Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Jack the Ripper

Image

Out of the annals of Victorian London came many dark tales.  Of dastardly crimes committed in dark alleys and thick fog.  Of murky characters who perhaps had a link to either gentry or royalty.  Perhaps one of the most curious cases which was to haunt the entire reign of Queen Victoria however was the mysterious, apparently superhuman, and much feared figure of Spring-heeled Jack.

The first recorded case came in October 1837, only four months into Victoria’s reign, when a girl named Mary Stevens was walking across Clapham Common from visiting her parents in Battersea, when she was accosted by a tall figure wearing dark clothing who gripped her tightly, kissed her face all over and ripped her clothes with hands, which she described “cold and clammy as those of a corpse”.  Mary screamed out causing her attacker to flee the scene and bringing many nearby residents to her assistance.  Nobody saw the character and a search of the area showed no sign of anyone suspicious.

The following day a man of the same description was said to have jumped in front of a carriage, causing the driver to lose control, resulting in his severe injury.  Several witnesses gave the statement that the unharmed man jumped a 9 foot high wall while babbling in high-pitched laughter.  From then on many rumours spread of a man attacking people (usually young girls) and then getting away by impossible leaps across high walls and even buildings, and the public gave the spectre a name, Spring-heeled Jack.

With a great many stories circulating, on 9 January 1938 Sir John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London, at a public meeting he gave in the Mansion House, read out an anoymous letter of complaint he had received concerning the menace.  In this the writer, described only as “a resident of Peckham” wrote;

“It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises — a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’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, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.

At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.

The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.”

Cowan was sceptical.  However at the meeting one person stated that “servant girls about Kensington, Hammersmith and Ealing, tell dreadful stories of this ghost or devil”.  The press got hold of the story and published this report and several other stories and on 11 January the Lord Mayor showed a crowd gathering a huge pile of mail he had received with regards to Spring-heeled Jack.  More and more letters poured into the Mansion House, from all over the suburbs of south London, suggesting that Jack certainly got around.  One correspondent claimed that in Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell and Vauxhall. several people had died of fright and others had had fits; meanwhile, another reported that the trickster had been repeatedly seen in Lewisham and Blackheath.  The Lord Mayor maintained that there was mass hysteria responsible to some extent, and this must certainly be true.  However when a trusted friend told him of a girl in Forest Hill being scared into fits by “a figure in a bear’s skin” he was sure that it must be one person or more dressing up to deliberately scare young girls.  The police therefore were instructed to hunt the person or persons concerned and a reward offered.  The attacks apparently continued throughout south London, with no arrests and no-one coming forward with information.

The first authenticated report of Spring-heeled Jack occurred on the night of 19 February 1838.  It was then 18-year old Jane Alsop went to answer the door of her parents home in Bearhind Lane when someone was hammering on it and shouting for a bright light, purporting to be a policeman, saying “we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”.  Jane went into the lane with a lit candle but was confronted by a large figure who threw off his cape.  According to Jane Alsop’s report, the figure emitted blue and white flames from his mouth and his eyes were “were light red balls of fire”.  He apparently wore a skin-tight white costume of a material like oilskin and a large helmet.  He grabbed Jane and started tearing at her clothes with “metallic-like” claws.  Jane screamed and made a getaway for her parents home but was caught on the steps by the creature which tore at her neck and arms with claws.  She was rescued by one of her sisters, whose appearance caused the assailant to flee.

On 28 February 1838, 18-year old Lucy Scales and her sister were walking along Green Dragon Alley after visiting their brother, a Limehouse butcher, when she spotted a tall, cloaked figure standing at an angle at the entrance to an alley before them.  As they approached the figure he shot a ray of blue flame into Lucy’s face, blinding her and causing her to drop to the ground in fits.  On hearing one of his sisters screaming, their brother ran to the scene and found Lucy lying having fits on the grounds. It was only later that Lucy’s sister told her that her assailant was tall, gentlemanly, dressed in a cloak and carrying a bullseye lamp, not unlike those the police of the time carried.  He had made no attempt to make good his escape but instead walked calmly away from the scene.

