In September 1837, a businessman heading home late one night across the wilder reaches of Barnes Common, just outside London, was suddenly startled by a hideous-looking figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack.
Bounding over some high railings, it landed with a thud right in front of him. Although the creature did him no harm, one look at its pointed ears, glowing eyes and prominent nose was enough to send the businessman fleeing from the scene in terror.
A month after the initial attack, a servant girl by the name of Mary Stevens was returning to the house where she worked in Lavender Hill, on the outskirts of south London, after visiting her parents in Battersea. As she walked over Clapham Common, a hideous creature leapt out at her from a dark alley. Grabbing hold of the terrified girl, the creature started kissing her face, while ripping her clothes and touching her flesh with its claws, which according to a statement that she made later, were "cold and clammy as those of a corpse". The girl's terrified screams caused the creature to flee into the night and brought local residents racing to the scene. But, despite a thorough search, no sign of the hideous entity could be found.
The next day the creature launched another assault near the Mary Stevens house in Lavender Hill. Leaping out in front of a carriage, it caused the coachman to lose control of his horses, which bolted in terror. The carriage then crashed, seriously injuring the coachman. Witnesses claimed that the monster had escaped by leaping over a 2.7-m (9-ft) high wall while emitting an ear-piercing, high-pitched peal of laughter.
As the attacks grew more frequent and word of them reached a wider audience via newspaper reports, the public at large nicknamed the creature Spring-heeled jack, and a Victorian legend was well and truly born.
Perhaps the best known of the alleged incidents involving Spring-heeled Jack were the attacks on two teenage girls, Lucy Scales and Jane Alsop. The Alsop report was widely covered by the newspapers, including a piece in The Times, while fewer reports appeared in relation to the attack on Scales. The press coverage of these two attacks helped to raise the profile of Spring-heeled Jack.
Jane Alsop reported that on the night of 19 February 1838, she answered the door of her father's house to a man claiming to be a police officer, who told her to bring a light, claiming "we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane". She brought the person a candle, and noticed that he wore a large cloak. The moment she had handed him the candle, however, he threw off the cloak and "presented a most hideous and frightful appearance", vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled "red balls of fire". Miss Alsop reported that he wore a large helmet and that his clothing, which appeared to be very tight-fitting, resembled white oilskin. Without saying a word he caught hold of her and began tearing her gown with his claws which she was certain were "of some metallic substance". She screamed for help, and managed to get away from him and ran towards the house. He caught her on the steps and tore her neck and arms with his claws. She was rescued by one of her sisters, after which her assailant fled.
Eight days after the attack on Miss Alsop, on 28 February 1838, 18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister were returning home after visiting their brother, a butcher who lived in a respectable part of Limehouse. Miss Scales stated in her deposition to the police that as she and her sister were passing along Green Dragon Alley, they observed a person standing in an angle of the passage. She was walking in front of her sister at the time, and just as she came up to the person, who was wearing a large cloak, he spurted "a quantity of blue flame" in her face, which deprived her of her sight, and so alarmed her, that she instantly dropped to the ground, and was seized with violent fits which continued for several hours.
Her brother added that on the evening in question, he had heard the loud screams of one of his sisters moments after they had left his house and on running up Green Dragon Alley he found his sister Lucy on the ground in a fit, with her sister attempting to hold and support her. She was taken home, and he then learned from his other sister what had happened. She described Lucy's assailant as being of tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance, covered in a large cloak, and carrying a small lamp or bull's eye lantern similar to those used by the police. The individual did not speak nor did he try to lay hands on them, but instead walked quickly away. Every effort was made by the police to discover the author of these and similar outrages, and several persons were questioned, but were set free.
The Times reported the alleged attack on Jane Alsop on 2 March 1838 under the heading "The Late Outrage At Old Ford". This was followed with an account of the trial of one Thomas Millbank, who, immediately after the reported attack on Jane Alsop, had boasted in the Morgan's Arms that he was Spring-heeled Jack. He was arrested and tried at Lambeth Street court. The arresting officer was James Lea, who had earlier arrested William Corder, the Red Barn Murderer. Millbank had been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat, which he dropped outside the house, and the candle he dropped was also found. He escaped conviction only because Jane Alsop insisted her attacker had breathed fire, and Millbank admitted he could do no such thing. Most of the other accounts were written long after the date; contemporary newspapers do not mention them.
As his fame increases, so the attacks decreased and the panic began to subside. A series of sightings across the country in 1843 caused a resurgence of the scare and throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century appearances were reported in locations as far apart as Devon, Lincolnshire, Birmingham and Liverpool. However, by that time the public's fear of the demonic creature had waned.
No one was ever caught and identified as Spring-heeled Jack; combined with the extraordinary abilities attributed to him and the very long period during which he was reportedly at large, this has led to all sorts of theories of his nature and identity. While several researchers seek a rational explanation for the events, other authors explore the more fantastic details of the story to propose different kinds of paranormal speculation.
The most plausible suspect for the original attacks was thought to have been the work of Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. He was renowned for his drunken antics, sadistic practical jokes and a pathological dislike of women. Physically he most certainly resembled witness descriptions of Spring-Heeled Jack, even down to having large protruding eyes, one of the creatures most prominent characteristics, according to his victims. Henry Beresford died in 1859 and exclude him from being responsible for the later attacks, he is a likely contender for having created the leaping, fire-breathing devil that brought terror and panic to the citizens of 19th century London.