Spring Heeled Jack

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Myths

Spring Heeled Jack (Illustration circa 1890).
Spring Heeled Jack (Illustration circa 1890).

Spring Heeled Jack (also Springheel Jack, Spring-heel Jack, etc.) is a character from English folklore said to have existed during the Victorian era and able to jump extraordinarily high. The first recorded claimed sighting of Spring Heeled Jack occurred in 18371. Later alleged sightings were reported from all over England, from London up to Sheffield and Liverpool, but they were especially prevalent in suburban London and later in the Midlands and Scotland2.

Many theories have been proposed to ascertain his nature and identity, none of which have been capable of completely clarifying the subject. The phenomenon remains unexplained.

The urban legend of Spring Heeled Jack gained immense popularity in its time due to the tales of his bizarre appearance and his capacity to perform extraordinary leaps, to the point that it became the topic of several works of fiction and much speculation about possible paranormal origins.


Spring Heeled Jack was described by alleged victims as having a terrifying and frightful appearance, with diabolical physiognomy that included clawed hands and eyes that "resembled red balls of fire". One of the reports claimed that, beneath a black cloak, he wore a helmet and a tight fitting white garment like an " oilskin". Many stories also mention a " Devil-like" aspect. Spring Heeled Jack was said to be tall and thin, with the appearance of a gentleman, and capable of making great leaps. Several reports mention that he could breathe blue and white flames from his mouth and that he wore sharp metallic claws at his fingertips. At least two individuals claimed that he was able to speak in comprehensible English.


Early reports

Picture from a penny dreadful of Spring Heeled Jack jumping over a gate.
Picture from a penny dreadful of Spring Heeled Jack jumping over a gate.

According to newspaper articles dating to December 1837, the first reports of Jack's activities were made in September of that year in London. A businessman returning home late one night from work told of being suddenly shocked as a mysterious figure jumped with ease over the considerably high railings of a cemetery, landing right in his path. No attack was reported, but the submitted description was disturbing: a muscular human male with devilish features including large and pointed ears and nose, and protruding, glowing eyes.

Later, in October 1837, a girl by the name of Mary Stevens was walking to Lavender Hill, where she was working as a servant, after visiting her parents in Battersea. On her way through Clapham Common, according to her later statements, a strange figure leapt at her from a dark alley. After immobilising her with a tight grip of his arms, he began to kiss her face, while ripping her clothes and touching her flesh with his claws, which were, according to her deposition, "cold and clammy as those of a corpse". In panic, the girl screamed, making the attacker quickly flee from the scene of the assault. The commotion attracted several residents who launched an immediate search for the aggressor, but one could not be found.

The next day, the leaping character allegedly chose a very different victim near Mary Stevens' home, inaugurating a modus operandi that would become typical of future reported: he jumped in the way of a passing carriage, causing the coachman to lose control and crash, injuring him seriously. Several witnesses claimed that he escaped by jumping over a nine foot-high wall while babbling with a high-pitched and ringing laughter.

Gradually, the news of the strange character spread, and soon the press and the public gave him a name: Spring Heeled Jack3.

Official recognition

A public session at the Mansion House, London (c. 1840).
A public session at the Mansion House, London (c. 1840).

A few months later, on January 9, 1838, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Cowan, revealed at a public session held in the Mansion House an anonymous complaint that he had received several days earlier, which he had withheld in the hope of obtaining further information. The correspondent, who signed the letter "a resident of Peckham", wrote:

"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." 4

Though the Lord Mayor seemed fairly sceptical, a member of the audience confirmed, "servant girls about Kensington, Hammersmith and Ealing, tell dreadful stories of this ghost or devil". The matter was reported in The Times and other national papers the next day, and the day after that ( January 11) the Lord Mayor showed a crowded gathering a pile of letters from various places in and around London complaining of similar "wicked pranks". The quantity of letters that poured into the Mansion House suggests that the activities of Spring Heeled Jack were common knowledge in suburban London by that time. One writer said he had ascertained that several young women in Hammersmith had been frightened into "dangerous fits", and some "severely wounded by a sort of claws the miscreant wore on his hands". Another correspondent affirmed that in Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell and Vauxhall several people had died of fright, and others had had fits; meanwhile, another reported that the trickster had been repeatedly seen in Lewisham and Blackheath, but the police were too frightened of him to act.

