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Mass Hysteria – we’re all susceptible

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Most people will be aware of the mass panic caused when Orson Welles narrated an adaptation of War of the Worlds by H G Wells on 30 October 1938. For those who do not, the broadcast was given in the form of a news broadcast, telling of an alien invasion, which caused mass panic among 1.2 million listeners in the USA.  Of course, many would think that after that scare, a similar one could ever happen again.  Except it did, nearly 20 years later, and with much more serious consequences.

Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz broadcast a Spanish language adaptation of Welles’s play on Radio Quito on 12 February 1949, which broke into the middle of a music programme in the guise of an emergency broadcast. Mass panic was set off in the centre of Quito with people attempting to flee and others looting. To make matters worse Radio Quito had not informed the emergency services who believed the attack was on the outskirts of town, causing police and fire engines to rush out to help. Realising what they had caused, Radio Quito announced that the broadcast was fictional. This merely turned panic to anger. Rioting broke out and the mob advanced on and laid siege to the radio station. Most of those inside had to flee up to the third floor. The station was then set on fire and was well alight when the police and fire brigade were trying to return from the outskirts. Some of the staff at Radio Quito were left with the dilemma of jumping from the third floor or burning to death. There were so many rioters that the government had to send out the army in tanks to clear a path for fire engines to attend the radio station and other fires. The eventual cost was 20 dead, 15 severely injured and US$250,000 worth of damage.

The gullibility of mankind is quite fantastic and as hard as many would find it to believe, it can all too easily lead to mass hysteria.  The truly frightening part of this is that there are none of us who are not susceptible to it, not one.  No, not even me – and not you, the reader either.

The broadcasts of The War of the Worlds are particularly good examples of the power of the media in spreading mass hysteria, and this has always been the case.  For centuries it was in writing.  Then came print, then in the 20th century, radio, television and the internet.  And there were and there always shall be those who believe that if it is in the media, it must be true.

The Book of Revelation and other parts of the Christian Bible talk of the “End Times” when God’s elect will be called up to Heaven in the rapture and there will be a holy war against the Antichrist.  For the greater part of the past 2000 years people have been told at varying intervals that they must prepare for the coming “end times” by the clergy, who stated that the signs of which were clear.  And after all, given that most people for the greater amount of this time were illiterate, they had to trust upon the clergy’s word, and if you could not trust a Man of God, whom could you trust?  So it was at some given intervals, people would gather expecting the end of the world to be upon them.  If disease or a natural disaster struck a people, it was obviously a sign of the end times, which of course was confirmed by the clergy.

At times there were people would actually gather at a given place on a given date, fully expecting to be called up to Heaven.  And while the advent of printing, better education and more widespread literacy curbed the credulity of some, the church still had a firm grip on most, so more and more people were seeing the obvious signs of the End Times.  In 1833 an American Baptist lay preacher, William Miller, predicted that the second coming of Jesus would occur on 22 September 1844.  Miller gained thousands of followers in the USA and the UK who became known as Millerites.  As the great day approached, many left their jobs and sold or gave away their possessions.  When 22 September 1844 came and went without incident, there were many Millerites remained loyal.  Some put forward new dates as predictions, and the movement split into different schisms.  One of these we know today as Seventh Day Adventists.

Many in this day and age may find William Miller’s prediction crazy and perhaps a quaint example of 19th century religious fervour.  It is worth noting however that exactly the same thing happened when Harold Camping predicted the Rapture on 21 March 2011, with thousands leaving their jobs and giving vast donations to Family Radio, which is owned by Camping.  But then the same had happened when Camping had predicted the end of the world in September 1994 – just as thousands had gathered to witness the end of the world many times over the centuries.

Not that it was just the end times which whipped up mass hysteria.  Biblical teachings were abused for centuries to whip up a frenzy against many enemies, be they Mohammedans, Jews, or suspected witches.  The witch hunts which swept across Europe are a particularly brutal example. The number of people killed as witches has been estimated to be at least 200,000 to possibly in excess of 1 million.  This would not have been possible with the support of the people, whipped into fear of the unknown by the clergy.

