The Legend of Springheel Jack
As John Cleese would say on the old “Monty Python” TV series, “And now for something completely different.” April 30th, May Eve, is Walpurgis Night. It’s directly opposite in the calendar from All Hallow’s Eve. In ancient tradition it is on these two nights that the veil between the worlds parts a little, and things walk among us that ordinarily do not. I’ve been fascinated by the paranormal and supernatural since I was about twelve years old. I’ve studied, catalogued, and theorized about UFOs, ghost stories, Bigfoot, crop circles, Stonehenge, Loch Ness and other lake monsters, Chupacabra, Wendigo, Thunderbirds and other giant bird sightings, elves, fairies, sylphs & gnomes. There are thousands of reports of each of these phenomena. If you look at them case by case, type by type, you’re left with a maze of unexplained, or unexplainable, incidents. If, however, you view them in a larger historical context, it becomes easier to see that all throughout human history we’ve had encounters with some kind of otherworldly “presence.” Is it a singular presence manifesting itself in different ways? We don’t have enough data.
Of all these strange occurrences, I’ve always thought one of the most compelling, yet well documented cases, is the mystery of Springheel Jack. An eerie precursor or maybe a prediction of Jack appears nearly thirty years before his first sighting, and 140 miles from London, by the editor of “The Sheffied Times” in 1808: “Years ago a famous Ghost played many pranks in this historic neighborhood.”
We begin with this report in a London suburb in September, 1937. A man attacked three women in the dark of night. One, Polly Adams, had her blouse torn away and her stomach scratched by ironclad fingers. The report goes on:
The intruder was tall, thin and powerful. He had a prominent nose, and bony fingers of
immense power which resembled claws. He was incredibly agile. He wore a long, flowing
cloak, of the sort affected by opera-goers, soldiers, and strolling actors. On his head
was a tall, metallic-seeming helmet. Beneath the cloak were close-fitting garments of
some glittering material like oilskin or metal mesh. There was a lamp strapped to his
chest. Oddest of all: the creature’s ears were cropped or pointed like those of an animal.
He was often portrayed as having glowing eyes. Another woman, Mary Stevens, reported a rather diabolical appearance, with decidedly cold, clammy hands. He tried to grope and kiss her, and when pursuers approached he leapt a nine foot wall and escaped, earning him the name Springheel Jack. On February 20th, 1838, Jane Alsop of Old Ford, London, was alone with her sister in their apartment. She heard a loud banging at the door and a voice yelling, “For God’s sake, bring a light! We’ve got Springheel Jack down in the lane!” When she opened the door, it was the fiend himself. He was wearing shining garments with a flashing lamp on his chest. When she cried out, he grabbed her arm in claw-like fingers, but her sister ran up to help her. A spurt of bluish gas hit Mary in the face and she fell, unconsciousness. Then he fled, dropping his cloak, which was picked up by (an occomplice?) who also disappeared into the shadows. J. Vyner wrote an article for a local newspaper:
Two days earlier, though not revealed until after the Old Ford incident had made head-
lines, a Miss Scales, of Limehouse, was walking through Green Dragon Alley. The alley
was a dim-lit passage beside a public house, and when she saw a tall figure lurking in the
shadows Miss Scales hesitated, waiting for her sister who had fallen behind.
The sister, who described the loiterer as “tall, thin and (save the mark) gentlemanly,”
came up in time to see his long cloak thrown aside, and a lantern flashing on the startled
girl. There was no time to scream; Jack’s weird blue flame spurted into his victim’s face
and she dropped to the ground in a deep swoon. Whereupon, Jack walked away calmly.
Throughout the 1870s he was often seen, playing pranks like sneaking up to a sentry, slapping him, then springing away, sometimes from rooftop to rooftop. In 1877 he was seen in Aldershot, in Hampshire. He wore tight-fitting garments with a glowing helmet. He flew above two sentries, who shot at him. They were hit with a fiery blue burst, and fell, stunned. Throughout the 1880s there were reports from the U.S., then they abruptly stop for nearly fifty years. They pick up again between 1938-1945; dozens of new sightings in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. In one account he was cornered by a dog, and the owner shot him with a shotgun. He laughed and leaped an eight-foot fence.
In Houston in 1953 he was described by three witnesses as having what appeared to be leathery wings, clothed in tight oilskin, wearing a cape, and “encased in light.” A moment later he “just melted into the darkness.” A whooshing noise was heard above the roof-tops, made by a bright, torpedo-shaped object. Rocketman? In the 1970s there were more reports, both in the U.S. and England. In Sheffield again he was seen walking down a wall, then he disappeared. In North Carolina a tall, gaunt, long-haired being with pointed ears and glowing red eyes, was seen taking leaps of 50-60 feet. Similarly, in 1979 in Plano, Texas, a dozen people witnessed a creature ten feet tall with pointed ears, cross a football field in just a few strides, like a man walking on the moon.
What the devil is going on here? 1838 to 1979, a span of 141 years. Surely it can’t be the same being . . . or can it? His offspring? A copycat? Beings answering these descriptions in the Middle Ages were called demons. But I’m thinking of one particular type of demon, specializing in mischief and trickery — an imp. And here we have the modus operandi of the prankster, a being that appears in mythology around the world. In Scandanavia he was Loki, a fire diety. In native North America he was Coyote in the Southwest, and Raven in the Northwest. We see him in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Puck.
Keep in mind that Jack never seriously harmed anyone; he scratched the stomach of Polly Adams, that’s it. The function of the prankster cannot be understood using human logic. It’s real meaning may lie in what Jacques Vallee calls ‘metalogic.’ That’s a subject for a separate treatment of phenomenology, of things seen and unseen, and how they are interpreted by the human consciousness. In Jack’s case, we can examine the commonalities; tall, thin, powerful, seemingly superhuman. The tight-fitting garments, pointed ears like an animal’s, the occasional appearance of leathery wings. Then there’s that thing on the chest emitting a blue light that renders victims unconscious. Was it some Victorian inventor or a supernatural creature? We’re left scratching our heads. What was Jack’s deal? He seems to have delighted in frightening mostly women, mostly alone. There’s almost a willful desire to attract witnesses before he makes his escape. And here is where I’ll leave you all hanging for an explanation; mystery loves company.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our little excursion into the paranormal. Please let me know if you’d like Coyote to howl about more things of this type.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” — William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act. I, scene 5