‘The very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’; Spring Heeled Jack in Kentish Town

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At some point in the late 1830s a new monster appeared in the public consciousness. A humanoid figure with glowing eyes, that breathed fire and leap over walls attacked and frightened women across the capital. The fearsome creature – dubbed ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ – disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving the police baffled and the public in terror.

In February 1838 Lucy Scales and her sister were terrified by ‘Jack’ as they walked home in Limehouse. The cloaked monster shot ‘a quantity of blue flame’ into a face, temporarily blinding her and bringing on what sound like epileptic fits for several hours.

In Kentish Town in March 1838 PC Markham (S24) was walking his beat one Saturday evening when he screams and shouts ahead of him. Suddenly he saw ‘women and children running in all directions, screaming out “Here’s Spring-heel’d Jack’.

The constable drew his ‘staff’ (his truncheon) gathered his wits and courage and set off to confront the demon. Several women who had run to the policeman for safety pointed at a man in the street as the ‘terror of London’ in person.

‘Perceiving that a sort of blue froth was at his mouth, and his features were not altogether natural, [PC Markham] went up to him, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to a butcher’s shop, by the light of which he discovered that he wore a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper’.

The brave constable grabbed his man by the collar and frog-marched him off to the nearest police station. The next morning the monster, who went by the name of Daniel Granville, was set in the dock at Marylebone Police Court. He cut a strange and sorry figure: ‘a simple-looking fellow, with a most bewitching obliquity of vision’ as the paper described him. Granville apologised for frightening the public and said it was never his intention. The magistrate dismissed him with a warning, presumably as a sad rather than bad individual who was trading on the publicity that the real ‘devil’ had generated.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack multiplied across the 1830s and into the 1840s, and the phenomenon spread beyond the capital. Jack was spotted in Brighton later in 1838 and by the 1840s had traveled to East Anglia and Northampton Jack became a feature of contemporary popular culture – headlining in several penny dreadfuls and a number of plays and melodramas. ‘Jack’ eventually passed into myth (if he even existed at all) and by the 1950s was appearing in popular comics as a sort of dark vigilante, a caped anti-hero rather similar to Gotham’s Batman.

No one has ever been formally identified at the culprit and the reality may be that there were several ‘Jacks’. For me it is an example of how a growing urban populace retained some of the folk beliefs and ‘monsters’ from their rural past and merged them with the threats posed by the modern city environment. ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ was embodiment then of the fears of the City at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign just as ‘Jack the Ripper’ was to become symbolic of urban degradation towards its end.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 20, 1838]

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