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HISTORY

The mischievous figure that terrorized London before Jack the Ripper

Before Jack the Ripper, a strange figure with devilish features and the ability to jump really high terrorized Victorian England. His name was Spring-heeled Jack.

In August 1888, the body of a woman was found in the Whitechapel area in London. Locals and police officers jumped to assume the crime was committed by an odd figure that had been terrorizing the city and its surroundings for the last five decades. That man, or spirit as some assumed, was known as Spring-Heeled Jack. 

Days later, the theory grew bigger as an anonymous letter reached the police. The letter accepted full responsibility for the murder, and more importantly, it was signed by Spring-heeled Jack. In truth, this was just the first of many crimes attributed to the infamous Jack the Ripper, who, by the way, got his name from the false anonymous letters attributed to Spring-heeled Jack. But who was this figure, and why did Victorian Londoners rush assume it had been him? To answer that, we must go 49 years back.

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Spring-heeled Jack's first sightings

In 1837, a man reported he had spotted a figure jumping through the headstones of a cemetery. He described him as a muscular man with bony hands, big ears, a pointy nose, and bumpy devilish eyes. No one really took the report seriously as, at the time, London had become the setting of endless ghost stories. However, by October of that year, two different reports with similar characteristics alerted London's police.

The first victim was Mary Stevens, a young woman who, while coming back from visiting her parents, was attacked by a strange figure who jumped from a dark alley, grabbed her, and started kissing and ripping her clothes. Mary's screams scared the assaulter who just left her there and ran. The very next day, near Mary's house, bystanders reported a strange incident. An eerie figure jumped right over a moving chariot, causing a massive crash. According to witnesses, right after the crash, the figure just started laughing and jumped over a three-meter wall to escape. Due to his ability to jump that high, the newspapers baptized him as Spring-heeled Jack.

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In January 1838, London's major, Sir John Cowan, revealed at a public conference that he had received an anonymous complaint by a resident. The resident claimed he had overheard at a bar that some guys were betting another man to terrorize the neighborhood using some disguises. By the time the major revealed the complaint, there had been several cases of assault and attacks that resulted in seven women fainting and two of them having to be put into a mental asylum. Moreover, the letter said the press had deliberately kept the story a secret. 

Two days later, the major showed dozens of letters with reports that had one thing in common, a devilish figure who either assaulted bystanders or jumped into moving chariots. The major assured the residents, he was going to do anything to find out who this prankster was, and put him behind bars. Thus, a massive police mobilization started, and even rich sums of money were offered as rewards.

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Most famous incidents: Alsop and Scales

Two cases paralyzed the city and raised panic among Londoners. Two teenage girls were assaulted within the same month. The first one was Jane Alsop. On the night of February 19, 1938, Jane opened the door after hearing an insisting knocking. A man claiming to be a police officer asked for light; he said they had captured Spring-heeled Jack. When she opened the door, the man jumped towards her and attacked her. According to Alsop, he produced a strange blue flame from his mouth so bright that it automatically blinded her. He grabbed her and tore her dress. Her family heard the screams and ran immediately to close the door, but the figure kept knocking and scratching it. 

Nine days after Alsop's attack, Lucy Scales and her sister were returning home from visiting their brother. Right on one corner, a strange figure jumped from a considerable distance and attacked Lucy, also blinding her with a bright blue flame. Lucy's sister started to scream alerting some police officers who were nearby, and like in previous cases, the figure ran off jumping really high. Both girls declared that the man who had attacked them was wearing a strange helmet and bright white leathery clothes. Jane Alsop's assault was highly covered on the media; Lucy's wasn't. The main reason, as it happens with these cases, is that Lucy Scales and her sister were working-class girls while the Alsop family had some renown.

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First suspect

The Alsop case caused massive hysteria in the area, making the police walk the extra mile to try to catch this criminal. The first suspect was Thomas Millbank, a man who had been heard confessing to being Spring-heeled Jack in a pub. When Millbank was arrested he was wearing a strange attire similar to the one the girls had described, and he was carrying a used candle which made the police officers think it had been used to produce the strange flame. Millbank was set free and cleared of all charges because he simply assured the police he wasn't able to produce fire.

In the following years, dozens of cases such as Alsop's and Scales's would be reported to the police, as well as incidents involving this strange man jumping towards moving chariots. But, no matter how much the police would do and how many leads they had, no one was able to catch this mischievous prankster. For years, Millbank remained the only suspect they had.

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Supernatural or master of the deceit?

The fact that years passed and no one had been able to identify who this character was, only increased the craze and fear of the people of London and its surroundings. Newspapers were filled with stories about alleged attacks by Spring-heeled Jack as well as suppositions of who he was. Moreover, they started claiming that he had to be a spirit or demon to be able to escape justice.

All this attention also created a legend of Spring-heeled Jack, whose physical features and abilities were often exaggerated. He became one of the most popular characters of the time, inspiring endless stories published in the press, pulps, novels, and tons of art trying to put a face to him. While many assure he was able to jump really high, it's also true that the news added a few meters to make it even scarier and more impressive. 

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Now, the theory of him being a specter or some supernatural creature was only believed by the people and the media. The police were certain Spring-heeled Jack was a mere prankster with a lot of money capable to build systems to create illusions. This was proven in 1855 when spring marks were found on the ground after an attack. Scientists working for the police theorized about his techniques and concluded that Spring-heeled Jack's characteristic blue flame was produced through a wire and a mixture of sulfur to activate the blue spark.

Who was Spring-heeled Jack?

Spring-heeled Jack was never caught nor identified. As years went by, reports of attacks of the same nature started to appear all over the United Kingdom and even the United States. Several suspects were arrested, including an aristocrat who was known as The Mad Marquess, but the police were never able to fully prove they were responsible for the attacks, and more importantly, as soon as someone was caught, new attacks would be reported. Most likely, Spring-heeled Jack was a group of people or he inspired many copycats throughout over half a century. We'll never know.

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Moreover, no one really understood what was his purpose other than pranking and generating terror in the country, but Spring-heeled Jack became an urban legend and part of the Victorian folk. That until he vanished suddenly with the appearance of a greater terror: Jack the Ripper.

Photos from PICRYL

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