Hop Springs Eternal
Blake Smith: Gas lit London streets lay shrouded in fog. Eighteen-year-old Jane Alsop is at her father’s house when a loud knocking startles her. She goes to the door, and in the darkness a cloaked man says urgently, “We’ve caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane.” Believing he’s a policeman, Jane rushes to bring him a candle, but when she hands it to him, she’s shocked to see him spit blue fire from his mouth before he begins to claw at her with metallic fingers.
She screams and struggles to escape as he tears at her clothing, and finally she’s rescued by her sister who pulls her back into the house. The cloaked stranger is seen to bound off across the field for this was no policeman. This was Spring-Heeled Jack himself.
Blake: Welcome to MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters. I’m Blake Smith, and in this episode Dr. Karen Stollznow and I will interview Mike Dash about the mysterious figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack. This is an enduring legend which has been of interest to paranormal investigators and folklorists, as well as UFO enthusiasts and skeptics.
Mike‘s research is fantastic, and while he is compiling it into a book someday, be sure and check the show notes for links to his website. He loves solving mysteries, and it shows in his work.
Blake: Do you want to tell listeners about what your latest projects are, like about what you’re working on or what’s been going on with you?
Karen Stollznow: I don’t know. It feels like it’s a bit premature at this stage still, but…
Blake: We can talk about Swift articles.
Karen: Oh, OK. I don’t know if you checked out the latest article that I did for Swift. It was a mini investigation into a place called Silver Cliff Cemetery. Can you hear me at all?
Blake: I can.
Karen: OK, because it’s just to me sounding…
Blake: It’s creepy because it sounds like you’re really close, but I know you’re really far away.
Blake: [laughs] I’m in a silly mood. I apologize.
Karen: [laughs] No, that’s good. That’s apt for the show, but I’ll start again. I just did an investigation, or a mini investigation for Swift for the James Randi Educational Foundation, and it was into a place called the Silver Cliff Cemetery. It’s the most haunted cemetery in America, or one of the most haunted cemeteries in America because they’re all the most haunted.
Blake: Is it Egalitarian to believe that they’re all equally haunted? [laughs]
Karen: I think it’s only the fair thing to say, but this place…It’s a beautiful little cemetery out in the middle of nowhere, and they’ve only got an occupancy rate of about 40 percent so very just scattered tombstones. This place has been famous for decades now for dancing blue lights. Actually, the source of all of the claims or the main source, contemporary source, seems to be an article that appeared in National Geographic magazine back in 1969.
What you’ll find on line if you go and google Silver Cliff Cemetery are lots of entries about this original article.
People claim that the article was an investigation or some kind of feature, but really it’s just an afterthought. It’s almost a postscript, and the author of the article…I can’t remember his name.
Edward Linehan I think it is. Just in the last paragraph or two of the article…it’s a travel journal piece about Colorado and the Rockies, and he just mentions these strange blue lights that appear in this cemetery. He goes and checks them out, and he describes them as being this dim glow. Yet over the course of decades the lights have become very different.
Instead, they’re bright lights, like a lantern light, round lights the size of a silver dollar. Sometimes there are one or two lights. Other times they’re just spread across the cemetery. The original lights were blue, and the lights nowadays can be red or green or pink, any color that you like.
The claims have increased over the years. They really have taken on a life of their own. So I went and checked out the cemetery. It was actually in the course of going and visiting a fundamentalist Mormon compound, but that’s another story altogether.
I checked out the cemetery and didn’t actually see those particular lights myself but came up with a couple of possible explanations for the lights. There was an investigation done or a short article by Skeptical Inquirer magazine going back about 20 years ago, and the authors claim the lights are reflections from the town, from passing traffic, and that’s a possibility. I think that there are lots of explanations, not just one explanation.
Blake: If you go to a cemetery at night and the claim is that there are lights, then any light would seem to be a hit, right?
Karen: That’s right, and there are lots of natural and human-made sources for lights. There are stars and there’s the moon, but people claim the best time to see these lights is on a very dark night when it’s overcast and there’s no moon.
Outside of that, I thought one of the main things that came to mind were phosphenes, the possibility that someone could be sitting out in this dark cemetery with no light for hours trying to see something, and you know when you rub your eyes or when you sneeze and you see stars, those little lights that appear in your eyes when there isn’t actually a light source?
I thought that that could be one potential source for these lights in the cemetery, or another could be this new receptor that’s been found that only sees the color blue, only picks up that color.
So, I think that could account for maybe those original sightings of this dim blue glow, but if people want to go and check out the article on Swift anyway, there’s more information there and go and google it yourself, too, and see some of the other claims that are out there.
Blake: We’ll put a link to that in the show notes.
Karen: Sounds good. Thank you. That was a fun little diversion looking into that.
Blake: I think one of the first collaborative skeptical investigations I ever did was with Kylie Sturgess for the Pinjarra Cemetery.
Karen: That’s right. That was in Perth somewhere?
Blake: Right, wherever Pinjarra is. [laughs] She drove a long way to go out there and help me test a hypothesis that turned out to be correct. In that case it was a passing car had illuminated a stationary tombstone. On video it looked like something came to life and flew across the screen, but I was able to stabilize it and show that, no, what was actually happening was the illumination was passing over the tombstone, but because the camera was moving it created this weird illusion. It was kind of a fun thing.
Karen: Yeah, once again, I think that’s accounting for a lot of the claims in Silver Cliff Cemetery. There are these very shiny marble tombstones…
Blake: They’re very reflective.
Karen: …And people think, oh, the town’s too far away. It’s really only about half a mile away, and there are two towns there right next to each other so there are a lot of light sources.
Blake: It’s always bugged me that people would expect cemeteries and graveyards to be haunted. The people who die have no ties to those places.
Karen: Yeah, I think there are two theories. I think there’s one theory that, of course, cemeteries must be haunted because there are so many people buried there. Then there’s another claim that people, when they do come back and they do haunt, they would haunt the places that they visited during their lifetime. They’re not going to be in a place where just the body is buried.
Blake: Right. I can imagine really easily some sort of hypothesis that you’re tethered to your physical body even after you die, but it seems like cremation would cure that and eventually your body rots away. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much plausibility to that in particular.
Karen: There are both theories there, and I think, if you believe, then you’re going to come up with any interesting theory to explain any qualms you’ve got.
Blake: The thing is though, and you’re probably the same way, but I love cemeteries, and people I think forget cemeteries are generally built for the living, you know? [laughs] They’re for you to go and reminisce and think about the people who’ve died and spend time…
Karen: That’s right. They’re memorial parks. People in previous times would go for strolls through cemeteries and have lunch. They were social places.
Blake: They were. What really bugs me is modern cemeteries. They’re so lazy. They built the flat tombstones so they can mow easier, and it’s like, really, what’s so great about that? It’s terrible.
Karen: We want the fancy ornate ones.
Blake: I do. I love the ones with statues and little mausoleums and…
Karen: The ones in New Orleans are really fantastic.
Blake: Those are really cool. There’s some really nice ones in Atlanta, and Savannah has some gorgeous ones.
Karen: Yeah. I went to the Bonaventure Cemetery. That’s in Savannah, isn’t it?
Blake: It is.
Karen: The famous one…What’s that book that…”Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
Blake: With the little crying girl. They’ve taken her out of the cemetery because people kept messing with her statue.
Karen: Yeah, that’s on display, I think, at a local museum instead, but I’d like to get to Resurrection Cemetery in Chicago sometime and check out the stories about Resurrection Mary.
Blake: Yeah, and don’t forget a lot of the voters come out of there at election time, so that’s a great time to see ghosts.
Karen: There you go.
Blake: Today we’re talking with Mike Dash, who is a paranormal investigator, historian, author and former editor of Fortean Times. He’s written numerous articles and several books, most recently The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia. He also writes the Past Imperfect blog for Smithsonian.com. Welcome, Mike.
Mike Dash: Thank you.
Blake: Mike, this is not related to monsters at all, but I really enjoyed your article about the family in Siberia, that was such a cool article.
Mike: Yeah it’s been remarkably successful, I have never quite experienced anything like it. It has had about 2 million page views generated.
Mike: It is interesting, I’ve been writing stories and I have tried to get 2 million page views over the years [inaudible] it is interesting to see what makes people trigger those sort of responses actually.
Blake: And I have no idea because I have read a lot of your articles, this was of similar quality which was great. But, Wow that’s fantastic.
Mike: There is always the element of what would I do in those situations. How would I cope, we would touch on this latter on [inaudible] Jack is such a memorable figure. And it survived in people’s recollection longer than similar Bogey Man.
Blake: One thing you taught me for sure is before you retreat into the wilderness, make sure you have some basic ceramic skills.
