Tracking Jack, Pt. 2 – Spring Heeled Jack in the Penny Dreadfuls


News Agents Publishing Company 1863/1869, 40 issues

When I first saw that ad for Spring-Heel’d Jack: the Terror of London, back in 1967 (curiously enough, 100 years after its last publication) I wanted a copy so bad I would have traded all my Marvel comics of the time for one. But penny dreadfuls weren’t so common in Oklahoma back in those days. That’s still true, actually, but now I can include the whole world. As I mentioned last week, there is only one “complete” copy of this entire serial, and even it is missing issue 14. It’s held in the British Museum. I never dreamed the day would come when I would get a complete .pdf of the entire thing. To say I was excited is like saying Moby Dick is about a whale.

Over the years, one of the most confusing elements regarding the spring-heeled one was that there were so many different illustrations of him, but none tied securely to any specific publication. John Adock, whose website, Yesterday’s Papers, is a must-read, and Justin Gilbert, plus the .pdf, solved a big part of that when I saw clearly that Jack had several different faces in the Newsagent Publishing Co. version. You can follow his visual evolution in the gallery of covers, all 39 of those available, that accompany this post. In the story, Jack is possessed of several masks for differing purposes: one is “hideous and repulsive,” one is a “demon,” and the last, a skull. The hideous and repulsive one is sometimes interchangeable with the demon,who is usually identified as the devil but sometimes isn’t. Consistency has never been a hallmark of pulp fiction, regardless of age.

I think it’s a given that anything you anticipate for 45 years is going to be a disappointment, and Spring Heel’d Jack, The Terror of London admirably supports my thesis. If you’ll just scan through the covers, you’ll note how his costume evolves from a proto-Snidely whiplash, to Mephistopheles, to a goofy, leering clown in a devil mask and a top-hat. It’s hard to put one’s mind in the place of a reader of 1863. Did they really find this terrifying? It sure looks like Punch & Judy to me.

The story, I’m afraid, isn’t any better. I read a lot of pulp fiction and a lot of 19th century pulp fiction, so I can make allowances for the fact that this is not a contemporary novel, and that it was written on the cheap. But given the reputation of the penny dreadfuls, aka, the penny bloods, I was expecting….more blood, more dread. Old King Brady regularly deals with cut-up bodies, sadistic torturers, and murderous criminals. Nick Carter’s arch enemy is Dr. Quartz whose sole pleasure in life is vivisection on young women. Live ones.

So I think I’m on fair ground in finding the action in this 300+ page soap opera a bit tepid. And soap opera is largely what it is.  There are two main storylines, both of which deal with lecherous libertines seeking to bed particular innocent young women through manipulation and deceit. A third follows the story of another young woman forced into poverty, struggling to stay out of prostitution by doing piece work for a stereotypical Jewish merchant. Many pages are devoted to playing out these conflicts in the most repetitious possible manner. I mean repetitious on the same page, and often in the same paragraph, rather than the expected repetition that is part of any serial. This is a rough paraphrase, but I believe a true representation of the numerous confrontations:

“I have you now.”

“You say!”

“I do! You must see that.”

“I do not see it!”

“Nevertheless, I have you. And you will do my bidding.”

“Your bidding!?”

“Yes. You cannot get out of it, you must admit.”

“Can’t I?”

“It is impossible. I have you and you will do my bidding.”


“Oh, yes, you will.”

“Perhaps you are right, then.”

“I am indeed.”

“Have mercy on me!”

“Mercy! Ha! Ha! Ha!”


At other times, the author’s struggle to drag the story out (and to earn his penny a line for the week) becomes so obvious that I would have expected readers to revolt, en masse. After all, Dickens wrote his novels the same way, in penny parts, so it’s not like there was no choice in reading matter.

(Let me remind you all that penny dreadfuls were spun out as long as they were selling; when sales dipped, plots would be wound up in a hurry. An author might well have an end in mind, but he had to dollop his plot out carefully and tread water so as to be able to keep it going or bring his story to a conclusion on short notice.)

