of the 1838 Spring Heeled Jack encounters in terms of conventional explanation are basically fourfold:

1) The incredible leaps and swiftness reported of the phantom.

2) It's fire breathing and other incendiary phenomena.

3) The phantom's alleged imperviousness to bullets. 

4) Parallel poltergeist phenomena.

While other elements such as the strange appearance of the assailant can be put down to disguise or perceptual distortion, and features like the apparent metallic claws attributed to the involvement of a rogue blacksmith or theatrical supplier, the four elements listed above are harder to explain.

The forth factor moves the legend into a whole new context, but may be the easiest element to discount. Curiously while both the Peckham Ghost scare of 1872 included a poltergeist factor (in the form of a 'stone throwing ghost'), as did the Liverpool events of 1904 (another 'stone throwing ghost'), no such reports were associated with the 1838 scare. However figures flying over six foot hedges may seem psychokinetic enough for some! Also in both cases pranksters were caught faking or creating the phenomena by throwing stones themselves, though the phenomena continued at a lower level after they were caught. Despite this the fakers were copying something, the 1830s saw a wave of genuine poltergeist activity which inspired these hoaxes in the first place, so we can't glibly dismiss them all as fake. It is well established that wierd phenomena of all sorts seem to cluster, ghosts, strange monsters, UFOs and even falling fish are well known to occur in parallel clusters no matter how disconnected they seem. The presense of poltegeist activity in the earlier cases may have been harder to detect in the wider area the events covered, no study has attempted to correlate London's poltergeist phenomena with Spring Heeled Jack encounters, and alas this may be now impossible. It has to be admitted of course that the presence of hoaxers in the known cases is very damning. 

The third might also be the easy to account for. Mike Dash's detailed investigations revealed that the aim of the average panicking civilian sounds often quite below par, as might be expected, and the professional marksmen involved, if any, seem to have more often fired blanks in warning than in any serious attempt to bring down their target. The phantom's evasion of live bullets seems less amazing in this context (the cases are also more common in the 1877 Aldershot Barracks affair than in the 1838 scare). But despite valiant attempts by many researchers the remaining three elements are far more difficult to explain away.

The leaps were the characteristic attribute of Jack, but as we have seen the idea that he really had springs in his boots is patently absurd. A more serious question is did they really occur? An examination of the verified reports shows that most didn't include leaping ability, and tales of his notorious evasions from pursuers are hardly documented at all. In fact only in a handful of accounts across the entire span of the 19th century is he actually credited with leaping obstacles of six feet or more. Of course even this would be hard for a hoaxer, and the fact that at on at least one occasion they facilitated his escape indicates they could not have all been hallucinated or fabricated. However this account comes from one of the Villiers accounts, rather than a verified newspaper report. We thus might be tempted to dismiss it, on the flimsy grounds of 'common sense', but if we take it at face value it seems hard to account for. Some have argued that for cases where Jack sprang towards his victim over a hedge, or fence, a hidden springboard could have been involved, though this does not seem to have occurred very often, if at all. Others invoke the modern sport of free-running, which includes the use of various pieces of street furniture, and other walls, as environmental springboards to assist a vault over a high obstacle. If so Jack must have been a trained acrobat, and while this may work in a cluttered urban environment it is difficult to see how it could be put to use in the open countryside that saw most of Jack's alleged leaps. Thus the only prosaic explanation seems to be their denial, though we are really in no justifiable position to do this. As has been pointed out many times, he wasn't called Spring Heeled Jack for nothing. Perhaps his name merely reflected his speed and stride, which may have even been really assisted by weakly springed heels, with the rest being exaggeration, but we still have the odd eyewitness report to account for. Less prosaic explanations, short of purely paranormal accounts, include the apparently superhuman abilities of the insane or the 'possessed' but no such suspects have ever been identified.

The fire breathing appears easily explicable at first glance. The presence of a blue flame is characteristic of an alcohol based fuel, and so indicative of a simple 'circus act'. The fact that it was an objective phenomenon seems indicated by the several witnesses of the blue flame, with no apparent knowledge of each other (apart from the Scales and Alsop incidents), the apparent lack of any previous instances or folklore regarding it, as well as the possible physical damage done to Scales by the flames as affirmed by the doctor. This combined with the leaping ability might be further evidence that Jack was a circus performer. Though he must have been an amazingly multi-talented one (where was his show it must have been a sell out?)