Mike: That’s the one thing they didn’t seem to have with them, may be they couldn’t find any clay. People commented on that one. Actually you are right. I don’t think we should judge them too harshly. They’ve been dead a long time [inaudible].
Blake: I believe you are correct.
Karen: Can we link this one to the show notes as well?
Blake: Yeah you can link this to the show notes for sure. Apparently, it is a great thing to link to.
Can you give us an overview, the Spring Heeled Jack story, the phenomena? And why you think he is such an enduring figure?
Mike: Yes, the Spring Heeled Jack story as it is usually told, relates to a hideous demonic Bogey Man as you would say in Britain, or Bogey Man you might prefer to say. Who turned up in London at the very beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, we are talking 1837–38 in the winter then. First of all in villages around the outskirts of the town and later on inside London itself, what was remarkable about this stories was…Well there were a couple of things.
First of all they were extremely ubiquitous. A lot of people apparently witnessed this strange and terrifying creature. Secondly, and perhaps more intriguingly, Spring Heeled Jack himself was some sort of shape shifter.
The first sighting of him referred to him in a wide variety of [inaudible]. A ghost, a bear, a devil, a figure clad in armor. A figure who was a gigantic baboon even in one case. It was only over a period of time, a period of some weeks that he slowly metamorphosed into the figure that we now know [inaudible] literature.
Which is very much a devil figure essentially. He was [inaudible] a tall, thin, gentlemanly, had blazing red eyes and his signature move essentially was that he shot blue and white balls of fire out of his mouth. And he attacked his victims who were usually helpless young girls.
Karen: I like the description that he usually vomited blue flames.
Mike: That’s correct. This is one of things commonly associated with him. Although when you go back to the original sources you discover that it wasn’t quite as common place as you would be led to believe. There are certainly two or three cases of eyewitnesses describing this happening. One of the things I have looked into over the years is to what extent one could potentially duplicate this effect in a normal way.
But a majority of cases, certainly after 1838, the later versions of Spring Heeled Jack, for the lack of a better word, we’ll go into this later no doubt, didn’t exhibit this particular ability, this was unique to the Springhill Jack of London at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Karen: I wish there’d been some evidence of that captured on film or something.
Mike: Well we’re talking about a period just at the very beginning of photography. I mean in 1837 photographs had just been invented, but you needed an exposure of 10 to 12 hours so you weren’t going to capture some of these fleeter-footed Spring Heeled Jack on an early plate, sadly enough.
Karen: Yeah and he’s certainly been appearing even in recent years, hasn’t he? There’s been some…
Mike: Well, yeah absolutely, and this is one of fascinating things about him, and one of things that’s kept me researching for a very… I mean I have never had a research project that has gone as long as my Spring Hill Jack project.
I began work on this in the Autumn of 1982 and I’m just about ready to publish my results now, and one of the reasons it’s taken me so long is that he’s a figure who crops up in all sorts of strange places and times and even relatively recently we’ve had cases that were very similar to Springhill Jack in places like Argentina, Somalia. It’s a figure which has some sort of hold, I think, over people’s minds and memories.
I mean, I can testify to this personally. I mean, my own interest in the subject really began in the early 1970s, when I was a kid. I used to get a magazine called World of Wonder, which was published in Britain, and was sort of an educational magazine. But it had a feature in it called, “Strange stories.”
One week, the strange story was about Spring Heeled Jack, and it was illustrated by a rather dramatic picture of him sort of leaping out of the page towards you, with his sort of balls of fire shooting out of his mouth. It completely terrified me, and I was about 11 at the time. The thing that was scary about him, I think, was the way in which…Two things. Firstly, he was described as essentially ageless. This goes back again to the Spring Heeled Jack legend as it’s usually told.
He turns up in 1837, but he’s last seen in his original British guise at least, in Everton which is South of Liverpool, in 1904, which immediately says to you, well it can’t be a human being if this is the same person, and he’s lived that long, and he’s still agile and still apparently unchanging. There must be something supernatural about him.
And the second thing that is particularly terrifying and gets the imagination going about Spring Heeled Jack, certainly with 11 year old boys is the agility associated with him.
The fact that he has this name and can leap over houses and so on. What that really means if you are 11 years old is that there is no reason he can’t certainly appear on your windowsill that night in the middle of the night when you parents are asleep tapping on the window to be let in and I think that is essentially what got me going about him.
That terror is essentially what motivated me over the years. I am still trying to diffuse that 11 year old boys fear of the dark, of the unknown, of course of devils and demons as well and its kept me going for over 30 years, this particular project as a result.
Blake: Wow that is so similar to my background.
Karen: …And mine to, yeah.
Blake: I call it the things that used to scare the crap out of me as a child.
Karen: You’ve edited that.
Blake: It’s such a driver.
Mike: Well, and for good. I mean a lot of good work has come out of it. Certainly on your part Blake. And hopefully my Spring Heeled Jack work will do some good in terms of sorting out the wheat from the chaff essentially.
I mean, of all the subjects I’ve studied, and there’ve been a few over the years, I think Spring-Heeled Jack, the original Spring-Heeled Jack, the one in the original sources, differs perhaps most dramatically from the one who appears in the secondary Fortean sources. In terms of just how unlike the way in which he is portrayed in the sort of secondary works the original Spring-Heeled Jack was.
Blake: Let’s talk about it just a little deeper. He has these powers. He can leap, he can jump, he can blow blue flames, he has glowing eyes, he’s dressed a little bit oddly.
Karen: Iron claws.
Blake: Yeah, yeah. He has iron claws, I forget about that. And then somehow in the contemporary accounts, I’m not clear on this, it’s not that he’s a rapist, he’s kind of a grabist? Is that his thing?
Mike: That’s right, I mean we would today I suppose call it sexual assault essentially. He leaps out of dark corners and grabs young girls, I mean teenage girls who are walking by. This is what he did in his two most famous assaults. And had these two assaults not happened I think we wouldn’t remember Spring-Heeled Jack today.
The main reason for this being is that the girls in question actually then did report him to the authorities. And there was a police investigation as a result. And a lot of people of course naturally assumed that if someone who has been attacked and goes to the authorities and gets the magistrates looking for this person, well there must be something in it. They’re not going to be just lying about something like that.
But the first of these cases involved a girl called Jane Alsop, who lived in a lonely house near Bow, which is in East London. But it was on the outskirts of London at this time. It was still a sort of semi-rural area. And her house was on a sort of back pathway that must have led past some field essentially, and was several hundred yards at least from the nearest other house.
And the story goes, and then this is the story that Jane herself told. That on the 22nd of February, 1838, at about nine in the evening there was a violent knocking at the gate of this house in Bearbinder Lane in East London. Jane was in the house with her eldest sister and her two parents.
She went out to find out what the problem was, and there was a tall dark figure standing in the shadows. Of course this was before street lights and anything else was available, and in the middle of winter. Who said “For God sake bring me a light, for we’ve caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane.”
Jane went back indoors and she went to fetch a candle which she brought out to this figure standing by the garden gate. When she gave it to him, he held it up underneath his chin, which, of course, is the sort of classic Halloween posture which you do with a torch when telling a scary story at Halloween. When she looked at his face in that light, she saw it had a sort of demonic aspect and the eyes were glowing like red balls of fire.
He then breathed his blue-and-white balls of flame into her face and then grabbed her. He started clawing at her back and her dress with his iron claws and pinned her head under his armpit and sort of started raking away at her.
She screamed, of course, and her sister came rushing out to try and help her, and between the two of them, after quite a long struggle that lasted at least a minute, apparently, she managed finally to tear herself away, leaving large chunks of her hair and with scratch marks on her as a result of this.
The second case was a few days later, about a week later, involving a girl called Lucy Scales, who was a butcher’s sister from Limehouse, which is a little bit further into the City of London. This would be London proper but still in the East End of it.
She and her sister were walking through a narrow alley called Green Dragon Alley, just off the Thames, and they came across a tall figure standing in a corner of this alleyway who stepped forward and breathed blue flames into Lucy’s face, leaving her in a fit of hysterics on the floor. In that particular case, there wasn’t an assault beyond the breathing of the fire.
Those two cases, together, certainly convinced a lot of Londoners that there was something more than mere rumor to do with these strange stories of Spring-Heeled Jack. Until that point, a lot of people…Certainly, the newspaper-reading class, the middle class, essentially thought that Spring-Heeled Jack was essentially just a rumor, the sort of thing that servants would gossip about but was just a wild told tale.
Suddenly, especially in the case of Jane Alsop, who was herself from this sort of educated middle class, you have someone from your own class who’s reporting in fairly hysterical terms that she’s been attacked by a very real person or a very real creature of some sort, and that brings the whole thing very firmly into focus and puts the whole thing into the newspapers in a major way for the first time, as well.
