Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Strange History of Spring-Heeled Jack

[1] 1886 — Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London No. 37, by the author of Turnpike Dick, the Star of the Road, London: Charles Fox, 48 numbers

by John Adcock

“The greater the crime, the larger the woodcut.” ‘Nothing Like Example,’ in All the Year Round, May 30, 1868
“If you pour over the works of Shakespeare, you can learn much about the workings of the great artistic mind; if you wish to be better informed about the “spirit of the age,” you turn to the minors, to the grub-street hack, to the garret boy who can yark up a pamphlet in a couple of hours and can get together with four others of his kind to knock out a quickie topical play about the latest scandal or murder.” — John Crow, in his Introduction to the second edition of The English Novel 1740-1850 by Andrew Block, 1961

TODAY, 176 years after Spring-Heeled Jack was first given an identity by an anonymous newspaper reporter, the only facts we have about the ‘Suburban Ghost’ are found in contemporary penny-a-liner reports, the reported Mansion-House letters, and second-hand speculation in various histories and reminiscences. In most cases researchers have taken newspaper accounts at face value, and assumed that Victorian newspapers, like the modern press, had stringent fact-checking apparatus in place to ensure the veracity of their reports.

POLICE REPORTS. In fact journalistic standards as we understand them today did not then exist. John Black, then editor of the Morning Chronicle for twenty three years, stated in 1843 that:

“…as to the police reports, we get them from a channel not the very best frequently. In some Courts we station reporters of our own; but in many other cases the reports are supplied by men who volunteer, the penny-a-liners, as we call them; men who send reports to all the different newspapers. Two or three different individuals will send a report, and we will take what we think best. Our only check over these individuals is to refuse to take the copy if they do not state the thing fairly.”

[2] 1677 — ‘The WONDER of Suffolk’ pamphlet

IN 1824 an auction “catalogue of the choice, curious, and extensive library of the late George Nassau” was published. Item no 1176 was a pamphlet which bore the extraordinary title The WONDER of Suffolk; Being a TRUE RELATION; Of one that Reports he Made a League with the DEVIL for Three years to do Mischief; And now breaks open houses, robs people daily, destroys Cattel before the owners faces, strips women naked, &c. and can neither be Shot nor Taken; but leaps over walls fifteen foot high, runs five or six miles in a quarter of an hour, and sometimes vanishes in the midst of multitudes that go to take him.

MANUSCRIPT. The manuscript was “Faithfully written in a Letter from a Sober person, dated not long since, to a friend in Ship yard near Temple Bar, and ready to be attested by hundreds that have been Spectators of, or Sufferers by his Exploits, in several parts of Suffolk. London: Printed for D.M. 1677.”

ANNOTATION. An annotation in the auction catalogue shows that the The WONDER of Suffolk pamphlet was sold to a man named Hazlewood for 17 shillings. This was probably a misspelling of Joseph Haslewood (1769-1833), an English writer, antiquary and one of the eighteen members who first met at dinner at the St. Albans Tavern on 17 June 1812, forming themselves into the Roxburghe Clubthe oldest society of bibliophiles in the worldA catalogue from 1743 notes a copy had belonged to the “library of the late Earl of Oxford.” Aubrey de Vere (1627-1703) was the 20th and last Earl of Oxford. This, or another copy, was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 1814 and resides there to this day.

[3] — Ballad-seller, copy after Inigo Jones

THE STORY is related by a man just returned to England from an ocean voyage and concerns “a person of a very loose life and Conversation” who, while serving time in Gaol made league with the devil to do what mischief he pleased for three years with impunity. Escaping from prison he begins a life of robbery, cattle-stealing, and stripping women he meets, leaving them tied naked to trees. 

His main ‘residence’ is the woods although he also spends nights in alehouses drinking beer which he lawfully pays for. It proves impossible to bring the miscreant to justice – he has a strange habit of vanishing – sometimes by leaping over brick walls 10 or 15 foot high. He seems impervious to bullets. He is aware that his destiny is the gallows but part of his pact with the devil calls for him to first kill a woman heavy with child.

