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A mysterious figure who has terrorized London (and some other places) since 1837. Jack usually wore dark-colored shiny clothing or a dark cloak and a horned metal helmet. He had fiery red eyes, could breathe jets of flame and was observed to leap about 15 feet--hence the "Spring-Heel" part of his name. He preferred to attack young ladies in the street.

In 1838, when the Lord Mayor of London declared him a public menace and the Duke of Wellington organized groups of hunters to track him, Jack even used the chaos to his advantage by masquerading as one of the hunters to draw his victims out of their houses. He murdered a prostitute in 1845 by throwing her from a bridge in broad daylight. Jack appeared in Peckham in 1872, in Aldershot in 1877, and in Liverpool in 1904. After hopping across the Atlantic, he showed up in Houston, Texas in 1953 and in Falkville, Alabama in 1973. He returned to Liverpool later that decade and showed up in Scotland in 1986.

So who was Springheeled Jack? Of course no one knows. Some theories have centered around the Marquis of Waterford, who in the 1830s, was well-known for his love of practical jokes and his misogyny; an unnamed religious fruitcake who believed he was being chased by the Devil; Jack the Ripper; an alien; a faerie; a robot; and even a kangaroo dressed up as a prank. I prefer the explanation that I always seem to come up with for cases like this: hoaxes, combined with good old-fashioned public hysteria.

Research from Suppressed Transmission: The First Broadcast by Kenneth Hite, "Jack Be Nimble: Spring-Heeled Jack", pp. 70-71.

Although now largely forgotten, Spring-heeled Jack once captured the imagination of Victorian Britain as the "unearthly warrior" with "spring shoes and large claw hands" who terrorised the area around London during the winter of 1837-1838. He appeared in many guises, as a bull or a bear, clad sometimes in brass armour, sometimes in steel armour, at times he wore a cloak and sometimes he appeared enveloped in a white sheet; the only recurring motifs are the references to his clawed hands and his habit of wearing sprung shoes. Indeed he made such an impression on the Victorian mind, that Spring-heeled Jack became for a time a generic term for a night-time prowler, and even half a century later in 1888 one of the Jack the Ripper letters dated 4th October is written by an individual who identified himself as 'Spring Heel Jack, The Whitechapel Murderer'.

Spring-heeled Jack has since become a number of things; an urban legend, a sociological phenomenon, the prototype for the modern super-hero, the inspiration behind Freddie Krugger. Sadly he has also inspired the production of more utter nonsense than perhaps any other figure of his time. This therefore is the true account of Spring-heeled Jack, the suburban ghost.

1. The birth of Jack

In the autumn and winter of 1837-1838 rumours began circulating in London regarding the activities of a certain ghost of demonic appearance who was active in some of the nearby villages. This phenomenon went largely unrecorded until the 8th January 1838 when John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London received a letter written by a 'Resident of Peckham' who alleged 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 durst not take upon 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 will not dare to 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 Lord Mayor felt obliged to make this allegation public but since "the terrible vision had not entered the city" he did not feel obliged to take any action on the matter. Neverthless this alerted the media to the story, and The Times of 9th January 1838 reported that;

Servant girls about Kensington, and Hammersmith, and Ealing, told dreadful stories of a ghost, or devil, who, on one occasion, was said to have beaten a blacksmith, and torn his flesh with iron claws, and in others to tear clothes from the backs of females.

The Morning Chronicle of the 10th January 1838 went into some considerable greater detail on the phemomenon and reported how the ghost had appeared at Barnes in the "shape of a large white bull" and had "attacked several persons, particularly females, many of whom had suffered most severely from the fright" and also at East Sheen, where it took "the form of a white bear" and "carried on similar pranks". The account noted how "all Richmond teemed with tales of females being frightened to death and children torn to pieces by the supposed unearthly visitant" and that similar outrages had been reported at Ham, Petersham, Kingston, Hampton Wick, Hampton Court, Teddington, Twickenham, Whitton, and Hounslow. They told of how the phantom appeared as an "unearthly warrior, clad in armour of polished brass, with spring shoes, and large claw gloves" and referred to incidents where a carpenter named Jones from Isleworth had been attacked in Cut-throat Lane by a ghost "in polished steel armour, with red shoes"; a blacksmith from Ealing who had been severely injured and had "ever since kept his bed in consequence of the fright he sustained"; whilst at Hammersmith "an itinerant vendor of pies and muffins" had the clothes torn from his back while returning home through Sounding Lane. There was even a report of a creature seen "dancing by moonlight" on the green at Kensington Palace.