However things are not as simple as they seem. The fire breathing act is very dangerous and requires total concentration and a stable, wind free environment, and it was very likely that the night of Alsop attack was quite windy. Although the exact weather that night is unknown we know from contemporary weather records that an unusually strong gale blew across Britain a couple of days later, and the winter that year was extremely cold and mostly windy (we know this from the accounts of Charles Dickens whose novel Oliver Twist was set in the terrible winter of 1837-38).  But even in light wind this is not something that is often performed in open countryside by acrobatic pranksters, at least not without extreme risk (note this also seems to exclude drunken hoaxers like Millbank). More importantly it requires an external flame to ignite the spat fuel. In the Scales case it is interesting that a candle is asked for and grabbed before the blue flames are breathed. Jack had also not spoken since Jane Alsop returned with the candle. But no container of fuel was even spotted or found at the scene. The Scales case included a lantern, but this was closed and no open flame seems present nor alcohol container. The Dulwich case has neither, and here the phantom appears to be actually happily burning rather than just breathing fire! The fire thus seems inexplicable in at least these two cases. The only prosaic explanation would appear to be to deny the reality of the South London phantom as a probable hallucination, to assume a 'Bow hoaxer' had read about this and attempted a prank based on it, and that the Limehouse assault was an hysterical contagion based on newspaper reports. All of which seems a lot of assumptions to make just to dismiss a more paranormal perspective which these days is fairly well established as a possible if rare reality. Curiously I recently found this qoute in the book Taming the Pooka, Celtic Tales of the Trickster Fairy, edited by Varla Ventura, 'the Pooka can take almost any form, including invisibility, though it is most frequently sighted in the form of a horse - a black horse with eyes of fire, breathing a blue flame'. And of certain traditional validity there is this from wikipedia, abluecap or blue cap is a mythical fairy o ghost in English Folklore. They inhabit mines and appear as small blue flames'. At the very least the hoaxer knew his folklore.

In conclusion while prosaic explanations may be possible for most of these features at least, they often seem to stretch plausibility for the sake of explaining away awkward facts. Though it has to be admitted that no hard evidence currently exists for a paranormal component to the original scare. Given its possibility the question remains open to all but the most doctrinaire sceptic. The fact that few, if any, hoaxers have managed to recreate the phenomenal of 1838 in the past two centuries, despite many attempts, may indicate how difficult it would have been then.
One curiously inexplicable physical anomaly was associated with the 1838 scare however. This concerns the appearance of mysterious animal tracks found in the countryside around Hounslow, close to where the Spring Heeled Jack phenomena began. These were witnessed by zoologist Frank Buckland when a boy. Buckland dates them to between 1837 and 1839 in his popular book about his zoological career, and says they were associated by locals with the both the mysterious 'devil's hoofmarks', found in other parts of the country in the same period, as well, of course, with Spring Heeled Jack (indicating a popular association was being made between these two strange phenomenon). Buckland himself thought they were made by a kangaroo, and subsequently developed an 'escaped kangeroo' theory of Jacks exploits. Though he fails to explain how Skippy got the cape on!

Demons, Sprites and Wizards

Many people regarded Spring Heeled Jack to be an evil spirit, or at least a supernatural entity, and some still do. And considering his apparent abilities this is not surprising. Certainly as a Fortean I would not dismiss the possibility. And this does seem to be how most rural people regarded the phenomena in 1837, linking his appearance in particular with those creatures traditionally associated with spirit manifestations, the white bull, the bear or the more obvious folkloric entities of devil, imp and ghoul (though this is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the idea of hoaxers exploiting the same imagery). Such explanations are obviously rejected by science, a discipline still in its infancy, but a look at some of the folklore associated with these ideas can at least give us an insight in to how some of his contemporaries may have viewed him. Jack may have been essentially a term for the Devil for some, as was the more familiar 'Old Nick', but the indications are that many held a dark fascination with the figure, perhaps informed by the less 'demonic' and more 'heathen' associations of their folklore.

