Spring-heeled Jack, Mystery Assailant!


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And it's getting closer to Halloween so we're getting a little bit spookier in our series. Sarah had a really good pick for today.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and this is a popular listener suggestion, too, so it's not exactly my pick but in the late 1830's, London and its outlaying villages, places that are suburbs now, were apparently terrorized by this mystery assailant and sometimes he was dressed as a bear or a devil or dressed in a coat of armor and he tormented his victims who were usually young women by tearing at them with sharp talons, sometimes shooting flames at them and then he would escape with great agility across the countryside.

Katie Lambert: And that agility earned him the name of Spring-heeled Jack which is something people eventually began to take literally like he was running around in these shoes with giant springs on the bottom, but he made such an impression on people across the country that other mystery attacks, 10 years, 40 years, even 70 years later were chalked up to this spring man who grew even more fantastic as the decades went by.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and he started to appear in penny dreadfuls which were the best phrase, it makes me so happy.

Katie Lambert: It's cheap lewd fiction. I guess -

Sarah Dowdy: Which makes me less happy but penny dreadfuls is the name of our next imaginary band.

Katie Lambert: Still, it'd be fun to read through and he took on this folklore persona, too, this wronged aristocrat who was inflicting vigilante justice and if you look at pictures of Jack from the 19th Centuries, engravings of course, he looks a lot like a proto Batman and I'm kind of wondering what sort of inspiration, if any, he had on the creators of Batman. I mean, he's got the scalloped black clock, he has black boots, he flies and jumps -

Sarah Dowdy: And you and I saw the Batmobile on Monday -

Katie Lambert: We did see the Batmobile.

Sarah Dowdy: - [inaudible] car collection at Chick-fil-a headquarters so that's -

Katie Lambert: So, I like to think there's a connection here.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, things are coming together but then Spring-heeled Jack mostly faded from memory. He was replaced by these, you know, more generic ghosts and boogey men like we think of but in 1961 this story kind of gets a second-wind when it's used as an example of pre-space UFO visitation in a magazine called The Flying Saucer Review.

Katie Lambert: Seriously?

Sarah Dowdy: Which, you know, I mean, if you want to buy us a subscription for Christmas, you totally could.

Katie Lambert: But since the 1980's, the subject of Spring-heeled Jack has been seriously studied by one man in particular who is named Mike Dash.

Sarah Dowdy: So, the legend is obviously huge but was there ever a real Spring-heeled Jack and what was he? So, just to give you some bearings before we launch into this very mysterious -

Katie Lambert: Before we spring into it.

Sarah Dowdy: - spring into the story, our subject today cou ld've been an alien, at least according to Flying Saucer review; a supernatural being; a nobleman carrying out some sick terms of a bet; a series of copycats feeding off of a rural rumor; or just an urban legend.

Katie Lambert: And Sarah was saying that the cool thing about this story is that even if you walk away from it believing that nothing happened at all, it's still really interesting to take a look at the urban terrors and hysteria in the 19th Century, like, if you - if you think about ours, the Satanist cults at daycares thing that was going - was that in the 90s?

Sarah Dowdy: I think so.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, we had no Spring-heeled Jack but if you were back in England at this particular time -

Sarah Dowdy: It's fun to look at weird stuff that happened.

Katie Lambert: Exactly, this is what you'd be worried about but first we're going to tell you a little bit of a ghost story.

Sarah Dowdy: So, our scene is set February 20th, 1838. It's less than a year into Queen Victoria's reign and we're at Bear Binder Cottage in Old Ford, which is just east of London. So, Jane Alsop, who is a young woman who lives with her parents, hears somebody ringing the bell at her families' front gate. It's a little late for visitors to be calling; it's about a 8:45 so she goes out and sees the man and asks him what's wrong and could you please stop ringing the bell so loudly. And he says, "For god's sake, bring me a light for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane." So, she hurries in, she grabs this candle and she hands it to the man who thinks - she thinks is a policeman but that's not what she sees.

