One: Backward and Forward He Switched His Long Tail….
Over the hills and over the dale,
And he went over the plain,
And backward and forward he switched his long tail,
As a gentleman switches his cane.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Devil’s Thoughts”
“Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them”.
- Alice Sebold, “The Lovely Bones”.
In October 1837 Londoner Mary Stevens was walking to her place of employment, a house in Lavender Hill where she worked as a servant. While passing through Clapham Common in the early hours, a demonic- looking figure leapt out at her; seizing her in his vice-like grip, kissing her face frenetically. With claws, described by Stevens as “cold and clammy as those of a corpse” he then tore at her clothes. Screaming at the top of her lungs, Mary brought locals from nearby houses out onto the common. Startled, the demon took of at a superhuman speed.
The following day the attacker reappeared, near Mary’s home in Battersea. Reports tell of a demonic figure leaping from the shadows, directly into the path of a horse drawn carriage. The coachman swerved, crashing and badly injuring himself. Again locals investigated, catching sight of the attacker, henceforth known as Spring Heeled Jack. Several men gave chase, but Jack took off at great speed towards a 9 foot brick wall. The assembled pursuers were astonished as the cackling demon cleared the wall in a single bound.
Public reports of the revenant went quiet for some time after this. Ghost sightings were not uncommon in London in the years preceeding. Sightings of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803 they had spread like wildfire, but the ghost was only ever seen by a solitary witness. Spring Heeled Jack was witnessed by dozens on two occasions. This picture changed at a public meeting held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan on the 9th January 1838. On the agenda that night one tale which would soon grip the imagination of London, and the wider United Kingdom.
Lord Mayor Cowan reported to the onlookers he had received a complaint, in writing, from a source he only referred to as “a resident of Peckham” an excerpt below.
“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.”
Lord Mayor Cowan stated his doubts these assaults occured, but citizen after citizen testified to reports of terrified, scarred, fondled servants. Dozens of assaulted women from Kensington, to Hammersmith, to Ealing between October 1837 and January 1838. Later that day a reporter from The Times ran the story. This was subsequently picked up by newspapers across the United Kingdom on January 10th 1838. At this point dozens of letters flooded in to Lord Mayor Cowan’s office recounting frightened women, all stalked, spied upon or attacked by a shadowy, demonic figure. Several bore deep wounds from his claws. A few claimed the victim had gone into a ‘fit’ after. One report even claimed Spring Heeled Jack had scared a victim to death. Cowan remained sceptical, until a trusted friend came to him to report an assault on a servant in his employ by Spring Heeled Jack.
Lord Mayor Sir John Cowan ordered police across the city to make a top priority to locate the revenant, and bring him to justice.
Two: It was a Dark and Stormy Night….
“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man evidently of the lowest orders was wending his solitary way”
Edward Bulwer Lytton – Paul Clifford.
Let’s talk about Spring Heeled Jack’s two most famous attacks – the Alsop and Scales assaults.
On 20th February 1838 a stranger rang the bell at the Alsop residence, in the East London village of Old Ford. 18 year old Jane Alsop got up cautiously to see who had stopped by. While not terribly late at quarter to nine, it was – to borrow Lord Lytton’s phrase – a dark and stormy night. Old Ford was an isolated village. The Alsops were not used to visitors so late at night in the best of weather. Staring through the glass Jane could vaguely make out a tall, imposing, claoked figure. “What is the matter?” she enquired.
“I am a policeman. For God’s sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane”.
Jane scrambled to fetch a candle for the officer. Back in a matter of seconds she handed a lit candle to the man. The stranger then dropped his cape, holding the candle under his face so as to cast himself in the most terrifying light. Jane Alsop stared in horror at the stranger. Tall. “Hideously ugly”. demonic, with glowing red eyes. He wore a helmet, a tight fitting shiny suit, and had what appeared to be a lamp attached to his chest.
As Jane screamed, recoiling in horror, the attacker leapt forward, exhaling a blue and white flame at her. Grabbing her by the neck and pinning her in a headlock, the assailant tore at Jane’s face and clothes with his clawed hands. Mustering all of her strength Jane struggled free of Spring Heeled Jack, and ran for her door – but Jack grabbed her hair, ripping out tufts from her scalp. Jane’s younger sister Mary leapt up to save her, but froze in fear. Her older sister, Sarah Hanson, entered the affray, shoving Jack off of Jane, then dragging her sister to safety. She slammed the door in the attacker’s face. Violently and frenetically the assailant repeatedly struck the door, as the family screamed for help. In an instant their attacker disappeared into the dark, stormy night from whence he came.