We covered most of the folklore figures similar to Jack earlier, Jack-o-Kent, Jack-o-Lantern, the Hedley Kow, even the Pooka are all relevant in this context. But there are other interesting aspects too. The fact that the attacks took place on the boundary may be significant, for it is at such boundaries or liminal zones that such spooky phenomena is traditionally said to be common. More specifically the Bow case occured very near Old Ford and the Bow Bridge across the River Lea, the ancient boundary between Middlesex and Essex. Likewise the Barnes and Hampton events both of which initiated new features of the phenomena occured on the fringe of the Surrey Middlesex border otherwise known as the River Thames. another liminal feature was the crossroad, several of the attacks appear to have occured near or on crossroads though this is hard to confirm in most cases. One acception being the Bow attack, 1 Bearbinder Lane as the name suggests is on the end of the lane at a T junction with Fair Field Lane. Similarly 2 Turner St in Whitechapel was also on a crossroads. But perhaps this is all just coincidence. The famous nursery rhyme 'Jack be Nimble' may a be quite significant. The short verse 'Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick' is universally agreed by scholars to refer to the custom of candle jumping practised at English fairs (and no doubt at both Bow and Greenwich fairs) since a least the 16th century, and believed to be derived from a more ancient tradition of bonfire leaping, thought to bring good luck or fertility. But no one is sure who Jack is supposed to be. One story has him as Black Jack, a 16th century pirate who constantly eluded the authorities, another as a clergyman in the time of Henry VIII, who couldn't decide if he was a Catholic or Anglican, on pain of being burned at the stake, and so oscillated between the two, while a few modern commentators see him as the memory of a pagan priest, perhaps a Druid. The first publication date of the rhyme was 1798, just 30 years before Spring Heeled Jack first appeared.

Another possibility emerges from this, though a highly controversial one. Could Jack have been a witch? The existence of cunning folk (male and female), popularly called witches (originally a derogatory term), is well attested. Most simply used divination and superstitious folk magic to solve various rural problems, for which they charged a small fee. Some raised their profession by the use of medieval grimoires and more elaborate spell books, earning the title of wizard, others seem to have used an early variety of Spiritism, and perhaps even trance possession, in their work and were regarded as seers. it was generally a very lucrative, competitive and creative trade, and many if not all its practitioners were conmen and trick conjurors. The trade began soon after the English Reformation to fill the vacuum left by Catholic priests and monks who were the traditional rural 'magicians' (those practising more forbidden arts tended to be an educated few and keep a low profile), whom the puritans had denounced and driven out. Once every village had its cunning man or woman, the former often operating out of the local tavern, the latter often also serving as local herbalist and midwife / abortionist. Both were often to well respected for the puritans to act against, and far more rooted in the community than their clerical forbears, though they were not above framing rivals with more diabolical acts. Even as late as the early 20th century a few cunning folk were plying their trades, particularly in Essex which had hosted the largest population of them for centuries. Certainly Hadleigh in Essex, just 30 miles from Bow across the River Lea, had one of the most famous cunning men, Cunning Murrel, who operated between 1820 and 1860. Murrel was an Astrologer, Herbalist and Wizard, who claimed to be able to conjure up angels and elementals via the secret books of Agrippa to do his bidding. He was particularly active against 'Black Magic', which he often blamed in gypsies, and fought it via spells and exorcisms, claiming to be 'the Devil's Master'. Like most in his trade he worked alone. Some have claimed Cunning Men formed  their own craft associations or even helped other craft guilds in their practise, as a kind of sinister chaplain, as priests had once done, but there is little evidence of this. Even more controversial was the Cunning Man and trickster George Pickingill, who lived in roughly the same area and time. Pickingill made something of a public celebrity of himself, playing the role of the classic witch or warlock for people from all social backgrounds, he also claimed to be the master of nine 'covens' (a supposed lodge of witches first mentioned in Scotland as a 'devil's covenant', but unknown elsewhere). All of these grand claims, and many others he made, have no supporting evidence and are regarded with great suspicion by historians who have researched the Cunning Craft with an open mind. However he would greatly influence the modern reconstructionist witchcraft movement that became the Neo-Pagan Wicca religion. Given this background we can't exclude the possibility that witchcraft was involved in the Spring Heeled Jack mystery, however unlikely it seems.

mulrrel devil
Modern and Contemporary images of Cunning Murrell from 1860.

But could Jack really have been a spook or even a magician of somekind? Perhaps, but there are other explanations.

Jack the Spaceman!

