Bogeyman or Spaceman? The legend of Spring-heeled Jack
(originally published in Paranormal magazine 45, March 2010) – see also The Reign of Terror.
Folklorist DAVID CLARKE, who has contributed to Spring-heeled Jack: Sources and Interpretation (forthcoming in 2011, edited by Mike Dash), examines the origins of the mystery and recent claims that Jack was really a UFOnaut.
The Oxford English Dictionary says Spring-heeled Jack is a name “given to a person who from his great activity in running or jumping, especially in order to rob or frighten people, was supposed to have springs in the heels of his boots.” The term originated in the winter of 1837-38 when “Spring-heeled Jack” was identified by The Times as the mysterious bugbear responsible for a series of vicious nocturnal assaults upon individuals, mainly women, in parts of northwest London.
Descriptions of Jack’s appearance varied (see panel); sometimes he appeared in animal form as a bull or bear, at others he wore a suit of armour. He employed metal claws or talons to rip at the clothes of his victims but his most obvious characteristic was his ability to make good his escape through tremendous leaps and bounds, popularly attributed to springs concealed in his boots.
Later in Victorian England Spring-heeled Jack became a generic street name for a host of robbers and footpads who leapt on their victims and made good their escape by speed and agility. A number of 19th century newspaper accounts of court proceedings include examples of named individuals, “known as a Spring-heeled Jack” in their localities, who were prosecuted for a variety of assaults, burglaries and anti-social behaviour.[i]
By the end of that century, “Spring-heeled Jack” was firmly established in the nomenclature of frightening figures in English folklore. The urban terror generated by his activities predated the murders of Jack the Ripper by half a century. In folklore the two shared a number of characteristics and the fear of one appears to have been absorbed into the legend of the other. Indeed, one of the letters sent to the Metropolitan Police during the original Ripper investigation of 1888-89 was signed “Spring Heel Jack: The Whitechapel Murderer.”
For the lower classes of Victorian England, Spring-heeled Jack was perceived not as a human being but as a ghost or devil figure whose modus operandi echoed the existing supernatural folklore familiar to most of his victims. By the early 20th century his name was frequently invoked as a frightening figure used to pacify unruly children. Indeed, my own grandparents recalled being warned in their childhood in Sheffield, to behave “or Spring-heeled Jack would fetch them.”
An alternative tradition, popular among the educated, literate upper classes, attributed the London terror of 1837-38 to the rakish activities of a notorious nobleman, Lord Henry de la Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquis of Waterford. Waterford and a small group of aristocratic friends were notorious for a series of unpleasant and vicious pranks that were widely chronicled in the newspapers of the day. These included practical joking that occasionally resulted in savage beatings of random pedestrians.
Waterford was killed in a riding accident in 1859 and within a decade of his death he was named by several sources, including the author of the influential Brewer’s Handbook, as the original perpetrator of the Spring-heeled Jack scare in London. From that point onwards, this theory has been published as fact in a number of popular 20th century accounts of the legend, including the single full-length book on the topic, published in 1977 by Peter Haining (The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring-heeled Jack). Nevertheless, although there is some circumstantial facts that place Waterford in London during the winter of 1837-38, there is no convincing evidence to support the allegation that he was responsible for the assaults attributed to Spring-heeled Jack.
Yet another incarnation of Spring-heeled Jack was portrayed both in dramatic theatrical productions and popular “pulp” literature. The most prominent and influential example of the latter was the character portrayed in the Penny Dreadfuls, whose popularity reached its height in the mid-19th century. As their name suggests, these publications were cheap illustrated serials containing lurid and sensational crime fiction. They were widely read by a newly literate working class, particularly young men, from the 1830s until the first decade of the 20thcentury. Characters named Spring-heeled Jack appear in several Penny Dreadful serials between 1860 and 1904. Here he was portrayed not as a ghost or demon but as a vengeful anti-hero, often a wronged aristocrat, whose demonic appearance was complemented by a costume that included spring-heeled boots, horns and bat-like wings – a direct precursor, perhaps, of comic-book superheroes such as Batman.