The manuscript is signed:
June 10, 1677.

ANOTHER earlier wonder pamphlet “printed for D.M. in London” was titled God’s dreadful judgement upon an eminent person in the Upper Lorain who was wonderfully transformed into a dog; Attested in a letter to a friend, by one Richard Mare, who was an eye-witness thereof; and is a present a lodger in the house of Mr Lyncol a grocer in St. Alban-street. With permission, and signed and dated at end: the third of August, 1675, Richard Mare.

[4] — Roger L’Estrange portrayed

NO D.M. can be found in available 17th-century printer’s lists. However, D.M.’s most prolific contributor of pamphlets was the notorious Roger L’Estrange (1616-1704, sentenced to death for spying, acquitted and later knighted), who began as a royalist pamphleteer, spent time in Newgate, and switched allegiances. He became the publisher of one of the earliest of British newspapers, the Public Intelligencer, which first appeared Monday, August 31, 1663 and ran until January 19, 1665. L’Estrange’s D.M. pamphlets were mostly coverage of criminal trials and executions.

REAL OR IMAGINED ghosts were popular fare in the broad-sheets and pamphlets of the seventeenth century. There was The Tyburn Ghost of 1678, Father Whitebread’s Walking Ghost — “which lately appeared to a Cabal of Jesuits in Drury-lane” in 1679 —, the Cock Lane Ghost in 1762, and the Portsmouth Ghost of 1770. Devils and soul-wagers too, as in Strange and Terrible News from Shoreditch, of a Woman that has sold herself to the Devil, Living in Badger-Alley, 1674.

[5] 1926 — HAMMERSMITH GHOST, Newgate Calendar

CURRY-COMB. The Annual Register and the Newgate Calendar carried accounts of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1804, who dressed “sometimes in white and sometimes in the skin of some wild beast.” On December 7, 1809 The Times printed a story which echoed that of the Wonder of Suffolk:

MONSTER— The vicinity of Croydon, in Surrey, has been alarmed, for this past fortnight, by an inhuman wretch, who sallies out at night, in a black mask, a dark-coloured cloak, and military boots, with long spurs. He is a tall stout made man. His practice is to attack all women whom he meets. Having let the object pass, he turns round, and, seizing her by the shoulders, he shakes and pinches her in a violent manner. He concludes the brutal assault, by passing her clothes over her head, and tearing her person with a curry-comb; sometimes his spurs are applied to the same cruel and inhuman purpose. Should he perceive any person coming to the assistance of his victim, he makes off, and leaps over park palings, or walls of extraordinary height, with the greatest ease.

By his strength and agility he has hitherto evaded his pursuers. Upwards of 50 persons have been most seriously ill-treated by this monster; amongst which is Mrs Wildgoose, the wife of a respectable gentleman at Croydon; she now lies dangerously ill from the treatment she has received. Also the ostler at the Hare and Hounds, at Wadding, whom he mistook for a woman, owing to the darkness of the night, and whom he caught hold of, and, finding his mistake, threw the poor man into a deep ditch. The inhabitants are taking every means to discover the monster’s retreat; numerous parties were out last night in search of him. The terror is so great among the females of the vicinity of Croydon, that not a woman is to be seen out of doors after dusk.

[6] 1890 — Metal curry-comb used for grooming horses
In the ‘man with the curry-comb’ we find a close parallel with both ‘the Suffolk wonder’ and the later sprees of Spring-Heeled Jack. The curry-comb, used to groom horses, would be replaced by Jack’s claws, and he makes his escapes by “leaps over park palings, or walls of extraordinary height, with the greatest ease.” Among his fifty victims was one Mrs. Wildgoose. The complaint that “not a woman is to be seen out of doors after dusk” was to come up again in many SHJ newspaper reports.

THE PRETENDER GHOST had a long history in England. The Annual Register for March 4, 1761, had an account of a ‘pretender ghost’ who was “wrapped up in a large white sheet with the corners hanging over his head in imitation of feathers.”

