From the Loch Ness Monster to Bigfoot to The Jersey Devil, hundreds of people have reported seeing mysterious, impossible monsters, but the strangest of all these creatures is Britain’s Spring-Heeled Jack.
Described as a tall, thin man with a devil’s face and claws for hands, Jack could breathe fire and leap over 10 feet. For over 50 years, Spring-Heeled Jack terrorized The UK — molesting young women, causing carriage crashes, and literally frightening people to madness and death.
The reports of most crypto-creatures are isolated sightings by single individuals — interesting maybe, but impossible to verify or disprove. Sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack, on the other hand, are well-documented and consistent. He was seen by dozens of people from all walks of life — sometimes by multiple witnesses, who all seem to have given consistent descriptions to police.
Coolest of all: There’s a (semi) plausible explanation for how Spring-Heeled Jack could have actually existed… and it’s even weirder than some undiscovered creature lurking around Victorian England.
The Birth of a Legend
Spring-Heeled Jack’s story begins in 1837, when unassuming servant girl Mary Stevens reported a strange encounter: In a story similar to the ghost stories popular at the time, she says was walking through London’s Clapham Commons at night when a dark figure leaped out of an alley and lunged at her. The brute grabbed her, holding her in a tight grip, kissing her face, and ripping at her clothing… with his claws. Stevens said her attacker had metal talons, which were “cold and clammy as those of a corpse.” Stevens’s screams frightened the attacker away.
The mysterious stranger seems to have returned to the same area the next night, this time committing a very different crime before multiple witnesses. Observers say a dark-clad man leaped in front of a passing carriage, intentionally causing its coachman to lose control and crash against a lamppost, nearly killing the driver. The culprit escaped, they say, by leaping over a 9-foot wall while laughing manically.
Before long, the sensation-hungry London press took notice of the weird crimes, and dubbed the suspect “Spring-Heeled Jack.” And so a legend and a monster were born.
Spring-Heeled Jack’s Greatest Hits
The most famous Jack sighting belongs to teenagers Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales, who reported separate but consistent stories, independently of each other.
Alsop told the following to London police: On the night of 19 February 1838, she heard pounding on her front door. It was a man in a large cloak claiming to be a policeman. He told her, “We have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane,” and asked her to bring a candle outside. Jane followed him out, but once she handed him the candle, he threw off his cloak — revealing a hideous, devilish face, complete with red glowing eyes. He began spewing blue flames from his mouth, and he grabbed the terrified girl and tore at her clothing with his metal claws. She managed to escape his grasp and ran towards home. At her doorstep, as her sister and father were pulling her inside, Jack caught up to her. He got a last slash in, tearing her arm and neck, leaving scars as a lasting memento of his fury.
A week later, Jack struck again. The victim this time was 18 year-old Lucy Scales. Scales and her sister were passing Green Dragon Alley in London when they saw a man wearing a large cloak standing there. As they approached, he jumped in front of Lucy and spurted “a quantity of blue flame” in her face. Blinded and terrified, Lucy fell to the ground, while the assailant took off into the night. The girls described him as tall, thin, and covered in a large cloak. He was carrying a lantern like those used by the police.
With these and other similar reports coming in to authorities, there was soon a full-scale panic in London. After initially addressing the issues, The Lord Mayor of London received stacks of letters from residents, all reporting similar encounters with the mysterious urban monster. The descriptions were all remarkably similar: fire breathing; a devilish appearance; claws; and the ability to leap inhuman distances.
Spring-Heeled Jack as a fictional character caught on too — and soon cheap crime novels featuring him as the villain appeared. He would sometimes be featured in Punch and Judy shows for the kids, and artists drew and painted him based on eyewitness testimony. There were plays written about his exploits, and as you’d probably expect, with each re-telling Jack became more evil, his jumps higher, claws sharper, and his laugh more maniacal. He was so well known, that for years, UK newspapers used the phrase “Spring-Heeled Jack Attacks Again” to describe any incident in which someone was surprised.
“Forsooth! ‘Twas But a Prank, Good Sir!”
Unlike most reported monsters, Jack seems to be more than a case of mass hysteria, or a hoax from bored locals. It was a serious enough matter that London’s Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan, addressed it officially. He was a rational-minded man, and he had been holding onto a letter about Spring-Heeled Jack that was sent before the most famous reports were printed in newspaper. The anonymous letter writer offered a plausible identity for Spring-Heeled Jack: a heartless nobleman playing a deadly joke.
