The Unsolved Mystery
On October 4, 1888, police investigating the notorious “Ripper” murders in London received a letter. It was one of several purporting to be from the killer, but this one was different. It was signed “Spring-Heeled Jack--The Whitechapel Murderer.”
Despite the fact that Jack the Ripper was active several years after the story we are about to tell, and that Jack the Ripper was a merciless and horrific killer while Spring-Heeled Jack did very little serious harm to anyone, the association would not have been lost on Inspector Frederic Abbeline, the lead detective in the Ripper case.
The exploits of the character known as Spring-Heeled Jack, for the most part, took place over a period of a hundred years. They were far from forgotten in the time of the Ripper murders, and assuming the letter was not a forgery (which most researchers think unlikely), it is significant that the homicidal killer of prostitutes should choose to identify himself with the older, well-established figure of Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack made his first appearance in January 1838, and the last reported sighting--excluding for the moment, modern appearances--was in 1904. He literally leapt to public attention, springing over hedges and walls, from dark lanes and dank graveyards, to frighten and sometimes physically attack women. He showed up first in the twilight world of Victorian London, only gradually moving further out to towns such as Bradford and Sheffield. He moved through a world, which, though well connected by roads and canals, was not yet fully served by the new railways, a world where the night was un-illumined by gas or electricity, and where messages took time to get from place to place.
The reports of the mysterious leaping man in both national and local newspapers fueled a hysterical response and lead to copy-cat attacks, ghostly tales, and extraordinary claims to his real identity ramping up the paranoia and boosting Jack’s appearance from a white bear to a fire-breathing man.
Despite a catalogue of appearances in graphic novels, audio plays, TV, and film--attracting writers as different as Philip Pullman, Mark Hodder, and Stephen King--Spring-Heeled Jack remains one of the characters from the archives of the strange and unexplained about whom almost nothing is known.
Spring-Heeled Jack was described by people who claimed to have seen him as having a terrifying appearance with bat-like wings, clawed hands, and eyes that resembled wheels of fire. Other reports claimed that beneath his black cloak he wore a huge helmet and a tight-fitting
white garment apparently made of oilskin. Others said he was tall and thin with the appearance of a gentleman. Several reports mentioned that he could breathe blue flames.
In more recent times various researchers have attempted to suggest who he might really have been, including an alien visitor from another planet. But none of these theories hold up to close scrutiny. Instead, we should look for the origins of Spring-Heeled Jack among much earlier mythical figures conjured into being through hysterical newspaper reports and the Victorian obsession with strange phenomena and sinister figures.
A vast urban legend built itself around Spring-Heeled Jack--influencing and influenced by many aspects of Victorian life for decades--especially in London. His name became equated with the bogeyman as a means of scaring children into behaving. Surprisingly, in our own times, new sightings have been reported, while the recent disturbing stories of the Slender Man can be seen to display notable similarities with those of the older Jack. It is these parallels, as well as the original reports, that tell us the real story of Spring-Heeled Jack. I have sought to retell it, as far as possible, in the words of the original newspaper reports.
The Birth of a Legend
The story begins, quietly enough, on January 9, 1838. Several column inches of the London Times newspaper contained a report, along with a letter, concerning some strange events that had apparently taken place in Peckham, a quiet suburb of the metropolis.
T U E S D A Y , J A N U A R Y 9 , 1 8 3 8
TO THE RIGHT HON. THE LORD MAYOR
The writer presumes that your Lordship will kindly overlook the liberty taken in addressing a subject which within the last few weeks has caused much alarming sensation in the neighboring villages of London. It appears that some individuals have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy 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; and, moreover, that he will not dare to enter gentlemen’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. At one house he rung the bell, and on the servant coming to open the door, this worse than brute stood in a 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, but, on seeing any man, screams out most violently: “Take him away!” There are two ladies who have husbands and children, and who are not expected to recover, but likely to become a burden on their families.
This affair has now been going on for some time, and strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. It is high time that such a detestable nuisance should be put a stop to and the writer feels sure that your Lordship, as the chief magistrate of London, will take great pleasure in exerting your power to bring the villain to justice.
Hoping you’re Lordship will pardon the liberty I had taken in writing,
A Resident of Peckham