The Lord Mayor himself was in two minds about the affair: he thought "the greatest exaggerations" had been made, and that it was quite impossible "that the ghost performs the feats of a devil upon earth", but on the other hand someone he trusted had told him of a servant girl at Forest Hill who had been scared into fits by a figure in a bear's skin; he was confident the person or persons involved in this "pantomime display" would be caught and punished 5. The police were instructed to search for the individual responsible for the attacks, and rewards were offered. Many individuals, including Admiral Edward Codrington decided to join the search, but to no avail: he was never caught. Furthermore, he seemed to have grown bolder, and his attacks multiplied.

The legend spreads

The Times reported under the heading "Outrage at Old Ford" the alleged attack on Jane Alsop. This was followed up (see Palmer's index to The Times) with the account of the trial of one Thomas Millbank, who, immediately after the reported attack on Jane Alsop, had boasted in the Morgan's Arms that he was Spring Heeled Jack. He was arrested and tried at Lambeth Street court. The arresting officer was James Lea, who had earlier, as a PC, arrested William Corder, the Red Barn murderer. Millbank had been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat, which he dropped outside the house, and the candle he dropped was also found. He escaped conviction only because Jane Alsop insisted her attacker had breathed fire, and Millbank admitted he could do no such thing. Most of the other accounts were written long after the date. Contemporary newspapers do not mention them at all.

Ad for a Spring Heeled Jack penny dreadful (1886).
Ad for a Spring Heeled Jack penny dreadful (1886).

After these incidents, Spring Heeled Jack became one of the most popular characters of the moment. His alleged exploits were reported in the newspapers and became the subject of several penny dreadfuls and plays performed in the cheap theatres that abounded at the time. But, as his fame was growing, reports of his appearances became less frequent, while spreading over a large area. In 1843, however, a wave of sightings swept the country again. A report from Northamptonshire, in Hampshire, described him as "the very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame", and in East Anglia, where reports of attacks to drivers of mail coaches became common.

The last reports

In the beginning of the 1870s, Spring Heeled Jack was reported again in several places distant from each other. In November 1872, the News of the World reported that Peckham was "in a state of commotion owing to what is known as the "Peckham Ghost", a mysterious figure, quite alarming in appearance". The editorial pointed out that it was none other than "Spring Heeled Jack, who terrified a past generation". Similar stories were published in the Illustrated Police News. In April and May of 1873, there were numerous sightings of the "Park Ghost" in Sheffield, which locals came to identify as Spring Heeled Jack. These incidents culminated with thousands of people gathering each night to hunt the ghost.

Aldershot Barracks – North Camp, Central Road as it looked in 1866.
Aldershot Barracks – North Camp, Central Road as it looked in 1866.

This news was followed by more reported sightings, until in August 1877; one of the most notable reports about Spring Heeled Jack came from a group of soldiers in Aldershot's barracks. This story went as follows: A sentry on duty at the North Camp peered into the darkness, his attention attracted by a peculiar figure bounding across the road towards him, making a metallic noise. The soldier issued a challenge, which went unheeded, and the figure vanished from sight for a few moments. As the soldier turned back to his post, the figure reappeared beside him and delivered several slaps to his face with "a hand as cold as that of a corpse". Attracted by the ensuing noise, several men rushed to the place, but they claimed that the character leapt several feet over their heads and landed behind them. According to their testimony, Spring Heeled Jack simply stood there, watching them and grinning, apparently waiting for their reaction with glee. One of the guards shot at him, with no visible effect other than to enrage his target; some sources claim that the soldier may have fired blanks at him, merely used to make warning shots. The strange figure then charged towards them and spat blue flames at them from his mouth, making the guards desert their posts in panic, and then disappeared into the surrounding darkness.

There were several more alleged attacks of Spring Heeled Jack on guards at Aldershot. All these sightings concurred in the description: tall, muscular complexion, wearing a helmet and a white tight fitting oilskin suit.

After these reports, a massive spree of Spring Heeled Jack's sightings poured in from all over England. In Lincolnshire, he was allegedly seen leaping over several houses, wearing a sheep skin. An angry mob supposedly chased him and cornered him, and just like in Aldershot a while before, residents uselessly fired at him. Many witnesses claimed that the shots did hit him, sounding as though they were hitting a hollow metallic object, like an "empty bucket". As usual, he was said to have made use of his leaping abilities to lose the crowd and disappear once again.

