Friday, July 13, 2012

The Watson Report: The Baffling Story of Spring-Heeled Jack

By I.A. Watson

Every pulpster should know about Spring-Heeled Jack. He inspired the rise of the shock newspapers like London Illustrated Crime Weekly and the Penny Dreadfuls, the forerunners of the pulp magazines. And he's a great bogeyman.

According to the broadsheet newspapers of October 1837, a house servant called Mary Stevens was returning from visiting her parents in Battersea to her employers' house in Lavender Hill. At that time the sprawl of London hadn't yet engulfed these villages so she'd be travelling along winding hedge-lined country paths. She cut across Clapham Common and was grabbed by a dark figure that leaped from an alley. He pinned her, kissed her  face, and tore at her clothes and bare flesh with "claws" that were "cold and clammy like those of a corpse". The girl screamed, people came, and the assailant fled.

The next day the same man struck again at another maid quite near to Miss Stevens' Lavender Hill address. This time his escape included impossible leaps, including over a nine foot high boundary wall. He was laughing manically. At some point during the chase he bounced in front of a horse and carriage, causing it to swerve and crash, seriously injuring the driver. The press took up the description of him leaping as if her had "springs in his heels" and he got his name.

Sightings and attacks continued, and fear spread. A written complaint submitted by "a resident of Peckham" to Sir John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London, brought the matter to official attention and has become the much-quoted staple of Jack-lore:

"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."

The Times reported the case on 9th January 1838, elevating its profile to a national level. A flood of claimed sightings followed from all parts of London. By now Jack was said to have iron claws with which he disfigured his victims. Some women were said to have been driven to fits and others to have died of fright, although no names were given for the latter. Vigilante patrols began to search for Spring-Heeled Jack after dark and several “suspicious characters” were beaten within inches of their lives. When the Brighton Gazette reported that a Sussex gardener had been terrified by “a four footed apparition” that had escaped over a high wall the papers were quick to proclaim that Jack was now roaming the country at will.

On February 19th of that year, pretty Jane Alsop answered urgent knocking at her father’s door to someone claiming to be a policeman, shouting, “Bring a light! We have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane!” When she hurried out with a candle, the visitor cast off a dark cloak to reveal tight-fitting “oilskin” clothing, a helmet, and eyes like “red balls of fire”. He vomited blue and white flame into the girl’s face, then tore at her with iron claws. She struggled free but he caught her again at her doorstep, tearing her gown, arms, neck, and breasts. When Jane’s sisters answered her screams the attacker raced away. A subsequent search did not locate him.

On February 28th, 18 year old Lucy Scales and her younger sister cut down Green Dragon Alley on their way home from visiting their married brother in Limehouse. A stranger in the alley blocked Lucy’s way and breathed blue fire into her face, blinding her. Lucy fell to the floor in a fit that lasted for hours. Her sister screamed and her brother responded. The stranger, dressed like a gentleman and carrying a bulls-eye lantern, slipped away.

Police treated these cases very seriously. A self-confessed Spring-Heel Jack was tried at Lambeth Street Court then acquitted. “Spring-Heeled Jack – the Terror of London” became an early Penny Dreadful. He even began to appear in the popular Punch and Judy puppet shows, taking the role usually reserved for the Devil in those gory morality plays. The first Spring-Heeled Jack stage play debuted in 1840. By 1885 his fame had crossed the Atlantic, with “Spring-Heel Jack; or The Masked Mystery of the Tower”, appearing in Beadle's New York Dime Library #332.

In 1843 he was reported in distant Northamptonshire. Later that year he was attacking lone coachmen in rural East Anglia. Some linked him with the mysterious “Devil’s Footprints” in Devon in February 1835, where miles-long tracks of bipedal hoof-marks snaked over the snow-covered landscape, including passing across rooftops and over high walls.

Various theories competed in public opinion. For every one that proclaimed Jack a demon, spectre, or vampire there were those who thought him a lunatic butcher, a mad nobleman, or a cabal of rich men’s sons reviving the antics of the famous Hell-Fire Clubs. Several copy-cats were caught; some were dealt with severely without recourse to the authorities.

The various traits of Jack’s numerous claimed attacks were conflated: classic Spring-Heeled Jack had iron claws and burning eyes, belched fire and leaped great distances. He could change shape and melt into shadow. Weapons did not harm him. He dressed like a gentleman except when he was a bear or a ghost or wore tight-fitting oilskin beneath his flowing cloak.

So Jack entered folklore. His appearances diminished but his fame grew. He returned again in 1872 in Peckham and the next year in industrial Sheffield where a huge crowd turned out to see him jumping across the rooftops. But surely his most outrageous exploit was his haunting of Aldershot Army Base, then and now one of the UK’s top-security military training camps.

In August 1877 a sentry there challenged a cloak-swathed figure that raced up and slapped him. Bullets appeared not to harm the assailant. The intruder disappeared into the night with uncanny bounds. A series of other appearances in and around the camp provoked news articles about “The Aldershot Ghost” and are mentioned in memoirs of officers serving at the time. Lord Earnest Hamilton’s Forty Years On offers details but seems to fudge dates, and posits that the culprit was a prankster called Lieutenant Alfrey.

Jack sightings continued into the 20th century. His last “official” appearance after a couple of decades touring the country was in Liverpool in 1904. The most recent claim was of a family travelling home by car who encountered a “dark figure with no features” that climbed a fifteen foot wall in seconds “just like Spring-Heeled Jack” – in February 2012!

See what I mean about the pulpiness of Spring-Heeled Jack? From him proceeded Varney the Vampire, the Mad Gasser of Matoon, Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague, Jason Voorhees, and a host of other characters claimed as real or creations of fiction. There is even a shadow of him in the Shadow’s chilling laughter.

So a tip the pulp hat to the scary old ghost – but don’t look him in the eye lest he blind you with his fire!