The Chronicle was not however terribly impressed by what it termed these "ridiculous stories". The Hammersmith incident turned out to be the "invention of some wag" and, as the paper pointed out, "although the stories were in everybody's mouth, no person who had actually seen him could be ascertained". The Morning Herald also similar noted its frustration at failing to find a single decent eyewitness account. Their reporter found himself being "directed to many persons who were named as having been injured by this alleged ghost, but, on his speaking to them, they immediately denied all knowledge of it, but directed him to other persons whom they had heard, had been ill-treated, but with them he met with no better success". Police had similarly drawn a blank in their investigations and could not find "one individual hardy enough to assert a personal knowledge on the subject".

The Times of the 11th January 1838 reported on some of the responses sent to the Lord Mayor which however confirmed the proliferation of rumours regarding the ghost's appearances. A Thomas Lott of Bow Street wrote that in "Hornsey ... some scoundrel has been alarming the neighbourhood", further noting "that the same thing has been played off near Kingston", and "that Hertfordshire has been similarly visited". Although he records the rumour "that some individual ... drives about with a livery servant in a cab, and, throwing off a cloak, appears in these frightful forms", he is inclined to believe that "it was some determined thief" who "by this method" was "paralysing the energies of the servants to obtain and escape with his booty on easy terms".

Another correspondent noted that this individual "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". Another wrote to say that "several young women had been readily frightened into fits - dangerous fits, and some of them had been severely wounded by a sort of claws the miscreant wore on this hands" and yet another confirms that the ghost has "frightened several persons in Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell and Vauxhall, and has caused the death of several".

The Observer of the 14th January 1838 was rather skeptical about the whole affair simply noting that the "daily papers have during the week amused their readers with very copious descriptions of some fool who, under various disguises, has contrived to alarm the old and young of half the parishes around the town, and who has hitherto escaped the vigilance of the police." However the degree of alarm was sufficient, as the The Sun reported on the 20th January, that a "committee of gentlemen have spiritedly come forward for the purpose of raising a fund for securing these unfeeling wretches, alias 'ghosts', and visiting them with that severe punishment which they so richly deserve." The paper also reported what might be considered the first verifiable appearance of the ghost before the daughter of a Plutarch Dickinson of Dulwich, who "was nearly deprived of her senses, and is now lying in a very dangerous state, by the sudden appearance of one of these ruffians enveloped in a white sheet and blue fire".

In the meantime the phantom received a name. The Greenwich, Woolwich and Deptford Gazette referred to him as 'Spring Jack' in its edition of the 13th January 1838 and by the 22nd February The Times had christened him 'Spring-heeled Jack'. Jack being a common name for such phantasmagorical figures (Cf Jack Frost, Jack-in-the Green, Jack o’ Kentchurch), and he was 'spring-heeled' because of his habit of wearing sprung shoes, that is shoes soled with india-rubber.

2. The 1838 visitations

Jack as we have seen, seemed a hard man to pin down, as the West Kent Guardian stated on the 13th January 1838 "No one has seen Spring Jack, though all have heard of him". This was however to change during the spring of 1838 when he made three notorious appearances which were supported by eye witness testimony. The first of these was at 1 Bearbinder Lane, then "a very lonely spot between the villages of Bow and Old Ford" in the East End of London where "a gross and violent outrage" was "committed on a respectable young lady" as The Times put it.