By the end of the 19th century, the reported sightings of Spring Heeled Jack were moving towards western England. In September 1904, in Everton, in north Liverpool, Spring Heeled Jack allegedly appeared on the rooftop of Saint Francis Xavier's Church, in Salisbury Street. Witnesses reported that he suddenly jumped and fell to the ground, landing behind a nearby house. When they rushed to the point, so the story goes, they faced there a tall and muscular man, fully dressed in white and wearing an "egg shaped" helmet, standing there waiting. He laughed hysterically at the crowd and rushed towards them, making several women gasp in dismay. Clearing them all with a gigantic leap, he disappeared behind the neighbouring houses.

On June 18, 1953, Spring Heeled Jack was sighted in a pecan tree in the yard of an apartment building in Houston, Texas. Mrs. Hilda Walker, Judy Meyers, and Howard Phillips described a man in a "black cape, skin-tight pants, and quarter-length boots, and "grey or black tight-fitting clothes." They thought that he might have had wings, but acknowledged this may have been an optical illusion caused by the cape. This case is sometimes described as the Houston Bat Man, but usually as Spring Heeled Jack. In South Herefordshire, not too far from the Welsh border, a traveling salesman named Marshall had an encounter with Spring Heeled Jack in 1986. The man leaped in enormous, inhuman bounds , passed him on the road, and slapped his cheek. He wore what Marshall described as a black ski-suit, and Marshall noted that he had an elongated chin.


The fact that no one was ever caught and identified as Spring Heeled Jack combined with the extraordinary abilities attributed to him and the very long period of time he was reportedly at large have led to all sorts of theories to determine both his nature and identity. While several researchers seek a rational explanation to the events, other authors echo themselves in the more fantastic details of the story to propose different kinds of paranormal speculations.

Sceptical positions

Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1840).
Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1840).

Sceptical investigators have dismissed the stories of Spring Heeled Jack.

The simplest of explanations offered is that the reports were nothing but mass hysteria that developed around various legends of a boogeyman or devil that had been around for centuries. Some sceptics maintain that it is nothing but an exaggeration of the tale of a certain mentally ill zealot who danced and leapt over rooftops claiming that the Devil was chasing him 9.

Other researchers believe that some individual(s) may have been behind its origins, being followed by imitators later on 10. It is worthy of note that, following his reported appearance and for the years that followed, the press, the authorities, and most of the general public considered Spring Heeled Jack to be not a supernatural creature but rather an individual (or perhaps more than one person) with a macabre sense of humour who delighted in scaring and molesting women. This idea matches the contents of the letter to the Lord Mayor, which accused a group of young aristocrats as the culprits, after an irresponsible wager. A popular rumour that was in circulation as early as 1840 pointed at an Irish nobleman, the Marquess of Waterford, as the main suspect of being behind the events. The responsibility of the Marquess has been accepted by several modern authors, who suggest that a humiliating experience with a woman and a police officer could have given him the idea of creating the character as a way of "getting even" with police and women in general 11. Said authors speculate that he could have designed (with the help of friends who were experts in applied mechanics) some sort of apparatus for special spring-heeled boots, and that he may have practised fire-spitting techniques in order to increase the unnatural appearance of his character.

Indeed, the Marquess was frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes and vandalism, and was said to do anything for a bet; his irregular behaviour and his contempt for women earned him the moniker "the Mad Marquis'', and it is also known that he was present in the London area by the time the first incidents took place. Unfortunately, The Waterford Chronicle was able to report his presence at the St Valentine's Day Ball at Waterford Castle, which means that he has a cast-iron alibi for the attacks on Jane Allsop and Lucy Scales, which are at the centre of Jack's authenticated history. But he was, nevertheless, pointed as the perpetrator by the Rev. E. C. Brewer in 1880, who attested that the Marquess "used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example" 12. In 1842, the Marquess of Waterford married and settled in Curraghmore House, Ireland, and reportedly led an exemplary life, until he died in a horse riding accident in 1859. Meanwhile, Spring Heeled Jack remained active for decades after, which leads the aforementioned modern researchers to the same conclusion as Brewer's: the Marquess may well have been responsible for the first attacks, while it was up to other pranksters who occasionally imitated him to continue the task.