A popular interpretation of Jack today is that he was actually from outer space! This isn't quite as ludicrous as it sounds, it has its own distorted logic in the hypothesis that a being from a high gravity planet might leap around effortlessly as our astronauts can on the Moon. Comparisons have also been made with the apparent anti-gravity technology of the occupants of UFOs! The originator of the UFO connection was John Vyner who wrote an article on Jack for the May-June 1961 edition of Flying Saucer Review, in which he compared him with the 'Ufonauts'. But Vyner unfortunately bolstered his case with a false description of Jack, drawn from a distorted version of the Alsop case, changing his helmet and 'oilskin' into a spacesuit and inventing a 'lamp' on his chest and a 'ray gun' from which his blue fire emerged (described by Vyner as an electro magnetic energy beam!!). Alas more reliable Ufologists such as Jacques Vallee and John Keel took Vyner's description at face value, without checking the original reports, and the myth of 'Jack the Spaceman' entered Ufology, to be championed today by the likes of Loren Coleman.

The idea did not begin with Vyner however, as Valentine Dyall's sensational accounts of Jack in the 50s also drew speculation that perhaps he was an alien from a planet with different gravity. A popular speculation in the age of the Flying Saucer which was all the rage in America at the time. Dyall's articles drew the first known description of an Alien Jack in a letter to his magazine describing exactly how it all worked.

In fact the idea could even be much older than even this. As far back as the 1840s, if not earlier, some say the phenomenon we call UFOs was taking shape, with people reporting strange balls light of light in the sky, or emerging from or entering the worlds oceans. Similarly strange 'geometric silhouettes' were seen moving across the solar and lunar discs by astronomers, looking like nothing nature could produce. Mysterious aerial explosions were also heard in various parts of Europe, often accompanied by a strange soot like material falling from the sky, in one case quite near a set of strange footprints in Scotland. All of which is well recorded in the writings of Charles Fort. It is quite likely that a few imaginative people could have easily interpreted all this as somekind of 'extraterrestrial visitation' (certainly Fort later toyed with the idea). This is also quite probable when we consider the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, just two years before Jack appeared. This was launched by the New York Sun newspaper, hoping to boost its low circulation. This it certainly did with its revelation that the famous astronomer Hershel had made astounding discoveries through his observations of the Moon. As one author succinctly puts it, 'the article continued on and offered an elaborate account of the fantastic sights viewed by Herschel during his telescopic observation of the Moon. It described a lunar topography that included vast forests, inland seas, and lilac-hued quartz pyramids. Readers learned that herds of bison wandered across the plains of the Moon; that blue unicorns perched on its hilltops, and that spherical, amphibious creatures rolled across its beaches. The highpoint of this narrative came when it revealed that Herschel had found evidence of intelligent life on the Moon: a primitive tribe of hut-dwelling, fire-wielding bipedal beavers, and a race of winged humans living in pastoral harmony around a mysterious, golden-roofed temple. Herschel dubbed these latter creatures the Vespertilio-Homo, or "man-bats"'. It was the image of the man-bat that caught the publics imagination most (perhaps resonating with similar images from folklore). Christian evangelists even inquired of the current possibility of travel to the Moon, in order to convert the aliens to their faith. While others feared any contact least the visit be returned. Amazingly, Yale University, in awe perhaps of Hershel's reputation, initially endorsed the story and hailed it the greatest moment in Earth's history! By 1836 the story had spread all over the World and was being reprinted in British newspapers. It was fantastic stuff and though it had all been revealed as a hoax by 1837 this was not universally accepted in all quarters of the general public, who as ever whispered of cover up. While no newspaper reports linked Jack with any possible extraterrestrial visitations, and it is unlikely that rural witnesses would have made the connection or even conceived of it, it is likely that the association would have been made by some in London. What may indicate this is some of the later Penny Dreadful representations of Jack which give him an increasingly bat like appearance. While this may have been derived from folklore vampires we can't exclude the obvious influence of the Vespertilio-Homo. Certainly we seem to see the image re-emerge in the 1960's with the infamous 'Mothman' who then was naturally associated with UFOs. Not even fictional representations of Jack overtly state this alien possibility however and if it was considered at all would have been an eccentric minority view at this time. It would become a popular view in modern times of course, and one that even saw Jack becoming an alien adversary  of Doctor Who in a recent graphic novel!

But regardless of public perception was the idea possible? Obviously the gravity hypothesis is absurd, and the modern argument based on misrepresentation, but it remains a vague possibility. However even amongst serious Ufologists the idea of physical extraterrestrials is increasingly left to the lunatic fringe and more and more obvious parallels between folklore entities and 'ufonauts' are being realised.  So perhaps this explanation is little improvement on the previous.

