Spring is in the air and for some of the world’s cryptids, it’s also in their step. Take Spring-Heeled Jack, for instance. This is a guy who witnesses claim could jump over walls, all while cackling maniacally at others’ fear and misfortune. What a schadenfreude.
The tale of Spring-Heeled Jack is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not a story for those easily offended. In fact, it has all of the makings of a bodice ripper—literally. Spring-Heeled Jack was like the original Victorian pervert, thus quite the nonconformist seeing how stuffy Europe and America became during that era.
The trouble began in 1837 London when a young woman named Polly Adams was walking home from her shift as a barmaid. A man with red eyes like the devil and knives for fingers jumped out of the shadows and sliced open the front of her dress. She escaped but shortly thereafter, another English lady named Mary Stevens claimed a similar attack. The specifics of the reports varied but frequently included descriptions of a red-eyed, fire-breathing menace that had strong proclivities for women’s bosoms. He was also described as dressing in black, possibly an oilskin, and wearing a helmet. But honestly, the oilskin and headgear pretty much pale in comparison to the other details. He could have worn a well-pressed tuxedo or a clown suit for all it matters. The Rosemary’s Baby peepers and dragon breath paired with his love of female flesh is enough to build a serious bad reputation.
In another oft-cited account, Jack jumped in front of a carriage and caused it to overturn. After observing the wreckage, he laughed a mad scientist’s cackle and jumped over the nearest wall, which happened to be almost ten feet tall. At this point, someone thought to look at his tracks, and a detective—who was apparently not the Baker Street variety since no one took casts of the footprints—claimed that the assailant had compressed springs on his shoes. Rather specific deduction considering the lack of evidence, but the concept stuck, and the name Spring Heeled Jack was born.
For one of Jack’s meaner gambits, young Jane Alsop came to the door of her father’s home upon hearing a voice on the other side announce he had just caught the notorious Spring Heeled Jack. With the help of a single candle (because this story has to be as pitiful and terrifying as possible), Alsop peered outside to find that Jack himself was the so-called captor. I suppose he wasn’t entirely lying though. As with his usual M. O., he scratched her blouse open with Freddy Kruger fingers and then blew fire in her face. Jane’s sister helped her escape, but just over a week later, Jack temporarily blinded a girl with his blue flames when she was traversing the too aptly-named Green Dragon Alley.
At this point, pretty much everyone in all of England knew of Jack, and predictably, reports began to spread. Some even say Jack killed a teenage prostitute named Maria Davis who purportedly drowned after he tossed her over a bridge. However, due to the near ubiquitous nature of the sightings, copycat Jacks may have been responsible for a portion of the hijinks and atrocities. Plus, bloodthirsty cryptids don’t exactly fit my lighthearted narratives.
Barring him as a murderer, the boldest of Spring-Heeled Jack’s alleged exploits came years later in the 1870s in what some describe as his final known appearance. But what a magnum opus it was. Jack paraded right into the middle of an assembled army squad and slapped one of the soldiers square in the face. The accosted man did not appear to be targeted in particular, though imagining that he was a former rival of Jack’s would make the story more interesting. And logical.
Understandably miffed about this disrespect, the soldiers took aim and shot at Jack who bounded off completely unharmed. The army even claimed many of the fired bullets hit the roustabout but bounced off, making a metallic sound. Over the course of the subsequent few days, Jack continued to harass the army men, but he eventually became bored with all the artillery fire and hopped over a few buildings to make his escape.
So what’s the likeliest explanation for Jack? Some argue that only an alien species could act (and jump) in the ways that he did. Others say nope, not an alien but not human either; instead they assert that Jack was a robot. The most rational answer might lie with a nobleman named the Marquess of Waterford who allegedly accepted a bet that he could terrify the female population all over London.
But as I’ve lamented before with the Dobhar Chu, many of these tales stink of didactics. In Victorian times, women were viewed as being more susceptible than men to wanton ways and therefore couldn’t be trusted. However, if members of the fairer sex feared for their safety and perhaps more importantly, their chastity, they’d be less likely to gallivant about after dark. Even if Jack was real—and the available evidence does suggest that something was, ahem, afoot—the culprit could have been trying to teach women a lesson or just scare the wits out of them like a certain Marquess.
Either way, stories of men capable of clearing amazing heights or breathing fireballs prove common motifs across folklore. America has its own share of such tales, including a turn-of-the-century flame spitter in Brooklyn and a similar yarn in the thirties and forties in Massachusetts. Must be an England and New England thing. What a shame it hasn’t made the tourist brochures. There’s a niche market there.