At about a quarter to nine on the 21st February a Miss Jane Alsop, a young woman of eighteen years of age, answered a knock at the door. Her visitor claimed that he was a policeman and asked her, "For God's sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane." Miss Alsop duly went and fetched a candle but the "instant she had done so ... he threw off his outer garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire." He then "darted at her, and catching her partly by her dress and the back part of her neck, placed her head under one of his arms, and commenced tearing her gown with his claws". Although Miss Alsop briefly managed to break free her attacker seized hold of her once more, "when he again used considerable violence, tore her neck and arms with his claws, as well as a quantity of hair from her head".

She was only rescued by the appearance of sisters Mary Alsop and Mrs Harrison, after which the ghost made his escape. Jane Alsop was later able to compose herself sufficiently to provide a description of her assailant as wearing "a large helmet, and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed to her to resemble white oil skin."

Five days after Jane Alsop was attacked, Jack made another appearance at 2 Turner Street, again in the East End. This time a servant-boy answered the knock, at which point the visitor discarded his cloak and "presented a most hideous appearance". The boy screamed and Jack fled the scene, possibly disappointed by the gender of his intended victim.

It was some weeks before Jack was reported to have struck again. Once again, according to The Morning Post of the 7th March 1838, the selected victim was "a young woman, 18 years of age" named Lucy Scales. She had been walking along Green Dragon Alley in Limehouse with her sister when at about half past eight "they observed some person standing in an angle in the passage". As she came closer to the figure "he spurted a quantity of blue flame right in her face, which deprived her of her sight, and so alarmed her that she instantly dropped to the ground, and was enveloped with violent fits, which continued for several hours."

The sister described the assailant as being of a "tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance, enveloped in a large cloak, and carried in front of his person a large lamp, or bulls eye, similar to those in the possession of the police." She also confirmed that he had "puffed a quantity of flame from his mouth into the face of her sister", although in contrast to the earlier attack on Miss Alsop, this Jack did not "attempt to lay a hand on them but walked away in an instant." There is however a suggestion that perhaps her account was not entirely to be relied upon, as Miss Scales's brother was to remark that "it was not a little singular that one of his sisters had been reading in a newspaper, a few minutes before they left his house the account .. of Spring-heeled Jack".

3. The Police investigation

Now that Jack had struck in the city itself, the authorities took the matter far more seriously and James Lea, the detective responsible for the apprehension of William Corday in the Red Barn Murder case of 1827, was placed in charge of the investigation of the Alsop case.

Initally Lea reported that "he had no doubt that the person by whom the outrage had been committed had been in the neighbourhood for nearly a month past, frightening men as well as women". However after identifying and interviewing a number of additional witnesses he had changed his mind and by the time he came to present his case to the Lambeth Street magistrates on the 28th February he had concluded that "in her fright the young lady had much mistaken the appearance of her assailant" and that the whole affair "was merely the result of a drunken frolic, and not the act of the individual who was stated to have made his appearance in different outlets of the metropolis in so many different shapes."

Lea had even identified two potential suspects, a bricklayer named Payne and a carpenter named Millbank, who had been seen in Bearbinder Lane that evening, and had obtained the testimony of a coach-wheelwright called James Smith who claimed to have overheard a conversation between Payne and Millbank, following which he was approached by Millbank who confronted him with the words "What have you to say to Spring Jack?" before being dragged off by his friend Payne. Both Payne and Millbank denied being responsible for the attack on Jane Alsop and the magistrates ordered a further investigation.

By the time the magistrates reconvened on the 2nd March, an additional witness named Richardson had now come forward. He had also been in Bearbinder Lane that evening and confirmed seeing Payne and Millbank but had also seen "a young man in a large cloak" who said "something about Spring-heeled Jack being in the lane". The magistrates also heard from a resident of the Old Ford who had conducted his own investigation into the incident identified a man named Fox as the person responsible. The confusion seems to have sufficient to persuade the magistrates to release Millbank without any charge and it does not appear that anyone was ever brought to trial for the assault on Jane Alsop.

Although James Lea was similarly placed in charge of the investgation of the Scales incident, he does not appear to have done much more than visited the spot where the attack happened, observing "that no place could be better adopted for such an act". This might have been because Miss Scales was working class and therefore a less credible and worthy victim than the respectably middle class Miss Alsop, or simply because the lack of any other witnesses simply meant that there was nothing much that could be done about the matter.