A contemporary image of a Man Bat, or Vespertillio Homo, a denizen of the Moon, according to the Great Moon Hoax.

Such beings crop up again and again in Fortean literature, as well as in UFO reports, but the 1835 Man Bat is widely believed to be the first of these, with perhaps the most recent being the famous 'Mothman'. London too had its own black winged phantom at Lincolns Inn Field.

The earlist reference to such creatures however may be the Aztec Bat God, Camazotz said to dwell in the lowest of the seven hells, according to the Popol Veh.

Spring Heeled Jack was never described as having bat wings in real life encounters, however he would mysteriously acquire them in fiction, disguarding his traditional black cape.

One theory popularised by American Fortean John Keel, and held in various forms by many modern Ufologists, is essentially a rationalisation of the previous observation, that today's 'aliens' and yesterday's 'spooks' may in fact be one and the same. It is interesting in that rather than reduce one to the other, in either direction, as others have tried, it postulates a third class of entity that has been historically misinterpreted in different ways. Keel calls these the 'Ultraterrestrials' and envisions them as sentient beings from 'another dimension' who have always coexisted with us on Earth. Popularised today by the film the Mothman Prophecies, these beings seem to work by a logic alien to the human mind, though whether this indicates a subhuman irrationality or a superhuman incomprehensibility or neither is something even Keel seems unsure of. One thing that is certain is that many of these alleged entities have features very similar to Jack's, in their rapid movement, an apparent disregard for the laws of nature, a dark shadowy basic form, and often glowing red eyes. Another interesting feature of his theory, based on a historical study of the phenomena, is the idea that these entities need our input, both in terms of energy and imagery, to manifest in our world. At times Keel's description of them sounds positively vampiric! Other theorists have taken a less radical stance and postulated that the 'Ultraterrestrials' are really creations of our own minds derived from our imagination and 'psychic energy', much like the Tibetan concept of the Tulpa, or 'thought form', a kind of dream creature that can manifest in the real world given enough energy. Even the Tibetans claim these entities can become 'autonomous' however, and so it is unclear where the line is to be drawn with Keel's theory. All agree however that the source of energy for these creatures is largely psychological and emotional in nature. Which brings us to another possibility.


Earlier we discussed the possibility of Mass Hysteria and Hallucination. Were the psychological conditions for this present? It seems they may well have been. The 1830s were a time of great change for many, not only were they a time of technological advancement and cultural change, seeing both an intensification of the Industrial Revolution and the gradual indigenisation of a scientific worldview over former superstition, but they were also a time of great socio-economic instability, Britain had been almost bankrupted by the Napoleonic Wars and was struggling to recover, and there was a corresponding high degree of poverty and social unrest. For a while there were real fears of revolution (particularly with new ideas increasingly seeping into Britain from France at this time, now the two countries were no longer at war).

Social tensions were thus high. This would have been particularly apparent in the areas Jack primarily haunted. In 1837 Barnes, Peckham and Bow, and many other haunted localities, were all rural areas on the fringes of London that were being extensively developed and gradually suburbanised. This is evidenced not only in the new grand houses for the merchant and artisan classes being built there, but also in the creation of the massive Victorian necropolises, such as those still evident in Highgate, Nunhead and Bow, that were being constructed in the late 1830s. All of which would have had a big impact on the local population and their environment. It was here moreover that conflict would arise between the newcomers and both the rural poor and the local gentry, and where their various cultures would clash. This culture clash was particularly evident in attitudes to Jack, with the middle classes and their newspapers largely portraying him materially as a hoaxer or criminal of somekind, and seeking technological explanations, while the rural populus saw him as simply a supernatural phantom, if not the devil himself. The fact that 'aristocratic gamblers' or 'local troublemakers' tended to be blamed for the phenomena also indicates the class conflict of the time.

We thus have all the conditions of a psychogenic event, underlying psycho-social stress, major cultural change and increasing class conflict, the insecurity of the newcomers in a potentially hostile community, and perhaps their boredom away from the entertainments of the city, all with a general period of unease and tension. All that was needed was the right stimulus for the hysteria to break out. It appears that what ever happened in Barnes in September 1837 was the trigger.

The case for this is very strong, but as we have seen a psychogenic outbreak alone, even with parallel hoaxing doesn't seem quite enough.

