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."
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.