The Times (London) reported the Jane Alsop attack on 2 March 1838 and carried after that an account of a trial of the trial of one Thomas Millbank, who had been boasting in a bar, The Morgan’s Arms after the attack that he was Spring-heeled Jack.  He had been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat, which he dropped along with the candle outside the Alsop family home.  He was acquitted purely on the testimony of the victim, Jane Alsop, who maintained that her attacker could spit flame while Thomas Millbank could not.

Spring-heeled Jack attacks were not confined to London, and nor were to be ultimately (more of which later).  The Brighton Gazette of 13 April 1838 carried a story from Rosehill, Sussex, in which a gardener had been terrified by some unknown creature “in the shape of a bear or some other four-footed animal”. The animal growled, scaled a garden wall then chased the gardener some distance before he escaped by scaling a wall.  The Times carried the story the following day claiming in sensationalist style, “Spring-heeled Jack has, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast”

Around this time another unsubstantiated story arose of Spring-heeled Jack attempting the same ruse as he had on Jane Alsop.  Only this time the servant boy of the house in Turner Street was wary and called out for help.  As ever he was temporarily blinded by a spurt of blue flame.  It was claimed that the servant who came to the boy’s assistance watched as the figure jumped over two-storey houses to make his escape.  The serving boy’s description tallied with those of Jane Alsop, except he described a large red “W” across the torso of the assailant.

By now the city was in terror of Spring-heeled Jack and armed vigilante gangs were springing up.  Even the Duke of Wellington, by this time 70 years old, got involved, arming himself with a brace of loaded pistols and patrolling the streets searching for the monster threatening the honour of young women.  Extra police squads were put out, partially to look out for Jack but also partially to keep the peace and watch out for excesses from the vigilantes roaming the streets.  Spring-heeled Jack had by now entered popular subculture, appearing in many of the “Penny Dreadful” popular story papers of the time, which all too many believed to be verbatim and appeared in shows in cheap theatres.  He even replaced the Devil in some Punch and Judy shows.  Unsubstantiated stories continued including one form Northamptonshire in which he was described as “the very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame” and there were a plethora of reports of attacks on East Anglia mail coaches.  Yet there was no arrest of the elusive Spring-heeled Jack and another substantiated report was not to occur for 39 years.

On an August night in 1877 Private John Reagan had not long taken over sentry duty outside the powder magazine of Aldershot Barracks, 37 miles south-west of London, when heard a noise and went to investigate.  He saw a tall, cloaked figure advancing upon him and Private Reagan levelled his rifle and offered the challenge, “Halt.  Who goes there.” and started retracing to his sentry box.  Before he could fire the figure was upon him and gave him several slaps across the face.  Another sentry fired at the assailant but his shots had no effect.  The figure is then claimed to have made his escape “with astonishing bounds.”

The following autumn a tall figure in sheepskin was chased by an angry mob in Newport Arch, Lincolnshire.  It was claimed that again, just like Aldershot, shots fired at him appeared to have no effect and that he made his escape in superhuman leaps and bounds.

In 1888 a man was seen first on the roof of then scaling the steeple of St Francis Xavier’s Church in Liverpool.  It was claimed that he leapt from the steeple and disappeared behind a row of houses, yet a mob of 100 people found no sign of a body or any person in any of the surrounding streets.  Some reports say that this was the last sighting although others claim that he was seen jumping from rooftop to rooftop around William Henry Street, Liverpool in 1904.

From there Spring-heeled Jack disappeared just as mysteriously as he appeared, leaving only questions of just who and what he may be.  These have been many and varied, ranging from him being an evil spirit, a demon, the Devil himself, to an alien from another planet, or just plainly a clever hoaxer or several hoaxers.