Years before yelling “it was a prank, bro!” on YouTube became popular, the letter-writer said he knew of some men “of the highest ranks of life,” who had taken to amusing themselves by trying to scare the hapless rabble of London’s mean streets. They made bets about frightening yokels, with dares including entering “a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house.”
The anonymous tipster said 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.”
The letter went on to seemingly describe the attack on Jane Alsop: “At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.”
The Work of “The Mad Marquis?”
After the letter was read, rumors immediately began circulating that Spring-Heeled Jack was actually Henry Beresford, Third Marquess of Waterford. Known as “The Mad Marquis,” Waterford was just the kind of colossal asshole who would have devoted his life to frightening and molesting servant girls and nearly killing carriage drivers.
A notorious drunk with an uneven personality, Waterford’s antics are legendary. For instance, he is the reason people talk of “painting the town red.” After a particularly rowdy and drunken foxhunt (who knew foxhunts could get crazy?), Waterford and his boozed-up friends basically destroyed a small town, kicking over flowerpots, beating up cops, and literally painting the town red with paint they stole.
Waterford reportedly suffered a “humiliating experience with a woman and a police officer” in his youth, which may have given him the idea of creating the Spring-Heeled Jack character to get even. He was in London during the time of the most famous attacks, and he supposedly had friends who were experts in applied mechanics who might have helped him create a fire-breathing rig, and maybe even some kind of spring-assisted shoes.
The closest to a confirmation comes from Revd E. C. Brewer, who said in 1880 that Waterford “used to amuse himself by springing on travelers unawares, to frighten them.”
Unlike most “rational” explanation for impossible phenomena, this one is just as weird as the irrational explanation. Even if he wasn’t literally a monster, an impossibly rich nobleman called “The Mad Marquis” indiscriminately frightening people to death with a homemade flamethrower and devil suit makes him the first modern super-villain… and I’ll take that over a crypto-creature any day.
So there you have it. Waterford had the motive, means, and opportunity. Case closed, right? Well… not exactly. Waterford died in 1859, and people were still sighting Spring-Heeled Jack in England until 1904. He was spotted in Sussex, Liverpool, Brighton, and everywhere in between after Waterford died, and he even seems to have moved to America.
The Legend Lives On
We don’t know how he got across the pond, but I’ll assume he jumped. Between 1938 and the present, there have been dozens of appearances of Jack-like monsters in America:
In 1938-1940, dozens of people in Cape Cod, MA reported a man who spit flames and jumped really high.
In Houston, TX in 1953, three witnesses reported seeing a man in tight clothing and a cape leap into a pecan tree.
In 1979, more than a dozen people in Plano, TX said they saw a ten-foot tall creature with pointed ears cross a football field with a few strides, like a man walking on the moon.
Even the description of monster-du-jour Slenderman bears something of a resemblance to Jack: tall, thin, dressed in Victorian finery… if Slender could breathe fire, they’d be twins.
Maybe, like Slenderman, the people of Victorian London willed Spring-Heeled Jack into existence; traditional ghost-sightings in Victorian England morph into reports of a fire-breathing molester as the collective unconscious responds to the growing real-life nightmare of industrialization. After he appears in the dreams of the people, and then in the “penny dreadful” novels of the day, a rich man makes the myth real by turning himself into the villain.
Or maybe Spring-Heeled Jack was actually…
…A Homesick Alien?
There’s one more theory of Spring-Heeled Jack that bears mentioning: He’s actually a survivor of a UFO crash. The notion originally appeared in the June 1961 issue of Flying Saucer Review, where it was posited that all the details of Spring-Heeled Jack reports could fit in with accounts of an alien spaceman on earth: his helmet is a space helmet; the weird outfit is a spacesuit; the devilish appearance is his alien face. He can jump really high because earth has less gravity than his home planet. The “fire-breathing” was actually the locals misunderstanding some kind of plasma weapon.
It’s a poignant story, too… imagine an extraterrestrial stranded in Victorian London. Desperate to get help, he approached strangers in the London streets, only to have them scream and run as he begs for help in the only language he knows: flames and claws.
Truly a great tragedy… but the saga of Alien Jack has a happy ending: Supposedly, there were reports in 1838 of a fireball lighting up the London sky. They say that was Spring-Heeled Jack’s return flight, where he was whisked back to a planet where spitting fire on strangers and tearing off people’s clothing with iron claws is perfectly normal behavior.
He supposedly returns to visit earth to this day — occasionally turning up to peer into people’s bedrooms at night, leap over buildings, and otherwise terrify the rubes. Hence the reports from America.