The melting pot of popular literature, legend and folk belief produced, by the late 19th and early 20th century, an archetypal figure: part bogeyman, part ghost, part mystery assailant. By the time of the First World War those with a direct memory of Jack’s exploits during the Victorian period were few and he was largely forgotten about until 1948 when ghost-hunter Elliot O’Donnell devoted a chapter to the bogeyman in his book Haunted Britain.[ii]
Haining’s account triggered off what would become the most radical metamorphosis of the Spring-heeled Jack legend. From the 1950s a new generation of authors, sometimes sincere but occasionally dishonest, helped to transform Jack from a nebulous Victorian ghost into a visitor from outer space. From 1950 reports of, and belief in, flying saucers, or UFOs (unidentified flying objects) as they became known, spread to Europe and attracted an enthusiastic following.[iii] In Britain, writers such as Harold T. Wilkins and Desmond Leslie, co-author with George Adamski of the best-selling Flying Saucers Have Landed[iv] began searching archives for evidence of visits to the Earth in prehistoric and ancient times, not only by alien craft but also by their occupants.
The first person to link Spring-heeled Jack and the modern UFO mystery was the British character actor Valentine Dyall who presented the BBC Radio horror series Appointment with Fear between 1941 and 1953. In 1954 Dyall wrote an article for Everybody’s magazine that was instrumental in transforming Spring-heeled Jack into a supernatural creature more suited to 20th century science fiction.[v] He asked readers: ‘Today we are still without a likely answer to the question: who – or what – was the fabulous, ubiquitous creature that terrorised a huge section of the British public for nearly sixty years? One thing is certain – he was no ordinary mortal. It is significant that a high proportion of those who saw him were convinced that he was not of this world, but either a spirit or a visitor from some distant planet….it is pointless to scoff at this theory unless we can produce a sound, natural one to take its place.’[vi]
In response, Everybody’s published a letter from Inman Race of Sheffield, who had an ingenious answer to Dyall’s question. Evidently, Spring-heeled Jack was a spaceman marooned on Earth. This solution struck a chord with a generation mesmerised by the developing space race, the flying saucer mystery and the possibility of return visits from other worlds. Race wrote: ‘The downward thrust need to allow any spring to hurl a grown man many feet could never be obtained. But a Being, reared on a planet where gravity was far greater than on earth would be able to leap colossal distances on THIS planet.’ He added: ‘I suggest that the alleged monster was a visitant from Space who had been marooned. His birth on a greater gravity planet would enable him to live longer on Earth, and perform all the feats attributed to the oddity.’[vii]
The ideas of Dyall and Race were developed to their logical conclusion seven years later by the London-based magazine Flying Saucer Review, at that time the world’s leading UFO journal. In their spring 1961 issue FSR published an article credited to one ‘J. Vyner’ with the title ‘The Mystery of Springheel Jack’. Vyner presented an eccentric and muddled summary of the legend that lacked a single primary reference to his source material. His theory, clearly borrowed from Inman Race, portrayed Jack as an alien marooned on Earth. The various assaults that occurred during the winter of 1837-38 and their eventual focus on one small area of northwest London, according to Vyner, suggested that Jack was desperately trying to locate a ‘safe house’ or a friendly ‘agent’ who could help him locate his misplaced flying saucer.
