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Monday, 6 April 2015

The Elusive Spring-Heeled-Jack

Of all the colourful villains of the Victorian era, none is stranger than the entity known as Spring-Heeled-Jack. The first reported sightings of this sinister figure came in 1837 when three people were viciously attacked in separate incidents on the fogbound commons and lonely lanes of suburban London.

Victims described their attackers as having "blazing red eyes" "talon-like claws"," a mouth spitting blue flames" wearing "a long flowing cloak and a tight-fitting white costume like oil skin, with the ability to vault high walls and rooftops with a superhuman leap. Some suggested he achieved his prodigious leaps by wearing springs on his boots, thus giving rise to the name Spring-Heeled Jack.

Jack`s notoriety captured the imaginations of Victorian Londoners and the fear he inspired equalled that of another Jack, who would later terrorise the Whitechapel district of the capital. As sightings increased, the antics of the elusive attacker became the subject of Penny Dreadfuls, booklets of a lurid fiction aimed at a newly literate readership, and melodramas performed in many fleapit theatres found at that time. It would not  be long however, before jack`s reign of terror spread to other parts of the country including Lincolnshire where his arrival in the city prompted the following news paper report in November 1877:

"For some time now Newport, near Lincoln, has been disturbed by a man dressed in a sheepskin or something of the kind. The man has springs on his boots and can jump a height of fifteen feet. The other night he jumped on a college, got into a window by the roof and so frightened the ladies that one has not yet recovered."

(Above) A dramatic illustration of Jack jumping on Newport Arch  Lincoln.

(Above/Below) The Newport district of Lincoln

In the market town of Boston, there were reports of Jack being seen leaping over the Bargate Drain, and in Scunthorpe a man of similar description was said to vault over backyard walls to steal from clothes lines. However, Jack`s most memorable appearance in the county was in the market town of Caistor where according to a report from the Lincolnshire Times, Christmas 1877:

"A strange being appeared in the neighbourhood of the town and created little short of a panic by jumping on the roof of a cottage and running over house-tops. Crowds assembled as news of the appearance got about, and the people watched him jump from the ground onto a roof of an old Roman building. Here he was fired at by a gun. But with superhuman activity he bounded from one part of the town to the other, some of his leaps being the height of twenty feet and more. As he ran along the walls of the new barracks, he was again fired at but as before, without any apparent effect. All attempts to corner him and prove if he were spirit or human failed."

Jack`s brief but memorable visit to the county inspired a young musician from Lincoln called Jon Cooke to compose the "Spring Heeled-Jack Gallop" described in the Lincolnshire Chronicle as "an effective and well-marked gallop, very easy to play and pleasant to trip to on the light fantastic toe."

So who or what was Spring-Heeled Jack? Explanations as to his identity have been numerous and bizarre. The most popular theory is that he was the Marquis of Waterford, a nobleman renowned for his cruelty and elaborate practical jokes. Of course this did not explain the many sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack continuing countrywide years after the Marquis` death. Some have suggested that jack was an insane circus acrobat, a space alien, or even an escaped kangaroo. However, I suspect the truth to be far less fanciful.

The phrase Spring-Heeled Jack was a generic term used in the nineteenth century to describe any agile criminal or prankster. There are news paper reports from the time describing known petty thieves as Spring- Heeled Jack because of their ability to outwit the law. No doubt the original 1837 prankster sparked sporadic outbreaks of copycat attacks across the country resulting in not one, but many Spring-Heeled Jacks.

(Above, below) Illustrations of Spring Heeled Jack, from Victorian Penny Dreadfuls

(Above) The Marquis of Waterford. Some have suggested that he was behind the original Spring Heeled Jack outbreaks due to his wild reputation and love of elaborate pranks. For example in 1837 the Marquis and his friends after a wild night drinking in Melton Mowbray, painted several houses and statues in the town bright red. Those who tried to intervene also got a dowsing in red paint. It is likely that the incident gave rise to the well known phrase "paint the town red" still used today to describe a wild night out.

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