“The figure leaps with one bound onto a wall…” – A Secret Kept (1894) and the urban mythology of Spring-heeled Jack

‘Spring-heeled Jack – Terror of London’ by Emma Howitt – (C) Emma Howitt

01-08-2020 – Craig Thomson

“The figure leaps with one bound onto a wall, and when the policeman is trying to follow the figure leaps down upon him, and seizes him by the throat.”

“He trembles continually, and is also continually talking of a flash of green fire that came from the eyes of the person who leapt upon him.”

-Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock, A Secret Kept (1894)

For any scholar of the Victorian period, the monstrous figure of Spring-heeled Jack stands as a hugely fascinating, yet utterly baffling phenomenon of the period. First appearing in 1838 within a report in the The Times newspaper, his identity and appearance has varied, ranging from a stereotypical caped, ‘gentlemanly’ appearance, often with claws, spring-loaded shoes/boots and burning eyes, while others have described the figure as more demonic with early sightings even claiming to have been dressed like a bear! Spring-heeled Jack has thus become what Karl Bell describes as an ‘elusive’ figure, one that *ahem ‘leaps’ across several mediums and areas of study [1]. Firstly, there is the largely empirical figure of Jack: a set of criminals or pranksters dressed in various guises that would be the basis of news reports across various different regions [2]. Then, there is the figure of “urban myth”, the one brought to life by those same eyewitness reports that heightened and re-enchanted the figure’s presence through word-of-mouth. Finally, there is also that of the literary figure of Spring-heeled Jack – the one popularized by the various pulp serials that followed the reports towards the end of the nineteenth century.

One of the key fears that Jack would begin to illustrate is that of anxieties related to the emerging modern city or urban environment. As more people migrated to the city, they began to develop folklore and superstitions that were suited to these new environment. Jack became indicative of this rising urban folklore, one that appeared to mirror the mass movement of people into urban centers. The urban environments of the late nineteenth century would further bring with them various other anxieties, not least increased poverty, poor living conditions, pollution and even crime, most notably the infamous Whitechapel murders in 1888.

It is within this setting, that Spring-heeled Jack would begin to thrive. Yet, what is also interesting, is how this legendary figure was able to influence the Gothic fiction of the period. The new urban environments had allowed for a variety of new monsters to infiltrate the pages of sensationalist and Gothic literature, be they new, secular horrors like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde or even insidious folkloric invaders like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. Yet, Spring-heeled Jack was somewhat different. An creation of ‘urban folklore’ that would eventually make his way into print having been sensationalized by the press, Jack would soon join other figures such as the infamous ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ Sweeney Todd within the pages of various serialisations dubbed ‘Penny Dreadfuls.’ Over the nineteenth century, Spring-heeled Jack would appear in a number of publications including Colin Henry Hazlewood’s Spring-heel’d Jack, The Terror of London (1867) and various similarly titled serials throughout the latter end of the century.

A Spring-Heeled Jack illustration for the 1867 serialisation Spring-heel’d Jack: Terror of London

One piece of literature that recently appeared to me as being linked to the urban mythology of Spring-Heeled Jack’s folklore is that of Count Stenbock’s ‘A Secret Kept’, which was only first published in 2002, having been written by the enigmatic writer back in 1894. While I could go on in detail about the eccentric Count himself (to do so probably requires a whole PhD in itself, but I can provide a link to his wiki page for anyone interested here), the story itself stands as something of a Gothic romance that merges elements on Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with the Spring-heeled Jack myth.

Within it, an aristocratic young man named Lord Vandrake (great name) breaks off his engagement with his fiance due to fears over what he describes as his own personal madness. On breaking off the engagement, the narrative is then interrupted by a series of news articles, which describe several attacks by an unknown supposedly supernatural assailant across London, similar to the reports of Jack himself throughout the nineteenth century. The attacks not only questionably mirror the nocturnal activities of the era’s most infamous crimes, but they also appear to specifically reference Spring-heeled Jack. When the creature attacks a policeman in one of the reports, he is said to be able to ‘leap with one bound onto a wall’, and is also said to have eyes of ‘green fire’ – descriptions that so closely mirror reports of Spring-heeled Jack that they almost cannot be mere coincidence.

The story ends with the figure being captured and being revealed to have been Lord Vandrake all along, again arguably reflecting the kind of split-personality storyline as seen in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While the tale ends with an ode to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is these earlier threads to the urban mythology of Spring-heeled Jack that make the tale distinct, with Steinbock appearing to romanticise the figure long before Francis Ford Coppola would attempt to do the same with Count Dracula. While it must be said that A Secret Kept does not in any way endorse or link itself officially to the ‘urban folklore’ associated with Spring-heeled Jack, the story nevertheless presents an intriguing addition to the mythology of the figure through its obvious reference to both the reporting and the description of the figure.

To close then, it must be said that the figure of Spring-heeled Jack appeared as a hugely popular figure within print media, one who continues to intrigue and entertain critics and audiences even today. Within the 20th and 21st Century, the figure has continued to appear and be referenced in a variety of related media, including books (The Strange Affair of Spring-heeled Jack by Mark Hodder), Video Games (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) and even TV shows (Luther, Jekyll & Hyde). Critics have also looked at the figure’s influence over other popular media, perhaps the most famous one being the figures link to the DC Comics superhero Batman [4]. Nevertheless, while he continues to linger in the popular consciousness today, it is not to say that there is still a lot to learn about Spring-heeled Jack within the period of his apparent conception. With new works constantly being brought to light and new information being gathered, we still have a lot to learn about the Terror of London and his effect on the zeitgeist of the time.

Just to finish up – I’d like to say a massive thank you to Emma Howitt, who is responsible for creating the incredible Spring-heeled Jack image at the top of this page! For more information on Emma’s brilliant artwork, feel free to get in touch and I’ll be able to pass you on.

Interested in learning more about Spring-heeled Jack? Are there any examples of the character being referenced in 19th Century Literature? Sound off in the comments and please feel free to get in touch with any queries!

[1] For those looking for a hugely in depth reading of Spring-Heeled Jack and his relationship with Urban folklore and popular culture in the Victorian era, look no further than Karl Bell’s brilliant 2012 book The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack – a must read authority on the subject!

[2] Spring-heeled Jack stories were not exclusive to London and could also be found in cities and towns such as Liverpool, Yarmouth, Bradford and Southampton.

[3] The very first Spring-heeled Jack sightings were in Barnes, which at the time was a small village on the edges of the increasingly metropolitan London.

[4] while the link has been established by many commentators, writer Alex Grand makes a really easy to read comparison on comicbookhistorians.com: here.

Published by cthomsonphd

Craig Thomson is a PhD candidate from Birkbeck, University of London whose research interests include: Horror/Gothic literature, Monster Theory and Folklore Studies. His current research focuses on the re-emergence of the cultural figure of the Werewolf within the popular Gothic literature of the late 19th and early 20th century.

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