The story opens with a reference to the 1837-1838 sightings:

It is now a little over a quarter of a century since the inhabitants of London were kept in a continual state of terror by a man who, under various disguises, and in different shapes and forms, would suddenly appear before the unsuspecting pedestrian and, after having nearly frightened the traveler out of his or her senses,, would as suddenly disappear, with terrific bounds, from his side, leaving for a time the impression upon hos affrighted victim that his Satanic Majesty had paid a visit to the earth and especially favored them with his presence.

Evening was generally the time chosen by this eccentric character for his strange conduct; and doubtless there were many living who can recollect–but not without a shudder–the pang of fear which shot through their hearts when, leaping from some dark corner, out of a doorway, or over thickset hedge, he stood before them.

What his true object could be none have able to conjecture. Certain it is that robbery was not the cause, for he was never known to take a single coin from his victims even when fright had rendered them almost insensible; nor did he ever practice any other degree of cruelty beyond affrighting them.

But this was bad enough–so bad that in some cases the victims of his eccentricities never thoroughly recovered the shock their nerves sustained; and indeed, in one or two instances, death was ultimately the result.

This sets up the unintentional (probably) dichotomy that weighs the story down. ‘Terror’ might well have had a different definition at the time; if not, then it is hard to reconcile the description with Jack’s “crimes,” even though he himself references his vague bad behavior.

Jack wanders in and out of these stories, always to aid of the young women n the nick of time, though he is fairly ineffectual. He stops one dastardly deed, first by scaring the perpetrator, and when that fades, by issuing threats of punishment at his hands. He believes these threats to be sufficient , but he is repeatedly wrong, completely underestimating the driving lust of the villains.Ultimately,  he is really only a means to thread these stories together. He has no real story arc, nothing at stake other  than being caught.

Jack also has various, smaller “side missions” that occupy his time, some of which are petty, others of which are just mean spirited. Our Jack is the hero of the tale, no doubt, but he has some Borderline Personality issues. He is introduced as more of a prankster than anything else. In fact, his first adventure is to trick two louts into a field, get the drop on them and then make them disrobe down to their presumably long tailed undershirts and sending them back onto the main road to suffer the embarrassment. When he accidentally kills a man while defending the honor of a young woman–Jack knocks him down and the fellow hits his head on the pavement– Jack is distraught and flees, seeking some good deed to redeem himself. Coincidence being what it is, he finds a young woman about to commit suicide. She actually does leap into the cold river, but Jack, mask, cloak and all, dives in after her, and after a battle with the current, gets her safely home.

As a character, the spring-heel’d one is a bit of a conundrum. As I said last week, he is definitely a proto-costumed hero. He is a wealthy man, addicted to adventure. He is, for the most part, highly moral, and seeks to help the afflicted, whether by gifts of cash or fisticuffs with a ruffian. He wears a mask –actuay, one of several: a demon, the Devil and a skeleton– and a cape, though why is a bit vague since so many people, including at least one of the villains,  are perfectly clear as to who he is, even though he still wears his mask in front of them.

The cloak is evidently changeable, white when confronting someone as Spring-Heel’d Jack, black when wandering around London in pursuit of adventure. And it must be of some special material, as he wears it leaping into the Thames; fully soaked, the cloak still doesn’t hamper his movements with its weight. He has some sort of vague, claw-like gloves and, onone occasion, appears with phosphorous for a glow effect. The claws and glow are part of the original description of the urban legend.

Oddly, he gets some of his best effects not simply from his mask(s) but by putting on his mask in front of other people; people react as if he has supernaturally changed in front of them.  Despite the obvious danger it entails, Jack doesn’t seem to particularly mind this, though he always shushes them before they can say his name aloud. That name is always, “the mar—.” At the very start of the story, reference is made to the incidents of 1837 and though not stated so explicitly, these are meant to be the adventures of that individual. One of the primary suspects of those original peccadilloes was the Marquess of Waterford, a well-known carouser and practical joker.

