Legend of Spring Heeled Jack – The Demon Killer


Picture this: It’s 1838, the second year
of Queen Victoria’s reign. You’re an inspector, working for the Metropolitan
Police Service, a newly-formed organization tasked with laying down the law on the foggy
streets of London. You don’t have an easy job: The first case
of successful forensic fingerprinting won’t happen for another 54 years. The first camera had only been invented 22
years ago, and the process of taking a picture is too long and too complicated to catch criminals
in the act. And Dr. Edmond Locard, a French criminologist
referred to by some as “The Father of Forensic Science”, won’t even be born until 1877. In other words, if you’re hoping to bring
a criminal to justice, you better have some reliable witnesses. One day, as you’re patrolling the streets
of Peckham – a district of South London – a panicked man runs towards you. He’s gibbering, petrified. Says he’s just witnessed a horrible crime. No, it isn’t Jack the Ripper, he won’t
start committing his gruesome murders in Whitechapel for another 50 years. However, the criminal that the terrified witness
describes to you is even stranger. He’s got fiery eyes, a monstrous face, and
long, metal claws. He can jump to inhuman heights, and can even
breathe fire. He sometimes wears a helmet, sometimes a cloak,
and sometimes even a suit of black, bulletproof armour. Some even said he could terrify women into
“dangerous fits” without laying a finger on them. You could think, “Surely, this witness is
either crazy, lying, or drunk. No such man can possibly exist!” But you don’t think that. Instead, your blood runs cold. You gulp, give a solemn nod, and say, “I’ll
get right on it, sir.” Because you’ve heard of this entity before. What the witness has just described to you
is a figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack, a legendary boogeyman who terrorized the UK
from 1837 to 1888. He’s been described as a ghost, a monster,
a demon, an alien, and even the first real-life super-villain. Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor of London,
has publicly acknowledged the threat of this supposedly supernatural criminal. He received startling correspondences from
the public earlier in the year. They detailed the attacks of a man with iron
claws on servant girls in Hammersmith, Kensington, and Ealing. Even local Blacksmiths aren’t safe from
his wrath. None of these victims have reported their
attacks out of fear, but it seems more sightings occur every single day. Even the Duke of Wellington, a man nearing
seventy, attempted to hunt the mysterious beast on horseback – to no avail. If Jack isn’t stopped, who knows what this
sharp-clawed, fire-breathing maniac will do next? That’s why it’s your job to track him
down, and bring his reign of terror to a long-overdue end. Like any good police inspector, first, you
look over the major witness reports. Hearsay about a tall, cloak-wearing man harassing
women around the city has been circulating for a while. The monster who would soon come to be known
as Spring-Heeled Jack was a popular figure in tabloid journalism and Penny Dreadfuls
for months before anyone got the Law involved. So much so that it’s unclear whether many
of the stories surrounding Jack and his exploits are fact, myth, or outright fiction. Burroughs and districts across London were
rife with stories of a grinning devil hopping from rooftop to rooftop, hunting for his next
victim. His victims, by the way, were almost exclusively
young women. Polly Adams, an eighteen-year-old barmaid,
claimed to be attacked by an Impish creature while crossing Blackheath in South London. It belched fire at her, and tried to tear
off her clothes with its metal claws. A servant named Mary Stevens also reported
a Spring-Heeled Jack sighting in Barnes Common. Jack supposedly grabbed Mary, ripping into
her gown and attempting to kiss her, then fleeing without a trace. The day after, the mischievous phantom leapt
in front of a carriage, causing it to crash. Jack supposedly escaped with a nine-foot jump
into the air, laughing madly while he did it. But none of these attacks were ever officially
recorded beyond ominous local folklore. The first officially recorded attack was the
assault of Jane Alsop, an eighteen year old woman from London’s East End. The incident occurred on February 20th, 1838,
at around 9 P.M. Jane was at home with her father and two sisters
when she heard a loud rapping on her front gate. When she investigated the noise, the man at
the gate – who was shrouded in shadows at the time – claimed he was a police officer. When Jane asked what business he had at her
home, the supposed “police officer” told her:
“For God’s sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in
the lane!” Alsop had heard all the frightening rumours,
and was excited to finally see this local legend up close. She grabbed a lit candle from inside her home
and ran outside to assist the officer. However, as she handed him the candle, she