There is another possible element to all this that may clear up some of the problems, alas it is a very under researched one. That is the idea that real paranormal phenomena may be triggered by psychological disorder. The literature of clinical psychology is full of apparent paranormal phenomena occurring around the mentally ill. Poltergeist phenomena in particular are often associated with mental instability or psychological tension and tribal shamans are often picked from those suffering from such conditions or from epilepsy. It is thus a short step to posit that what may be possible in individuals is also possible in groups and communities. A perfect example of this might be what I've called parapsychogenic phenomena, the potential psychic disturbances associated with contagious mass hysteria, and possible paranormal events resulting from this.

In an occult context this may be related perhaps to the notion of thought forms generated by the human psyche and their susceptibility to human psychology and states of consciousness. This is admittedly an adventurous piece of speculation, but one that may become necessary to explain the events that actually happened in 1837-38 if all others explanations fail.

A Cholera Connection?

A final curious piece of speculation that may be relevant to the mystery, or at least require a mention, is the cholera connection. In 1838 London was in the grip of a serious sanitation problem, the growing population of London and the inadequacies of its sewerage system were causing serious potential problems for Londoners and their neighbours. The inhabitants of Limehouse in particular were very much aware of this, at the point of exit into the Thames not only of one of London's largest canals, the Regents Canal, but also its major sewerage outlets. Drainage in East London was very poor then, as indeed it was over the whole of London. The Commissioners of Sewers, set up by Henry VIII, collected a rate and were meant to maintain the sewers in their area. However, many of the sewers were open ditches, and those which did run underground had not always been properly surveyed, so that the course became blocked up, and sometimes even overflowed into the streets. The worst drain was the 'Black Ditch', an open sewer running from the parish of Christ Church Spitalfields and emptying into Limehouse Dock. The Tower Hamlets Commissioners of Sewers had made an attempt to drain it by diverting the flow, but this had made the stream stagnant and more offensive. The Act for the Prevention of the Cholera Morbus came into force in February 1832 and allowed boards to perform some compulsory cleansing of houses for the first time, but was passed too late to have much effect on an epidemic already in progress. Throughout this period local rumours were spreading of 'giant black pig-like creatures' at large in the sewer system beneath Limehouse, as recorded in Mayhew's accounts of Dickensian London.

In Limehouse just a few years after Spring Heeled Jack was last seen here, and the rumours of 'black pigs' were at their height, the biggest Cholera outbreak in the history of London erupted, decimating the local populus. An outbreak that soon spread to other impoverished areas and significantly reduced the population. The resultant depopulation of Limehouse was largely responsible for its later reoccupation by Chinese immigrants, and the emergence of the Limehouse of Sax Roemer later in that century. Could the earlier hauntings have been connected to this effectively man-made disaster in some way?

If this were the only instance it may be dismissed as an over imaginative coincidence, but the history of 'Spring Heeled Jack' has other cholera connections. The most obvious being the 'Park Ghost' of Sheffield, who was regular spotted emerging from the Cholera monument in 1873, erected in 1834 in memory of 402 local victims of the disease. Similarly the SHJ events in Liverpool were very near the scene of the famous Cholera Riots of 1832, and Bradford was also an area badly hit by Cholera. Coincidence? Perhaps, perhaps not (though it should be remembered that many areas in the North of England were effected by Cholera, not just Bradford, Liverpool and Sheffield, and also another epidemic in the 1850s that saw no sign of Jack, so the mystery remains).

'Whether Spring Heeled Jack was a man, a spirit,
both, or something quite different we may never know'

'Hoaxing was rife during the Spring Heeled Jack Affair'

'Jack was a name often reserved for magicians in rural areas,
if not an imp or elf, and sometimes for the devil himself'

'The initiates of Voodoo when possessed by their loa
are capable of great agility and superhuman feats'

'It must have been a man, nothing else is possible, is it?'

Comments passed on previous Spring Heel Jack walks


The Spring Heeled Jack scare remains a mystery, and the reader is thus left to draw their own conclusions, hopefully not too biased by a reductivist or fantatical mindset. Alternatively they may wish to maintain an open mind and a healthy state of suspended judgement, regarding a mystery that may never be solved.

My own opinion is that all of the above theories may have an element of truth to them in some way, and that some complex combination of them is the most likely solution. Beyond this I accept the mystery of it all.

The arrival of Spring Heeled Jack was also the arrival of Forteana. The emergence of the anomalous, when science began its popular assent at the beginning of the 19th century and attempted an all encompassing reductionist materialist worldview that was ultimately doomed to failure.