So we have our basic costumed hero set-up. One might even argue that the nastier sides of Jack’s character are the harbingers of the Marvel style, wherein our heroes have real life issues. When a coachman falls asleep while waiting for Jack, Jack is put off by the man’s lack of attention to his (the coachman’s) business. Jack leaps into the driver’s box and sets the horse galloping along the roads, driving crazily so as to make the real driver think he is in a runaway coach. To make things worse, and to avenge another slight, Jack has attached a rope from the coach to the shabby wooden stall of a coffee seller. The runaway coach pulls the stall away after it, making an enormous racket as the sticks bounce along behind the cab. When Jack thinks the driver has had enough, he pulls the coach into a pond and tricks the driver into stepping out, and falling face first into the water. The driver flails around for a bit until he realizes the water is shallow. When he gets up, he sees Jack sitting on the driver’s box, smoking a cigar. Jack promptly chastises him for putting his passengers in danger, and admonishment the coachman accepts, totally befuddled by what has just happened. He doesn’t even recognize what part of town he’s in. Jack chooses this time to bound away, but all is well, at least in his mind, because he left ample payment for his fare and any damage in the coachman’s pocket. He had also tossed a packet of coins to the coffee seller to help him move up in the world. Has Marvel done a benevolent sociopath yet?

Oddly, given the way the dreadfuls were reportedly written, the story seems to tighten up in the last third, as a fourth story arc is introduced. (I imagine that the writer had some idea of his plot in advance, and perhaps even wrote some of the last issues earlier on, knowing that the story would end someday.) A young impoverished wretch, Thomas, is struggling to get back to London to see his dying mother one last time.

But mother is not what she seems, and she is agony, hoping to unburden her conscience before she dies by revealing that Thomas is a changeling. As is Robert Clavering, the wealthy, debauched playboy who has sought to trick a young ballet dancer (who is nonetheless virginal) into a fake marriage, solely because he has a jones for her. Mom, in her younger days, was the nurse for the real Clavering heir…and the elder Clavering’s mistress. She switched her baby for the real thing, as much out of spite as for the good of her illegitimate child. Thus, Robert grew up in the luxury that was rightfully Richard’s (Thomas.)

If you’ve read much nineteenth century popular fiction, you’ll know that this is the quintessential Victorian plot. We’ll see more of it in the Spring Heeled Jacks Yet to Come.

The impact of this revelation leads inexorably to the conclusion, not so much in terms of writing but in terms of cliché.

The second story arc has spun around James Slater’s unfortunate forging of a check on his employer’s account. He kept this from his beloved and innocent wife, Jane, up to the moment that his boss, Grasper, discovered the forgery. Grasper tried to use this leverage to coerce Jane into a night or two of that fate-worse-than-death stuff. She swings wildly, wanting to keep her husband out of jail, yet bound by her virtue and morals. Grasper kept the pressure up, despite several stern admonishments from Jack, until James couldn’t take it any longer. He killed himself. By the graveside–at a crossroads, suicides not being allowed in holy ground– Jane went insane, and at first turnsed to Grasper as a friend,ultimately believing that Grasper WAS James. Grasper seized the moment, took her to a rotting apartment and left  her in the care of the alcoholic occupant there, to keep her safe until Grasper could return at midnight to have his way.

By coincidence, Jack, wandering around, seeking adventure, finds out about this. Need I tell you, he saves Jane.

Through come convoluted events, including the death of Robert Clavering, Richard Clavering and the widowed Jane Slater fall in love, and all is resolved in a happy and just manner. All because of the Terror of London.

However, Jack’s unspecified “crimes” have drawn desperate measures from the Crown, and he decides the wise choice is to leave for Spain on the first boat available.