didn’t realize just how close to her that mythic, jumping outlaw was. After accepting Alsop’s candle, the police
officer tore off his cloak. Alsop recalled the man’s hideous face, his
strange helmet, and his tight-fitting white Oilskin suit. She was staring into the burning eyes of Spring-Heeled
Jack himself. According to Alsop’s testimony, before she
could even scream, Jack spewed a jet of white and blue flame. Alsop shrieked in terror, at which point,
Jack set upon her with his iron claws. He clawed at her face, her neck, tore out
chunks of her hair, and started to rip apart her dress. Luckily, Jane managed to free herself from
Jack’s grasp, and was helped back into the home by her father and sister’s. Jack was relentless. He hammered away at the door with his iron
fists, until one of Jane’s sisters frightened him off by calling a nearby police officer
out of her second story bedroom window. Jack leapt away before the police could even
arrive. Like a candle going out in the night, he was
gone. There were two investigations into the matter
by the police. One under the premise that Jack was alone,
and another working under the assumption he had an accomplice. Two primary suspects were identified and questioned:
A carpenter named Thomas Millbank – who owned an outfit very similar to Jack’s – and
a bricklayer named Payne, believed to be his accomplice. However, Jane insisted that neither of them
matched the man who attacked her that night. The case remains unsolved. The next incident occurred a few days later
that same month. Lucy Scales and her sister were departing
from their brother’s house, and taking the passage home through Green Dragon Alley. Lucy was walking slightly ahead, when she
saw a tall, cloaked figure standing further down the alley. As Lucy approached the figure, he suddenly
turned and breathed another jet of blue fire into her face. The sudden attack temporarily blinded Lucy,
and induced a fit that led her to fall unconscious while her attacker fled and disappeared. Lucy’s brother heard her screams from his
home, and ran to assist her. When Lucy later reported the incident, she
described her assailant as having a “tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance.” Several suspects were taken in, but there
was never enough evidence to convict. Once again, Jack remained uncaught. Spring-Heeled Jack’s exploits became infamous,
inspiring numerous hoaxes and copy-cat attacks by criminals eager to imitate the iconic villain. The landlady of the White Lion Pub had a shocking
experience on the 28th of February, when a man approached her claiming to be Jack himself. The man, apparently deranged, then produced
a club from his coat and started attacking nearby women. Blacksmith James Priest was arrested in Islington,
after attacking several women in the style of Spring-Heeled Jack, and sentenced to three
months of hard labour for his crimes. A man in Kilburn was fined after donning a
sheet and mask in the style of Jack, and committing a series of mischievous pranks. These are just a handful of the hundreds of
acts carried out by Jack’s imitators. But the original Jack – or Jacks – remained
at large. Every time Jack made another cunning escape,
the hysteria seemed to spread further. Sightings had gone from a series of isolated
oddities to a full-blown epidemic. Reports of Spring-Heeled Jack’s assaults
even began to expand beyond their origins in London and its surrounding towns and villages. In April of 1838, in the town of Southend-on-Sea,
a local paper’s headline read “SPRING-HEELED JACK AT SOUTHEND.” A woman walking along the cliff tops had been
accosted by a mysterious man, who – in true Jack style – tore at her clothes with his
claws. On the fourteenth of that same month, a report
in the Brighton Gazette claimed a Sussex gardener named Rose Hill was attacked by a leaping,
bear-like creature. The report on this same incident from The
Times contained the phrase, “Spring-heeled Jack has, it seems, found his way down to
the Sussex coast.” The distance between Southend and Sussex is
almost a hundred miles. In a time when the first cars were still over
forty years off, Spring-Heeled Jack was really getting around. As Jack was never apprehended, sightings began
to dry up. However, in the following years and even decades,
Spring-Heeled Jack incidents seemed to reoccur in small clusters. In 1843, he was spotted in Northamptonshire
and East Anglia. In 1845, he was sighted harassing sex workers
with his claws and trademark blue flames in London. In 1847, a series of attacks in Devon were
attributed to Jack. Almost thirty years later, in 1872, Spring-Heeled
Jack reared his famously ugly head again in Peckham. Meanwhile, residents of Sheffield were contending
with the “Park Ghost” – which also got rolled in with Jack’s now-extensive mythology. Two of the most insane – and downright comical
– reports of Spring-Heeled Jack escapades both occurred in 1877. A military outpost in Aldershot, Surrey, supposedly