This phenomena emerges from the borderlands between science and the supernatural, just as Jack emerged in the 19th century's physical borderlands between the urban territories of science and the rural territories of folklore.


Log Book of a Fisherman and Zoologist, Frank Buckland, 1875
Stand and Deliver, Elizabeth Villiers, 1928
‘Spring-heeled Jack – the leaping terror’, Valentine Dyall, Everybody’s 20 Feb 1954
The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack, Peter Haining, 1977
The Terror of London, Paul Begg, 1981
Spring-Heeled Jack, Mike Dash, Fortean Studies 3, 1996 (soon to be relaunched in book form)
Spring Heeled Jack, Adam Bell, 2012

 Web Links

Mike Dash Website : Contains his Fortean Studies 3 article as PDF file, with a revised report calender on the way

Wikipedia SHJ entry : A good summary of the popular story of Spring Heeled Jack

Wyrd Walks : Website for details of 'tourist walks with a difference', including SHJ walks (under redevelopment)

New News Clippings
Update : Nigel Bundy has discovered some facinating new news clippings of Spring Heeled Jack attacks, including some of the scares across the country following the major attacks in 1838 (mostly in the form of bears), and some descriptions of later attacks attributed to SHJ in the 1840s, 1860s and 1870s and beyond.

Appendix One :: The Latter Day Jacks

The Provincetown Phantom - aka the Black Flash of Cape Cod, Canada. From Halloween 1938 - Dec 1945, Provincetown was haunted by a seven foot tall, black clad figure, who spooked children and lone adults. He was said to have 'fierce eyes and pointed ears', 'spat blue flames into his victim's faces' and leapt over 10ft walls. The phantom was said to be sometimes sighted in more than one location simultaneously. Local Police suspected three men of a hoax, but no one was ever charged. This case is odd as it not only occurred almost exactly one hundred years after the original SHJ scare but is also the nearest phenomenon to it to ever occur again. This case alone strenghtens the popular idea the Spring Heeled Jack returns at regular intervals. One problem however with the case is that it is not mentioned until the 1980s and no contemporary records seem to exist. It is tempting to dismiss this as a hoax, given the areas status as a seaside tourist area, if not for the fact that one of the major witnesses to it was the city's chief of police.

The Springer - Prague 1940-1945, a black clad phantom with amazing leaping abilities who allegedly taunted the German Police during the occupation and became a folk hero. No records of this have been found in the files of the German security forces and the figure seems to have been based on local rumour later exaggerated in folklore. But he remains  popular legend in Poland. 

The Baltimore Phantom - A hideous black clad figure in a cape of 1951, who 'ran and jumped like a gazelle'. He ran across roofs, leapt 6ft fences and dropped 20ft from one building with out leaving a mark. But Police linked him to local burglaries.

The Jumping Manikins - Or 'Spiral Hoppers', strange white clad, bouncing midgets in East Germany in the 1950s. Possibly connected to the Springer legend.

The Sante Fe 'Rooftop Madman' - A phantom  from  2005. Witnesses claim he stands two meters tall, and has a long, wavy mane of white hair, is entirely clad in black and wears a balaclava; he sports a cape and his eyes glow red. The individual is able to cross the streets by leaping from one rooftop to the next, taking acrobatic leaps that can be of up to five meters high and ten meters long! He can allegedly also climb up smooth walls like Spiderman.

In one case the 'ghost' pressed its face against a girl's bathroom window, waggling his large claws in a menacing gesture, while 'fixing a stare' on her. Mass panic has set in, and vigilantes have appeared in vast numbers, wielding heavy clubs, sharp machetes, stilettos, penknives and even humble kitchen knives. Again this phantom is very close to the original Spring Heeled Jack, as is the response to him.

We might also include the Tower Hamlets Vampire from London in around 2006 in this list, who haunted the Muslim community there, He was thought of locally as a djinn released by some magical operation gone wrong, but the local press dubbed him a vampire. In his actual attacks, which included knocking on doors at night as a veiled figure in black, he was much like Jack who did the same in Whitechapel. In at least one attack he bit one of his victims and scratched them with claws. Like Jack he was also very agile and speed away at great speed. Eventually the attacks stopped, But the community was still alarmed and had to be reassured by the police, who in one public meeting authoratively declared vampires do not exist!

Appendix Two :: News Clippings


Written by Stephen J Ash 2006 Revised version 2013 (