Karen: He was predominantly known for attacking women, but there were some cases where he reportedly attacked men, as well, weren’t there?
Mike: And this, of course, is one of the intriguing things about him. It’s all very well saying, well, this is the sort of thing some sort of slimy pervert would do, essentially. There were loads of cases of men attacking young girls. It’s not a very brave thing to do. It’s not a very dangerous thing to do, but Spring-Heeled Jack, according to the stories that went around at the time, at least, was a rather more equal opportunity kind of a criminal.
He was also supposed to have beaten up a blacksmith, for example, and a muffin man. You know, to take on a Victorian-era blacksmith, that’s quite a lot more challenging than a teenage girl. These are sort of rough, tough guys.
So, from that point of view, of course, then that becomes a little bit more difficult to believe that this is just an ordinary prankster or some drunken yob. He’s constantly able to do this. I mean, there are…Again, this is assuming all these stories are literally true, which of course is very challengeable, but if you read these early news stories, there are probably 10 or 15 of these assaults and most, or half of them at least, probably are one man, and you do think on that basis he’s constantly getting away.
No one’s able ever to lay a finger on him. What’s going on here? It doesn’t sound quite as obvious that it’s actually a genuine human being. It’s those sorts of suspicions that paranormal authors use when they write about Spring-Heeled Jack to imply that he’s something more than a man, essentially.
Blake: Let’s see. Can you tell us about some of the attempts by law enforcement and the public to actually catch Spring-Heeled Jack?
Mike: Well, if we stay in 1838 for a minute, there are a couple of significant things here to say. The first is that there were significant attempts to try to catch Spring-Heeled Jack. Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales both went to the local police office, which is a sort of magistrate’s court that existed…This is in the very early days of modern law enforcement in London.
The Metropolitan Police that we know of today had only been founded in 1829, and it was still a rather small, rather badly regarded force in many cases, in this early stage, and there was a second set of authorities effectively that worked in parallel at this time, so that each of the magistrates who ran London’s police offices, and there were about ten of these offices, had their own force of detectives who were linked to their court and were paid by them.
And they could assign these people to do an investigation.
So in the case of Jane Alsop, there were two separate investigations. One was by the Metropolitan Police, K Division out in Stickney in East London, and the other was led by the detective who worked for the Lambert Street police office, and his name was James Lee, and he was actually probably the most famous detective in Britain at this time.
He was a sort of Sherlock Holmes of his day, and he’d been involved in two or three very notorious murder cases, the most famous of which is the Maria Marten case which was known as the Murder in the Red Barn, which had taken place out near Ipswich about seven or eight years earlier.
Even today that’s remembered, in Britain at least, as one of the most notorious murders of the Nineteenth Century, and Lee had solved it, so we’re not talking about some useless, incompetent watchman being put onto this case. This was a genuine detective who has genuine police skills, and he and the Metropolitan Police did parallel inquiries.
What was interesting about this was two things. First they did manage to turn up a number of witnesses who had been in Bear Binder Lane at the time of the Jane Alsop assault, and the second thing is that Lee also arranged for some experiments to be done in the local teaching hospital to see if he could duplicate the way in which it was possible to produce bursts of blue and white balls of flame. I’ll go through those two things one after the other if I can.
The first thing is to say that the witnesses in Bear Binder Lane had a couple of very interesting things to say. The first was that there would appear to have been at least two people involved because at the time that Spring-Heeled Jack was attacking Jane Alsop, his cloak fell to the floor, and after he retreated away from the house, which incidentally the people in the house saw him do this and described him as sort of heading off over the fields, but certainly also bounding away with sort of spring-heeled leaps.
He just ran off as an ordinary human being would have done, but he did it without collecting his cloak, and yet somehow the cloak vanished. So the police and Lee both concluded there was an accomplice involved who picked up the cloak and made himself scarce.
The second and perhaps even more revealing thing was that two of the witnesses in Bear Binder Lane, one was a wheelwright who had a large wheel actually on his shoulder at the time and the other was his friend. And they were walking around about a hundred yards away from the house when this screaming emerged from it.
They were absolutely adamant that they could see quite clearly into this garden, and they said at the police court, had the assault on Jane Alsop been as fierce and as intensive as she described they would have known about it, and they didn’t see this. They didn’t see any blue and white balls of fire. At this point the magistrate sort of interjects and says that it doesn’t appear that she’s got any very bad injuries on her either.
So there’s at least a suspicion that some of this sort of fierce attack that sort of made a mark on the [inaudible] literature was actually…Not exactly imagination but certainly there was also sort of panic and overstatement.
So I think it’s quite a good thing…It’s a very good thing in this case there was a proper police investigation because it has helped us to put things much more into perspective. Similarly, Lee, when he went to the teaching hospital, was able to produce at least blue balls of fire by using a technique involving spirits of alcohol.
One of the correspondents I’ve had over the years when I’ve been working on this case tells me that in magic books in that period there was a technique of producing balls of fire which involved impregnating a small sponge with alcohol, holding it in your mouth, and then if you breathe out your sort of spirituous vapors near a candle, you can produce what in the dark in a very short range appears to be quite a surprising ball of fire.
Now this, to me, seems to tie together quite well with what the witnesses are saying. In other words, it’s entirely possible, given those two statements, that Jane Alsop, at very close quarters was stunned by what to her was a huge burst of blue and white fire but which would only have been visible from a matter of a few feet away, and which the witnesses, Smith and Richardson were their names…Who were a hundred yards away wouldn’t have necessarily seen.
So there’s not necessarily a huge disconnect between those stories, but certainly what you don’t have to assume is that this is some sort of monster with fire-breathing dragonish type of abilities.
The two things that strike one most about these accounts of Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales is that fire is involved in both of them. Jane also goes to get a candle, and she has to give the candle to Spring-Heeled Jack before he breathes his blue and white balls of fire. Lucy Scales, in accounts of some, was holding a lantern, and actually held it up at sort of head height before he blew his blue fire into her face.
So I think the witnesses could quite clearly be describing a genuine assault which involved somebody effectively using a sort of parlor magic trick.
Blake: That is very cool. Have you talked to any magicians about trying to reproduce this?
Mike: I probably need to do that, yeah. If you know any good ones, let me know.
Blake: I sure do. I do. I…
Mike: I genuinely would like to know, especially with a…I need to speak to someone like Ricky Jay, really, somebody who would know a lot about the contemporary literature, how widely known this technique, if it existed, was, because obviously one of the key elements in my research has been, is this some sort of fable or is there some genuine assaults going on, and really, outside the Jane Alsop/Lucy Scales assaults, it’s pretty hard to be definite that anybody was ever genuinely attacked.
I mean, you can try and track down some of these witnesses and, in fact, at the time people did do this. There’s a very revealing account in a newspaper called The Morning Herald dating back to January 10th or 11th of 1838 which says, you know, “We sent a reporter out to look into these stories.”
This was when Spring-Heeled Jack was just a rumor around outside of London. He asked people about it and each person directly said, “I don’t know but I can tell you who does,” and sent him on to another person who maybe said, “No, I don’t know anything about it, in fact, but I’ve heard that this person knows.”
Of course, this is classic urban legend stuff, isn’t it? It’s a friend of a friend of a friend, and here we have in 1838 before urban legends were ever heard of, a precise description of the mechanism by which these stories spread. We have two very distinct sort of paths of inquiry here in that Spring-Heeled Jack is 95 percent effectively a spread of a legend which is one type of inquiry, and yet here we have two or three very specific cases of very apparently real, genuine, physical assaults.
Those two things, I mean, how do they tie together? That’s one of the main lines of inquiry I’ve been pursuing all these years.
Karen: Outside of law enforcement attempts, were there any vigilante attempts to try and capture Spring-Heeled Jack?
Mike: Well, there were a number, and these were not so well recorded. A reward was put up for Spring-Heeled Jack. Edward Codrington, who was one of the most famous admirals of the day, was one of the first subscribers, so there were undoubtedly people wandering around London hoping to lay their hands on Spring-Heeled Jack.
We have two or three cases dating to slightly later in 1838 of these vigilante attacks having consequences. Because unfortunate people who were mistaken for Spring-Heeled Jack were beaten up quite badly, and ended up in one or two cases in police courts.
What happened of course, and again this just muddies the water even further, is that as this story spreads and people start reading these descriptions there’s a definite subsection of society who thinks that sounds pretty cool, I wouldn’t mind having a go at that myself. It must be quite fun to just frighten some poor kid.
So there are cases of people dressing themselves up with sort of paper masks and so on, pretending to be Spring-Heeled Jack, being mistaken for Spring-Heeled Jack by the vigilantes, set upon and beaten up. This does, as I say, considerably muddy the waters. Of course going back in London a few years earlier. And this is one of the things that maybe we can talk about later, because it does tie in.
