October 7, 2020

Spring-Heeled Jack

         Spring-Heeled Jack was a creature who haunted Victorian England with violent and terrifying antics, becoming a widespread and famous urban legend of the era.  From his first reported sighting in 1837 to his fading away around 1904, Spring-heeled Jack terrorized and thrilled London and a wide array of other towns all the way to Scotland.  He was said to look devilish, sometimes including horns and eyes like balls of red fire.  He was tall and thin, breathed blue flame, grabbed and scratched victims with metallic claws, and seemed to be impossible to injure with gunshot.  The trait that gave him his name was his ability to leap ten or even 20 feet high at a bound, and he used his jumping prowess both to attack and to escape.  As for his attacks, they seem to have fallen into a few different categories: sometimes he accosted young women and ripped at their clothes, sometimes he caused carriages to crash by leaping in front of them, while sometimes he rang doorbells and then terrified the person who answered.  He was blamed for at least one death, but seems on the whole not to have been as murderous as many phantom attackers.
        In some ways this all sounds not terribly interesting, but there are a few things about Spring-heeled Jack that are worth a closer look.  First of all, what sort of entity was he: something monstrous and supernatural, or just a man playing macabre pranks?  Many people seemed to assume that he was simply a human, possibly a young aristocrat playing pranks on a wager.  The metallic claws were often described as something he wore on his fingertips, rather than being his own demonic growth, and one newspaper report said he had springs on the soles of his boots.  On the other hand, his leaping feats (even with springs), not to mention his ability to breathe fire, were clearly not the behavior of a mere mischievous human, and some people believed he was something of ghost or devil kind.  Given Jack’s longevity and wide range, if he were not supernatural, there would have to be multiple men playing the part, possibly an originator of the type, followed by copycats.  I find it interesting that opinion was divided throughout the period on whether he was an ordinary human villain or a supernatural entity.  One Thomas Millbank was actually arrested and tried for one of the Spring-heeled Jack attacks in 1938, but was acquitted simply because the victim insisted that her attacker had breathed fire, and Mr Millbank demonstrably could not.
        So widely known was Spring-heeled Jack that he was invoked as a bogeyman to scare children into obedience.  By 1838 there were already three pamphlets circulating with tales of Spring-heeled Jack, and there followed a number of penny dreadfuls about the character.  The other interesting thing about Spring-heeled Jack is that in this literature he morphed from a demonic villain into a hero.  By 1900 he was basically Batman, a costumed avenger.  Presumably this change in character happened as people became less genuinely afraid of him, but I think it illustrates an interesting literary truth: endow a character with interesting abilities, including the ability to get away with things unscathed, and people will be fascinated.  Once people are fascinated by a character, they seem unable to think he’s all bad, and the next thing you know there are ballads about Robin Hood, broadsides celebrating romantic highwaymen, and millions of words of fan fic about Boba Fett.  Which brings us to our current renewed fascination with Spring-heeled Jack, who has recently appeared in a number of video games, books, and TV shows set in Victorian London.
        What was he really?  Or more likely, what were they?  Humans playing wicked pranks?  Aliens?  Ghosts?  Demons?  Monsters?  Who knows, but more than 150 years after his first appearance, Spring-heeled Jack seems to have been welcomed with open arms into the annals of fantasy.

[Pictures: Ad for a penny dreadful, engraving from 1886;
Engraving from penny dreadful, OR from The London Gazette, 1839 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Spring-Heeled Jack Jumping on Newport Arch, engraving from The Illustrated Police News, 1877;
Illustration from The Lincolnshire Guardian and News, 1864 (Images from Deadpan Flook).]

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