[7] 1800 — Hammersmith Mall
The Hammersmith Ghost of 1804 was very similar to the later Spring-Heeled Jack, “its dress has been described as sometimes in white and sometimes as if in the skin of some beast.” The dark lanes and lonely country roads of England were haunted by black dogs and spectral coaches with headless coachmen. The Spring-Heeled Jack of 1837-38 was different, a city bogle that first haunted the suburbs and eventually went knocking on doors in the metropolis itself, flashing his red eyes and spitting flames in the faces of terrified home-owners.

GHOST OR MONSTER. The original Hammersmith Ghost story was resurrected and improved upon in 1824 when the ‘New Hammersmith Ghost,’ also known as the ‘Hammersmith Monster,’ was clawing people in the lanes. The Monster’s first appearance was under the headline “The New Hammersmith Ghost” in Pierce Egan’s Life in London newspaper, on December 12, 1824: 

THE NEW HAMMERSMITH GHOST:  This adventurer still continues to infest Hammersmith and its neighbourhood, particularly the lanes leading to the Malls, and to alarm some of its inhabitants. After having somewhat seriously alarmed the young woman living at the Angel public-house, in Hammersmith, as she was passing up Angel-lane, the “Ghost” kept quiet for several nights.
The outrageous character of that attack aroused the indignation of some inhabitants, who resolved to watch for the Ghost, and, if possible, to treat the ghostly representative with a ducking in the River Thames, as the “witches” of old were treated in the horse-pond, &c., in order to ascertain the divine character of their mission. After some nights’ respite, the Ghost revisited the “glimpses of the moon,” but adopted a new scene for his exploits, appearing in the lanes connecting Hammersmith with Chiswick.

One such evening, Wednesday night last, there were no fewer than twelve persons – a species of “Jury” or “Inquest” – on the watch for the Ghost! On Friday night the “Ghost” again appeared in Angel-lane! The frights to which the poor girl belonging to the Angel public-house had been subjected, has excited a very strong feeling in her favour; so much so, that if, in the course of the evening, she had any occasion to go up the lane, she was almost sure to be accompanied by some of the neighbours.
On the night in question, an honest, hard-working woman of the name of Chambers went with the young woman up the lane; and for the purpose of making some call, she had only left the young woman about two minutes when the “Ghost” appeared, several times crossing her path!
The figure was in completely white costume for some time, and then it suddenly changed into black. This induces the persons who are on the watch for the Ghost to infer that the ghostly dress is black on the one side and white on the other – a large mantle and hood, for instance, of such character – so that it can be almost instantaneously changed turned or changed, the black outside being such as not likely to attract particular attention.
The last fright to the servant engaged at the Angel public-house was more serious than the former; she was got home with difficulty, and was afterwards in almost continual fits for four hours. From divers circumstances connected with her situation, this young woman is deemed to be a particular object the Ghost’s attack.
 However, the brutal character of those attacks, the effects on the young woman, and the circumstance of her having narrowly escaped being run over by a waggon some weeks ago, have excited very active sympathy in her favour. It will be a clever “Ghost” if it escapes all the plans formed to “lay” it; but, be that as it may, it is melancholy to think that, for the sake of “practical jokes,” so much injury to females can be risked by one in the form of man. On the gates of a very harmless, but eccentric Gentleman’s house in Hammersmith, there has been written, “The Ghost lives here!”
It may have been only coincidence, but 1824 was the year the George Nassau edition of The WONDER of Suffolk resurfaced at auction and passed into the hands of Joseph Haslewood.

PIERCE EGAN was the well-known author of Life in London; or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis (1820), which introduced the characters of Tom and Jerry to the world. Egan was a master printer and self-described “scribbler,” held in high esteem by the boxing crowd for ‘Boxiana, or, Sketches of ancient and modern pugilism, from the days of the renowned Broughton and Slack to the heroes of the present milling era’ (by ‘One of the Fancy).

