13 February 2011


Mike Dash’s talk on Spring Heel Jack to the Barnes and Mortlake History Society on 5th February last, raised yet again a topic which is of importance to all students of anomalies: the role of the media in shaping our perception of such phenomena. Of course now we are used to the Internet, television and daily tabloid media and the way they spread and manipulate rumour, but we are perhaps less informed about the historical role of the media in reporting anomalies in the past. 🔻

Barnes Common, in south-west London and very close to the site where Mike gave his talk, was one of the first locations where Spring Heel Jack was reported, in September 1837, but this was a very different apparition from the leaping, glowing-eyed, fire breathing demon that we know today. The Barnes creature was described as being in the shape of a large white bull which had attacked a number of women. Later visitations in South and South West London came in the form of figures in metal armour, bears and, approaching the later form, “a devil with iron claws”.

Mike has spent an enormous amount of time scouring newspapers for these early accounts, and has documented the way the descriptions begin to coalesce into a ‘standard’ SHJ figure. The earliest account of this is probably in the attack on Jane Alsop at Old Ford, then a small village east of London, in February 1838.

Eventually the reports began to die off, but the legend of Spring Heel Jack continued. He became a figure in the ‘penny-dreadful’ comic-books of the era, first as a villain, but soon morphing into an early Superhero. Many of the early reports seem to have been copied from local paper to paper, with perhaps only locations and names changed. This can be put down to the activities of the ‘penny-a-line’ men, hack journalists who sent reports off to as many papers as possible with little regard to their authenticity. The bread-and-butter work of many of these characters was writing reports of Parliamentary debates, and Mike has noted that SHJ stories blossomed whenever Parliament was in recess!

Eventually it became hard to distinguish fact from fiction, with the monstrous phantom appearing throughout the rest of the nineteenth century in places as far apart as Lincoln, Aldershot and Liverpool.

He also appears to have migrated to North America, where in Newfoundland he appeared as Spring Heel Jackson), Australia and New Zealand, perhaps under the influence of exported British penny-dreadfuls. In the USA Mike has found a number of similar reports of leaping horrors, but they were not collected under one category. He has also discovered proto-SHJs as far back as the seventeenth century, and more recent appearances in post-Revolutionary Petrograd, post-WWII Prague, and lawless Somalia in the 1980s.

It doesn’t take too much of a leap to see in the growth of this story a parallel to the development of the UFO and abduction narratives. Early reports are varied and often seem unrelated to each other, but as a name is given to the phenomenon, the story develops and spreads, aided by pot-boiler paperbacks, tabloid sensationalism and nowadays the Internet, a standard narrative emerges. Eventually historical UFOs and proto-abductions turn up in the archives.

Later this year Mike will be publishing a book bringing together his own research and that of a number of colleagues, which will collate their findings and present much of the original documentation. This is going to be essential reading for all Forteans and Magonians, and we will bring you further news about it as and when we hear more.
Well, my little poll on Rendlesham finished very neatly, with fifty respondents and the result split 50/50. I suppose the 25 who thought that Rendlesham was an important case still worth investigation might themselves be split between those who thought it was worth study to provide evidence for the ETH and those sceptics who felt the case needed further study because the ‘lighthouse’ (and other) explanation was inadequate.

But as you might guess, I’m with the “can’t be bothered” camp. The latest circus-like shenanigans with a few old ex-military types spinning ever more ludicrous yarns (we now seem to have time-travellers involved) to try and keep themselves in the fading spotlight seem to be no more than an admission that the case is now not only beyond any need for further investigation, but is almost beyond parody.
Those of you who are keeping up to speed with the American scene will know that the whole abduction industry is just about on the point of collapse. Carol Rainey, former wife and collaborator of Budd Hopkins has launched a devastating, well-argued attack on his and David Jacobs’ research techniques, based on her own personal experiences working alongside Hopkins. You can read it here as plain text on the UFO UpDates site: LINK. It is also available in a PDF format from Paratopia magazine here: LINK

Naturally, when this went out the American UFO ‘community’ (with one or two honourable exceptions) closed ranks around Hopkins and Jacobs and did everything other than deal with the issues raised in Rainey’s document.

Jerry ‘I love Budd Hopkins’ Clark immediately countered with the insinuation, apparently based on his own marital experience, that Rainey, after her divorce from Hopkins, was taking the role of a woman spurned and her claims should be taken with a pinch of salt. Rainey’s suggestion that Clark’s own opinion on Hopkins might be coloured by his ‘best buddy’ relationship was angrily dismissed!

Most of the current debate on these revelations, as revealed on UFO UpDates, seems to be floundering on technicalities about the status of David Jacob’s research in regard to his Temple University post, and ignores the substantive charges made by Rainey. Other responses are mostly along the lines of “I met Budd Hopkins once, and I thought he was a really nice guy”. I suppose I could counter that I met Budd Hopkins once and thought he was a bit of a pompous ass, but neither response really gets us anywhere, does it?

Of course this will come as nothing new to those of you who have read the comments, by Carol Rainey and others, following Peter Rogerson’s review of Hopkins’ biography, Art, Life and UFOs, which you can read here: http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2009/09/budd-hopkins-artists-life.html


  1. Anonymous15.2.11

    Sadly, neither "nice guy" nor "pompous ass" nor "best buddy" or "bastard ex husband" = "good research."

  2. Anonymous5.8.12

    At the time Spring Heeled Jack was seen in Newfoundland, it was not part of Canada. Old-time Newfoundlanders (sadly very few remain) are insulted when their country is called part of Canada.

    1. I've made a slight adjustment to the text to take casre of this. JR