The Jews are a particularly relevant example of the dangers of mass hysteria.  It was not enough that the early Christian churches accused Jews of being “Christ killers”, in the 12th century they spread the rumour of the Jewish “Blood Libel”.  This particularly odious total lie claims that Jews kill Christians, particularly little boys, to use their blood for ritual purposes such as adding to Passover matzah (unleavened bread). The first claim came from Norwich in 1144 when the body of a little boy named William was found in woods and Thomas of Monmouth accused local Jews of killing the boy in a mockery of the crucifixion. Belief in this was so firm that a cult grew up around the boy and the church actually canonised him as Saint William of Norwich. And if the reader is astounded at medieval superstition, it did not stop there.  The Blood LIbel has continued to see Jews accused and castigated down throughout history as recently as 1928 a four year old little girl went missing in Massena, New York, and a rumour swept the community that Jews had kidnapped and killed her for a blood ritual. The local rabbi was called to the police station, drawing an angry crowd, where he was questioned by police and state troopers who asked him about Jewish blood rituals. It was only while this was going on that the little girl, who had wandered off, was found safe and unharmed. To this day there are people on the extreme right, radical Islamists and conspiracy theorists who maintain that the Jewish blood libel is factual, and there are plenty all too willing to listen and believe them.

On top of the blood libel, there grew a conspiracy of the Jews attempting to take over the world. This is nothing new but equally goes back to medieval times. Wider availability of books and increased literacy however made such claims more widely available to the general public. 1903 saw the publication in Russia of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nobody knows the author of this document but is widely suspected to be Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, head of the Paris office of the Russian Secret Service. The Protocols is a fake document, purporting to be genuine notes of a meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles, and by controlling the press and the world’s economies. From Russia it was quickly printed in several languages and widely distributed around Europe and further afield. Despite being denounced as a fake by The Times (London) in 1921, the Protocols went onto sell millions of copies/ Car manufacturer Henry Ford personally funded the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies of the Protocols across the USA and this is believed to have created the first “red scare” in US history. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, it was claimed to be a genuine document and historian Norman Cohn suggested that Hitler used the Protocols as his primary justification for initiating the “final solution to the Jewish question” in the form of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were rounded up and killed. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still widely available today, online and in printed versions, most of the latter of which have been printed in Arabic languages by radical Islamists. It is also still held as genuine by the extreme right as being a genuine article, and if you doubt it’s power, consider the New World Order conspiracy theories of the present day, many of which speak of a Jewish-led conspiracy to subvert society by controlling the press and taking over the world’s economies.

As we have seen above, as media evolved, so radio also was responsible for causing panic.  So it was when television came along, it too would become responsible for contributing to mass hysteria.

In 1977 Anglia Television in the UK produced a spoof documentary under the fake name of a series; “Science Report”, calling the equally fake documentary “Alternative 3”.  It was originally meant to be broadcast on 1 April but problems in production led to it’s airing being delayed until 20 June 1977.  Alternative 3 told of an impending worldwide environmental catastrophe and of the USA, UK  and USSR carrying out a “brain drain” to ship the finest minds of the planet to secret bases on the Moon and Mars.  It further claimed that scientists who had previously tried to tell the media had disappeared and included footage purporting to be something alive crawling under the Martian soil.  As Alternative 3 was aired, switchboards at Anglia TV were jammed, are were those of police stations the length and breadth of the UK.  In the days that followed newspapers asked questions about airing such a hoax due to the mass panic it caused.  Believe it or not, there are people to this day who believe that Alternative 3 was genuine.

So you could be forgiven for thinking such a thing could never happen again, right?  Except on 31 October (Halloween) 1992, BBC 1 in the UK broadcast Ghostwatch.  Set in the same “mockumentary” style as Alternative 3, Ghostwatch was actually broadcast under the BBC’s Screen One productions, and included well-known British celebrities such as Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles.  Loosely based on the allegedly true-life case of the Enfield Poltergeist, it was broadcast in the style of a live documentary set partially in studio and partially in a house where poltergeist activity was claimed to have taken place.  There were many depictions of supposed paranormal events in the broadcast, including an actor (Keith Ferrari) making sudden and momentary appearances as the ghost, “Pipes”. The show ended with the poltergeist supposedly taking control of the BBC TV network and possessing host Michael Pakinson, the suggestion being that anyone in the country could be possessed through their televsion set.