Katie Lambert: At that point, he throws off his cloak, holds the candle up to his chest and it illuminates this horrible face with red eyes and a helmet and tight-fitting white clothing and then he shoots blue and white flames from his mouth and grabs her, starts to tear at her clothes and her skin with his metal claws, and somehow, she escapes from him and she runs to the door of her home. There he grabs her again and keeps at ripping at her hair and tearing at her clothes. Finally, one of her sister's opens the door and saves her.

Sarah Dowdy: So, that sounds completely terrifying.

Katie Lambert: Yes.

Sarah Dowdy: Even today and this is the first first-hand account of Spring-heeled Jack which is published in The Times of London. And the story was followed up by two investigations; one by the newly formed Metropolitan Police and another by a for hire detective, James Leah.

Katie Lambert: Who is considered one of the most famous early detectives but Jane's account was almost entirely backed up by her family as well as other witnesses so she was believed to be an entirely credible witness, at least for most of the story.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, someone - I think - was it her cousin who said there was no - no flames?

Katie Lambert: A neighbor - yeah, so, the one sort of major contested point - a neighbor said, yeah, I definitely didn't see any flames even though I heard someone ringing at the bell -

Sarah Dowdy: But the rest of the creepiness happened.

Katie Lambert: Everything seemed to add up pretty well. But that's not where our story is going to start because months before Jane's attack, rumors of a mystery assailant had already swept thru the countryside.

Sarah Dowdy: And they started in Barnes; a Village southwest of London in September 1837 where a "ghost imp or devil," was believed to be attacking mostly women and over the next two months there were reports for more than two dozen other villages of a similar phantom so the story spreads, of course it's exaggerated, maybe it was all made up. Serous newspaper men and police who looked into these tales couldn't find anyone who would actually admit to having seen the assailant. It was more, like, "Oh my gosh, yes, I've heard you should go ask Sarah and then Sarah would say -

Katie Lambert: Come to me I'd say, "I haven't seen it myself but go see Old Joe down the road."

Sarah Dowdy: What about me, Sarah? You could've asked me about the imp.

Katie Lambert: I can't send him right back to you, Katie. So, it seemed like everybody had heard of this ghost but nobody had actually seen him and the other thing - they'd look into some of these accounts and they'd find that sensational stories had pretty normal sounding causes, you know, they were seeing a mounted policeman or something. It wasn't spring-heeled Jack but, still, it seemed like something had been happening because by January 1838, the Lord Mayor himself of London made public a letter he had received from, "A resident of Peckham," and this was published in The Times.

Sarah Dowdy: Some individuals of, as the writer believes, the higher ranks of life have laid a wager with the mischievous and full-hearty 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. The wager has, however, been accepted and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses.

Katie Lambert: Okay. So, this is putting forth this wager idea and sketchy rumors start flying all over the countryside but possibly something really is going on here. I mean, if the Lord Mayor thinks that it's worth publishing, you never know, the gentleman in disguise story seems half plausible and then in February we have our first first-hand attack which is the Jane Alsop story from earlier. In that case, the principle suspect is this carpenter named Millbank who is a squat man, he doesn't really match the description that Jane gives of her attacker who is this imposing enormous fire-breather with a helmet but Millbank admits to being so drunk at the time that he can't remember what happened and Jane and her sister are both very adamant that the assailant was not drunk so -

Sarah Dowdy: I mean, how could he be a fire-breather if he was?

Katie Lambert: Well, and that's the other thing. If we're going to take the fire-breathing seriously, it's very dangerous to do fire-breathing if -

Sarah Dowdy: Period.

Katie Lambert: - unless it's absolute calm -

Sarah Dowdy: Right, if you've got everything under control and you're doing everything correctly.

Katie Lambert: - because if the wind blows the wrong way and your face explodes. It's pretty dangerous. It would be especially dangerous to do while you're drunk.