4. Jack apprehended

Although the police had made little progress in identifying those responsible for the attacks on either Miss Scales or Miss Alsop or indeed the servant-boy from Turner Street, elsewhere they were more successful.

The Surrey and Middlesex Standard of the 3rd March 1838 reported on the arrest of a blacksmith named Priest "who had been in the habit of attacking respectable females in the neighbourhood of Islington, and of taking indecent liberties with them". Later that same month a man variously named as Daniel Granville or Charles Grenville was aprehended in Kentish Town after frightening a number of women and children whilst wearing "a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper". He was discharged with a caution and an instruction not to do it again.

The Morning Post of the 4th April 1838 noted that a James Painter of Kilburn was fined £4 having "for some time past kept the fair inhabitants of the above village in considerable alarm, by sallying out upon them during their evening perambulations, disguised as a ghost". Painter it seems, had been in the habit of going abroad dressed "in a white sheet, and wearing a hideous mask, from which depended a long beard".

James Painter's little escapade appears to have been almost the last appearance of Jack in the metropolis, as after April 1838 the panic seemed to die down. Having been the name on everyone's lips and inspired the fervent interest of the press during the first few months of the year, by the time the month was over he had hung up his cape, put away his clawed hands and retired from active duty.

5. The Fictional Jack

The appearance of a determined prankster spreading terror throughout the suburbs of London was simply too good a story to ignore as far as the authors of popular fiction were concerned. Most recently there has been Spring Heeled Jack – A Story of Bravery and Evil written by Philip Pullman and published in 1989, but Jack made his fictional debut long before that during the 1840s when two plays appeared to capitalise on the fame of the suburban ghost. The first of these was Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London, by John Thomas Haines, which portrayed Jack as a jilted lover taking his revenge on womankind. This was closely followed by 'The Curse of the Wraydons' by W. G. Willis, set a generation back in the time of the Napoleonic Wars where Jack is portrayed as a French spy who stages his outrages to deflect attention from his espionage activitites.

Later the first Penny Dreadful to feature Jack appeared drawing both its title Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London and much of its content from the earlier play. In 1863 another play, Spring-Heel'd Jack: or, The Felon's Wrongs by Frederick Hazleton appeared, whilst the original Penny Dreadful was reissued between 1864 and 1867 in a rewritten version.

Then, in 1878, came perhaps the most interesting of Jack's fictional incarnations, another Penny Dreadful which appeared in 48 weekly instalments under the name of Charlton Lea believed to have been a pseudonym for either George A. Sala or Alfred Burrage. (Subsequently reprinted in 1889 and again in 1904.) In these stories Jack is a nobleman who has been cheated of his rightful inheritance. Blessed with immense strength and spring-powered shoes he decides to use his powers to right wrongs whilst wearing a "skin-tight glossy red outfit" complete with "bat's wings, a lion's mane, horns, talons, massive cloven hoofs, and a sulphurous breath". It is this Jack with his skin-tight costume and desire to right wrongs that is sometimes cited as being the prototype of the twentieth century 'superhero'.

What all this fictional accounts did was help develop the legend of Spring-heeled Jack, as although the original Jack appears to possess nothing more than normal human agility, it is to these accounts that we owe the image of Jack with his superhuman leaping abilities. And specifically it is to fiction that we owe the idea of Jack and his spring-powered shoes, inspired by those writers who took the reference to 'spring-heeled' shoes literally and transformed his rubber heels into metal coils.

6. The mythology of Jack

Over the years the boundaries between fact and fiction became blurred as authors returned to the tale of Spring-heeled Jack again and again. Many such writers have been careful to ensure that the facts should not be allowed to spoil a good story and have based their accounts on material drawn from the fictional Jack with his supernatural abilities, rather than the determined prankster of history. Once committed to paper such accounts later became 'sources' for subsequent accounts, often with further added embelishments, and so on ad infinitum.

