The Attack of Spring Heeled Jack

Spring Heeled Jack terrorized England in the early 1800's ... or did he?

Filed under Paranormal

Skeptoid #64
September 04, 2007
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Come with us now to 19th century London on a dark misty night, full of spectral villains and unspoken fears. For this was the realm of Spring Heeled Jack, one of the most popular and frightening characters from recent English lore.

A composite description of Spring Heeled Jack was a man with devilish facial features, a frightening grin, glowing red eyes, and a terrifying high-pitched laugh. He wore a tight-fitting white oilskin suit and a shiny metal helmet. With his cape and boots he had quite the superhero look about him. He spat blue flames at will, and most extraordinarily, he could jump in a most demonstrative manner, clearing buildings and high walls with ease, and crossing towns in moments by bounding from rooftop to rooftop. Over a period of decades during the 1800's, he made many appearances, always troublesome and usually malicious, tricking and attacking innocent victims and leaving a wake of terror all across England.

Although Jack's exploits are said to have taken place all over England and to have numbered in the dozens at the very least, there are really only six or ten specific incidents to be found in the literature. When you research Spring Heeled Jack, you read the same half dozen accounts over and over again. There are a couple stories of him knocking at peoples' doors, perhaps with a plea for help, and blowing flames in their faces when they answer; there are a couple cases of him attacking and harassing soldiers on guard duty; some molestations of young women; and there is an episode or two of being shot at by villagers with no effect. In every case Jack would escape with his mighty superhuman jumping, bounding over tall buildings, laughing and cackling like a drunken banshee.

Some believers tend to take these old stories at literal face value, and so come up with wild hypotheses that are the only way to fit all the claims of the story. It's been suggested that Spring Heeled Jack was an extraterrestrial alien, who was from a planet with high gravity and so had an extraordinary jumping ability on Earth. Our thin atmosphere could have made him giddy, thus accounting for his laughter and wild ways. And his species could have been nocturnal, giving him reflective eyes like a cat that would explain his glowing red gaze. What about his fire breathing? Easily explained as "odorous phosphor," illuminated by his alien bioluminescence or ignited by a bioelectric shock strong enough to stun his victims.

Anyone who's heard of Spring Heeled Jack has probably heard the most common nomination of a suspect: Henry Beresford, the Third Marquess of Waterford, known as the "Mad Marquis" for his mischievous and boisterous nature. He was a contemporary of Jumping Jack, and although his principal home was not near London, his continual drunken partying took him all over England and he did live in the area at the right time. The problem with this nomination is that there was never the slightest shred of evidence linking him to Jack, or even really enough to justify any suspicion. It was said that the Marquess had been embarrassed by women and by the police during his career, and this was his way of getting even. Well, let's count the number of people in England during the 1800's who had been embarrassed by women or by the police. Hmmm. The other weak shred linking him was a little boy's report that Spring Heeled Jack had a W embroidered on his shirt when he appeared at the door, and W could stand for Waterford. When you consider the many names and places that W might stand for, or the many other reports that had Jack dressed differently, there appears to be little reason to support such a connection. Nevertheless, put two things next to each other, and people draw connections and spot patterns. It was said that some of Henry's friends were interested in science. Well, so were a lot of people, and so were a lot of people's friends. But in this case, it was opined that these friends could have designed special spring-loaded boots for the Marquess that allowed him to jump over buildings. Logically, these supposed facts are completely worthless. Factually, Henry Beresford died in a riding accident shortly after the first of Spring Heeled Jack's appearances. In all of my research, I found not a single reason to support the Marquess of Waterford hypothesis. Sure, maybe he was guilty, and maybe my cat was too.

So what does our skeptical eye see when we turn it toward Spring Heeled Jack? Surely there wouldn't be all these long-enduring stories unless they had some basis in fact.

I'd like to turn the clock back for a moment to early 2001. Let's spin the globe and place our finger on New Delhi, India. Picture great masses of humanity moving through the dusty heat. Imagine a busy marketplace, a bustling trade district of glass skyscrapers with smoking motorcycles, pedicabs, wall-to-wall apartment buildings, tangled bunches of telephone wires, and everywhere you look, people, people, and more people. In this melting pot of cultures, languages and economies, a mysterious creature called the Monkey Man came out of nowhere and terrorized the nation's capital for three months. Police received 350 reports — a number that dwarfs Spring Heeled Jack's total — from victims claiming to have been bitten, scratched, and pummeled by a bizarre half-man, half-monkey creature. One hospital reported 35 victims with injuries that appeared to be animal bites. At least two people actually died in falls while fleeing the beast. Police offered a thousand dollar reward for information leading to the capture of the Monkey Man (and a thousand dollars was no small change in India), and even issued renderings made by a sketch artist, that looked a lot like an angry Curious George. Great mobs swarmed into the streets with bricks and bats and anything they could grab to kill the monster, and once they chased a four foot tall wandering Hindu and beat him into a coma before the police could intervene. In another case, a van driver was pulled from his vehicle and savagely beaten. The Monkey Man seemed to be everywhere, jumping out from bushes and attacking the vulnerable. The whole phenomena was uncannily like that of Spring Heeled Jack.