In his article Vyner introduced a number of new details about Jack’s costume and appearance that cannot be identified in the original 19th century newspaper accounts (see panel). Some of these were sourced from Dyall’s account, while others appear to have been a product of Vyner’s own imagination. According to Vyner Spring-heeled Jack wore “a tall, metallic-seeming helmet” and “close-fitting garments of some glittering material” (one original account refers to this as “white oilskin”). He also had “a lamp strapped to his chest”, a “prominent nose” and “ears…cropped or pointed like those of an animal”.[viii] In his article Vyner claimed Jack’s victims being stunned by “Jack’s weird blue flame” that he equates with a type of “stupefying gas” linked with “a magnetic effect transmitted along a beam of polarised light from Jack’s mysterious lantern.” Weird magnetic effects, he reminded readers, are commonly reported “by those who have ventured too near grounded saucers.”[ix]
The editor of the new study, Spring-heeled Jack: Sources and Interpretation, Mike Dash, has described Vyner’s article as “possibly the most influential contributions ever made to the legend”. He notes how “the author’s inaccurate summary of Jack’s appearance and abilities has influenced almost every subsequent writer on the subject, either directly or as a result of the incorporation of the description into later books”.[x]
It was significant that Vyner’s article was published at a time when the idea of alien – or extra-dimensional – visitors was about to become an established part of the burgeoning occult counter culture. To proponents of this new branch of UFOlogy, Spring-heeled Jack and UFO occupants were regarded not as extra-terrestrials but as “ultra-terrestrials,” creatures visiting our world from other dimensions. One influential contribution to literature of this “new UFOlogy” arrived with the publication in 1969 of Jacques Vallee’s Passport to Magonia, a book whose subtitle linked ‘folklore to flying saucers.’[xi] Vallee repeated Vyner’s reference to Jack’s lantern and ray gun. For good measure, Jack’s Batman-like behaviour encouraged Vallee to make further links with other stories of winged creatures and “flying men” recorded in the UFO literature including the Mothman reported by numerous eye-witnesses in West Virginia during 1966-67. The cover illustration of John Keel’s book on the West Virginia events, The Mothman Prophecies, featured a winged, demonic figure with glowing red eyes.[xii]
Roger Sandell, in an article published by Flying Saucer Review in 1971 made further links between Jack’s appearance and accounts of close encounters with UFO occupants. Sandell commented that: “Had these reports appeared in the press today it is possible that the creature would have been described as a ‘man from outer space’. The helmet and oilskin garment may well have been described as a ‘spacesuit’. Even the luminescence and the incredible jumping ability can be paralleled in many modern reports.”[xiii]
Spring-heeled Jack the spaceman was a powerful idea that could not, in the light of the increasingly bizarre nature of the unfolding UFO phenomenon, be easily dismissed. Even Peter Haining, author of The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring-heeled Jack, a book which sought to identify the original bogeyman who terrorised London in 1837-38 as the Marquis of Waterford, was unable to ignore the spaceman hypothesis. Haining opined that “at first sight [this] might seem a totally absurd suggestion”, but went on to devote a whole chapter of his book to rehashing Vyner’s ideas.[xiv]
Vyner and Haining’s largely unreferenced distortions of primary, secondary and imaginary source material have been copied and re-copied largely uncritically by writers in the field of Forteana, UFOlogy and even crypto-zoology who have re-fashioned the image of Spring-heeled Jack for a new audience in a new century. The exotic, space age re-invention of his appearance and modus operandi would not have been recognised by many of his 19th century victims. It is evident that some imaginative authors, following in the footsteps of the 19th century penny-a-liners who preceded them, are reviving old legends for new purposes and in the process creating news ones for an entirely different audience. Spring-heeled Jack is simply too good a story for them to let go.
[i] for examples see my paper ‘The Folklore of Spring-heeled Jack’ in Mike Dash (editor), Spring-heeled Jack: sources and interpretation, forthcoming 2010.
[ii] O’Donnell, Elliot (1948). Haunted Britain.London.
[iii] Clarke, David and Roberts, Andy (2007). Flying Saucerers: A Social History of UFOlogy. Loughborough.
[iv] Leslie, Desmond and Adamski, George (1953). Flying Saucers Have Landed.London: Werner Laurie.
[v] Dyall, Valentine. Spring-heeled Jack – the leaping terror. Everybody’s,20 February 1954.
[vi] Dyall, op. cit.
[vii] Everybody’s,6 March 1954.
[viii] Vyner, J. The Mystery of Springheel Jack (1961). FSR 7/3, 3.
[ix] Vyner, op. cit. 5
[x] Dash, M (1996). Spring-Heeled Jack: To Victorian bugaboo from Suburban Ghost. Fortean Studies 3, 29.
[xi] Vallee, Jacques (1970). Passport to Magonia: from folklore to flying saucers. Neville Spearman.
[xii] Keel, John (1975). The Mothman Prophecies.New York – a similar illustration appeared on later paperback editions published in theUK.
[xiii] Sandell, Roger (1971). ‘Spring heel Jack: Victorian humanoid?’ FSR 17/1, 22-24.
[xiv] Haining, 140-153.
Copyright 2011 David Clarke