Jack by name...
Updated: Mar 30
We often think of the Victorian era as a rational age. Following hard upon the Age of Enlightenment, the nineteenth century is synonymous with the pursuit of science and industry. But, it seems, the Victorians still had time to develop strange myths of their own.
It is thought that the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack grew out of the developing hysteria surrounding the appearance of ghosts in turn-of-the-century London, such as the Hammersmith Ghost.
Spring-Heeled Jack's reign stretched from 1837 to 1904, spanning the reign of Queen Victoria almost exactly. His first victim was an unfortunate servant, Mary Stevens, who was attacked by the creature on her way through Clapham Common. After leaping out from an alley, he proceeding to paw at her and tear her clothes with claws that were "as cold and clammy as those of a corpse". At his victim's screams, he ran off into the night, only to strike again just twenty four hours later.
This time, he jumped in the way of a carriage causing it to lose control and crash. The injured driver then claimed, along with other witnesses, that the strange apparition made his escape by jumping over a nine foot wall, cackling as he went. Soon, the press had named the assailant 'Spring-Heeled Jack'.
The following months saw more appearances, including to a young lady, Jane Alsop, who opened her door one night to be confronted by a cloaked figure. Removing his cowl, he revealed "a most hideous and frightful appearance". The man was said to vomit blue and white flame from his mouth and his eyes were "red balls of fire". As with his first appearance, he then proceeded to paw at the woman with claws that were of "some metallic substance". This modus operandi was repeated just over a week later when, again, he was reported as spurting "a quantity of blue flame" in a young lady's face.
Later reports from 1877 detail how Jack appeared before a young soldier at an army barracks, seemingly survived a barrage of bullets when challenged, then made his escape by leaping "astonishing bounds".
Soon, he was included in fairy tales and children's stories as a bogeyman, and his exploits travelled north towards his last sighting in Liverpool at the turn of the twentieth century.
Spring-Heeled Jack was never identified, and there are many theories as to who this strange creature was. Many claimed it was simply a case of mass hysteria, others that it was a series of pranks performed by successive practitioners. This last theory is certainly given credence by a claim from an anonymous letter to the Lord Mayor of London in 1838;
"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."
Trickster or evil spirit, Spring-Heeled Jack held much of the country in his thrall throughout the nineteenth century. Perhaps he is a reminder that, for all their science and industrial progress, the Victorians were just as susceptible to the allure of a mystery as the people of any age before or since.
And that's why he, or at least someone very like him, will feature in the next chapter of Inspector Bowman's year...
If you have yet to join the investigation, Bowman's story begins with the first novel, The Head In the Ice and continues through three more novels, The Devil In The Dock, The Body In The Trees and The Phantom In The Fog. A series of eight short stories that take place between the books have been collected into two volumes, City Of Death and City Of Fear, meaning every month of 1892 is chronicled.
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