You might ask why, since this happened to a forewarned population in one of the most densely peopled places on Earth over a period of months, nobody ever got a picture or security camera video or any real evidence of the Monkey Man. The injuries treated at hospitals could be called evidence, but the Times of India quoted police sources as saying "In most of the cases, the injuries were found to be too superficial to arrive at any conclusion. Most of the wounds could have been self-inflicted."

The hundreds of eyewitness accounts aren't evidence either, and the police sources explained why quite aptly: "It was found many victims changed their statements on several occasions. Psychiatrists concluded most of them were hysterical and could not be relied on."

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

When you take a few million superstitious people and flood them with sensational headlines stating that hundreds of people are being attacked everywhere, you can easily get a kind of mass panic, not too different from what the eastern United States experienced during the sniper attacks a few years ago. According to the Hindustan Times, "It was due to unsubstantiated media reports that people were encouraged to come out with bizarre accounts of the creature though no one had actually seen it."

Why were there no pictures? Simple, there was no Monkey Man. We'll never really know what started the craze: Maybe it was a kid with a mask, maybe it was an actual attack or mugging. It may have been nothing more than someone's made-up story, or even a betel nut hallucination. And as for Spring Heeled Jack? A tall tale to explain a ravished young lady? A young lad's explanation for having been beaten up in a pub brawl? A story told from lip to lip until it reached a newspaper reporter? It could have been anything. There is every reason to be skeptical of Spring Heeled Jack having ever existed at all, and neither evidence nor plausible explanations to keep him flying high.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Brady, James. Strange Encounters: Tales of Famous Fights and Famous Fighters. Warwickshire: Read Country Books, 2006. 160.

Eberhart, George M. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2002. 517-518.

Lake, Matt. Weird England. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2007. 57-59.

Power, Sir John. Memoir of the Kilkenny Hunt. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co., LTD., 1897. 42, 72.

Singh, Onkar. "'Monkey man' hunters thrash innocent man." Rediff. Rediff.com, 18 May 2001. Web. 23 Jan. 2010. <http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/may/18mon1.htm>

Staff writers. "India's 'monkey man' branded imaginary." CNN. Cable News Network, 22 Jun. 2001. Web. 14 Nov. 2009. <http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/south/06/18/india.monkey/>

Verma, Satish K., Srivastava, D.K. "A study on mass hysteria (monkey men?) victims in East Delhi." Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. 1 Aug. 2003, Volume 57, Issue 8: 355-360.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Attack of Spring Heeled Jack." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 4 Sep 2007. Web. 24 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4064>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 15 comments

Spring Heel Jack!!

I used to have a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" comic about him when I was a kid.

Scared the bewillikers out of me...but I loved it.

Thanks for the memory.

:-D

Brenton, New Zealand
September 09, 2008 1:40pm

Jack could have even been one of the people behind Parkour. It's really cool to watch people do it, and it would certainly look mystical in the middle of the night with embers everywhere.

Joseph Bozeman, Norman
July 28, 2009 8:05pm

Okay, I beleive I have come to a conclusion here my friends.
Knowing the history of London and the city itself, and having studied the art of Parkour for 3 years - I can gladly say 2 things - Although Parkour was not officially discovered til a short time from now - it may seem as if it means nothing. People today think that its a joke - when I say that I can clear a 3 meter wall I am still being frowned at. Whats the deal? I mean through many centuries, people have locked themselves up at home, scared to go on the streets. The point being - myths are made up from real things, but they are still made up. Jumping on rooftops and clearing walls is humanly possible - that is through menntal and physical training. I am glad to see that Tracers have existed a very long time ago, different from what we beleive today. Jack might ve been one of the first. But remember, he is a "jumper", so if it doesnt have to do with Parkour, how else can you explain the fact? The fire and red eyes where obviously exaggerated - because the people are in shock when they see Jack and his Parkour skills. And they're expressions where probablly quite funny too - only if you saw the ones on peoples faces when we train in our city.
- Mathew

Mathew, London
December 26, 2009 6:00pm

Brian, I wrote a movie script about SHJ 15 years ago, and continue to rewrite it as I do more and more research. My script is my own interpretation, but I do know a couple of things: The Marquis of Waterford (who died in 1859, by the way, 12 years after SHJ first appeared) was by far the best candidate. Young noblemen flocked to London after graduation, and they had nothing to do but raise hell. Pranks were the means they got themselves recognized in the papers the next day. The newspapers were their internet. Waterford was the biggest prankster of his day, extremely rich, almost died from a vicious blow from a policeman, and a young woman gave a false testimony making him guilty instead of the policeman. In a word, he had the motive. And he had the means to spend a lot of money to have a scientist (who were broke and mostly ignored at the time) make him a pair of boots that could help him leap high into the air. He was probably crazy enough to ignore the pain of a crash landing, and he had many friends that could have been hiding in the dark ready to help him. The story of SHJ is a story of London at the time more than a story of some mysterious creature. My movie script takes the mysterious creature angle and milks it to the end, until...well, you'll have to wait for the movie.