The Mayor of London, John Cowan, was certainly correct when there was more than a little mass hysteria at play.  Mass hysteria can be a very powerful thing.  Consider how it has been and continues to be responsible for the killing of millions of people on the flimsiest of reasons since time began.  People can be ugly and never more ugly when they are frightened.  Add to this that most of us have vivid imaginations and can be gullible and the tiniest rumour can soon grow to a scare of massive proportions.  The mass panic surrounding the Orson Welles 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, the 1977 screening of the hoax documentary Alternative 3 and the 1992 screening of the BBC play Ghostwatch are prime examples of this.

So it is if one actually looks at the authenticated cases of Spring-heeled Jack, they do not tally with claims of an assailant leaping over walls and even buildings.  In the Jane Alsop case, there is no mention of any such escape.  The discovery of the overalls and greatcoat of Thomas Millbank, plus his boasts in The Morgan’s Arms point to him almost certainly being the attacker.  Why Jane Alsop maintained that her attacker could spit flames is open to conjecture.  But the fact that such stories were being rumoured on the street, along with a sudden and violent attack may have given her that impression.  Having been handed a lit candle, it is not outwith the bounds of possibility that Millbank may have blown on the flame in front of her eyes.  Whatever the answer, if he was at it seems Jane Alsop’s assailant, then his subsequent acquittal would have left him free to attack again.  This is important as it is the same year, 1838, that most of the attacks took place.

Similarly in the Lucy Scales attack, her sister witnessed the attacker walk calmly away, with absolutely no mention of wild leaps and bounds.  It was only rumour and some Penny Dreadfuls of the time which were to make such claims, which are all too sadly repeated in the more disreputable paranormal literature of the present age.

The actions of the creature which chased the gardener in Rosehill, Sussex appears by its actions to have been some species of cat and not at all attached to the Spring-heeled Jack mystery, no matter what The Times claimed.  This story is interesting in itself however as it would appear to be an “Alien Big Cat” sighting, which are usually associated with the latter part of the 20th century rather than the early 19th century.

The unsubstantiated report of the servant boy in Turner Street mentions a large red “W” on the costume of the attacker.  This led many at the time (as it does to some today) to point the finger at Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford.  Beresford was in the news almost constantly in the late 1830s for his drunkenness, public brawling, gambling and pulling cruel jokes upon people.  In 1880 the writer E Cobham Brewer publicly named the Marquess by stating of him “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example”. Brewer, more famous for his Dictionary of Folklore and Fable added to this claim the fact that the Marquess was a notorious misogynist. There are some in the paranormal field who hold to this belief to this day, that the Marquess started it and others copied him thereafter.  This is open to speculation.  Beresford was certainly in London around the same time but one does not see what it would have profited the Marquess to make such foolhardy attacks, particularly the scandal which possible capture would have caused.  However, if he were as dissolute a drunk as is claimed, it possibly did not care for the consequences.  There is no proof either way over Beresford’s involvement and it seems this claim may be as much a great unknown as possible gentry links to the Jack the Ripper murders.

As to the 1877 attack upon the sentry at Aldershot Barracks, some have claimed that the sentry who fired had his rifle loaded with blanks.  Given that they were guarding one of the most important powder magazines in England, one can hardly lend any credence to such a claim, especially at a time when there were no laws banning the ownership of firearms in England.  In his 1922 memoirs Forty Years On, Lord Ernest Hamilton states the incident took place in winter 1879 after his regiment, The 60th Rifles, had been stationed at Aldershot.  Furthermore he states that similar incidents took place when his regiment was stationed at Colchester, where sentries had been given orders to shoot the “night terror”, and that they were pranks carried out by one officer, Lieutenant Alfrey.  At that time it was still quite more common for English soldiers to wear breastplates and helmets, which may explain why the bullets had no effect.

When the Whitechapel murders took place in 1888, the public of course tied in the murderer to Spring-heeled Jack.  Indeed, it was the public who first referred to the murderer as “Jack”, which was picked up by the press.  It was only after these initial reports that newspapers received anonymous letters from someone signing themselves “Jack”.  There is not even any solid evidence that the Whitechapel murders were carried out by one person and it is perfectly possible that one legend grew out of another, purely as a result of public mass hysteria.