[8] 1839 — Hammersmith Mall
The second newspaper report on the New Hammersmith Ghost appeared in the Morning Chronicle on December 31, 1824, renamed:

Such has been this personage’s conduct of late, that he now has got the name of “Monster”, instead of that comparatively more harmless one of the “new” Hammersmith Ghost. Not content with frightening women in lampless lanes, a sufficiently cowardly and cruel proceeding, he now rarely quits the terrified objects who may happen to come in his way without scratching or seriously wounding them.
The indignation that has been hence produced amongst the inhabitants may be imagined, but it is hardly possible to conceive how much alarm is occasioned among the females of the neighbourhood. Several women have been so alarmed as to have be seriously ill with fits, &c., for many days afterwards; others have been scratched or torn in the face, as if with hooks; and all are no little alarmed to go out after dark, except along the main road, even with protectors.
Two or three nights ago, the monster made his appearance at Bradmore, which is at the back of Hammersmith, and leading to Shepherds’ Bush. It is open to the fields, many open paths leading to it; but as there are no lamps, any person may soon be lost in the surrounding darkness, and elude the most vigilant pursuit, by means of the different lanes and paths. 

He went to a small house kept by a gardener, named White, opening the front door by lifting the latch. The wife was there — the front parlour being a species of chandler’s shop — and she was not a little affrighted to behold in the door-way a strange and “ghostly” dressed figure, with a large ugly mask and glaring eye-balls. — Some flame was then emitted, after which the Ghost exclaimed “Good night, farewell!” and decamped with supernatural rapidity, according to the woman’s disordered observation.
The Ghost afterwards came into contact with a man, and extended the arms and caught the poor man’s cheek, as if with some hooked instrument fastened on the fingers, and then scampered off swiftly enough. 

Suspicion has been directed to a crazy sort of person, who ostentatiously amuses himself with chalking on the gates and doors about Hammersmith divers gloomy sentences, such as “Be ye ready!” “Prepare to die!” “Your end is near!” “Ye are all lost sinners” &c. only he is said to be an aged person, and the “Monster” has much activity. Many sums have been offered for the Monster’s apprehension, especially by persons on the Upper Mall, that being a favourite haunt, and several stout persons are regularly on the look-out.

FIRST REPORT. The first report (12 Dec 1824) in Egan’s newspaper described a ghost whose “figure was in completely white costume for some time, and then it suddenly changed into black.” The Morning Chronicle description is much more elaborate. The Hammersmith Monster now wears a mask, has glaring eyeballs, slashes faces with a hooked instrument, and emits flame from his mouth. Egan’s last report mentions a rumor that the Ghost had been seized in Kensington and “discovered to be a Nobleman’s son” who had wagered that he would “walk as a ghost” for a certain number of nights without being caught. The notion of a wager would surface again in the days of Spring-Heeled Jack.

[9] 1825 — THE NEW HAMMERSMITH GHOST, Pierce Egan’s Life in London, January 25

MONSTER CAUGHT. The Hammersmith Monster was reported to have been caught (Bell’s Weekly Messenger, Feb 20, 1825) and revealed as a farmer and hay salesman named John Benjamin. Paul Chambers research into the session rolls has failed to turn up any evidence that John Benjamin was ever tried which suggests this was probably a facetious penny-a-liner report. John Benjamin may have been invented by the imaginative author, a man old enough to recall the furore over the Hammersmith Ghost and the Man with the Curry Comb. In Pierce Egan’s role of a penny-a-liner he covered boxing and sports for other newspapers than his own, among them, Bell’s Weekly Messenger. Egan’s wife Catherine also contributed flimsy to Bell’s

On January 16, 1826, the London New Times reported:

REMARKABLE GHOST:  NEWPORT (ISLE OF WIGHT) JAN 14.—The person who has been exhibiting himself with a mask, &c., at Southampton and Lymington, has reached the Island, and is making his terrific appearance, almost nightly, on the Mall, near this town, which has caused great consternation, and been the means of frightening into fits several persons, who are, in consequence, lying dangerously ill. He has also been playing off his pranks at other little villages near. He has been shot at by two or three individuals, but is found to be invulnerable, being enveloped, it is said, in steel armour, and a pair of spring boots; the latter of which are so constructed to allow him, with a little exertion, to vault over a ten-foot wall.