Joe Mello, Massachusetts, MA
March 05, 2010 4:42pm

You forgot to mention an important detail linking the Jack to the Marquess of Waterford: the anonymous letter sent to the mayor of London in 1838 claiming an unnamed aristocrat was attempting to frighten 30 people to death. Soon afterward people began reporting that a man in an animal suit - an early incarnation of Jack? - had accosted them. Obviously the unnamed aristocrat doesn't have to be Waterford, but the threat definitely fits what we know of Waterford: that wasn't just a prankster, he was what we now call a sociopath. He took especially great joy in tormenting the poor, as did Jack. Both Jack and the Marquess were said to have unusually protruding eyes - something he could have used to his advantage in producing the "glowing eyes" illusion. Every attack that occurred after the Marquess' death was convincingly linked to a copycat or proven to be a false report.

How did Jack spring? Well, he only sprang when cornered - could he have lured the pursuing mob to a spot where he had earlier hidden a springboard? A human couldn't leap over a building using a springboard, but he could certainly jump high enough to grab the edge of the roof and vault the rest of the way over.

Elizabeth, Austin, TX
April 20, 2010 7:45pm

Stephen King wrote "Strawberry Spring," a tidy, twisty story based on Springheel Jack.

A fun read, worth checking out for SK fans.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strawberry_Spring

jack, San Francisco
June 07, 2010 12:55pm

Yeah. I've read more SHJ reports with a lot more diligence than Brian has. Also watched TV doco that went into all the fictional pulps & plays written about him. *In popular literature*, he *was* a forerunner to the far later "superhero" trope: I'm surprised that very few writers seem to mention that.. Or use it in stories. Well there was one during the late 80s but it was for little kids &I'd have been at uni by then! It's by that writer almost universally beloved by atheists, Philip Pullman! :)

No but in the 19th century plays they even gave him a "psychological backstory": he was an idealistic gentleman traumatized by the Napoleonic Wars or sth.. This in old FICTION, skeptoids must understand..

In FICTION, though a few efforts took the "supernatural devil" angle, as time went on, he was turned into a hero. In actuality, Springy's efforts were far less idealistic: a child prostitute's murder was even pinned on him once.

As for the "few reports" that Brian drones on about, they were few because..

Liz, UK
April 18, 2012 3:07am

Just more lore nonsense, people back then were mostly superstitious and stupid, like the woo folk here today.

You only have to read the tales of nonsense and hysteria today, a few days exposure on the Internet is like a few years in the 1800s.

Look at the recent UK escaped lion farce, at no stage was there any evidence of a lion, one picture of a pussy cat and a few statements from 'witnesses'. Result? Multiple sightings all over the that region and a warning by the police to stay indoors or be vigilant if outside.

Now, go back to the 1800s, where folks, just as now, told tall tales to impress, frighten or to make an excuse. I would wager that if you ran into a London inn back then, panting and claiming that you saw a pink unicorn with glaring eyes and a dragon's fiery breath, that immediately some of the drunken folks will believe you. After that, a legend is born.

I can remember years ago we all got wrecked and went 'ghost hunting' over the cemetery. At some point there was a sound like a twig breaking or something, we all stopped and drunkenly went 'Shhhhh' in chorus. Then one guy says 'Look at that...what is it..." within seconds all of them were seeing something - except me, as I had not got totally wrecked. I couldn't see anything and said to investigate. EVERYONE told me to 'copulate elsewhere' and ran away over a high wall.

Later I got them to draw what they had seen and it was nonsense except for one guy who drew a devil.

SHJ is just another case of hysteria.

Ric Gardy, Chester - not far enough away from Wales
September 02, 2012 1:21pm

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right. Im jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! gas! gas!

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag,
I was schooled with a strap right across my back,
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, Im jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! gas! gas!

I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead.
I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled.
I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread.
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I was crowned with a spike right thru my head.
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, Im jumpin jack flash,
Its a gas! gas! gas!

Jumping jack flash, it's a gas gas gas

Mick, New York
December 14, 2012 12:15am

Empathy granted..

Originality is in the question...

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 08, 2013 12:11am

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