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 Water-ford, 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 noble-men 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 twentieth-century 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.
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 Spear-man, 1975.
Vyner, J. "The Mystery of Springheel Jack." Flying Saucer Review (May-June, 1961).