Eight days later he was to terrify another young lady – 18 year old Lucy Scales – on her way home from her brother’s house. Seconds after she stepped out onto the street, a blood curdling scream woke the neighbourhood. Locals rushed out to find Lucy sprawled out on the cobble stones. Spring Heeled Jack had sprung from the shadows. Lucy screamed, then fainted. Jack then ran off before an attack could occur.
Who is ‘W’?
Between these two incidents a third attempted assault happened. This one left a clue. On another dark and stormy night in Turner Street a man came knocking on a door, asking for the occupant by name – Mr Ashworth. A servant boy got up to answer. This night Spring Heeled Jack was a little too trigger happy. As the servant opened the door Jack threw off his cloak, exposing his demonic visage. The boy screamed, slamming the door in his face. Spring Heeled Jack then disappeared. The boy noticed something no other victim had. On his cloak a letter W was embroidered.
At this point in the tale the diabolical Jack exits London for the better part of three decades. In following years similar attacks occur all over the South of Britain. Historian and guru of all things Forteana Mike Dash notes sightings from Warwickshire in the North to Devon in the South, Yarmouth in the East to Herefordshire in the West. These attacks bore all the hallmarks. Surprise an unsuspecting traveller at night. Rip at them with clawed hands, often leaving the victim with deep scars. An escape familiar to watchers of parcour videos today perhaps, seemingly superhuman… or supernatural, in their age. The attacker would leap over hedges, walls, even horse drawn carriages. The same tall, diabolical figure. The helmet. The piercing, red eyes.
He briefly reappeared in London in 1872, to the distress of the Londoners – then again in 1877. The latter seems an odd choice of target for Spring Heeled Jack, to date a sex pest assaulting lone women. He picked what had to be the worst property in all of London to terrorize.
In Aldershot, Surrey is an army barracks. Guarded around the clock by men with guns, the barracks held as many as 10,000 soilders at a time. In the spring of 1877 a tall, diabolical man who leapt buildings in a single bound began sneaking up on lone sentries in the dead of night; grabbing their faces while perched atop sentry boxes. Some guards broke down in a mad panic. A few managed to regain their senses and fire off a volley or two in his direction as he bounded away. He returned in the Autumn of 1877 to pull the same prank on a number of occasions.
Later in 1877 he drew gunfire again, this time from locals, while leaping from rooftop to rooftop in the town of Newport. Locals claim to have hit him but Spring Heeled jack just shrugged it off and kept moving. He then disappears until, in one final reign of terror; this time way up north in Liverpool, in 1904. After several night time attacks he was seen one final time, in daylight bounding through the streets. Legend has it he came to a building, leapt the 25 feet to its roof, then bounded away never to be seen again.
Three: Mad Marquesses and Comic Books.
“He knew what those jubillant crowds did not know, but could have learned from books, that the plague bacillus never dies, or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for all the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” Albert Camus- The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert)
“So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.”
Lord Byron – So we’ll go no more a roving.
So, how to make sense of this tale? First I feel it’s safe to say the devil did not come to London. What is clear is in the earliest attacks someone very corporeal, either a sexual attacker or someone motivated more out of mysogyny, was operating. By 1877, when the Aldershot Barracks incidents occured, Jack had taken on a more purely mischevious dimension. By 1904 Spring Heeled Jack had become a superhero whose ability to scale obstacles had expanded to clearing two storey buildings in a bound.
In his development, Spring Heleed Jack had become a boogeyman; a scary tale you tell children to scare them into being home by curfew. He had also become a meme, in the sense evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first used the term – an idea which replicated in a viral manner. Memes often take on many forms, but the stronger forms replicate while the weaker fall away. As a birthed concept the meme takes on a life outside it’s creator. Memes, like Camus’s “peste” can have long, dormant periods where they hide “in cellars, trunks and bookshelves”. Spring Heeled Jack would have the strangest of re-emergences in Czechoslovakia in the years 1939- 1945. During World War 2 a folk tale of a Pérák, the spring man of Prague appeared – a tall, diabolical folk hero who could jump buildings in a single bound, and who harrassed the occupying Nazis in the city.