At waterside, he sends a man out in a rowboat to the vessel in the bay, to see if the captain will grant him passage. While awaiting a reply,

“..Jack leisurely strolled up on to the rocks that rose in weird and picturesque masses on all  sides.

In the beuaty of the scene before him–for the moon had risen and was tinting the waves with silver–he did not observe the approach of three men, who were stealing cautiously over the rocks toward him;  nor was it till one of  them exclaimed in a loud tone, “On, lads! ’tis Spring-heeled Jack!” did he know of their presence.

Jack started round at the mention of hi name, and that one look assured him they were officers.

“Spring-heeled Jack, we arrest you in the name of the sovereign!” cried the man who had before spoken.

Jack cast an anxious look towards the sea and saw the boat returning quickly to the beach.

“In the name of the law we call on you to surrender! You have taken your last leap, Jack!” cried the man, springing towards him.

In England, for some time I have, my friend,” said Jack. “Good bye! Give my respects to all I leave behind.

And as the man was about to lay his hand on his shoulder, Jack sprang out over the rock into the glistening sea.

Whether Jack died or not is open to question, as the last few paragraphs indicate that Richard Clavering and his soon-to-be bride, Jane Slater look to a time when they might welcome back the man who had done so much for them. But this ending of Jack’s career has a poignancy satisfying but all out of proportion to the rest of the book.

We never do find out Jacks true identity. Just paragraphs before the quoted passage, there is one last repetition of someone who starts to exclaim, “The Mar—” but Jacks knocks him out.

It’s not a story I would read again, but, in the end, I can’t say I’m sorry I read it. There is an appeal in the character that transcends the clumsy writing, and moments of charm and humor from the high melodrama of the action, dialogue and motivations of the characters. When you take into account that this character and his urban legend background were still quite well-known at the time, it’s easy to see the appeal.




  1. Lee

    Interesting stuff, young Larry. You’ll find that writing style (drawn out and tending to over verbosity) persisted in kid’s weeklies up ’til the 1970′s – as I well recall. Go look up George Orwell’s wonderful article about children’s weeklies (if you haven’t already seen it, you omnivore, you) and you can see exactly how the penny dreadfuls’ style lived on for many decades more in a slightly different version of the medium.

    For that matter, just take a look at any Billy Bunter story.

    As a side note, as a young man I grew up and worked in the areas that another Jack had as his hunting grounds. Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Brick Lane. Had I been a little older, or had he lived longer, I could have asked my great grandfather about Jack and I’d’ve had a first hand account of the time from him.

  2. tully monster

    How odd–Spring-heeled Jack seems to be popping up all over (no pun intended).

    I recently downloaded an audiobook that turned out to be in the steampunk genre, titled “The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack,”in which Sir Richard Burton figures as the protagonist and oh, there’s some time travel going on too. I wasn’t really in the mood for it at the time, but I’ll have to revisit it one of these days.

    And last week my husband and I discovered and devoured “Primeval” (made by the company that did the “Walking with Dinosaurs” series). Space-time anomalies and dinosaurs all over London–the acting and the character development wasn’t exactly top-drawer (at least it wasn’t Tiffany), but what an absolute hoot! And in the fifth season, as luck would have it, Spring-heeled Jack terrorizing London in the 1870s turned out to be…wait for it…a velociraptor.

  3. Tony

    Excellent stuff – I’m very much looking forward to the next installments!

    I bought an original of one of the 1904 series in an antique bookstore in London many years ago – the story’s really quite awful, but it’s nice to have an “artifact”.

  4. lovecraf

    But the 1904 series is till better than the earlier ones. the next two are quite a but better than the one just covered, but they all have their charms.

  5. Dumb post

    Speaking of Mr. Punch, readers may find this to be of interest

    OFFICER:” You must go with me. You killed your wife and child.”
    PUNCH: “They were my own, I suppose; and I had a right to do what I liked with them.”

    They still censor the more outrageous bits, today.