Sceptical investigators are unanimous in asserting that the story of Spring Heeled Jack was exaggerated and altered through mass hysteria, a process in which many sociological issues may have contributed. These include unsupported rumours, superstition, oral tradition, sensationalistic publications, and a folklore rich in tales of fairies and strange roguish creatures. Gossip of alleged leaping and fire-spitting powers, his alleged extraordinary features and his reputed skill in avoiding all attempts of apprehension captured the mind of the superstitious public. This became especially true with the passing of time, which gave the impression that Spring Heeled Jack had suffered no effects from aging. As a result, a whole urban legend had been built around the character, being reflected by contemporary publications, which in turn fuelled this popular perception in a vicious circle 13.

Paranormal conjectures

A wide variety of explanations have been proposed by authors who support the paranormal origin of Spring Heeled Jack. Due to the inherent nature of the phenomenon, such theories are speculative and bereft of any proof. The following are just a few:

  • A common hypothesis proposes Spring Heeled Jack as an extraterrestrial entity, somehow stranded on Earth. Supporters of this theory believe this would explain his non-human appearance and features, (e.g., retro-reflective red eyes, or phosphorous breath), his jumping ability (by suggesting that he may have been native of a planet with greater gravitational pull, like astronauts experienced on the Moon), strange behaviour (which could have been altered through Solipsism Syndrome or as a result of breathing the gases present at the Earth's atmosphere), and his longevity.14
  • A visitor from another dimension, who could have entered into this plane through a wormhole or dimensional gate.15
  • A demon, accidentally or purposefully summoned into this world by practitioners of the occult (a theory that has been incorporated into the RPG Feng Shui) 16, or who made himself manifest simply to create spiritual turmoil.17

The supporters of the paranormal explanations usually refer as proof of their claims that no human could have ever used a gadget to leap the way Spring Heeled Jack was said to, by pointing out that in the 20th century, the German Army experimented on the subject with disastrous effects. Allegedly, such experiments gave an estimated 85% rate of failure, with broken legs and ankles on the testers. They conclude that there was no possibility for an individual to succeed where an official warfare project failed, especially considering that the former had preceded it by many decades.18 It might be worth noting that there currently is a comparable device being marketed 19, but this gadget requires modern, state-of-the-art carbon fibre springs.

Spring Heeled Jack in popular culture

Spring Heeled Jack on a penny dreadful cover page (c. 1904).
Spring Heeled Jack on a penny dreadful cover page (c. 1904).

The vast urban legend built around Spring Heeled Jack influenced many aspects of Victorian life, especially in contemporary popular culture. The Oxford English Dictionary recounts that, in late Victorian times, his name had become a general term for a street criminal who leapt upon people to rob or frighten them, and then relied on his speed in running to make his escape. It cites a Cheshire source from 1887 as an example, where maids who had just been paid their yearly wage were said to be afraid to go out carrying much money, since "there are so many of these spring-heeled Jacks about" 20 . For decades, especially in London, his name was equated with bogeymen, as a means of scaring children into behaving by telling them that if they were not good, Spring Heeled Jack would leap up and peer in at them through their bedroom windows, by night.

However, it was in the field of fictional entertainment where the legend of Spring Heeled Jack exerted the most extensive influence, due to his allegedly extraordinary nature. Almost from the moment the first incidents gained public knowledge, he turned into a successful fictional character, becoming the protagonist of many penny dreadfuls from 1840 to 1904. Several plays where he assumed the main role were staged as well.

The most notable fictional Spring Heeled Jacks of the 19th and early 20th centuries were:

  • A play by John Thomas Haines, in 1840, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London, which shows him as a brigand who attacks women because his own sweetheart betrayed him.
  • Later that decade, Spring Heeled Jack's first penny dreadful appearance came in the anonymously written Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of London, which appeared in weekly episodes.
  • W. G. Willis' 1849 play, The Curse of the Wraydons, where Spring Heeled Jack is a traitor who spies for Napoleon Bonaparte, and stages murderous stunts as a cover.
  • A 1863 play, Spring-Heel'd Jack: or, The Felon's Wrongs, written by Frederick Hazleton.
  • Spring-heel'd Jack: The Terror of London, a penny dreadful published by the Newsagents’ Publishing Company c. 1864-1867.
  • Spring-heel'd Jack: The Terror of London, a 48-part penny weekly serial published c. 1878-1879 in The Boys' Standard, written either by veteran dreadful author George Sala or by Alfred Burrage in his pseudonym of Charlton Lea.
  • Spring-Heel Jack; or, The Masked Mystery of the Tower, appearing in Beadle's New York Dime Library #332, 4 March 1885, and written by Col. Thomas Monstery.
  • a 1889-1890 48-part serial published by Charles Fox and written by Alfred Burrage in his pseudonym of Charlton Lea.
  • a 1904 version by Alfred Burrage. 21
  • a remake of The Curse of the Wraydons, written in 1928 by surrealist Swiss author Maurice Sandoz, which served as base for a movie of the same name in 1946 starring Tod Slaughter in the lead role. 22