Sarah Dowdy: But, still now it is Spring-heeled Jack fever and not just in the countryside, but in London, too, so we're going to move on to talk about a couple of attacks.

Katie Lambert: And these are the classic attacks from -

Sarah Dowdy: Quote unquote.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, a short string of events from 1837 to 1838. So, the second one was five days after Jane's attack, and again, it was in the east end of London. The assailant knocked on the door of a house and when a servant boy came to the door to open it, Jack frightened him so much that he started screaming his head off and Jack was forced to get out of there before anybody heard.

Sarah Dowdy: The third classic attack was when Lucy Skales and her sister were walking home from their brother's butcher shop down Green Dragon Alley, which sounds very Harry Potter, they're ambushed and the assailant shots blue flames and then flees and this story doesn't gain as much attention as Jane's, for some reason, but I think it's a pretty good one.

Katie Lambert: Possibly because Lucy was a - Jane was the daughter of a pretty well-off family; Lucy, less so. So, at this point, we enter the copycat stage and you have angry men calling themselves Spring - you know, just standing up in the bar and saying, "I'm Spring-heeled Jack and attacking women," and boys dressing up as Jack to play pranks on each other. Some men are arrested but people are also so obsessed by this story by now and frightened of it that nearly any mystery assault gets added to Jack's rap sheet so it doesn't matter if it doesn't exactly follow the pattern for what we've seen. If it's mysterious, it must be Spring-heeled Jack.

Sarah Dowdy: When it goes on for years and years, his name is associated with later attacks in the Midlands, in the home counties, in Middlesex, in Peckham and Sheffield and famously in Aldershot in 1877 which is where a British Army camp was stationed and that's where he would lay his chill hand over an isolated centuries face and then bound off on giant springs so apparently he's gone from fire-breathing to chill hands.

Katie Lambert: Chill hands sounds even creepier.

Sarah Dowdy: And, again, this is nearly 40 years later.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, so it's extremely - I mean, I think we can discount that there would be one person carrying out all these attacks. That would be pretty ridiculous but the last major Spring-heeled Jack appearance occurs 1904 in Liverpool and he's more athletic than ever. I mean, he's practically flying by this point.

Sarah Dowdy: He has better springs.

Katie Lambert: Springs have improved considerably over the decades and the account of this appearance is really sketchy. I think there had been rumors of a poltergeist in the neighborhood before so everybody is on edge I guess.

Sarah Dowdy: So, the legend begins to fade away after this. There's - you know, if there's something scary and fishy going on in your village, you're no longer so inclined to blame it on Spring-heeled Jack. You might just go with a plain garden variety poltergeist.

Katie Lambert: It's the ghost, it's the boogey man, whoever. So, what happened. We gotta look at this from a few different angles. One, was Jack just a convenient boogey man to blame for weird events happening in the 19th Century, weird stuff happens, you have this convenient scapegoat.

Sarah Dowdy: Did opportunistic hoaxers and genuine criminals seize this MO of 1837 jack and make this rumor real?

Katie Lambert: So, you have all this gossip and then you take on the costume and the jumping agility -

Sarah Dowdy: It's conveniently prepared crime.

Katie Lambert: - you can go do whatever you want or did an original Jack terrorize the London area in 1837 and 8 before giving way to these lesser copycats over the next few decades. So, according to the Oxford Dictionary National Biography, folklorists usually assumed that Spring-heeled Jack was just a combination of two urban legends and there was one legend among the servants and the working classes and that was Jack was real, he was a supernatural monster. So, like, he really was the devil or a ghost or whatever, appearing in disguises. Among the more educated people, there was a legend that it was a gentleman's wager and there was this gang of well-off men with access to costumes and transportation and money and they had made some sort of sick bet with each other to go around and try to frighten people out of their senses.

