Karl Bell. The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures. Boydell Press, 2012.
The figure of Spring Heeled Jack has always had a special significance to Magonia. It was a letter to Flying Saucer Review, challenging a suggestion that Jack was an ‘alien’ that first introduced us to our late college Roger Sandell. My own interest is sharpened by the knowledge that my present home is about a mile away from the site of Jack’s first appearance, and his last appearance that is generally recognised as such was about a mile away from the house where I grew up in Liverpool.
Karl Bell’s book explores the development of the characterisation of Spring Heeled Jack between these two points, and how the character was shaped in large degree by the popular culture and media of the Victorian era, with which he was an almost exact contemporary.
Remarkably the first appearance of the figure that was to later become ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ was nothing like the later image of a demonic figure leaping through darkened streets spreading terror. In September 1837 London papers reported a phantom “in the shape of a large white bull” attacking travellers on Barnes Common, at that time beyond the outer reaches of London, in Surrey. In 1838 more reports came in from neighbouring areas in what are now the boroughs of Richmond, Hammersmith and Hounslow. Jack’s appearance also began to change, gradually morphing towards the demonic character that gave rise to his soubriquet.
In Hammersmith, Hounslow and Hampton Court he appeared as a bear and a figure in bronze armour, and began to acquire his sharp clawed hands and spring-loaded shoes. As his visitations moved around south London and closer to the centre, he soon became the subject of a growing media panic, with claims that he was one of a gang of lowly ruffians, or alternatively a gang of aristocratic ruffians trying to scare some innocent homeowner to death in a rather extreme version of the type of antics later attributed to the Bullingdon Club.
The figure of a fire-breathing demon, capable of huge leaps was established by February 1838, when the daughter of a family in the village of Bow, to the east of London, was terrorised at her garden gate by a creature which “presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth”. A similar creature also attacked young women in Limehouse and Lambeth. SHJ was now a full scale panic.
Bell asks why did Jack appear at this time, in the form he did? Were there any specific cultural or social developments that gave birth to the legend? The 1820s and 1830s were a period of enormous social and political ferment, with the Swing Riots just a few years before, and before that the Luddites. Both of these popular movement were represented by semi-mythical figures, Captain Swing and General Ludd who shared Jack’s characteristic of an ephemeral, liminal figure who would upset and subvert contemporary settled society.
This was also a period when ‘The Mob’ which had existed as a collective entity in London and many other town as cities in the eighteenth century was being replaced by more formal and structured means of mass political and social action. People were aware that England was moving into a modern age and there was a determined effort to consign the rougher, uncontrolled aspects of public life – particularly working-class public life – to the past. This was the era when the riotous fairs and May day celebrations, many blood-sports, ‘rough music’ and similar events were controlled or banned outright. Was Spring Heeled Jack then an outlaw link to a recent past that was becoming increasingly marginalised in Victorian society?
This era also saw the rise of a new popular media culture, particularly in London, where broadsheets, chapbooks and penny ballads helped spread sensationalist narratives, and public hangings were still a popular entertainment, but at the same time a ‘respectable’ counter-movement was already starting to grow.
By studying both the news reports, and the vast amount of speculation that surrounded him Bell shows how Spring Heeled Jack could be commandeered by both of these tendencies; either as an anarchic, anti-authoritarian mode as a wild figure from the past, uncontrolled by the new police forces, urbanisation, and the growing urban middle classes, or alternatively as a monstrous creature attacking and destroying the elements that held society together.
As the century progressed Jack continued to hold this ambivalent position. Unlike figures such as Captain Swing and General Ludd, his violence was not aimed at any particular portion of society. The idea that he may have been a supernatural figure – many of the early accounts describe his appearances as ‘a ghost’ – declined an increasingly common explanation for his appearance became the ‘debauched aristocrat’, which was simultaneously disapproved of by the working class, with ideas of the “callous aristocrat preying on vulnerable women”, and by the new middle classes as a threat to their hard-won respectability.
Encounters with Spring Heeled Jack continued to be reported, with greater or lesser seriousness in newspapers and court reports through the century and across the country. Bell records these and examines them in detail, linking them to changes in society and culture in the same period. He shows that unlike the earliest appearances, in later years there was less emphasis on a supernatural explanation and Jack's appearances were interpreted as hoaxes, pranks or sheer criminality. The individuals behind the 'phantoms' were increasingly likely to be seized and end up with the appearance of the culprit in court. By modern standards many of the sentences received by these characters seem remarkably lenient, often just discharged with a warning for activities which would now be seen as serious assault or vandalism. One suspects though, that the informal, ‘community’ punishment from neighbours of the victims may have been more severe.
By the 1870s and 80s Jack had started to enter a pantheon of Victorian terrors, fictional, real, and semi-mythical. He was now a popular figures in plays and popular ‘penny dreadfuls’ as well as more substantial literature, and was as likely to be depicted as a hero as a villain, and Bell is able to compare his depiction to that of Jack the Ripper, Mr Hyde, Sweeny Todd and other metropolitan monsters, real or imagined.
Jack’s active lifetime corresponds almost exactly to the reign of Queen Victoria. By the end of the nineteenth century he is already being referred to in reports in the past tense, as a craze that has already virtually died out. He was the subject of reminiscence rather than contemporary account: “Middle aged fogeys will recollect this ‘bogie’ from their childhood” one writer opined in 1896. Eventually, it seems, he was eclipsed by newer and more dreadful ‘bogies’: Jack the Ripper, Dracula, the Fenian Bombers, but continued living on at the fringes of popular memory, and even into the twentieth century springing up in unexpected places.
This is a substantial work, covering wide range of topics and sources, and requires careful reading, but is well worth the effort. It is a model of the way in which accounts of such phenomena should be studied, and one can only dream of such a study on other ‘fortean’ topics. A brilliant account of a fascinating subject. -- John Rimmer