There had been a case called the Hammersmith ghost scare of 1804, where Hammersmith had been infested by reports of ghosts dressed in white. At the height of this scare an unfortunate brick layer who wore…Bricks used to make white dust in those days, so brick layers would typically wear white clothes so the dust wouldn’t show on their clothes.
He was going home for the evening and he was set upon by a vigilante armed with a blunderbuss who shot him dead. There was a very famous murder case involved in this because of course his defense was, “I genuinely thought this was a ghost.”
This actually still bears, in British law even today, on the justifiable homicide as you would call it, defense. As to whether or not you can actually not be guilty of murder if you genuinely think you’re being attacked by a supernatural being or not.
Blake: Yeah. That’s a famous sad case. Brian Dunning covered that on his Skeptoid podcast a little bit.
Considering how much of this is legend and how much of this is fact, how did you approach your investigation? Considering how much you had to get through, how much material there is out there.
Mike: Well, my background is I’m an historian. And the historian’s tactic here essentially is you try not to form to much an opinion early on, and you go and find as much stuff as you can. So I spent a very large amount of time, particularly in the early days before newspaper digitization came in. And thank God for that.
Going through a large stack of old Victorian era newspapers, which I don’t recommend to anybody because they were all printed in six-point type. No illustrations, no headlines, and you have to scan through the whole thing looking for mentions of this story, which can come in a number of different guises. It’s instant headache time essentially. I read through 60 or 70 runs of newspaper for five or six months at a time.
It does take a long time to go over that. When I first published this, this was back in 1996 as I say, before modern digitization came in, I managed to find 45,000 words of original sources in 80 different newspapers. Since then, just to give you an illustration of how different Fortean research is these days now that we do have these fantastic new techniques available to us.
My current total on this far is about 240,000 words. So I’ve read about five times as much, six times as much material. A lot of them are duplicates essentially, but I’m now reasonable satisfied that I have pretty much cornered the market essentially, on Spring-Heeled Jack type material. Certainly from the 19th century.
There may be some significant other cases there. But given the way that newspapers tended to copy each other quite dramatically. They just lift news one from the other, and you’d find stories from the Isle of Wight appearing in a Glasgow newspapers and things like that. I’m reasonably confident that there probably aren’t any major reports that I have missed so far.
So now that I have that, now I can start making some theories. You start by looking at the materials and as I’m saying, you effectively observe that there are a number of different strands to this. There is obviously an element of urban legend and folklore. And all these shape-shifting stories tie into that.
The interesting thing about them of course, is that they don’t just appear in newspapers. They appear also in contemporary pamphlets, sort of prototype penny dreadfuls, or bloods as you might know them in the United States. Which is the tabloid literature of their day. And the more extreme stories appear in those.
There is a story of Spring-Heeled Jack appearing as a lamp-lighter, walking on his hands with his ladder held between his legs, and the big lamps on top of the ladder. Or Spring-heeled Jack as sort of a giant baboon up in the trees. Or Spring-heeled Jack as a sort of fox-like figure dressed in hunter’s uniform.
All of those don’t appear in newspapers, but they do appear in contemporary pamphlets. You can see that there are different strands of evidence, depending upon your educational level, as to what you’d be thinking about Spring-heeled Jack in 1838. If you were a servant, or reading one of these penny bloods, you might get a bit of a thrill at essentially this sort of earlier era, 18th century type of folklore. You can trace these types of shape-shifting figures back to early devil stories.
Then you’ve got this sort of more modern monster, who is using essentially modern science and mechanics, and all this stuff. One of the interesting things about that, and the most striking thing when you actually go through this vast pile of this Victorian era stuff, is that not a single line in a single story in any of these newspapers say Spring-heeled Jack is a supernatural being.
He’s known as the suburban ghost, but people don’t literally see him as a ghost. Certainly not the newspaper writers who were covering this. The newspaper writers who were covering the story see him as a servant’s legend, essentially. They sort of ridicule them.
The servants themselves largely seem to see him, not as a ghost, but as a nobleman in fact. Then again, this is a trope which was quite common in those days. The idea of the over-privileged buffoonish aristocrat with a lot of spare time on his hands, who was able to get away with anything, because he’s rich and well-connected, was quite commonplace in those days.
Spring-Heeled Jack was seen by a lot of people as a brutal nobleman, who went around with a gang of other noblemen. This of course would explain a lot of the facts that have emerged. How is Spring-Heeled Jack able to get from the West End of London to the East End of London? How is he able to dress up in all these remarkable outfits? Well, who can afford a suit of armor? How can he afford these amazing spring-heeled boots that he’s got?
All of those things point to somebody very wealthy. In fact, there was a lead suspect, even at that time. The Marquis of Waterford was one of the great aristocratic thugs of his day. He was well known for his outrageous behavior, beating up watchmen and pranking people. He was quite widely believed, I think at the time, to be Spring-Heeled Jack.
Karen: That sounds like some of the explanations for Jack the Ripper as well.
Mike: Very true. As I said, it’s a trope essentially, it does come up again and again throughout the 19th century. Not just with this story, but in a number of other cases. And people have pointed out, and I think there’s some truth in this, that essentially Spring-Heeled Jack is also a prototype Batman.
He’s Bruce Wayne in the early Victorian period. He’s got money. He’s got a load of high-tech stuff that no one else has got. In some of the Spring-heeled Jack penny dreadfuls he actually hides in the cave in a graveyard. So there are some quite strong connections between Batman and Spring-heeled Jack in that.
Blake: But he’s also dressing really fancy and knocking women around, so he’s kind of putting the pimp in Pimpernel.
Mike: Well, yeah. Not all his actions are the Batman-esque. One of the interesting things about the way in which this develops, just to touch on this briefly, is that by the time the penny dreadfuls get hold of him, they turn him into a hero.
If he is a nobleman, he’s been wronged, he’s been deprived of his inheritance or whatever. He’s actually out to protect the heroine, and the only people who get beaten up in the bloods are sort of bad guys who deserve it. Essentially there he’d protect women in fact. So there’s a pretty seismic shift in the way in which he’s portrayed.
Karen: What are some of the other theories about who or what Spring-heeled Jack was or is?
Mike: Well, over the years a lot of strange things have been suggested. Of course, inevitably in the 1960s, when Flying Saucer Review started to be published and they heard about the story, he got sort of tied into the whole “is Spring-Heeled Jack some sort of UFO occupant?” And rather an elaborate theory was proposed in FSR in 1962, suggesting that he was actually a sort of stranded alien.
This is a theory which posited that he was actually looking for a safe house, and he kept knocking on people’s doors because he was going to the wrong places. He didn’t know London very well. And he was only attacking people when they screamed essentially. So he was trying to shut them up because he was about to be revealed to the authorities.
And this works only in the sense that the people who wrote this, by this stage, were getting hold of a very perverted version of the Spring-heeled Jack story, and adding some elements to it themselves. So they have a Spring-Heeled Jack with weird-cropped ears, a bit sort of like Spock in Star Trek. They have a Spring-heeled Jack who was much more alien than the original Spring-heeled Jack actually was. So there’s the UFO connection.
There’s the whole sort of escaped from a menagerie type of connection. Where Spring-Heeled Jack is supposed to be either an escaped monkey, or in some cases an escaped kangaroo even.
Then there’s the sort of more esoteric, sort of para-dimensional type of theory which people like John Keel would have subscribed to where Spring-Heeled Jack becomes a sort of an ultra-dimensional figure who has come into this universe from some other universe. Often some sort of high-gravity universe somewhere else which would allow for his spectacular leaping ability of course.
This is the point of my research, in a sense that you can only take even remotely seriously even as a sort of a theory if you haven’t read all the original sources.
Only if you got the sort of perverted, second-hand “let’s conflate every rumor we’ve heard and then double it” type of Fortean potboiler can you actually say, “Well OK if this is the evidence then this is the theory that fits the evidence.”
The real evidence doesn’t point to any of that. The real evidence really only points in two directions which is that Spring-Heeled Jack is either an urban legend or a person who has decided to do this either because he’s drunk or for a prank or both.
And neither of those is really a complete and full explanation on itself in fact.
Blake: I think there’s a tendency among modern readers to attribute a superstitious ignorance to people from previous centuries and I know myself I’d like to believe that this kind of imaginative attribution by witnesses wouldn’t happen now.
I saw that in your research you point to the recent child deaths in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh being attributed to “pig-faced werewolves in a magic flying van.”
I’m guessing people still report extremely unlikely things now?
