19 December 2015


Jacob Middleton.  Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Impersonation, Spring-Heeled Jack and Victorian Society. The Author, 2014,

The popular idea of ghosts today is of apparitional figures that appear in specific locations and which are either filmy and insubstantial, or alternatively are indistinguishable from ordinary mortals until they do something odd like disappear or walk through a wall. ­čö╗

But, as Jacob Middleton points out they were once much vaguer, things, shape shifting 'summats' which manifest in various forms and could just roam the countryside at will. From the beginning of the 19th century these rural boggarts began to appear in towns. Some were products of the imagination, dreams and waking visions, but many were actual people who went around disguised as ghosts. One of the earliest of these recorded was at Hammersmith, then a rural hamlet in 1803. This ended in tragedy when a workman on his way home, covered in white plaster dust, was shot by a self-appointed ghost hunter, who was later found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, only to be given a royal pardon.

From the 1830s onward the most famous of these all too solid ghosts was Spring-Heeled Jack, who first reached prominence by an attack on a young woman called Jane Alsop at Bow, then still a fairly rural location on 21 February 1838. Dressed in weird garb and spouting flame from his mouth, Jack grabbed at the woman’s dress and nearly tore it off, before being fought off. Similar stories began to circulate from a widening area. While common sense suggests that these were most likely the work of local youths, popular opinion preferred to ascribe them to the work of wild young aristocrats such as the Marquis of Waterford. The depredations of these young men, had been the subject of a moral panic for some, the press referring to them as 'mohocks', after the Native American tribe.

Spring Heeled Jack and his ilk can be seen as trickster figures; and these were far from benign. Many of the activities of these so-called ghosts consisted in forms of sexual abuse ranging from exposure to serious sexual assaults, behaviour ascribed to tricksters in many cultures. Such behaviour was also present in many of the 'guiser' figures of English folklore before these things were tidied up by the mid Victorians. Donning fantastical disguises liberated their wearers from the restraints of society and its conventions. Becoming a ghost was a way of returning to wild nature, the same might be said of “ghosts” wandering about in the nude.

The areas that these figures, real and imaginary, prowled were often the places undergoing urbanisation, where habitat was encroaching into wilderness, or in the liminal zone between the two. The old boggarts had often been associated with liminal places such as bridges, cross-roads, ruined houses, field boundaries etc.

Middleton tracks the role of these figures through the Victorian era, the return of SHJ to Aldershot in the 1870s (ascribed to an officer much given to pranks), though to the veritable wave of SHJ reports across Wales and the North of England in 1887 (on which John Rimmer and myself have accumulated a fair amount of information) to the point where SHJ is conflated with Jack the Ripper, the name invented by the press for the Whitechapel murderer or murderers of (at least) 1888.

Middleton suggests that by the end of the 19th century SHJ had faded from popular imagination and was not to be reported again, and that 'superstition' had been tamed by the Board Schools. This is not the case however, SHJ was still around well into the 1930s. We have documented his appearance in Warrington in 1927. In the previous September, under the name of the 'Freak of Grafton Street' he had appeared in the Manchester Road area of Bradford. (see Earth, August 1988, p.11 and December 1988, p.12). These figures are, like the original, envisaged as liminal creatures between the natural and supernatural, behaving like pranksters, but imagined to have supernatural powers, such as being able to make prodigious leaps. The last contemporaneous use of the name seems to have been in letters signed Spring Heeled Jack by someone claiming to be the person responsible for poisoning dogs in Stockport. A similar scare took place in the US in 1942.

The wider class of aimless wandering ghosts and the flash mobs they attracted continued into the 1960s at least, and in the much attenuated form of phantom jay walkers still prowl the roads.

This is an excellent book, which I can highly recommend, and which I hope will lead to further studies of 19th and 20th century ghost lore. -- Peter Rogerson

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