Sarah Dowdy: There was even a suspect for this theory, the very rakish Henry de La Poer Beresford who was the Marquess of Waterford and he's still regarded by some people as the chief suspect for the original 1837 to 1838 string of attacks because he certainly would've had the resources. And, again, it's possible that the lack of concrete information in rural areas from late 1837 comes from some sort of cover-up -

Katie Lambert: Cover-up the nobleman.

Sarah Dowdy: Maybe the first string of attacks ended because there was pressure put on the police not to investigate any further.

Katie Lambert: Or, no, he was just getting - it was getting too risky to keep on doing this. The police couldn't be expected to cover it up anymore.

Sarah Dowdy: Or he fulfilled his bet.

Katie Lambert: The bet.

Sarah Dowdy: And he was all done after those classic attacks.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. And the magazine folklore, unsurprisingly, takes up this same position. I mean, it's called folklore after all, that Jack was just a rumor and part of this hysterical panic. He shouldn't be associated with any one person because he was a product. He wasn't a real flesh and blood man, but the research of the historian Mike Dash forces us to look at Jack a little more closely and consider a few different angle.

Sarah Dowdy: He spent most of his working life researching the Jack mystery and his research has exposed some of the most notable secondary sources on Jack as being nearly complete fiction. So, two famous Jack stories, that of the 1837 attack on the servant Polly Hill by a man she recognized as the pop-eyed gentleman who propositioned her early in the day, seems made up and Sarah was saying that was notable because our rakish Henry -

Katie Lambert: The Marquess of Waterford -

Sarah Dowdy: - was known for being pop-eyed and another, the attack and murder of prostitute of Maria Davis in 1845 also seems entirely fictional and has no contemporary evidence to back it up.

Katie Lambert: So, instead of relying on these obviously questionable secondary sources of literature, Dash has poured through records and newspaper entries from around the country from not just The Times but all over the English countryside, even from the U.S. because there are other similar events happening here at the same period and time. So, instead of relying completely on some of this obviously sketchy secondary literature, Dash has instead tried to go to the primary sources as much as possible which, in this case, there's some records but it's mostly newspapers just trying to figure out what the reporting suggests actually happened and from his research, Dash has concluded that there were elements of reality and fiction in the case of Spring-heeled Jack, which I think is an interesting way to look at it. So, he's figured that there may have been a few Jack's in the first string of attacks from 1837 through 1838 but the attacks on Lucy Skales and Jane Alsop were probably done by the same person and that person was probably also the same one who was responsible for those mysterious 1837 attacks in the countryside.

Sarah Dowdy: And after Spring 1838, it was probably copycat Jack's who were using this rouse to play hoaxes or occasionally to sexually assault women so there's rumor and panic around this whole thing but there's also a kernel of truth so where there's smoke there's fire.

Katie Lambert: Possibly.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, we think. But he also discounts too, surprisingly, popular theories going back to that UFO idea.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, so, he's pretty sure Jack was not a UFO and he was not a supernatural ghost or devil and educated people at the time never really thought he was a ghost or a devil, but over the years, people have claimed that Jack couldn't have been human because his talons, his fire-breathing, his jumps would've been out of range for Victorian science.

Sarah Dowdy: It sounds so funny to actually say to someone, no, talons - those are beyond Victorian technology.

Katie Lambert: I know. It does sound ridiculous. Or fire-breathing even. So, Dash has - in his research, looking through all the papers, he's figured that jumping doesn't really have enough concrete evidence to back it up. It does seem as, as you mentioned in the beginning of the podcast, that people started to take the name Spring-heeled Jack, which was applied to this assailant -

Sarah Dowdy: [Inaudible].

Katie Lambert: Yes.

Sarah Dowdy: Yes.

Katie Lambert: They sort of take it literally like he has actual springs hidden in the heels of his shoes or he has India rubber soled shoes.

Sarah Dowdy: Which you would think would make it pretty difficult to get around the countryside actually.