Mike: That’s true. I’m not a great believer in Jung’s idea of archetypes, but one of the intriguing things about this is what causes this figure, a very similar figure, to prop up in so many different times and places. This is something that I’ve researched long and hard, and to be completely honest with you I don’t have an answer to this question yet.
A lot of Spring-Heeled Jack stories occur in the sort of places you would expect. They occur in Newfoundland. They occur in Australia. They occur in New Zealand. They occur in South Africa. In other words, in places where people who’re emigrating from Britain to bits of the British Empire might conceivably carry these stories.
They are obviously very clear links. In Newfoundland there’s a figure name of Spring-Heeled Jackson, who’s very clearly a sort of perverted version of Spring-Heeled Jack, that’s just been sort of changed in the passage of a bit of time and a bit of a few miles. And somebody’s taken the story that they heard from their mother’s knee or whatever and told it again to their kids in Newfoundland, and it’s sort of spread around that island.
But, the interesting thing is that there are also stories of Spring-Heeled Jack in places where there was never any British imperial influence. In the 1980s, in Mogadishu, which is in Somalia, which had previously been part of Italian Somalia, it had been a British territory for about two years in World War II.
There was this figure, ‘The Tall Man’, who was supposed to be able to leap huge distances and would peer at second-floor bedroom windows. Clearly, that’s a Spring-Heeled Jack type of archetype. But he’s not known as ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’. He’s known as ‘The Tall Man’.
Similarly in Russia, at the time of the Russian Revolution, in Saint Petersburg, there was a gang of criminals calling themselves ‘The Leapers’, who used to go hopping about, pretending to be able to leap huge distances. Allegedly, they genuinely wore springs on their feet to terrorize people, so they could rob them. They were tracked down by the Cheka, the original KGB, and executed.
There were police reports describing these guys in the Russian archives. They seemed to be genuine. But where did they get this idea that it would be a good idea to dress up and be like Spring-Heeled Jack from? There’s no obvious way that story could have got there.
The most famous example, perhaps, like this is Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague, who in the late years of World War II was seen by a lot of Czechs as a defender of the Czech people against the Nazis. There were a lot of urban legends and folklore in Czechoslovakia, in the Czech Republic as we would now call it, going back to 1944, 45, describing this figure in exactly the same terms as Spring-Heeled Jack, right down to the iron claws and business.
Where had it come from? I’ve done a lot of work investigating, “Did any British penny dreadfuls get translated into Czech in the early 1900s?” In fact, a lot did, but not the Spring-Heeled Jack story. I’m still completely at a loss to know how this story spreads.
It must be, to a certain extent, that there’s something atavistic about this whole figure. There’s something that just grips the human mind, that there could be somebody who has this sort of leaping ability and devilish appearance, that crops up again and again.
This is what folklorists call a “migratory legend.” I got very excited when I heard that they had this concept, because it exactly described what I was finding in my research. When you actually look into it, folklorists have no real explanation as to how it works, how this legend migrates. They just know that it does do.
You get Jack and the Beanstalk-type legends in lots of different countries that have no apparent connection to each other. I still don’t know. I would be very pleased to hear anyone able to explain exactly why this happens, whether there is some form of transmission that I’m not aware of or whether it’s just the human imagination, because we’re all human, works in very similar ways.
Blake: Yeah, that’s a fascinating question. Those stories…Well, it seems like it ties a little bit into memetics, right?
Mike: Yeah, I mean that’s another interesting modern theory which I need to look into maybe a bit more, but I haven’t, again, heard anything that specifically explains how this works. It’s people sort of noticing a phenomenon and trying to grip towards an explanation. We really haven’t got any firm answers to it yet. Quite plainly, this goes a long way beyond Spring-Heeled Jack. I mean, it would explain an awful lot of different Fortean phenomena, essentially, wouldn’t it?
Blake: It would. I think…And this is a project you’d probably appreciate, but I think in some way there ought to be…and I know there are already a list of tropes that people track in folklore, but it seems like these things almost could be divided into discrete packets of information that you could measure with computer software.
The reason I say this, say like there’s a genetic piece of the story that’s the spring-heeled character, there’s a genetic piece that’s the fire-breathing character, and that you could look at these legends and just sort of see where the pieces match up across lots of different pieces of the literature. It’s something that’s been intriguing me for a few years now, wanting to know if there’s a software solution that you could…
Mike: Google and Grandview would allow you to track mentions of the name and things like that, but, you’re right. Folklorists have their, sort of folklore index. They assign numbers and letters to all of these stories. Spring-Heeled Jack fits into that category.
Again, that just tracks what exists, rather than explain why it exists in the strange places it does.
Blake: It’s two parts, at least two parts.
Karen: I think the closest theory would be in anthropology or linguistics, the idea of diffusion, where you’ve got some kind of, whether it’s language or some kind of cultural element. It just diffuses and spreads throughout society, then travels overseas as well. As you were saying, to other countries that had been influenced by Britain, insofar as Spring-Heeled Jack is concerned. Countries like India, Australia…
Karen: …Singapore. That would explain the claims leaping to those countries as well.
Mike: That’s absolutely right. Yeah.
Karen: To some extent, anyway.
Blake: Much like mimetics, the ideas are transported, but also mutated. You’ve probably covered that to some extent, but maybe we could talk about that a little more. How did, especially the journalism, how did the news reports in addition to the folklore shape the way the Spring-Heeled Jack story emerged?
Mike: I think this is a very worthwhile point. It does two things. It helps to explain how the story spreads, because stories that crop up in one place get copied in newspapers a long way away. So the story spreads through the new newspaper press, to new literate classes, in a way that hadn’t been possible even 40 or 50 years before.
And one of the key things that happens in this period is that the British press, in order to control it, effectively sensor it, although didn’t like to put it that way, had been subject to what we’d call the stamp tax. Everyone who published a newspaper had to have each copy stamped and pay tax on it. And this effectively raised the price of a newspaper to something like six or seven old pence.
Which at that time was, the whole wage of a daily laborer would be about the same amount. So it would be like being asked to part with a hundred, hundred fifty bucks for a newspaper these days. Obviously that meant that only the sort of very rich literate people who could be trusted with this new form of communication were actually buying newspapers.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the stamp tax was abolished, and suddenly you get the unstamped papers and this story explodes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after the original Spring-heeled Jack stories of 1838 there’s this sort of lull. They go on for a couple of years. After 1840, there’s a lull until the 1860s, when not a lot is happening in Spring-Heeled Jack world.
Then there’s an explosion of Spring-heeled Jack reports again. He’s seen in places like Aldersford Army Camp and Colchester Army Camp in the 1870s, for example. This ties in very closely to the explosion of publications of penny dreadfuls and unstamped newspapers.
I think that quite clearly you could at least posit here that the story has been revived and been spread by these much more widely circulated newspapers. We’re talking about a situation where The Times newspaper goes from a circulation of five, or six, or seven thousand to a circulation of six figures.
Newspapers are being much much more widely read, as indeed are penny dreadfuls. You have this whole new literature, and this whole new literate class of people who are reading them. It all ties into this big spread in education in this Industrial Revolution society, which is something historians have done a lot of study of. Now, that’s one thing.
The second thing, Again, I wasn’t aware of, when I started my work, and it’s become much clearer in the last few years with newspaper digitization, because you can only search so many brown pieces of paper for things that probably aren’t there before you get fed up in my experience, but now that we’ve got this ability to do keyword searches, I mean, you don’t even have to search for Spring-Heeled Jack.
You can search for phrases like iron claws or, you know, red balls of fire or whatever it’s going to be, or spring boots is one interesting one. When you start doing that you discover there are earlier versions of this story in print which nobody had spotted before because nobody had been able to sort of go through every newspaper ever published for years and years.
The story goes back…The earliest version I’ve traced actually dates to a pamphlet published in London in 1677, which is about a devil appearing in Suffolk who has very close similarities to Spring-Heeled Jack. He’s very agile and can leap over 15-foot-high walls, but he’s a man who’s done…This is the story, anyway…It’s a man who’s in league with the devil. He’s signed away his soul in exchange for this ability to rob people and get away from them for three or four or five years.
Then there’s another gap, or probably something’s going on but I haven’t traced it yet. Then we have the Hammersmith Ghost scare of 1804, where, again, there are distinct parallels with the Spring-Heeled Jack story of 1838.
The Hammersmith Ghost is described as wearing a cow’s hide, for example, which is a phrase that’s used in exactly the same terms in the very earliest period of the Spring-Heeled Jack stories when he’s still touring around the villages outside London, and he’s in all these different guises. One of them is dressed in animal hide.
Then, in 1809, there’s a thing called the Croydon Monster who’s a man dressed in sort of military style uniform with a long cloak but who can leap about.
