One of the most curious and persistent of all paranormal creatures is Spring Heeled Jack. Reports of his existence date back to the early 19th century in Sheffield, England, and he has been reported on and off in England and the US as recently as 1995. A similar apparition, called "La Viuda," or "the widow" was reported in Chile in the 1940s and 50s, though he seemed to have been motivated by theft as much as mischief. And while a decent case can be made that the legend of Spring Heeled Jack is nothing more than a series of cruel hoaxes, it would represent a conspiracy of impressive scope and durability. And while his story changes from source to source, it goes something like this…
In 1808, a letter to the editor of the Sheffield Times recounted how "Years ago a famous Ghost walked and played many pranks in this historic neighbourhood." The writer went on to identify this entity as the "Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack," and briefly described its ability to take enormous leaps and frighten random passers-by, but concluded, "he was a human ghost as he ceased to appear when a certain number of men went with guns and sticks to test his skin."
Spring Heeled Jack would often go underground when the going got too rough, and he often unchivalrously pitted himself against women. In 1837, SHJ appeared to Polly Adams and two other women outside Blackheath Fair. With iron tipped fingers, he tore the blouse off of Adams and scratched her stomach before bounding into the darkness. According to some accounts, Adams described her assailant as "Devil-like," and according to others, she described him as a "pop-eyed" nobleman-perhaps Henry de la Poer Beresford, Marquis of Waterford. When in 1838, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan publicized this and other assaults, he was besieged by letters by citizens who had suffered similar incidents but were too sheepish to make them public. Vigilante groups were formed to apprehend Jack, but he was quick, could leap over hedgerows and walls, and evaded them easily. After a while, the countryside attacked ended, the matter was dropped, and nobody was prosecuted.
But later that year as Lucy Scales (or "Squires") and her sister walked home on a London street, Jack jumped out of the shadows and spat blue flames in her face, temporarily blinding her, then retreated into the darkness. This attack and others were widely reported by the press, so when Jane Alsop heard a knock at the door and the words, "I'm a police officer-for God's sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring Heeled Jack in the lane!" she ran outside eager to assist. She handed a candle to the tall, thin man standing at the gate, but though he wore a helmet and cloak like a police officer, when he took the light and drew it toward himself, Alsop could see he was wearing tight white oilskin clothing and had glowing red eyes. He spat blue and white flames at her, then pinning her head under one arm, began to tear at her face, neck, and clothing with his icy claws.
Alsop's sister, hearing screams, ran outside and dragged Jane into the house. Spring Heeled Jack waited at the door, and knocked several times, then fled when the help the girls called for finally arrived. He easily eluded them, but dropped his cape. It was picked up by an accomplice who also got away. Witnesses reported seeing Jack leaping from rooftop to rooftop, and even climbing a church steeple, throughout the rest of the year. He also tried the same trick he pulled on Jane Alsop, but the servant boy on the other side of the door called out for help and Jack left.
Then there were no Spring Heeled Jack sightings for an entire year; and for a while after that, they were sporadic and occurred mostly in the country. In 1842, prime suspect Marquis of Waterford married, settled in Ireland, and reportedly led and exemplary life. However, starting in 1843, a wave of Jack attacks occurred all over England, the most serious being the 1845murder of thirteen year old prostitute Maria Davis.
Waterford died in 1859 when he was well into his sixties, but the attacks themselves did not abate. If anything, Jack became bolder. All through the 1870s, he slapped the faces of army sentinels with his clammy hand, jumped onto their sentry boxes, then bounced into the countryside. Townspeople shot at him and set traps, but SHJ laughed demoniacally and escaped every time. In pulp fiction, Jack was transformed from the villain to the hero who emerges from the darkness just in time to save the defenseless young maiden, or whatever. His popularity was such that the market was flooded with penny dreadfuls which exaggerated and distorted what facts were available to the writers, who fabricated many others. His story was even conflated into that of Jack the Ripper.
Spring Heeled Jack was seen leaping up and down the streets and rooftops of Liverpool in 1904, then disappeared from England for close to seventy years. By that time, however, he had become notorious in the US. Jack's American visits were first reported in Louisville, KY in July of 1880. There, he was described as tall, having pointed ears, long nose and fingers, and was clad in a cape, helmet, and shiny uniform. He accosted women, tore at their clothing, and emitted flames from a blue light on his chest.
Between 1938-1945, he made dozens of appearances in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts, though there he reportedly belched flames rather than ejecting them from his chest. In Provincetown, which I gather has seen no end of strange things, his leaping forced pedestrians off the pavement of a busy street. When a dog cornered him, the animal's owner blasted Jack with a shotgun, but "the darned thing just laughed and jumped my eight foot fence in one leap," the man told police.
A shadow was seen crossing a Houston lawn in 1953 by three people, who looked up to see a man bounce into a pecan tree. They described the man as either having wings or wearing tight clothes and a cape, being tall, and "encased in light." A moment later, he "just melted" into the darkness. Then a swooshing noise was heard over the rooftops, apparently made by a bright, torpedo like object.
During the 1970s, Jack returned in both England and the US. In 1973 family in Sydney, NC reported a gaunt, long haired man with pointed ears and glowing red eyes, taking leaps they estimated at 50 or 60 feet. In 1979, more than a dozen residents of Plano, TX saw a creature, described as ten feet tall with pointed ears, cross a football field with just a few strides-like those taken by an astronaut on the moon.
Back in Sheffield, residents of Attercliffe began to complain about a red eyed "prowler" who grabbed women and punched men. Other witnesses saw him bounding between rooftops, and walking down the sides of walls. As in the old days, a group of armed men (police this time) chased and nearly trapped him, but he vanished into thin air and disappeared from the area.
Years later, in 1986, a former British army officer named Marshall was in South Herefordshire riding (presumably on a bicycle) on a quiet country road near the Welsh border. Motion in the fields to his left drew his attention, and he was astonished to see a man leaping over hedgerows in a single bound. The man reached the road and slapped Marshall hard enough to knock him to the ground and leave a red handprint on his face for hours.
The most recent record of a Spring Heeled Jack type creature comes from an elementary school in West Surry. Children only see him there, but they describe him as "all black, with red eyes and had a funny all in one white suit with badges on it." They also said he could run as fast as a car, and would approach dark haired children and tell them, "I want you."
Of course, none of this means Spring Heeled Jack is supernatural, or extra-terrestrial, or anything other than the invention of a few generations of adroit, and lucky, pranksters. Some have claimed that the phenomenon is merely an exaggeration of the activities of an old religious zealot who used to dance on rooftops. Others have identified possible Jacks: Waterford, a law student named Henry Hawkins, and somebody well connected enough to have a descendant bar the use of his name in connection with the attacks. I'd settle for knowing where he got his boots.
Written by Sharon C. McGovern
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