The claims of Jack leaping from the spire of St Xavier’s Church are equally spurious and appear to have been sensationalised.  Richard Whittington-Egan – author of a book on Jack the Ripper and several local history books about Manchester and Liverpool wrote the following report;

“An elderly man, still living, has also told how, one night in 1888, when he and a number of his fellow-members of Everton’s St Francis Xavier’s Boys’ Guild were playing in the school-room, someone came rushing in with the news that the dread Spring-Heeled Jack was in Shaw Street. Out into Haigh Street ran the boys, and up William Henry Street. When, however, they reached Shaw Street, they saw no sign of the weird creature, although an excited crowd told them that he was crouched on the steeple of a nearby church.”

So we have the testimony of one old man, many years after the event, with no mention of someone leaping from the spire and no mob of 100 people.  The St Xavier’s sighting could easily have been misidentification, which mixed with hysteria surrounding Jack, led to suggestion of a bird being mistaken for a man, which if there were a “leap” could have been the witness mistaking the bird flying off from the roof.  Should anyone doubt this, consider how many normal aircraft and birds have been mistaken for UFOs, particularly in “flap” years.

Likewise, the final accounts in 1904 are equally spurious and secondhand.  The above account of Spring-heeled Jack in William Henry Street, Liverpool, only appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1967.  There had in fact been a supposed poltergeist outbreak in the William Henry Street area in 1904.  The London-based newspaper The Star (not to be confused with the later newspaper of the same name) reported;

“The exploits of a reputed ghost have kept several streets of Liverpool in an uproar this week. Lurid stories of the doings of the notorious Spring Heeled Jack who some years ago frightened half the women and children of the city were recalled by present scenes. Pieces of brick, old bottles and other missiles came hurtling down the chimneys of the haunted house. Where they came from baffled the vigilance of watchers. The annoyance was so persistent and the terror among the neighbours so great that the residents of the house left hurriedly and the place was closed.”

This was obviously at odds with other reports of a character jumping from roof to roof and eluding all capture.  In fact, the “Liverpool Jack” was indeed captured.  Sixty years after the event, a Mrs Pierpoint, who had been a girl in Everton at the time told of the true events of the time.  The character had in fact been a mentally disturbed individual who would climb onto the roofs of houses and would then throw bricks and slates down on the streets below and down chimneys.  Mrs Pierpoint stated “(he) was a local man slightly off balance mentally… He had a form of religious mania and he would climb on to rooftops of houses crying out: “My wife is the Devil!’ They usually fetched police or a fire-engine ladder to get him down. As the police closed in on him, he would leap from one house roof to the next. That’s what gave rise to the “Spring-Heeled Jack” rumours.” 

Given the timescale, it is more than likely that there were several assailants, the first of these perhaps being Thomas Millbank, and others perhaps copying him.  Alternatively there may have been people who caught up with the myth, thought it funny to emulate Spring-heeled Jack.  Or perhaps it was just a string of unconnected assaults, sightings of unusual people, and supposed sightings which became carried along on the legend.  Whatever the truth, there was in all likelihood no Spring-heeled Jack, but the legend grew out of fear and mass hysteria, and ended with one pitiful mentally ill individual who was obviously a danger to both himself and others.

Or did it end there?  In 1986 a man named only as Mr Marshall, a travelling salesman, claimed to have had an encounter with a man in what appeared to be a black ski-suit on the Wales-South Herefordshire border.  He claimed the man leaped in huge, inhuman bounds and as he passed him, slapped him across the cheek before leaping off.  More recently Mr Scott Martin and his family were travelling home to Stoneleigh in Surrey by taxi, when all on board apparently saw a “dark figure with no features” run across the road in front of the cab before quickly scaling a 15 foot high wall near Nescott Cottage on the Ewell Bypass.

Once something becomes firmly rooted in public subculture, it is obviously extremely hard to remove it.

Advertisements