Katie Lambert: If you were actually wearing springs on your feet, I think it would be very difficult to not just wind up with a broken ankle and caught by the detectives.

Sarah Dowdy: So, if we take the springs out of the equation, you can say that the fire-breathing and the talons could easily have been produced in the 1830's so if he did exist, we should assume that he was at least a man.

Katie Lambert: He was a man. Yeah. So, I think it leaves it open to you guys to think about it a little. You know, do you think he's a combination of an urban legend and some kernel of truth or is it just an outright folktale. I do like this story because even if you are in the camp that assumes nothing happened, there's nothing real about it, you're forced to still examine the hysteria that's for real, that really did happen.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and it's just cool because ideas of ghosts and things. I remember watching poltergeist in middle school and being completely terrified. Stories of the supernatural just - I mean, they go back forever.

Katie Lambert: Well, yeah, ghosts like Jack have appeared long before 1837 and 1838, they just weren't attributed to Spring-heeled Jack and weird stuff happens -

Sarah Dowdy: That we don't have an explanation for sometimes, even now with all our science.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, sometimes it has a basis in actual weird people, sometimes it's just folks getting hysterical and worked up about something.

Sarah Dowdy: But this is of course a story with a lot of research left to be done. Sarah advises that you get out your magnifying glasses and start pouring over newspaper archives but that brings us today to our listener mail.

Katie Lambert: So, our first is real mail and it's especially cool because it's made out of an MRE, a meal ready to eat box.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. We saw this, like, cardboard -

Katie Lambert: Piece of cardboard -

Sarah Dowdy: Postcard among our letters and was, like, what is that. It's pretty awesome. But it's from Nick and he's in the U.S. Navy and he wrote, "Dear Katie and Sarah, I'm sitting at Fort Jackson this morning not too far from Atlanta, waiting for a plane to take me to Kuwait tomorrow and Afghanistan next week. I love the podcasts and have listened to all the episodes you two have done. Through the miracle of the internet, I get to keep listening overseas. It would be great to hear about the history of Afghanistan. Maybe Alexander or the Persians or the Silk Road! Thanks, and keep up the good work."

Katie Lambert: No, thank you.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, thank you and Silk Road, that's definitely one on our list. Darious, that's on our list -

Katie Lambert: So, for you - well, we'll move them up the list.

Sarah Dowdy: So, we'll see what we can do.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, we've also got an e-mail today about the coinor podcast.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, this one is from Jackie and she wrote, "I just listened to your podcast on the coinor diamond and just wanted to mention one instance where the coinor appears in pop culture. I'm a big Dr. Who fan and yesterday, before I listened to the podcast, watched an episode from the new series, Second Season, the episode, called Tooth and Claw, featured Queen Victoria traveling with coinor and claimed that the reason Prince Albert had it cut was so it could be used to save the queen from a werewolf. So, that's pretty great.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, I kind of wish we'd brought that one up. That would've been -

Sarah Dowdy: That would've been a nice solid ending to that podcast.

Katie Lambert: Well, we have found that Queen Victoria ties into everything and when we visited dragon [inaudible] this year we also saw a lot of Dr. Who costumes.

Sarah Dowdy: Dr. Who costumes. Yes, we even saw a storm trooper crossed with Dr. Who so Dr. Who accessories.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, couldn't pick between the two. Well, how could you really?

Sarah Dowdy: So, if you would like to send us some email, we're at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com. We've also got a Facebook fan page and Twitter feed at mistinhistory and I think we have an article that would go with that letter, don't we?

Katie Lambert: We do. It's called, "How Werewolves Work," and it ties into the coinor, I think it kind of ties into Spring-heeled Jack.

Sarah Dowdy: Supernatural, yes.

Katie Lambert: So, you can search for that on our homepage at www.howstuffworks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com and be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed In History Class Blog on the howstuffworks.com homepage.