As with Alternative 3, Ghostwatch saw switchboards jammed and created mass hysteria the length and breadth of the UK.  This time however the repercussions were to be far more serious.  Martin Denham an 18 year old factory worker with learning difficulties and a mental age of 13 had watched the show.  He had problems with his central heating system causing knocking in the pipes.  Mistaking this for poltergeist activity, he committed suicide, leaving a note saying he wanted to be with the ghosts.  In 1994 the British Medical Journal reported the cases of two 10 year old boys suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after watching the show.  Reactions to the articles cited four further cases among children aged between 8 and 11 years old, as well as in elderly people.

The advent of the internet becoming accessible to all has also been responsible for the spread of mass hysteria since the 1990s.  Perhaps the greatest example of this, albeit along with newspapers, radio and television, was the Y2K scare.  For those who do not know, it became apparent in the 1990s that on the turn of 1 January 2000 most computer chronometers would click over to 1 January 1900.  For the better informed among us this merely meant that the computers would to the greater degree not work properly and would thereby become obsolete.  What followed however were wild media stories of planes falling out of the sky, industrial robots  and computer-driven machinery going haywire, nuclear reactors going into meltdown and a Third World War being starting accidentally by missiles launching by themselves.  There were a great many people took this all too seriously and there were reported cases of people selling up their homes and going to live in remote rural areas.  Of course, 1 January 2000 came and went without incident; apart from computer and software manufacturers suddenly becoming much richer.

Not that it needs the media to stir up panic.  Sometimes word of mouth is all it takes.  Word of mouth would have been largely responsible for the witch hunts which troubled Europe for hundreds of years (as was the case in Salem, Massachusetts, USA in 1692-3) and that would continue down history.  In 1983 school children in Houston, Texas, USA became terrified of being attacked by Smurfs. Yes, the little blue cartoon characters created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo. A rumour swept the city that gangs of Smurfs had armed with guns and knifes had infiltrated schools and were killing students and teachers, the story going that one principal had been killed at one particular school. The wild imaginations of preteen schoolkids got going and some would claim that if you wore blue you were safe, while others claimed that if you wore blue you would be killed. In the event several schools were disrupted as kids refused to go to school, some kept home by more gullible parents and some schools locked their students in. Some well-meaning teachers thought it a good idea to tell the kids that other cartoon characters were being drafted in to fight off the Smurfs, which only made matters worse. The panic only lasted days before it subsided but several schools were affected. In the event, the scare had been started due to a TV report of the arrest of 40 members of a blue jacket wearing youth gang, who called themselves The Smurfs.

Word of mouth when mixed with the media can be downright dangerous.  In 2000 the tabloid newspaper The News of the World started a campaign to name and shame 150 paedophiles in the UK.  Forget any notion of the altruistic aims of the editorship, they were merely trying to sell newspapers.  What followed was a series of vigilante attacks on completely innocent men and women.  In a frightening parallel to the witch hunts of old, many were targeted merely because they lived alone and / or chose not to become involved with their local community.  People within the LGBT community were attacked, the ignorant masses believing that gay must equal paedophile.  Nature and landscape photographers were beaten up.  The satirical magazine Private Eye carried a cartoon of a man running from a baying mob with the caption “I’m a PAEDIATRICIAN, you idiots.”.  The following week, it actually happened; a woman doctor had her office burned out and part of her sign vandalised – the part which read “Paediatrician”.  Following a great many police complaints the News of the World dropped it’s campaign, but the damage was done and attacks continued for some time to come.

These are just some of the instances of the power of mass hysteria, although there have been a great many more.  Be it the Nibiru end of the world prophecy of 21 December 2012, the New World Order, or marauding bands of feral smurfs, people can be gullible, and it only takes the slightest rumour to get them frightened.  And when people are frightened, they can get ugly.

I said earlier that we are no different, and if you doubt that I want you to try a little experiment.  Picture in your mind, right now, a UFO and an extraterrestrial alien.

I am telling you right now, that the vast majority of you immediately pictured the classic “flying saucer” and “grey alien”.  We all know these things do not exist but once an idea is planted in our minds it is very hard to remove, and that in itself is a form of mass hysteria.

Still think you’re not as susceptible as any of those involved in the above examples?  🙂

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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.