Perhaps the first book to contribute to the mythologising of the historical Jack was Stand and Deliver by Elizabeth Villiers published in 1928, which despite being largely about highwaymen included a chapter on Jack. It is this book that is the source of the accounts, dated to early 1838, of;

  • the elderly woman who came across a man wearing a dark cape, with his hat pulled down over his face, whilst walking past the cemetery in Clapham Road. The man jumped over the fence into the cemetery and disappeared.
  • the assault on Mary Stevens at Lavender Hill by a laughing man in dark clothes who "leapt extraordinarily high"
  • the man who jumped in front of carriage in Streatham High Street causing the horses to bolt

No sources are given for these tales which find no support in the contemporary record. Although to be fair to Ms Villiers she was merely recounting some of the folklore surrounding Spring-heeled Jack, and it is not her fault if subsequent authors have taken these tales as the truth, or indeed substituted their own embroidered versions of her original accounts.

Elliott O’Donnell in his Ghosts of London in 1932 and Haunted Britain in 1948 further elaborated on the growing mythology of Jack, by repeating and expanding on the Villiers account, whilst Valentine Dyall who presented the BBC Radio Series Appointment With Fear between 1941 and 1953 also did much to fictionalise and mystify Jack's story. But what has been called the "fakeology of Spring-heeled Jack" later reached its peak in 1977 with the publication of The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack by one Peter Haining. This, the only full length work to date on Jack, is the source of much false information such as;

  • the attack on a serving girl named Polly Adams dated to the 11th October 1837 which is recounted in much detail complete with "firebreathing and tremendous leaps"
  • the account of the murder of the prostitute Maria Davis on Jacob’s Island on the 12th November 1845 (allegedly the work of our Jack);

Both of these incidents appear to be entirely bogus inventions of the author. Challenged to identify his sources in 1996, Haining claimed that he had lent all his research papers to a scriptwriter who had not returned the material and whom he had subsequently failed to trace and therefore was unable to help. As an elaboration of the 'My Dog ate my homework' excuse, this deserves some points for ingenuity, but it is scarcely credible that any honest researcher would fail to have some recollection of where he had come across such explosive new material on the historical Jack. But despite its exposure as a hoax, the Haining book has been particularly influential and most accounts both on and offline uncritically retell the Adams and Davis incidents as if they were factual occurences rather than simply figments of Mr Haining's imagination.

7. Jack Redux

Although the panic inspired by the events of 1837-1838 eventually died down, the name of Jack was to crop up again and again over the years as he was said to have put in a number of appearances across the country.

The first re-apperance of Jack was in 1841, when The Times of the 23rd October reported that "The inhabitants of Tottenham and Edmonton have been much alarmed for the last three weeks, in consequence of the report that 'Spring-heeled Jack' had made his appearance in the neighbourhood". This character was described as "as emitting fire from his mouth and flinging it about as he runs away". A police constable who unsuccesfully gave chase to him "picked up a piece of wood which had been thinly covered over with a phosphoric substance"

The Tottenham and Edmonton Jack was never aprehended but others proved less elusive. In 1845 a Thomas Lowland of Worcester was sentenced to three years hard labour for impersonating Spring-heeled Jack and terrorising his neighbourhood, whilst in 1847 a Spring-heeled Jack appeared at Teignmouth in North Devon wearing "a bullock's hide, skull cap, horns, and mask". This prankster was later identified as a Captain Edward Finch of Shaldon who was later charged with two counts of assault and fined seventeen shillings on each count.

Other apparitions that have become connected to the Spring-heeled Jack phenomenon include the Peckham Ghost of 1872, the Sheffield Park Ghost of 1873, the Aldershot Ghost and the Newport Jack of 1877; whilst Jack is also said to have put in an appearance at various other locations around Great Britain including Aberdeen (1860s), Manchester (1885-1886), Mitcham (1870s), Birmingham (1879), Edinburgh (1880s), the Gower (1880s), Liverpool (1904), Bradford (1926) and Glasgow (1935). However it is important to note that many of these supposed sightings of Jack turn out, on examination, to be somewhat less impressive than they seem. Reports that Spring-Heeled Jack appeared in Liverpool in 1904 turn out to be based on a local man who "had a form of religious mania" and used to jump around on the rooftops shouting "My wife is the Devil!" until the police arrived to coax him down. Similarly the Bradford Ghost of 1926 turns out to be someone very obviously wearing a white sheet and cowl running around a housing estate in a rather pathetic and largely unsuccessful attempt to scare people.

