Long before Mothman and Bigfoot emerged to terrify small children and before Jack the Ripper began prowling the streets at night, another local cryptid terrorized the women of London in the 1830s – Spring-Heeled Jack. Who was Spring-heeled Jack? Was he a paranormal figure? the devil himself? Or a young Waterford aristocrat having a spot of fun at the expense of terrified servant girls? Read on to make your own mind up.
The first sighting of this strange creature was in October of 1837 when a young woman named Mary Stevens was attacked while on her way through Clapham Common in London. A dark figure leapt from a darkened laneway, trapped her in a tight grip and began forcibly kissing her and tearing at her clothes with his cold, sharp claws. The girl screamed, alerting people nearby and as quickly as he had appeared the man disappeared again. The very next day he attacked again, but this time he leapt in front of a carriage, scaring the driver and causing serious injuries but then immediately escaped by leaping more than nine feet into the air, over a wall and disappearing – the source of his nickname; Spring-heeled Jack. After both incidents the area was searched but no suspect could be found.
By January of 1838 so many servant girls had been attacked that the city was whipped into a frenzy of fear and the Lord Mayor was forced to call an emergency meeting to search for information, reading aloud a letter which stated:
It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises—a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.
By the following month as sightings were reported out in the countryside and far from London, Jack had become much more than a figure in black who attacked young women in darkened laneways – he had gained supernatural abilities. The most famous cases of a Spring-heeled Jack attack occurred in February when two teenage girls, Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales were ambushed by the monster. Both girls reported the same black cloak, terrible visage and clawed hands as the others but had eyes like glowing balls of red fire and vomited blue and white flame into their faces, temporarily blinding and disorientating them. Both girls had injuries after their experience with Jane Alsop suffering cuts to her neck and arms and Lucy Scales entering successive seizures for several hours afterwards in shock. Before this there was a possibility that Jack was just a rumour, a ghost that lived in the minds of terrified girls walking alone down dark pathways – but the parallel stories and clear injuries were hard to
ignore. The Scales and Alsop cases raised Jack from a mere urban legend to an item of national news and a manhunt was undertaken, though sadly no perpetrators were discovered.
Jack became a fixture of gossip and storytelling across the country. Over time an entire mythology was written to explain his mysterious appearance and in the gothic setting of Victorian London he became the villain in several Penny Dreadfuls – short plays shown in cheap theatres at that time. Many believed him to be the devil incarnate, come to terrorise Londoners and in Punch and Judy shows the devil was renamed ‘Spring-heeled Jack’. Much like the bogeyman, it became common for parents to warn children off their bad behaviour by suggesting the Spring Heeled Jack would come to get them and over time he became the feature of comic books and plays as an avenger of wrongdoing – very different to the beginnings of his character.
His appearance was around the same time that the Marquess infamously ‘painted the town red’ – giving birth to the very phrase itself. Beresford was a man with an eye for trouble and a penchant for pranking his peers. Some of his famous exploits included staging equestrian feats in living rooms, breaking and entering at Eton to steal the birch cane of one particularly zealous teacher, and filling a first class carriage with chimney sweeps to offend the stuffier attendees of one race meeting! He was a regular feature of newspapers during this time for loutish behaviour which was generally well outside of what would have been considered gentlemanly. He was often publicly drunk, was known to do almost anything for a bet, used his money and connections to avoid prosecution and bad experiences with women and police left him with a hatred of both.
Beresford was in London in 1837 so it is entirely possible that the early reports of a man dressed like a devil with glowing eyes that attacked women was in fact the Mad Marquess. Some commentators have suggested that he used his money to have a contraption engineered which allowed him to jump much higher than average (though this seems unlikely and could simply have been a case of the truth of the attacks growing some very springy legs) and that he learned fire-breathing techniques to increase his otherworldly appearance. The writer of the letter the Mayor read to the concerned public stated that he believed the perpetrator of the attacks to be a member of the upper-class and that:
‘The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but,
through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.’
The Mad Marquess was first put forward as a possibility officially by the writer Ebenezer Cobham Brewer in 1880, but the rumour had actually starter circulating 40 years earlier as early as 1840. An 1838 news report even stated that his “name in many quarters is regarded with as much terror as that of Spring-heeled Jack himself”. It is possible then that the early attacks were orchestrated by Beresford as a practical joke, but over time with copycats and fireside storytelling Spring-heeled Jack became an urban legend, with accounts exaggerated over time to create a being of almost mythical proportions. The latest sightings of this inner city demon was in 1904, and sightings continued right through the nineteenth century – but Beresford returned to Waterford with his new wife in 1842, and died in a horse-riding
accident in 1859.
Sadly we will never know exactly who Spring-Heeled Jack was, supernatural entity or bad-spirited prankster, but with so many other bizarre stories to his name, it’s maybe not so much of a stretch to pin the blame on Henry de la Poer Beresford, the Mad Marquess, before he settled down at Curraghmore.