The early works invariably presented Spring Heeled Jack as an arch-villain, but his figure experienced a metamorphosis throughout the years, and he became a hero. The first penny dreadful to introduce such a change was the 1860s edition, and this variation was adopted by all the publications that followed, reaching its highest development in Burrage's 1904 version.

In these stories (which take place in 1805, after Napoleon Bonaparte has conquered Europe), Spring Heeled Jack is Bertram Wraydon, a young and handsome lieutenant of the British Army, heir to £10,000 a year, who is unfairly framed for treason by his evil half brother Hubert Sedgefield. After escaping from his prison, Wraydon returns seeking revenge on the villains, assuming a secret identity and an odd-looking costume with mane and talons, fighting against evil and helping the innocent. He has a secret lair, where he has hidden what he managed to save of his inheritance, selflessly using it to fund his heroic activities. These include the design of a spring mechanism that allows him to leap over thirty feet, and a device to breathe flames at evildoers. He even has a trademark which he leaves at the scene of his actions; a letter "S" that he carves with his rapier after his mission is accomplished.

Although lacking durable literary value, the Spring Heeled Jack series exerted an important influence as a predecessor of modern day pulp magazine and comic superheroes, taking into consideration that they were written twenty years before the first Zorro adventure and more than half a century before other fictional characters like Batman or the Lone Ranger were created. Such lasting influence and its consequent cultural importance were, for most part of the 20th century, practically forgotten.

However, a renewed interest in the legend of Spring Heeled Jack has sparked in the last years. Several English comic characters were based directly on him since the early 1970s, like Jumping Jack, the Leaping Phantom, Spring-Heeled Jock and Spring-Heeled Jackson 23.

Even to the present day, the tale continues to attract the imagination of writers, like Philip Pullman (author of the best-selling trilogy His Dark Materials), who published his novel Spring Heeled Jack – A Story of Bravery and Evil in 1989 ( ISBN 0-440-86229-9). Best-selling author Stephen King also wrote about a modern-day Spring Heeled Jack in his short story Strawberry Spring.

Recently, several comic authors like Ver Curtiss 24, Kevin Olson and David Hitchcock 25, have made Spring Heeled Jack the protagonist of different comic adventures. These series, which are set in a shady and postmodern environment, once again give him the role of a superhero. He appeared as a major villain in in Monster in My Pocket comic book by Dwayne McDuffie, Ernie Colon, and Gil Kane. He also had two comic book mini-series published in which he was depicted as an 'anti-hero', by American Independent Comic Book Publisher Rebel Studios, entitled Spring-Heel Jack and Spring-Heel Jack: Revenge of the Ripper

Spring Heeled Jack is Monster in My Pocket #46 and appears among the villains in the comic book series. The fourth issue declared that he had the power to make himself look like what someone most feared, often brigning about the person's death, though in the issue's case, a little girl saw her father, which wasn't enough to do lasting harm.

The story has also provided inspiration for music artists. Singer Morrissey's song titled "Spring-Heeled Jim" was released on his 1994 album Vauxhall and I and reappeared the next year on the World of Morrissey album.26. Other musicians have named their bands after the legendary character, including the English dance music duo Spring Heel Jack and the American ska group Spring Heeled Jack USA.

Spring Heeled Jack was a featured villain in an episode of the animated television series Jackie Chan Adventures27.

Jack's legacy has even made its way into video games. The Monster in My Pocket NES game from 1991 includes an appearance of Spring Heeled Jack. The most recent example is in a thieves guild quest in the 2006 video game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in which the main character is sent to collect the "Boots of Springheel Jak," which greatly increase the character's jumping ability and speed. In the game, Spring Heeled "Jak" is a thief who was turned into a vampire.

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