Neither it seems have Jack's supposed activities been confined to Great Britain, as his name has been variously linked with a host of other appearances across the globe. These include the Provincetown Phantom, otherwise known as the Black Flash of Cape Cod, who made an appearance at Halloween in 1938; the 1944 Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Illinois; the Houston Bat Man of 1953; the Prague Springer who allegedly taunted the Nazi occupying forces during the years 1940-1945; the Baltimore Phantom of 1951; the 'hippemannchen' (jumping manikins) or 'spiralhopser' who cavorted around the East German provinces of Saxony and Thuringia during the early 1950s; the Monkey Man of Uttar Pradesh in 2001; whilst most recently there has been the Sante Fe Rooftop Madman of 2005 who supposedly could climb up walls and leap from one rooftop to the next.

8. Jack the Urban Myth

Whether labelled as folklore or urban myth, the story is always the same. The tale is always told by someone who, although they have not experienced it themselves, have it on good authority from a friend who knows the person to whom it actually happened and can vouch that every word is true. The tales of Spring-heeled Jack fit exactly into this model; as the Morning Chronicle reported "although the stories were in everybody's mouth, no person who had actually seen him could be ascertained".

In fact there is no reason to suppose that anything at all actually happened in the suburbs of London over the winter of 1837-38, since it is characteristic of urban myths that they require no factual basis to begin circulating. Thus phrases as 'mass hysteria', 'collective hallucination' and 'hysterical contagion' crop up in the literature regarding Jack. Indeed we can see how rapidly the rumour mill could ramp-up the level of hysteria. Whereas the original 'Resident of Peckham' believed that the ghost's intention was simply one of "alarming the inmates of the house", soon Jack was apparently no longer to be satisfied with frightening his victims but rather "the bet is, that the monster shall kill six women in some given time". Soon we hear that even six victims are not sufficient to satisfy the monster as the "object of the villains" was now to "to destroy the lives of not less than 30 human beings! viz. eight old bachelors, ten old maids, and six ladies’ maids, and as many servant girls as they can, by depriving them of their reason, and otherwise accelerating their deaths."

However, the once thing that we can say with certainty about Jack and his escapades is that, despite the references to Jack having "caused the death of several" and the claims of "females being frightened to death and children torn to pieces", there is not the slightest evidence that a single person ever perished at the hands of any of Jack's many manifestations.

9. Jack the Suburban Ghost

Perhaps the key to understanding Jack is that he is the suburban ghost; other ghosts may haunt castles, or some other isolated country location, but Jack was the phantom who appeared at the very doors of gentleman's residences. He began making his appearances at the time when the villages around London were expanding and becoming dormitories for the metropolis, beginning the journey that would see them swallowed up by Greater London. Urbanised middle-class Londoners were moving out of the city in search of a better quality of life, and as always the the arrival of wealthy urbanised newcomers into a previously rural setting was a source of resentment to the existing inhabitants.

In this context it is worth mentioning the now forgotten, but once common country custom of guising. At one time it was the practice of wear some kind of 'fancy dress' or disguise at such festivals as All Souls Day, Christmas and New Years Eve. It is therefore easy to imagine how a few disgruntled locals, fortified by a few pints at the local inn (or after a few glasses of port in the squire's dining hall), might have decided to whip out their guising costumes and teach these newcomers a lesson or two about country customs. (Guising, like many other old British customs which have died out at home, survived in the colonies only to be re-adopted later date as Halloween)

Of course, the fact that he was the suburban ghost, largely explains the longevity of the Spring-heeled Jack phenomenon, as anything vaguely strange that occurs in an urban enviroment is very naturally placed at the door of Jack.

