Sometimes “Spring Heeled Jack” pops up in literature–sometimes as a villain, sometimes as a hero–perhaps even an early ancestor of modern superheroes. The strange bit is the fact that Spring Heeled Jack is based on real events and a real person from Victorian era England who purportedly leapt over walls and onto rooftops easily, assaulted men, accosted women, blew gouts of flame from his mouth, and always eluded capture while laughing with mad mirth.
The first confirmed sightings of old Spring Heel were in London of September 1837–though there is speculation that he was in action some twenty years previous. A man walking home late one night reported a muscular male with devilishly pointed ears and glowing red eyes had leapt over the tall cemetery fence with ease and landed right in front of him. This witness did not report being attacked or harassed by Jack, making him one of the lucky few.
Shortly later a barmaid named Polly Adams was found laying in the street in a state of semi-undress. She reported that she’d been attacked by a man of the same evil features who has ripped off the top of her blouse, grabbed her naked breasts with his corpse-cold hands, and deeply scratched her belly with his claws.
In October, Mary Stevens reported a man leapt out of the shadows, gripped her tightly and began to kiss her face. She cried out and raised an alarm, but her attacker was never found.
The very next day the character jumped into the road and caused a carriage to run out of control and tip. Witnesses reported that the perpetrator escaped by bounding over a nine-foot wall and laughing all the way. A few days later the sinister figure appeared again, and for the first time the police called to the scene found something of interest: a pair of very deep tracks in the mud that indicated that they had been made from a great height. One of the investigators of the time noted the tracks hinted to some gadgetry on the shoes, and speculated that it might be “some sort of compressed springs”. At the time no one saw fit to make moulds of the prints, but the story got out, and from it the media affixed the name Spring Heeled Jack.
Sightings of SHJ continued sporadically through England for the next several years. Besides accosting women, slapping men, and generally causing traffic mayhem, somewhere on the way Jack acquired the means to belch blue or white fire.
Many, including the Lord Mayor of London were skeptical, but he did receive and heed a letter stating that a nobleman had taken a wager to take on disguises and try to scare women out of their senses.
Spring Heeled Jack came and vanished from notoriety over the years. His most famous attacks took place in February 1838, and the last confirmed sighting of him was in 1872 when he jumped amidst a squad of soldiers and slapped one soundly. One of the soldiers claimed to have shot Spring Heeled, but other than a hollow, metallic sound like shooting a bucket, all it did was tick SHJ off, and send him to chasing the soldiers with his belches of blue flame. After a few days of bothering the soldiers a mob caught sight of Jack, and laid chase. Though they too claim to have shot him, he never slowed, and jumped right out of the area.
From 1837 to 1872 is a fairly notable career, but more surprising, there have been more recent reports of Spring Heeled Jack, including a spree in Sheffield in the 1970’s, and one in 1986.
So maybe he was a drunken noble out to win a bet, and became a part of folklore. The popular reading of the day was a “Penny Dreadful” which depicted haunting tales, and these publications couldn’t resist. Perhaps they exaggerated Jack’s appearance and traits, perhaps those exaggerations melded with real incidents in people’s minds, leaving history as an amalgam of fiction and truth. Strangely, when Spring Heeled Jack first appeared in literature, he was unwaveringly a villain, but over the years, he has morphed into a heroic icon.
Maybe Jack didn’t have springs in his heels at all–there is a faction who have him pegged as an alien from a high-gravity world. The relatively low gravity on Earth would account for his hopping talents, whereas an extra-terrestrial origin could account for his longevity. I suppose if there were a world with that kind of unforgiving gravity, and the natives all spewed flames, some of them would inevitably seek more hospitable environs.
Who or what Spring Heeled Jack really was are things we may never know. We’ll just have to make due with the dozens of police reports that attest that he has, indeed, haunted the streets of London.