In 1825, 1824, 25, there’s a ghost down on the south coast in Hampshire on the Isle of Wight who’s exactly the same as Spring Heeled Jack. Down to having large claw gloves and wearing a suit of armor. Again in Hammersmith in 1833. Now, so of course, all of this led me to ask, what the heck is going on here? I mean is this actually some sort of genuine, supernatural creature who’s…
You know, I mean this is obviously what the UFO crowd would tend to interpret it as, I’m sure. I don’t wanna knock them too much but tend to see this as real stories. It’s in the newspaper. It must be real. Therefore, you know Spring Heeled Jack has been around for longer than we think.
Actually, now and this is the key thing. You know, you need to study how journalism worked in those days. And basically, you can’t consider that newspapers as they existed in 1810, 1830, were like newspapers today where a large staff of experienced reporters would be sent out to look into these stories and come back with a true story, having interviewed lots of people. That just simply did not happen in the Victorian period.
A newspaper in those periods was an editor, and if it was a large national newspaper, it would be an editor and a Parliamentary staff, so you would have some guys who went along and reported on what was going on in Parliament.
Everything else in it, all of the sort of sensational stuff, all of the crime stories, were supplied by freelancers who were called penny-a-liners in those days, and they would live by their wits. They could only publish stories if they could get them into the newspapers.
There was no retainer. They only earned from the stories that were published, and those stories would tend to come in Parliamentary recesses. The newspapers in those days, again, were not like modern newspapers, large, with multiple supplements and endless space for news.
They were very restricted, and this, again, goes back to the stamp tax. This is one of the reasons why they’re so crammed and there’s no headlines is that you want to get the maximum amount in the space, more space. They’re normally four pages long. So if you’ve got something going on in Parliament, then there’s no room for these stories, but in the Parliamentary recesses there’s suddenly much less news, and the penny-a-liners come alive and they start selling all these stories.
If you plot the times in which Parliament is sitting in England in this period and Spring-Heeled Jack stories, there is a direct correlation between when the stories appear and when Parliament is not sitting. That’s one interesting thing I’ve discovered.
The second thing is what do these penny-a-liners do when there’s no sensational murders happening? The answer is they copy out old stories and they sell them again, and they do this repeatedly. So, what’s happened, almost certainly, is that the Spring-Heeled Jack of 1838is exactly the same as the Spring-Heeled Jack of 1833 and 1825 and 1824 and 1809.
He’s just got a bit more traction because of the Alsop and the Scales stories where somebody perhaps has gone and actually done this. This is a copycat crime, essentially.
That’s all that distinguishes the Spring-Heeled Jack of 1838 from these earlier versions. So what’s probably happened is that a newspaper journalist, down on his luck, needing to earn a few pounds for his dinner, has gone through some old newspapers and found an earlier version of the story and just transposed it to the London of 1837–38, and it’s just caught on in this particular case.
Then everyone’s forgotten over the years, and over the years they forget the 1838 Spring-Heeled Jack, much less the earlier ones, but even in 1838 they’d forgotten the earlier ones because it had just been one newspaper story in one newspaper 10 years earlier. So journalism has a huge amount to do with this, and understanding how journalism works explains how this story spreads.
Blake: In the Alsop story, he says, “I’ve caught Spring-Heeled Jack,” and she goes to get help, so she must have been expected to know who the character was, right?
Mike: Sure. Absolutely. The first versions call him Steel Jack. I mean this is back in December, 1837, and by early January, there were newspaper stories calling him Spring Jack.
Then Spring-Heeled Jack as a phrase actually first comes up in the Alsop story in terms of its publication, but as you say, at some point between early January when this phrase Spring Jack appears in the West Kent Guardian and the 22nd of February when Spring-Heeled Jack appears in the Times, something’s happened in London that we can’t now trace, and the phrase has been born, but they’re just giving a name to a sort of, you know, a figure who’s existed effectively in newspaper stories for some time.
Usually, before that, he’s described effectively as a ghost. Of course, you don’t have to know that much about English literature to know that there is a bit of a tradition of ghosts dressed in armor, for example, which go back to Hamlet’s father. So there are lots of places where imaginative, hard-up journalists could have drawn for a bit of inspiration in an attempt to sell a sensational story to a newspaper and earn themselves their supper.
Karen: And so there’d also be the possibility that a lot of these stories wouldn’t have been reported, too?
Mike: I think undoubtedly. I mean, the penny-a-liners had no way of knowing which of these stories were going to be taken up, and very often they would write the stories, and they wouldn’t appear because something would have happened in Parliament that meant there was no space for it. Essentially, they were space fillers unless the murder had been particularly sensational.
In fact, we still see this in newspapers today, don’t we? There are a certain sort of category of story, which is [inaudible] stories that they sort of squeeze into corners to fill a bit of space in between the, quote, serious news.
Of course, one of the interesting things about it from a journalist’s point of view…I know a bit about it because I was a professional journalist for six years early on in my career, is that the standards that are applied to those stories are a lot lower than the standards that are applied to the proper hard news, revolution, volcanoes, Parliamentary-reporting type stuff. Again, one has to bear in mind how journalists think and how journalists work in assessing all of these accounts.
Blake: I think it’s wonderful we live in a time now where papers like the Daily Mail have higher standards.
Karen: Of reporting truth, yeah.
Mike: [inaudible] standards debate.
Karen: You refer to the replication of the blue flames a couple of times, and I think I’ve heard, and correct me if I’m wrong, that there were some attempts to replicate the spring heels.
Mike: Again, we have rumors about this. They’re not very reliable rumors. One name…I can’t really go an entire podcast without mentioning the name Peter Haining. He wrote the only book that until this year has been published on Spring-Heeled Jack. He’s a British writer, a hack writer essentially…He’s dead now so I can probably get away with saying that, who anthologized Nineteenth Century sensational literature for a living.
He alleged in his book on Spring-Heeled Jack, which is full of highly unverified, made-up stuff as it turns out, that in the 1930s–40s the Germans had tried experiments with paratroops equipped with spring heels and had a 95 percent incidence of broken ankles.
I know of no verifiable source for that story, and I’ve wasted quite a large number of weeks of my life…This is why I have a bit of a down on Peter Haining, really…Trying to track down some of his more implausible stories to some sort of contemporary source, and it’s just not.
Most notoriously, Peter Haining is the source of perhaps the most sensational attack that Spring-Heeled Jack is ever supposed to have committed, which is in Jacob’s Island which is in a slum in London in 1844–45.
Spring-Heeled Jack is supposed to have appeared bounding over the sort of rickety houses and the rickety bridges connecting them, and he comes across this teenage prostitute called Maria Davis standing on a bridge, grabs her, holds her up over his head and throws her into the muddy ditch where she drowns, and Haining publishes this story and also an illustration that’s supposed to show the recovery of the body of Maria Davis from this ditch.
Now, when I first published my Spring-Heeled Jack research back in 1966 in “Fortean Studies,” I managed to track down the source of the illustration to the Getty Picture Library. It’s actually labeled, when you pull it from the Library, it’s labeled on the back it comes from a publication called Old London or something like that. I can’t remember the exact title.
It was published in London in the 1870s. Old and New London it was called, sorry. And it was an engraving just of Jacob’s Island showing some poor hapless Jacob’s Islander getting his water in this sewage-filled ditch, and what’s supposed to be the body of Maria Davis is actually this person leaning over with a saucepan to scoop up water. Haining had just found this picture and used it in a completely false way.
When you actually search the death registers in London for the name Maria Davis, nobody of that name died in London in 1844 or 1845 at all. Haining has simply made this story up to make his book a bit fatter and make it a bit more sensational. He’s only caught now that it’s easier to track this stuff down than it was in the 1970s, but he got away with this for years and years.
There are several other examples of this sort. There’s a whole section in the book I’m writing about Spring-Heeled Jack on Peter Haining’s sort of fakes and frauds. We cannot underestimate how much impact that Haining, in particular, has had on the modern Fortean literature because the large majority of the more sensational stories about Spring-Heeled Jack that date after the Alsop account are essentially inventions by one man.
Blake: Don’t you hate when your research takes you to having to try to find negative evidence?
Mike: Well, it’s impossible, isn’t it?
Blake: It is.
Mike: [inaudible] You have to look at every newspaper published in London and every death record, and even then someone could say, “Oh, well, she’s just a prostitute in the worst slum in London and, of course, her death wouldn’t be registered.” So, it is tremendously difficult to do this. You can. You can, and one of the greater triumphs, I suppose, that I’ve managed to have here is that the other thing that Haining does is try to pin this on the Marquis of Waterford.
