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Saturday, June 28, 2014

History of Hysteria Series- The Man With a Spring in His Step

     There have been many times when a story takes on a life of its own. Once it enters the public sphere it it can and often does evolve through hysteria, paranoia, and speculation when there are few facts to anchor it in reality. One of these stories begins in 1837 London, that of Spring Heeled Jack. There had been other tales of urban ghosts that would descend upon and attack pedestrians. These seemed to lose steam by the 1820's as society progressed, but many argue the tradition just went dormant in the collective psyche of the public and set the stage for Spring Heeled Jack.

The first sighting came in 1837 just as Britain was changing monarchs...it was literally the dawn of the Victorian age when in October a servant named Mary Stevens was returning home from work when she was accosted in an alley by an attacker that basically reverse bear hugged her, kissed her roughly, and took off in a very peculiar fashion according to reports. People that were nearby heard Ms. Stevens scream and were on site in a matter of moments but could find no sign of the perpetrator. The next day in the same area an accident was caused when something resembling a man jumped in front of a carriage before leaping with little effort over a nearly 10 foot wall babbling and cackling. Investigators at the scene found the perpetrators footprints which were oddly deep in the ground. They assumed the assailant must have some sort of spring activated device to account for the oddities of the prints and the fact he was able to clear such a large wall. This is how the man/creature got his name.

Over the next few months reports continued to filter in with regular consistency and the shear number of sightings and attacks made the local authorities declare the perpetrator a threat to the public, something quite akin to being placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list in the Hoover era. Reports became more detailed and Spring Heeled Jack was described as having glowing red eyes. While having a human like face, many people remarked how the ears were pointed and the nose misshapen to create an almost devilish appearance. Some reported Jack's hands either had claw like nails or he wore claw like attachments on his hands. He was often seen wearing something like a black cloak over tight white oilskin clothing. The reports were so convincing that Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, most famous for being the general that defeated Napoleon decided to take personal action against the menace. The now nearly 70 year old war hero and two time Prime Minister put on his riding gear and holstered two pistols and went on nightly patrols around London in 1838.

During the manhunt the story took a turn when one lady reported that Spring Heel Jack knocked on her door, lured her outside and then spat a blue -white flame in his face temporarily blinding her while the creature tore her dress to shreds with his claws. She screamed and ran for the door where he pounced upon her and scratched her arms and neck up with his claws before escaping. A week later the creature again attacked a woman with the blue-white flame but merely escaped after blinding her.

The following month a man confessed to being the attacker of one of the women and he was put on trial but was acquitted when the victim testified her attacker was not the man on the trial. After the acquittal the legend spread and reports came in from papers not just in London but all over the southern part of England. Spring Heel Jack became an icon of "penny dreadfuls", similar to American Dime novels of the Old West as well as the subject of low brow theater and punch and judy type shows. The idea of the superhuman and fire breathing assailant had entered the public culture of the time and taken on a life of its own outside the news, which saw few reports from 1839 until around 1843 when sightings and encounters again surged. This time it tended to be carriage drivers, especially those delivering and transporting mail that were the target. By 1847 a man was arrested and convicted of some attacks as he had purchased materials and made a costume to disguise himself as the creature for two attacks that year.

Nothing was seen of the creature for a generation until the 1870s when a new wave of reports hit. The most famous being the one at the Aldershot military barracks where the creature approached a sentry on guard. The guard issued orders to stop which were ignored. The creature approached, slapped the guard several times, and then escaped to the woods  in several large bounds after being shot at. The creature was reportedly shot at in Liverpool a year later but again escaped in his usual manner. Reports again wained and all was quiet for nearly a century.

Since the 1970's there has been a handful of reported sightings in the west and north of England. Seemingly the idea of the creature has truly engrained itself in British culture as an urban legend and a topic that can indeed inspire mass hysteria. Likely an evolution of the older ghost stories of the 18th and early 19th century, this one has proved to have much more staying power and ranks among the top sensational stories of 19th century Britain along with another Jack...Jack the Ripper. Perhaps the hysteria of Spring Heeled Jack helped lay the ground work for the mass panic and hysteria of Britain's first serial killer several years later. Indeed like Spring Heel Jack, the unsolved Ripper cases continued on for many years as letters and reports would trickle in keeping the story alive in the public mind. However, the Ripper case died out over time, as it was clearly a man while the devilish and supernatural Spring Heel Jack case apparently continues to have an effect with the most recent report coming just two years ago. Like the Duke of Wellington in 1838, there are still people convinced enough to investigate sightings and hunt for the creature.

The Duke of Wellington who at nearly 70 went hunting for the creature

A Penny Dreadful Dramatization of the creature from the Victorian Era

Victorian Era Description of Spring Heeled Jack



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