I don’t normally post stories related to the supernatural or ghost tales or indeed anything of that ilk, and stick mainly to what I know about which is local Liverpool history. But on this occasion I am diversifying slightly as someone pointed out that this story really does belong on the site. It is the, urban myth, legend, folklore or whatever you would like to call the story of ‘Spring heeled Jack’. He was by all accounts a menacing, elusive and quick-footed character and has been a part of folklore from Victorian times. Due to his strange ability to jump over high walls and buildings, he was given the name of Spring-heeled Jack.
He became part of folklore in Liverpool and other parts of England and Scotland and later even in the United States, scaring and suddenly appearing and disappearing by quick high jumps and sometimes even simply disappearing from sight.
The first reports started coming in, in 1837. Mary Stevens was walking to Lavender Hill, where she was working as a servant, after visiting her parents in Battersea. On her way through Clapham Common, a strange figure leapt at her from a dark alley. After immobilising her with a tight grip of his arms, he began to kiss her face, while ripping her clothes and touching her flesh with his claws, which were, according to her deposition, "cold and clammy as those of a corpse".. Many people heard the screams and rushed out to help the frightened girl. A search party went looking for her attacker, but failed to find any such person. Interestingly, the very next day the strange intruder leapt in front of a passing carriage. The coachman lost control of the reins and fell from the carriage and got seriously injured. People, who saw the intruder, said that he jumped over a wall, which was nine feet high and gave a high-pitched laugh. When the newspapers found out about the incidents, the creature was given the name of Spring-heeled Jack.
By the end of the 19th century the reported sightings of Spring-heeled Jack were moving towards the north west of England. Around 1888, in Everton, north Liverpool, he allegedly appeared on the rooftop of Saint Francis Xavier's Church in Salisbury Street. In 1904 there were reports of appearances in nearby William Henry Street.
A report in the The Liverpool Citizen, 24th December, 1887
THE OLD ORIGINAL SPRING-HEELED JACK
Like the mystery which surrounds the identity of the cowardly fool or fools who’s recent
escapades in this neighbourhood have caused so much unenviable comment, it has never been satisfactory ascertained who carried out the extraordinary series of freaks. The probability appears to be that a number of young “bloods” worked together to produce the appearance we are going to describe. In that case, of course, Spring-heeled Jack was not one but many persons. However, as Jack was never caught in any of his performances, it is not now likely that the mystery will ever be cleared up, or that we shall ever know whether one, a dozen, or a score performed the part. Certain it is that for some months Jack created the greatest terror in London and its neighbourhood. Towards the close of 1837 Spring-heeled Jack made his appearance at Barnes, in Surrey, close to London. On this occasion he was in the form of a huge milk-white bull, and nearly frightened to death a number of people, including many females. Soon after Jack appeared at East Sheen, this time in the form of a white bear. A few days after it was reported that women were being frightened to death and children torn to pieces by Jack at Richmond, in Surrey, also, as our readers are aware, close to town. The neighbourhood of Richmond, however, soon became too hot for Master Jack, as a very close search was organised after him. But soon after we hear of him at Hampton, Ham and Kingston; at the first place he was reported to have appeared in a suit of shining brass armour, and having on his hands, apparently, claws. But being closely pursued, he climbed Bushey Park walls and disappeared. We may remark that from Spring-heeled Jack appearing in such a large number of different characters he must, if the performance was confined to one person, have carried a pretty large wardrobe about with him. Spring-heeled Jack is reported to have inflicted both great terror and also many and severe bodily injuries on numerous persons at the Duke of Northumberland’s seat, Sion Park; many wild stories, too, were told of his performances at Twickenham, Teddington, and Hounslow. At eleven o’clock one night, clad in burnished steel armour, and with his feet encased in red shoes, he seized an unfortunate carpenter at Isleworth, and beat the poor man most unmercifully. Next we hear of him at Uxbridge, and he continues his progress to the Metropolis by way of Hanwell, Brentford and Ealing. At the latter place, clad in bright steel armour, he nearly frightened an unhappy blacksmith out of his senses by his sudden appearance – the unfortunate man was confined to his bed for some time, so greatly had the shock acted on his nerves. At Ealing, too, Jack created the greatest terror among the scholars of the numerous schools in the neighbourhood. Sometimes Jack met more than this match; for instance, at Hammersmith avaliant washerwoman, having been greatly terrified by the appearance of Jack in the shape of an enormous baboon, with immensely large eyes and very large arms, at first tried to escape from the monster, but finding escape hopeless, the brave woman turned on Jack and attacked him, with such courage and skill, that he was only too glad to beat a retreat. What a pity our recent visitor didn’t meet with one or two valiant washerwomen of Hammersmith prowess and have his rascally bones broken! Not even the usually jealously-guarded territory of the royal palaces was free from Mr. Jack’s incursions, for a number of children saw the monster dancing by moonlight on Kensington Palace Green, and alternating that amusement by scaling the walls of the palace forcing-houses. We may, of course, allow that there was a certain amount of exaggeration in the popular account of these performances, but still that something serious was going on was proved by the number of letters, asking for protection, that kept pouring in that the Mansion House; and in January 1838, a committee sat at the Mansion house to receive subscriptions for, and deliberate on the best means of, capturing Jack. The not very handsome reward of ten pounds was offered for the capture of the scoundrel or scoundrels who were causing all this terror and commotion, but it entirely failed in its objective, for, as we have said before, Jack was never captured, nor did the reward even have the effect of causing him to cease his nocturnal performances. Not only in the metropolis itself, but in the suburbs such fear and terror was excited that on both banks of the Thames few females dared to venture out after dark. Three ladies were crossing Blackheath about six o’clock when they were terrified by the sudden appearance of a hideous monster. He emitted a lustre, as if rubbed over with phosphorous or something of that sort, and he had tremendously large ears, horns and tale, like those of a bullock. The policeman appears to have been a brave man, for he at once boldly advanced against the apparition, with the presumed intention of “running Jack in;” but on the policeman’s advance Jack jumped clean over his head, and disappeared on the heath. It is said that the springing machinery on his heels was clearly visible to the spectators during this performance.
The character has been linked to Jack the Ripper in certain respects, such as his name, his tendency to sexually assault young women and the fact that some of the alleged incidents involving him took place in the East End of London.
Spring heeled Jack was later rumoured to be James Maybrick who was a Liverpool cotton merchant. After his death, his wife, Florence Maybrick, was convicted of his murder by poisoning in a sensational trial. The "Aigburth Poisoning" case was widely reported in the press on both sides of the Atlantic. More than a century after his death, Maybrick was named as a suspect in the notorious Jack the Ripper murders, a report even suggests that the character may have even been a young ‘buck’ from the Cotton Exchange, where James Maybrick worked, who was acting in the manner of the mythical demon to win a bet. Whether the story is true or not, James would have certainly heard the rumours at the ‘Change' and, as a gambling man, may have even had a bet himself. If James Maybrick actually was Jack the Ripper, he could possibly have constructed the title by amalgamating words taken from Spring-Heeled Jack and the Ripper.
No one was ever caught and identified as Spring-heeled Jack; combined with the extraordinary abilities attributed to him and the very long period during which he was reportedly at large, this has led to all sorts of theories of his nature and identity. While several researchers seek a rational explanation for the events, other authors explore the more fantastic details of the story to propose different kinds of paranormal speculation.
By Robert F Edwards