The main bit of evidence he uses for this is he alleges that Waterford…This is a true story, this part is true. In the summer of 1837, just before the Spring-Heeled Jack story happened, Waterford had gone off to Norway on a bit of a jolly with some thuggish friends of his, and they’d been involved in an altercation involving a prostitute from a local whorehouse and a night watchman from the city of Bergen.
The night watchman hit Waterford over the head with a mace and nearly killed him. That definitely did happen, and Haining sort of picks up this story and uses it. He’s obviously looking for something. He wants to be able to show that Waterford could have done it, and to do that he needs to prove that Waterford would have had something against the police because his theory is that Spring-Heeled Jack is a sort of taunt of the police that Waterford came up with.
So he suggests that Spring-Heeled Jack comes from this animus, and that Waterford was really angry about the policeman in Bergen who hit him over the head. He does this by printing an extract from The Memoirs and Correspondence of Frederick Johnstone, who was one of Waterford’s friends at the time, and he relates how they were on this stagecoach back from…They land in Aberdeen and they travel down to London in the stagecoach plotting some pranks.
Haining is clever enough not to literally say, “We’re going to invent this character called Spring-Heeled Jack,” but he quotes Johnstone saying, “We’re going to come up with this prank for the police.” This is three or four weeks before Spring-Heeled Jack appears for the first time in the outskirts of London. So it’s kind of the smoking gun, effectively, in Haining’s account.
Now, when you look into Sir Frederick Johnstone, you discover a couple of interesting things about him. The first thing is that Haining depicts him writing this book in his old age, sort of looking back fondly on the indiscretions of his youth.
In fact, Frederick Johnstone died in a riding accident in 1842 at the age of only 35 , so he wasn’t around to write The Memoirs and Correspondence of Frederick Johnstone. You can point to these types of huge howlers that Haining commits, not thinking that people are easily going to be able to check this in later years to sort of show that some of his evidence is obviously made up, but it’s a lot easier now than it was for years.
People just looked at Haining ‘s book and essentially you would have seen this, very obviously, in other cases, and I as a child and early teenager had this in spades. If somebody’s published a book on it, surely they’ve done the work.
They must have done the serious research. They wouldn’t have put it into print if they didn’t believe it. Now, obviously, you mature. Eventually you realize that maybe there’s another motive in publishing sensational stuff like money, but when you’re a kid you’re not thinking about this sort of thing.
Haining got away with this for years because he had the reputation as someone who had read a lot of old Victorian books, so if he’s talking about what no one else has heard of, it is probably because he’s read more books than anybody else. Of course, now we can use computerized catalogs to say there is no trace in any catalog, the British Museum, the Library of Congress, the World Catalog had no trace of this book The Memoirs and Correspondences of Frederick Johnstone at all.
So we can in a matter of seconds expose him. That just wasn’t possible in the 1970s when he wrote his book, and he got away with an awful lot.
Blake: It’s an incredibly powerful tool this whole digital transformation. It’s totally changed the way I do research, and it’s made it much more pleasant because I can do a lot of it from my house.
Mike: Absolutely. Nothing can give you a headache in quite the same way as pouring over those old Victorian newspapers do.
Blake: I would love to pour over old newspapers, but…
Mike: In short bursts.
Blake: Right, but I mean…
Mike: When you know there’s something there, yes. [inaudible] the negative evidence when you just think I’ve got to go through this run just in case there’s a story, that’s when it’s gets a bit…
Karen: Needle in the haystack.
Mike: As a historian, one has to do it, as I say, with a heavy heart. This is why I’m happy to expose Haining now because he caused me to waste quite a few weeks of my life in the search for stuff that doesn’t exist.
Blake: Yeah, fist shaking is not enough sometimes.
Mike: Yes, he’s posthumously getting it in the neck from me.
Blake: Why has there been such an enduring interest in Spring-Heeled Jack, in your opinion?
Mike: It obviously goes back to what we were talking about earlier. This is a figure who vividly captures people’s imagination. He’s quite unique from that perspective, I think. He has a whole set of talents and powers that are essentially folkloric fairytale. He’s like this sort of…The guy in the [inaudible] boots is essentially the nearest fairytale power perhaps. This attracts people’s imaginations in a way that just doesn’t…You can’t underestimate how much of an impact this remarkable figure has.
There are two things to say, and we’ve covered some of this already. Firstly, he is apparently never caught so that means the mystery is never solved. Secondly, he is, as I mentioned earlier, I think he is so ubiquitous. He goes on and on, never apparently changing and that has to imply, until you start applying a bit of skepticism at least, that he’s not an ordinary human being. Those two things together kind of form the core of Spring-Heeled Jack mythos.
One very interesting thing I did discover in the course of searching Google Books, I think it was, was that there was a Spring-Heeled Jack scare in the 1870s in Kensington which is the posh part of London where I actually now work, and it was written in the memoirs of this elderly actor who was looking back on his boyhood and recounted this sort of…
…And it hadn’t even apparently gone to the newspapers, actually, but in Kensington, at least among boys of his age, there had been this huge scare. Spring-Heeled Jack was breaking into their houses and, you know, committing all sorts of mayhem, and all these tall stories arose about it.
He’d been seen leaping over this wall that was subsequently measured to be 15 feet high.
Now the interesting thing about that is that in this one case, Spring-Heeled Jack was actually caught. The police caught a burglar, and the guy says…”The remarkable thing was he wasn’t anything like Spring-Heeled Jack.” He was short and not very agile at all, and he hadn’t been leaping over these walls, he’d been laboriously scrambling over them.
This is what’s happening all the time, except for the guy isn’t being caught. There’s an elaboration element to Spring-heeled Jack that’s going on. Here in this one instance we finally got…He’s unmasked, there’s a real figure behind it.
He’s not trying to be Spring-heeled Jack; he’s just an ordinary burglar. People are talking about it, they’re elaborating the stories, and they associate Spring-Heeled Jack with it because he’s not been caught and he seems to be quite agile. Those are two things that Spring-heeled Jack does, so the Spring-heeled Jack name comes in.
It’s just built out of nothing. You just look at that and you think well this is obviously, probably what’s happening in most of these other cases. Well I don’t have the solution because the guy hasn’t been caught, or nobody’s written about it and made the connection. Because nobody’s thought to ask these 10-year-old boys what they were calling this character.
There’s an element that says this is probably happening a lot, and not just in the case of Spring-heeled Jack, but again UFO’s, lake monsters, all the great Fortean phenomena are probably to a quite significant extent…This is one of the great moments in my career actually, the discovery of this, because it’s so applicable. Once you realize this is how it happens to the vast majority of what we study really.
Karen: And I think with Jack the Ripper there were a number of cases of people who made false admissions. Was there anyone who did that with Spring-Heeled Jack? To say that they were Spring-Heeled Jack?
Mike: Well, there were in the 1837/38 scare, there were four or five people who were caught, pretending to be Spring-heeled Jack. I mentioned one of them earlier on, being beaten up by vigilantes. I don’t think that they were claiming to be Spring-Heeled Jack in the sense of actually wanting people to believe they’re some sort of supernatural demons. But they were imitating him.
That would seem to be the more common thing. I mean again, one of the things that you have to bear in mind here, and it comes as a revelation I think, to me, because this isn’t the period of history that I normally specialize in, actually. You tend to look back on these people as, they’re like us only with gas light instead of electric light, but otherwise they’re basically like us.
That is simply not true. You have to understand how different it was then, particularly in terms of say, the entertainment factor. Now here, today, we spend all our time complaining, certainly if you’ve got a daughter like me. “Why are you on Facebook? Why are you always on that computer? Go and read a book.” People are sort of saturated with entertainment, essentially.
That was not the case in Victorian England, and as you read these old newspapers, you realize bloody hell, I mean, a lot of people’s idea of fun in the long dark winters in Victorian England was to go out and pretend to be a ghost and scare a few of their neighbors.
That was high entertainment for a certain class of Victorian working class England. Not just Spring-Heeled Jack stories but fake ghost stories are a staple of the press in this time. There are dozens of people going out, putting themselves in a sheet, maybe not for a bit after the [inaudible] ghost was shot. But when that gets caught then they will start doing it again.
They get dressed up in a sheet and they go and jump out going boo-hoo from behind a wall.
A lot of these stories get conflated into Spring-Heeled Jack stories when Spring-Heeled Jack is the big bogey figure. There’s a case in Peckham, which is a part of South London, in 1872, where if you look, at and this again is a very, very interesting discovery.
Haining mentioned the Peckham case, so I went looking for it. In the News of the World, which is one of the worst star of the British tabloids. I mean you’ve probably heard of it even in the states because there was a huge scandal.
It’s been shut down literally in the last couple of years for getting involved in all sorts of naughties. But it existed in the 1800s, as well. It referred to this case in Peckham and called the ghost there Spring-Heeled Jack.
