If you’ll do a search for “Spring -Heeled Jack” you’ll get, as of this writing, 461,000 hits. The vast majority will be about a series of incidents in late 1837-early 1838 wherein a grotesque character “terrorized” parts of London for a brief period. Descriptions vary: he could breathe blue flames, he wore a white body suit and a cloak, or not; he had glowing red eyes…or not. He had claws,talons, both or neither. He looked like devil, or a bear, or a gentleman in an opera cape. Sometimes, when caught in the act of accosting some young woman, he would walk away but mostly he would escape by jumping to great heights or long distances; the notion of spring-heeled boots seems to be a newspaper invention. Sightings continued up until 1904 or so.
Who or what this ‘creature’ was has been flogged to death by everyone from scholars to skeptics to the tinfoil hat crowd, and I don’t have anything else to add to it. If you want to believe he was an extraterrestrial, a vengeful spirit, or the Marquess of Waterford, be my guest. But in general, he was a bad guy. Not Jack the Ripper bad, but a nuisance of the first order.
Inevitably, there will be an aside that goes something like this: “Spring Heeled Jack became a popular staple of the penny dreadfuls in the 1840s.” Usually this will be accompanied by one of two color illustrations from what we will see is the 1904 version of the story. But it’s always clear that no one has actually sat down and read the stories.
I first came across the character way back in 1967, when collecting comic books was still for the fat, friendless or fearless. One of the few books to tackle the subject with any degree of scholarly intent was the Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldridge. It favored the English comics, but traced comics origins back to cave paintings and hieroglyphics. And they had to mention penny dreadfuls. The ad here is the one they
chose for their illustration. It was the first I had ever heard of Spring Heel’d Jack. I loved that illustration (still do.) It is, for me, the perfect embodiment of Victorian melodrama. But in those pre-internet days, any more information than the blurb that accompanied the photo was out of reach. As was any chance that I would ever find that magazine for myself. But I just knew it had to be a fabulously lurid tale. After all, that’s what penny dreadfuls were all about. (And by the way, though it’s dated, the Penguin Book of Comics is still a fun read.)
So decades flew by. Jack becomes more popular, but always for the Fortean side of his persona. Based on what I read, I had to assume the Spring Heel’d Jack dreadful was of the 1840s. Apparently no one had ever read the story (or stories) as there was never a synopsis. As time went by, I discovered numerous other visual interpretation of ol’ Jack, at least one of which, the one I refer to as the Monster version, that was tied to a penny dreadful, and then later, a color illustration, which is the Batman version. But those covers were often tied to the reports of the 1840s penny bloods, and I knew that couldn’t be.
The more information I found, the less sense it made. Obviously, people were just cutting and pasting from each other, and not being very careful about it. I’d find other people trying to construct literary chronologies of Jack, ones that included the various stage plays, but inevitably they contradicted one another. And there was still that 1840s version, about which no details other than the general time span ever emerged.
Finally, I came to my Popeye moment: “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.”
Now there are two ways to research a topic. The first is to bury yourself in primary documents and follow the threads like Mr. Holmes. This is called primary research. As I had no time open to pop by the British Library for the next few years, I had to opt for the second method, which is to track down someone who really knows their onions and repeat what they found out while doing their primary research. This is called plagiarism when it is not acknowledged, or mooching, if it is. I was very fortunate to find not one, but two incredibly knowledgeable onion-lovers, Justin Gilbert and John Adcock. Between them, all confusion and contradictions were vanquished, and Spring-Heeled Jack stepped out into the clear sunlight for me at last. Illustrations were sorted out, misinformation was hung by its scrawny neck and left to rot at a seldom traveled crossroads, and I now share all this with you as if I had done something other than write a few pointed emails to the right people.
To begin with, there was no 1840s appearance of Spring Heeled Jack in the penny dreadfuls. There was a stage play or two, but the only paper publications were three broadsheets released about the time of the original sightings, likely January/February 1838. These would be newspaper size pages, possibly folded up into quarto or octavo size (that’s four and eight
pages respectively for those of you whose Latin is a bit rusty.) There may or may not have been illustrations of some sort. These weren’t fiction, but highly sensationalized reports of the real deal. (If I’m honest, I’m not exactly sure what the difference is.) No one seems to know for sure. John Adcock says all three of these titles in the British Library were destroyed during the blitz, but their catalog still lists the first one in their online collection. Emails to the library for some confirmation or denial haven’t as yet been answered.
At any rate, the titles of these three publications were:
-Authentic particulars of the awful appearance of the London Monster, alias Spring–heeled Jack, together with his extraordinary life, wonderful adventures and secret amours. Also an account of his horrible appearance to Miss N— and his singular letter to the Lord Mayor of London
-The surprising exploits of Spring-Heel Jack in the vicinity of London, etc.,
-The Apprehension and Examination of Spring-Heel’d Jack, who has appeared as a Ghost, Demon, Bear, Baboon, etc.
It wasn’t until 1863 that the Newsagent Publishing company issued the first Spring Heel’d Jack penny dreadful, in 40 weekly parts, entitled, Spring Heel’d Jack:the Terror of London. A Romance of the Nineteenth Century. Although uncredited, the author was Albert Coates. The serial was reprinted in 1867, implying it was reasonably popular, and it is cited in more than one complaint against the corrupting influence of the penny parts upon children. For all that, this is the rarest of the SHJ serials, and many collectors with gigantic penny blood collections have never seen a single issue. The only known “complete” copy is in the British Library, and even it is missing chapter 14.
In 1878, Charles Fox, one of the larger publishers of storypapers and bloods, ran a serial entitled, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London as a serial in the weekly storypaper, The Boy’s Standard, first series, vol. 5, April 1878. The serial was reprinted in The Boy’s Standard, new series, from July to August, 1885. Apparently it was also reprinted in The Boy’s Monster Weekly in 1899.
American publishers apparently tried only once to translate Jack’s success to these shores, in issue 332 of Beadle’s New York Dime Library, in 1885. Joe Rainone sent the accompanying cover scan, but says the story, Spring Heel Jack; or, the Masked Mystery of the Tower, by Colonel Thomas Monstery, has little to do with the English version.
Meanwhile, the reprinted serial in The Boy’s Standard must have been successful enough for Charles Fox to commission yet another version of the SHJ legend, for he issued a true penny dreadful, the 48 part Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of London, in 1886. This was a completely new story by Alfred Sherrington Burrage. Apparently a new title was not part of his contract. The 48 parts were reissued in 1889, and then collected together in a hardbound book.
Jack’s saga, as far as penny dreadfuls goes, comes to an end in the 1904 Aldine series, Spring-Heeled Jack, also known as the Spring-Heeled Jack Library. It was yet another new story, but also by Alfred Burrage, under the pen name Charlton Lea. The color covers were a treat, but the series only ran 12 issues.
When I say the end, of course, I am referring to the penny dreadfuls and dime novels. Jack remains popular today, appearing in any number of steampunk novels and horror stories. At least one comic book was devoted to a character of that name, but though the costume resembled the 1904 Aldine version, Jack was a Tibetan demon (!) These days, he is usually cast as a villain, and apparently that is how he was originally seen during the flurry of original sightings. But we’ll see as we make our way through the actual stories, that notion fell by the wayside. In fact, Jack is the first costumed adventurer. That’s not a new claim, others have made it, but to date the supporting evidence has largely consisted of those color Aldine covers. We’ll delve into the four major Spring-Heeled Jack stories and get the real goods.
Next Week: Tracking Jack, pt.2