In February 1838 a young Londoner named Jane Alsop was lured from her East End home by a man claiming to be a policeman and crying, “For God’s sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane.” Jane rushed out with a candle and, as she gave it to the man, he attacked her savagely. Her shrieks raised the alarm, and with a great leap he disappeared into the night. Jane later described the man to a magistrate, saying that he was wearing a kind of helmet and a tight white oilskin garment. He had long talons and eyes like balls of fire, and he spewed out blue and white flames.

Jane Alsop’s experience was the first close encounter with Spring-heeled Jack, although there had been sightings of him a year earlier on Barnes Common in London. He was usually described as being more than 2 meters tall, wearing a black cloak and having springs in his boots to bound over hedges. In west Norfolk he was said to wear bullock’s horns, with a red shaggy hide and a stiff curving tail – an outfit that was once discovered hidden in an old loft alongside a pair of jackboots with springs on their heels.

At first Spring-heeled Jack was widely believed to be the Marquis of Waterford, a notorious prankster. In Warwickshire in the 1870s or 1880s his attacks were found to be the work of a coal-merchant’s son, “a youth not overburdened with common sense.” The hoaxes of imitators, mostly played on women, sometimes had lasting consequences – one victim in Berkshire went insane. In 1845 in Yarmouth, Norfolk, a man named Purdy was attacked when another mistook him for Spring-heeled Jack. Popularized by Victorian penny dreadful novels. Spring-heeled Jack caused alarm throughout southern England and the Midlands for more than 60 years. Several murders were blamed on him, including one at Hertford in 1855, which turned out to be the crime of a local man. After an afternoon of terror in Liverpool in 1907, the real or imagined leaping devil was seen no more.

 

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