failed to fend-off assaults from Jack over the course of several months. Jack would apparently bound up to sentry towers
with his freakish jumping skills and slap soldiers in the face, before fleeing into
the night. The problem progressed to a point where soldiers
guarding the North Camp were ordered to shoot him on sight, but their bullets were reported
to have no effect. This is consistent with the other report from
that year, where Jack – once again, in the form of a bear – took out his rage on the
city of Lincoln. Citizens shot at him as he bounded over Newport
Arch, a Roman monument in the city, but their bullets caused no harm. As an astute investigator, you’re probably
wondering: With a rap sheet this extensive, there must be some evidence and theories about
the nature of Spring-Heeled Jack. How could someone possibly be so prolific,
so infamous, and yet, so obscure? While no one individual was ever caught and
tried for the collected crimes of Spring-Heeled Jack, there was a figure in popular culture
at the time who was considered a prime suspect: Irish nobleman Henry de la Poer, the 3rd Marquis
of Waterford. Poer was known by some as The Mad Marquis,
for his love of booze and predilection towards insane pranks. The Mad Marquis, Spring-Heeled Jack or otherwise,
was a fascinatingly bizarre figure in his own right. Some even attribute the origin of the phrase
“Paint the town red” to him, in honor of a wild drinking session in the town of
Melton Mowbray. During their night of drunken debauchery,
the Marquis and his friends committed vandalism across the town, including smearing doors,
buildings, and a statue with red paint. But it wasn’t just the Marquis’ love of
pranks that tied him to Spring Heeled-Jack. In 1880, author E. Cobham Brewer wrote of
the Marquis: “he used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten
them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example.” The Marquis also resided in London during
the infamous attacks on Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales, further tying him to the crimes. Reports of Jack assaults also notably reduced
in London after the Marquis took his leave in 1842. However, the reports of Spring-Heeled Jack
sightings continued across the country throughout this period, even after 1859 – the date
of the Marquis’ death. While it’s certainly romantic to entertain
the idea that a roguish aristocrat donned a disguise and became London’s most legendary
monster, there’s little beyond weak, circumstantial evidence to back this up. The Spring-Heeled Jack case, while sprawling,
terminates in a series of frustrating dead ends. Did Jack, like the phantom or demon or monster
he was always thought to be, slip in and out without a trace? The perfect criminal committing the perfect
crime? Well, not quite. As mentioned earlier, the line between fact
and fiction in the case of Spring-Heeled Jack is as thin as one of his razor-sharp, iron
claws. Before the assaults of Jane Alsop and Lucy
Scales – the only two ever officially reported to the police – Jack was a local legend. He haunted the public consciousness more than
the public streets. While all signs point to those two assaults
being legitimate (if exaggerated a little in the retellings) when closely analysed,
few of the other reports hold up. Over different retellings, Jack’s powers
and appearances change drastically – he’s an imp, he’s a tall, rakish gentleman, he’s
a demon, a bear, and in one case, a sinister white cow. He pops up, often simultaneously, in locations
across the country. Even assaults and strange happenings that
have little to do with Spring-Heeled Jack were rolled into his growing legend, spreading
what was most likely a national case of mass hysteria. Everyone from minor pranksters to sexual predators
contributed to the dark myth of Spring-Heeled Jack. This was only made worse by the relentless
sensationalism of Penny Dreadfuls and tabloid newspapers, looking to profit off the Jack
craze. Spring-Heeled Jack was more of a brand than
a true menace to Victorian society. And it was this sense of increasing exaggeration
that lead to ridiculous, far-fetched stories like the assaults on the Aldershot military
base and the city of Lincoln. As this investigation draws to a close, we
have one more question to ask ourselves: Was Spring-Heeled Jack – as in, the being with
a hideous face, iron claws, freakish jumping ability, and fiery breath – ever real? No, probably not. But for a few decades at the start of the
Victorian era, the wild imaginations of the people of England made him real. And he’ll probably cross your mind again,
next time you walk down a dark alley and see a man in the distance, wearing a long, black
coat… If you liked this video then we’ve got two
more picked out just for you. Click here for another great episode of The
Infographics Show or over here. You’re going to love them both but you have
to pick one for now!

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