We’ll come back to the reality of Spring Heeled Jack in a second – and discuss who possibly assaulted a number of women from 1837 to 1838 – but it’s worth taking one quick digression
After the Aldershot Barracks incidents, in 1878 Spring Heeled Jack was immortalized in print, getting his own ‘Penny Dreadful’ – ‘Spring Heeled Jack the Terror of London’. The series of tales, written by George Augustus Sala put the figure of Spring Heeled Jack in an unusual position probably not to be said of any other person mentioned in Tales of History and Imagination. Alongside Hugo Hercules (1902), John Carter of Mars (1911), The Gray Seal (1914), Zorro (1919), The Shadow (1930), The Green Hornet and Kato (1931), Doc Savage (1933) Mandrake the Magician (1935), Doctor Occult (1935), The Clock (1936) and The Phantom (1936); Spring Heeled Jack has become a noted ante-cedant to Siegel and Shuster’s Superman.
The Alsop attack revisited.
Returning to the home invasion on the Alsop family on 20th February 1838 we do have a viable suspect, a man who was brought in, but let go because he could not have carried out the other attacks. He was identified leaving the crime scene by an acquaintance, and when caught still had Jane Alsop’s candle in his possession. The man in question was a carpenter named Thomas Millbank. He avoided prosecution on two grounds. First he had iron clad alibis for the other attacks, and second, because he was blackout drunk on the night of the Alsop attack. The Alsop family claimed, wrongly I believe, their attacker was stone-cold sober. He walked without a single charge. I believe Thomas Millbank was a copycat Spring Heeled Jack in the Alsop attack.
Another man is believed to have been Spring Heeled Jack on the other occasions – a young nobleman known in high society as the mad marquess, Henry de La Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquess of Waterford.
Paint the Town Red.
On 6th April 1837 the young Marquess, recently expelled from Oxford university for conduct unbecoming a gentleman, arrived at Melton Mowbray’s Thorpe end tollgate. He was heavily intoxicated and has an entourage of fellow young inebriates in tow. When asked to pay the toll, a belligerent marquess attacked the tollkeeper. The bridge had just been painted and tins of red paint and brushes were left nearby. Waterford’s entourage held the tollkeeper down, while the marquess painted him. A constable stepped in, only to be beaten, held down and painted also.
The drunken entourage then rioted throughout the town, painting doors and walls, destroying flower pots and business signs as they went. They vandalized the post office, and tried to upturn a caravan. Several police officers tried to stop the gang, but were also beaten and painted for their trouble. An officer finally managed to collar one of the group, Edward Reynard, and throw him into a cell. The next day a hungover Marquess bailed Reynard, paying many times the cost at the tollbridge to release him. They were all charged with several counts of common assault, paying £100 a piece.
This incident gave rise to the term ‘Paint the town red”, to describe a riotous night out on the town.
Not long after, the Marquess and his entourage caused an international incident in Norway. Waterford harassed a local woman, and was knocked unconscious by a local with a morningstar. He soon returned to London, just before the first Spring Heeled Jack attacks happened. He remained in London till 1842, making the news regularly in his own name for a series of drunken, churlish incidents. In 1842 he married the socialite Louisa Stuart, and moved to Curraghmore House, Ireland. Whether he was a reformed man via marriage and behaved himself is debatable, but he avoided further charges and scandals till his death in 1859. The mad marquess died of a broken neck after being thrown from a horse.
The Marquess of Waterford was an athlete, and normally an excellent horseman. His garments bore his family crest, a shield with a giant W on them. His entourage contained a skilled engineer who could have made spring-loaded shoes some believe Spring Heeled Jack must have used. High society long suspected him of being Spring Heeled Jack, and that the slew of attacks were revenge for perceived sleights at Moulton Mowbray, and the Norwegian incident.
Though hardly conclusive, Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford remains the prime suspect in the early Spring Heeled Jack assaults.
A version of this tale was Episode three of Season one of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.
Originally posted 1st May 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited by Simone, 2020.