Springheeled Jack
Legendary nineteenth-century British creature who supposedly
harassed travelers and terrified women with his giant
leaps, vicious behavior, and diabolical appearance. As the legend
goes, he successfully eluded capture for many years, evading
police and the army, and mocking them with his daring
leaps and wild eerie laughter.
Reportedly, he was a large man in a black cloak, and when
the cloak was thrown aside, blue and white flames shot from his
mouth and his eyes appeared like balls of fire. His hands appeared
to be metallic claws, with which he slashed at people or
tore their clothing. He was able to leap across high walls and
hedges with ease. Sometimes he even knocked or rang at front
doors, using his athletic ability to escape after terrifying the occupant
of the house. The first report survives from September
1837. A press account from 1838, quoted in Peter Haining’s
The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Springheeled Jack (1977), notes
a typical incidence
‘‘She returned into the house and brought a candle and
handed it to the person, who appeared enveloped in a large
cloak, and whom she at first really believed to be a policeman.
The instant she had done so, however, he threw off his outer
garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented
a more hideous and frightful appearance, and vomitted
forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth, and
his eyes resembled red balls of fire.
‘‘From the hasty glance which her fright enabled her to get
at his person, she observed that he wore a large helmet, and his
dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed to her to
resemble white oilskin. Without uttering a sentence he darted
at her, and catching her partly by the dress and the back part
of her neck, placed her head under one of his arms, and commenced
tearing her gown with his claws, which she was certain
were of some metallic substance.
‘‘She screamed out as loud as she could for assistance, and
by considerable exertion got away from him and ran towards
the house to get in. Her assailant, however, followed her, and
caught her on the steps leading to the hall-door, where he
again used considerable violence, tore her neck and arms with
his claws, as well as a quantity of hair from her head; but she
was at length rescued from his grasp by one of her sisters.’’
Springheeled Jack is reported to have terrorized many people
in London and the provinces with his appearances in 1843,
1845, and sporadically until 1877. He appeared again in 1904.
He popped up again in 1953 in Houston, Texas, where his appearance
was linked to a UFO sighting.
Some have suggested that the original Springheeled Jack
was the eccentric Marquis of Waterford, Henry de la Poer Beresford,
who was also Baron Tyrone of Haverfordwest
(1811–1859). According to the Reverend Brewer in The Reader’s
Handbook (1899; reprinted Gale Research, 1966)
‘‘The Marquis of Waterford in the early parts of the nineteenth
century used to amuse himself by springing on travellers
unawares, to terrify them; and from time to time others have
followed his silly example. Even so late as 1877–78, an officer
in her majesty’s service caused much excitement, in the garrisons
stationed at Aldershot, Colchester, and elsewhere, by his
‘spring-heel’ pranks. In Chichester and its neighbourhood the
tales told of this adventurer caused quite a little panic, and
many nervous people were afraid to venture out after sunset,
for fear of being ‘sprung’ upon. I myself investigated some of
the cases reported to me.’’
The Marquis of Waterford was known to have been responsible
for a number of somewhat sadistic pranks, particularly involving
offensive behavior to women. But there is no firm evidence
that he devised special boots fitted with steel springs or
a phosphorescent mask with provision for emitting flames or
smoke (as reported by victims and onlookers).
He was, however, reported as having protuberant eyes and
also a peculiar ringing laugh. Moreover, a servant gave an account
of an encounter with the sinister cloaked figure with fiery
eyes and claw-like hands and spoke of an ornate crest on the
cloak, with the initial ‘‘W’’ in gold filigree.
If the original Springheeled Jack was the Marquis of Waterford,
he outgrew this behavior when he met and married Louisa
Stuart in 1842. The Marquis seems to have been benevolent
towards the tenants on his Irish estates and like many noblemen
of the period spent a good deal of time in sport and hunting.
He died while hunting; his horse stumbled and threw him,
dislocating his neck.
Springheeled Jack has been considered a supernatural or
paranormal being by many people. In her book Stand and Deliver
(1928), historian Elizabeth Villiers commented
‘‘A thousand tales were afloat and all lost nothing in the telling.
Plenty of people definitely swore they had seen him leap
right over the roofs of large houses, the cottages and hayricks
were as nothing to him, the mail coaches and post chaises and
family barouches were taken in his stride. Then, rather unaccountably,
public opinion veered from thinking him a new
form of highwayman and declared he was an inventor experimenting
with a form of flying machine, while others maintained
he was not flesh and blood but a haunting spirit.’’
After the death of the Marquis of Waterford, reports of
Springheeled Jack continued, generated either through legend
or a succession of imitators, which led to him being the central
character of plays, ‘‘penny-dreadful’’ comic books, and popular
thrillers. As late as 1945, a British movie was made about
Springheeled Jack titled The Curse of the Wraydons, starring
actor Tod Slaughter.
The suggestion that Springheeled Jack might have been a
creature from outer space was made in an article in Flying Saucer
Review (May–June, 1961) by J. Vyner. It cited twentiethcentury
reports from the United States.
An earlier suggestion was made that Springheeled Jack
might have been a kangaroo that had escaped from captivity.
The numerous reports of a creature breathing flames, molesting
women, and laughing eerily indicated characteristics beyond
the capacity of a kangaroo.
Sources
Clark, Jerome. Encyclopedia of Strange and Unexplained Phenomena.
Detroit Gale Research, 1993.
Haining, Peter. The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Springheeled
Jack. London Frederick Muller, 1977.
Keel, John A. Strange Creatures from Time and Space. Greenwich,
Conn. Fawcett, 1970. Reprint London Neville Spearman,
1975.
Vyner, J. ‘‘The Mystery of Springheel Jack.’’ Flying Saucer
Review (May–June, 1961).