10. The Real Jack

Curiously enough the Spring-heeled Jack of 1837-38 has a precedent in the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803-1804, who appeared "sometimes dressed entirely in white, sometimes in the skin of a cow or other wild beast". As it happens we know that there is no direct connection between Jack and his Hammersmith predecessor, as the Hammersmith ghost was shot dead on the 3rd January 1804 by an excise officer named Francis Smith, and turned out be a bricklayer by the name of Thomas Millward. (Smith was convicted of murder at the Old Bailey but reprieved and served only a year's imprisonment.)

The important thing to note regarding the catalogue of incidents that took place in the years 1837 to 1838 is that no one, not the police, not the newspapers, nor any eyewitness, ever suggested that Spring-heeled Jack was anything other than a determined prankster. None of the original accounts contain any references to anything vaguely super-human. There are no amazing leaps over high walls, and even his fire-breathing was easily recognised by the authorities as nothing more than a simple parlour trick, and that such an effect could be accomplished "by blowing through a tube in which spirits of wine, sulphur, and another ingredient were deposited and ignited" as Inspector Lea noted.

But despite the fact that the examination of the available evidence shows that Jack was very clearly a human prankster, this has not stopped people from offering up other more bizarre explanations. Thus it has been suggested that Jack was a visitor from another planet, or that he was an 'ultraterrestrial', (that is a being from another dimension), or indeed that he was some kind of demon summoned from the netherworld. Although a certain publicity has been given to such ideas over the years, they can safely be dismissed as products of over active imaginations.

Since Spring-heeled Jack was clearly of human origin, many have searched high and low for the identity of the 'man behind the mask'. One of the most commonly suggested names is that of Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. The Marquess of Waterford who was noted for his taste in practical jokes and misogyny (although such characteristics were fairly common in the British aristocracy at the time), and indeed Haining's rather discredited book is largely concerned with fingering the Marquess of Waterford as the true Jack. So eager was Haining to make the evidence fit the story that he also saw fit to add in a little invented detail to Jack's appearance at No 2 Turner Street, stating that the victim saw an embroidered 'W' on his assailant's cloak. As it happens the Marquess was in Norway at the beginning of September 1837 at the very time that Jack made his debut and thus can be excluded from consideration, other names that have been suggested include that of Henry Hawkins, later the Baron Brampton and a High Court Judge, who it is said took upon the guise of Spring-heeled Jack to relieve the boredom of his student days.

As it happens there is no need for us to speculate further as to the identity of Spring-heeled Jack; we know exactly who the real Jack was. He was the James Painter of Kilburn who spread "considerable alarm" about the district, he was the blacksmith named Priest who took indecent liberties with the "respectable females" of Islington, he was the Thomas Lowland of Worcester given three years for terrorising his neighbourhood in 1845. He was all these men and countless more, who took the time and trouble to don a costume and set forth into the night to scare the life out of their neighbours.

An afterword on spring-heels

I have a suspicion that spring-heeled or rubber soled shoes were probably the Victorian equivalent of Air Jordans; the fact that Jack was 'spring-heeled' thus appears to indicate nothing more than that the ghost was quick on his feet. It is to the later fiction and folklore that we owe the literal interpretation of this name to mean that the 'ghost' actually wore shoes fixed with metal springs.

There is discussion in the literature regarding the practicality of using metal springed shoes to jump great heights, and there is an unsubstantiated account that the German Army once contemplated their use, developed a prototype, and then later abandoned the idea as a result of an 85% injury rate. But despite the considerable advances made in technology since the late nineteenth century, no one has yet developed a spring powered shoe capable of propelling an individual skywards. Indeed even if it were technically possible to produce such a device, the wearer would still be faced with the problem of what happens when they come down to earth again.


As implied above, most accounts of the Spring-Heeled Jack phenomenon, both on and offline, are quite frankly, utter rubbish and unworthy of anyone's attention. Only two sources on the original Spring-Heeled Jack of 1837-38 are worth consulting and they are;

  • The article Spring-heeled Jack: To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost by Mike Dash originally published in Fortean Studies 3, 1996 revised 2 April 2005 which can be downloaded from http://www.mikedash.com/investigations_jack_about.htm
  • The Complete Spring Heeled Jack Page, which also includes transcripts of some of the original press reports. See

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