HIS GHOSTSHIP. For a short period in 1833, seven years later, ‘his ghostship’ was back, attacking females in Hammersmith, Acton and Chiswick-lane (The Times, Dec 13, 1833) Judging by the shortage of newspaper coverage, this attempt at resurrecting the ghost was an abysmal failure:

RESUSCITATION OF THE HAMMERSMITH GHOST:  It is in the recollection of most of our readers that about eight years since much excitement was created by a report that a ghost had appeared to a number of persons in the neighbourhood of Hammersmith, Fulham, &c., several of whom, more particularly females, against whom he appeared to have a great animosity, had been much frightened and ill-treated by him. 

After continuing his freaks for some time, he became so troublesome that the parochial authorities adopted measures for his apprehension, and after watching for him for some nights he was taken in one of the lanes attired in full ghostly costume, and was sent by the magistrate to the House of Correction to undergo a little wholesome discipline for his pranks. 

Since that time nothing had been heard of his ghostship until about six weeks ago, when he reappeared in a lane at North End, and it is reported that he has been seen subsequently in Webb’s-lane, Hammersmith, and Acton, but the principal scene of his adventures is stated to be the mud huts in Chiswick-lane, and that the servant of a Mr. Scott was attacked by him there, his assaults, as before, being directed against females. 

On Saturday night last it was currently reported that he had been taken by the police at Acton, attired in a large white dress, with long nails or claws, by which he was enabled to scale walls and hedges for the purpose of making himself scarce when requisite; and that when brought to the station-house he proved to be a celebrated captain of the sporting notoriety. 

Several of the inhabitants attended the Hammersmith, &c., petty sessions on Monday, in the hope of obtaining an audience of the spiritual incognito, when it was found that the statement of his apprehension was premature. Another report states him to be dressed in armour, and that he has laid a wager that he will strip the clothes off a certain number of females in a given time, and that he has only one more to strip to win the bet. It is to be hoped that the police will put a stop to the pranks of his ghostship previous to his completing his task, that he may receive a proper reward for his exertions.

CELEBRATED. ‘Celebrated’ was the Victorian term used to refer to the ‘famous.’ The ‘celebrated captain’ of the newspaper report might have been a reference to Pierce Egan (1772-1849) who was the most famous sporting celebrity of the period. By 1826 Pierce Pierce Egan's Life in London and Sporting Guide was in trouble and in 1827 was incorporated with Bell’s Life in London. As noted Egan was an industrious penny-a-liner contributor to the newspapers. Perhaps a fellow liner was having a bit of fun at his expense.

In 1832 the three daily stamped newspapers with the highest circulation were The Times, the Morning Herald and the Morning Chronicle. The Times journalists, under editors Barnes and Murray, included Foreign correspondents, Parliamentary reporters, and Police reporters. Mr. Archbold covered the criminal courts at Bow Street; Mr. Smith at Queen’s Square; Mr. E. Haynes, “an officer on half pay,” oversaw the Union Hall, and Mr. T. Haynes, “an Irishman rising six feet, a scholar and a gentleman,” took the Mansion House. At a time when Moore, the poet, made £500 a year from the Times, and no expense was considered too much for the salaried reporters, the Times paid casual reporters three half-pence a line. By 1868 the Times had only twelve police reporters, frequently young barristers, on salary.

[10] 1903 — SPRING-HEELED JACK, from a pamphlet of 1838, reproduced in Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria’s Reign by John Ashton 
The National Standard, owned and partly written by W.M. Thackeray, had a facetiously written piece on 14 December 1833. After a Bell’s New Weekly Messenger report on December 29, 1833, no further newspaper columns appeared on the 1833 “resuscitation.” 

STEEL JACK OR SPRING-HEELED JACK. The ghost would return in 1837-38, first named Steel Jack, “disguised in a bear-skin, and wearing spring-shoes,” but soon evolving into Spring-Heeled Jack, the name we know him by today.

[ To be continued in our next — ]


Mike Dash (compiler of the indispensable 
Calendar of Sources, 1996), 
David Clarke, Paul Chambers, 
Theo Paijmans, Mike Davis, Petr Janacek  

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