When I went to the local newspapers from Peckham in that period, they were full of stories of ghosts but none of them mentioned Spring-Heeled Jack at all, but what they all made pretty clear was it was some local guy quite literally with a sheet over his head.
Now, again, if you read Peter Haining [inaudible] reasonably conscientious and go and look at the News of the World for 1872, you think this is a Spring-Heeled Jack story. It must be linked to 1837, 1838. They’re calling him Spring-Heeled Jack, therefore it must be linked. In fact, they’re not linked at all. It’s just a name. It’s a label and it’s only being applied by some lazy journalist in the News of the World office in London, and the locals see it completely differently.
They don’t see it as a Spring-Heeled-Jack-type case at all. It’s a bloke in a sheet who pretended to be a ghost, and they call it the Peckham Ghost, and there was no connection whatsoever to Spring-Heeled Jack.
Again, this is another element of how the newspapers and lazy labeling, particularly, work. The word Spring-Heeled Jack, the phrase, it’s applied throughout this period. If you read the secondary sources, you invariably get the information from them…Spring-Heeled Jack appeared in London in 1837 and in Aldershot in 1877 and in Everton in 1904.
By just saying “it’s Spring-Heeled Jack,” singular, it’s the same figure, and this is one of the scary things about it if you’re a 10-year-old boy. Somebody has identified this as the same figure.
When you go back and look at it, this isn’t the case at all. Spring-Heeled Jack is a word, a phrase, which is applied to any burglar who can’t be caught. Any agile criminal gets called a Spring-Heeled Jack. You go back to the newspapers of the time and they’re full of phrases like, “There are a lot of these Spring-Heeled Jacks about.”
Blake: So, when studying Spring-Heeled Jack, before attributing him to all these cases, be careful to not leap to conclusions.
Mike: I’ve got a word to say off that, appalling, and I…
Mike: … [inaudible].
Karen: Mike you mentioned that you’re working on a book about Spring Hill Jack. So, can you tell us about some of the projects that you’re working on right now.
Mike: Yeah, I’m rather guilty about this, because I’ve promised for quite a few years, it’s kind of my life’s work, and I don’t want it come out prematurely, and it’s one of those, sort of never ending projects where there’s always some other thing that you can potentially do, to link it together.
I really need to draw a line on this. Because, I think as I say, that with the digitalization, I can now at least be reasonably sure, undoubtedly, that missing a ton stuff is probably not vastly going to change my conclusions.
So, I’m going to make an attempt to try and get it out. What I’ve done here, I’ve basically brought in a bunch of friends and colleagues, who know a lot more about some these elements than I do. I’ve used them to help me investigate some of the elements I’ve have not previously been able to sort of comprehend.
So, I’ve got a friend of mine called John Adcock, who is a Canadian specialist in Penny Dreadfuls, and [inaudible] in the 19th century who understands the way in which the Victorian journalism, worked, far better than I do.
He’s written an essay which explains how Victorian journalists got their story. I’ve just summarized this for you earlier, and you were very excited by this discovery. It’s really John’s, and not mine. I’m actually taking full credit for it. I’ve worked with Dave Clark, who’s well known as a UFO writer, a sort of respectable one.
He’s works for the British National Archives and putting out their UFO files, for example. He’s written, lots of folklores. He has a PhD in Folklore. He wrote the Folklore background. I’ve written also, with a couple guys, Paul Chambers, and his colleague, Mike Davis.
They’ve done this genealogical research, which is actually also again, quite fascinating, because, he’s an experienced genealogist. Paul Chambers is. And he took all of the names I discovered in the 1837–38 newspapers and tracked them down in the birth, marriage and death records.
This was very interesting, indeed, because what he was able to do was to show that the ones who are typically associated with the more sensational stories didn’t exist. All these names come out…He saw Spring-Heeled Jack or his daughter was attacked by Spring-Heeled Jack, and these are the people who don’t exist. Hence, they must be inventions of local newspapermen.
So there are all sorts of elements in here. I’ve tried to make it a multifaceted book, which I couldn’t have done by myself and which I hope give the picture of the whole case in the round. I hope it’s going to be a fairly worthwhile book. Certainly, I think I can safely say it’s going to be well over 700 pages long. Before, there’s never been such an intensive study of one smallish Fortean phenomenon. We’re going to republish all of the original sources, fully footnoted, and it’s going to be kind of the bible, I hope.
I will continue to update it because with modern print-on-demand technology. I’m publishing this myself, and I can just go on producing new editions as I find new material and updating it. That’s the plan, essentially, as long as I last so that it will become a sort of resource.
Again, I’m hoping it will be a resource that won’t just be of interest to people who are interested in Spring-Heeled Jack but, also, might teach a few possible answers to people who are interested in other strange phenomena and haven’t looked into them in quite the same way as we have done.
Blake: That’s great.
Karen: Very exciting.
Blake: The historical context would be there and…
Mike: I’m doing that.
Blake: …Giving it a much more full picture than any of the literature so far. That’s fantastic, plus, you know, it does really…Or it should, I don’t know if it will, but it should tie into that whole Steampunk aesthetic that’s going around these days. This whole Spring-Heeled Jack character fits right into that, you know.
Mike: It does .The Springman of Prague is another example. There are a lot of Czech Steampunky interpretations of him, actually, and we’ve got a guy called Patriana Jack, who’s a Czech folklorist who’s written two very, very good papers on the Springman of Prague who’s a very little understood character.
So there’s lots of good stuff. It is worth waiting for, and I’m going to try and keep the price down as low as I can, as well. Everyone else has finished their stuff except for me. My material is about 70-or-80,000 words long, which is kind of a small book in itself, and I’m only about half way through writing it so I need a few more weeks.
Mike: [inaudible] free time which doesn’t really exist for me at the moment.
Blake: I’ve got the same problem. On MonsterTalk we try to finish our interviews by asking guests to name their favorite monster, so, Mike Dash, what’s your favorite monster?
Mike: I’m not allowed to name Spring-Heeled Jack?
Blake: Sure, why not? [laughs]
Mike: You know what I mean? I have devoted half my life to it.
The other one I guess would be Morag, the Monster of Loch Morar. One of the things that characterizes me as a historian and as a Fortean is that I shy away from the mainstream as far as I possibly can. As a historian, the thing that would bore me almost to tears would be the idea of spending three years of my life writing a biography of Henry VIII or Hitler because everyone does it.
My career has been blighted by this in the sense that although I know lots of very interesting stories, they’re not really bestseller type things because they’re so obscure.
Similarly, Morag who is the Monster of Loch Morar is a very interesting lake monster because it’s the one lake essentially where there is a monster tradition that goes back well before the tradition of the Loch Ness Monster which erupts in 1933 and perverts the whole course of lake monster studies because all monsters thereafter are interpreted in the sense of being versions of the Loch Ness Monster.
Morag, there are reports from Loch Morar which date back to the late 19th century. I’m not suggesting necessarily for a second that there is a genuine living and breathing monster there but there’s a tradition of monster reports from Loch Morar that is completely independent from Loch Ness which I’ve spent a long time studying because of that. Again, I’m hoping to eventually publish something on this.
I also recommend to anybody who is touring the Highlands of Scotland that Loch Morar is considerably more beautiful than Loch Ness. It’s a much more remote place. It’s only got a few people living on it. It’s got sort of wonderful, beautiful, softer hills and the water itself is very clear, unlike Loch Ness.
Some of the interesting things that come out of Loch Morar are reports of things seen on the bottom of the lake. Which you can’t do at Loch Ness where you can’t see your hand in front of your face at two-foot depth because there’s so much peat in the water there.
So, Loch Morar is a very interesting and beautiful place and well worth a visit and well worth studying, in my opinion.
Blake: It sounds like a great overview, more or …ness.
Karen: I think we’re going to have to have Mike back to talk about that, too.
Blake: That sounded great, yeah. So, thank you for coming here today and talking with us, Mike. This was a great episode. I’m super excited about putting this on.
Karen: Very fascinating. Thank you.
Mike: I enjoyed it.
Blake: Thanks for listening to another episode of MonsterTalk. Today you heard Karen Stollznow and Blake Smith interview Mike Dash about the Victorian figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack. Be sure and check the show notes for links that will give you even more info about Mike Dash and this fascinating topic.
MonsterTalk is produced with the assistance of Skeptic magazine, however, the opinions, ideas and terrible puns heard here do not necessarily reflect the opinions or sensibilities or sense of humor of Skeptic magazine or The Skeptics Society.
If you enjoy MonsterTalk, you might consider donating to our transcript project. There are links at monstertalk.org, and the transcripts help us make MonsterTalk easier to find and easier to reference on Wikipedia.
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Karen: Are you going to do the scary voice?…
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