Jumping Jack Flash

I’d heard the name of Spring-Heeled Jack before. He was a character in the Skulduggery Pleasant series, and someone put the Morrissey song “Spring-Heeled Jim” on a mix tape for me back when I was in college. I didn’t know much else about the character, though, so I recently looked him up. He’s basically an urban legend from Victorian London, a devilish man who can leap to incredible distances and heights, and frequently harassed people. Although one page dates the name and certain aspects of the figure back as far as 1808, it’s in 1837 that the monster really entered the public consciousness. In October of that year, a woman named Mary Stevens was walking from Battersea to Lavender Hill across Clapham Common when a strange man jumped toward her, kissed her, tore her clothes, and scratched her with cold, clammy claws. When she screamed, he jumped back away. At least, that’s what she told people. The next night, a similar figure is said to have jumped in front of a carriage, causing injury to the driver, then leaped over a nine-foot fence to escape.

In February 1838, a woman named Jane Alsop answered the door to find a man dressed as a policeman, who told her to bring a candle so he could apprehend Jack. It turned out that the man was really Jack himself, who attacked her with his claws and breathed fire.

Her account also reported that he had flaming red eyes. The police arrested a carpenter named Thomas Millbank for the crime, but there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. Allegedly Alsop herself said Millbank couldn’t have been the attacker because he couldn’t breathe fire. Descriptions of the attacker varied, but he was frequently said to wear a black cloak with an oilskin or similar garment underneath, and could appear in the shape of a bull or a bear. He was also sometimes said to look like a tall, thin gentleman, leading to the suggestion that the whole thing amounted to a group of nobles terrorizing peasants on a bet. A popular rumor held that Henry Beresford, the third Marquess of Waterford, was the culprit; and he was certainly known for his misogyny and tendency to pull often violent pranks. Spring-Heeled Jack sightings continued after Beresford’s death in 1859, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been at least one of the people involved. It seems likely that the power of suggestion was at work here, that when reports of an assailant jumping around London and breathing fire became popular, other people who were molested attached some of these traits to the actual attackers.

Regardless, the legend quickly became a part of popular culture, appearing in plays and penny dreadful serials.

A fictional tale of the character from 1867 had him eventually revealed as a guy wearing boots with strings, not that that isn’t far-fetched in and of itself considering the leaps Jack is said to have made.

Maybe he had access to Chozo technology.
He also became a bogeyman figure, with parents apparently telling their kids that he would jump up to children’s windows to make sure they were in bed; and sometimes “Spring-Heeled Jack” became a nickname for Satan himself. Reports of Jack largely died out around the turn of the twentieth century, although they never ended completely.

This entry was posted in British, Mythology, Urban Legends and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jumping Jack Flash

  1. jaredofmo says:

    I first heard of Spring-Heel Jack when I found a little comics digest my dad had in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” branded comic from Gold Key. It contained some pages that had artwork about actual things, but the comics were typically based on urban legends or were stories that were flat out fiction (like a man seeking to capture an Abominable Snowman to show in his circus sideshow, finds them, discovers they’re actually a highly advanced race who turn him into one of them, he escapes only to be captured by his team and is then put in his own sideshow).

    It went for a very different look for Jack, and I happened to Google it before commenting, and found a scan of it posted online:

    I looked it up sometime later and discovered that the comic was highly fanciful.

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