Posted by: Craig Woolheater on October 21st, 2013
As mentioned in Ken Gerhard’s Top 10 Flying Humanoids list just yesterday, Spring-Heeled Jack was not an exclusive British spectre, but was also seen in America.
In the night the world reveals its second nature and weird things stir and start to wander. Strange shapes hide in architectural and unlit dead zones. As has been done for centuries, darkness reawakens terrible presences in those places. Whether a hedge, fence or row of abandoned buildings, whether a narrow winding path in a distant past or the alienating cityscape of today, it is the territory of the scare. Such a fright is Spring-heeled Jack. He was born out of similar surroundings almost two centuries ago, and this article chronicles its presence in America.
Spring-heeled Jack, the fire belching phantom known for its ability to execute impossibly high leaps, is a singular figure in the annals of the anomalous. Premier Spring-Heeled Jack researcher Mike Dash traces the complex origins of the phantom in a series of partially overlapping ghosts scares with names such as The Hammersmith Ghost, The Hammersmith Monster and The Park Ghost, that infested London and its environs in 1803. Beginning of 1804, an English newspaper picked up on these unusual occurrences and published accounts of encounters with a ghostly apparition said to have ‘eyes… like a Glow Worm’ and breathing ‘fire and smoke’. In 1825 the London suburb of Hammersmith was again plagued by a fire belching spectre.
Spring-heeled Jack’s progeny appeared in various shapes. They were seen around London as a harnassed phantom, as a black bear, as shrouded ghosts with fiery eyes with or without horns and occasionally belching flames. From this brief sketch it is clear that at this date a specific image of Spring-heeled Jack still had to galvanise in the newspapers and in the minds of the inhabitants of London and its environs. This would come in February 1838 with the often repeated account in The Times. It published the now famous name ‘Spring-heeled Jack’ to a wide audience, together with a graphic description by Jane Alsop who was attacked by the phantom. She described how Spring-heeled Jack
“…appeared enveloped in a long cloak … he threw off his outer garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire. From the hasty glance which her fright enabled her to get of his person, she observed that he wore a large helmet, and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed to her to resemble white oil skin…”
In the years to come, similar scares erupted in different places in England well into the 20th century such as in Bradford, 1926, Warrington, 1927 and Attercliffe, 1973. But it is not a thing of the past: according to an English newspaper just last year a family was travelling home by taxi when they saw a mysterious ‘dark figure with no features’ dart across the road in front of them before leaping 15ft over a roadside bank.
The earliest suggestion that Spring-heeled Jack had crossed the Atlantic and had taken root in America was published in 1961. The theory was presented in a speculative article on Spring-heeled Jack by one J. Vyner that was published in Flying Saucer Review and in FATE, the monthly magazine on various Fortean and supernatural phenomena. Lacking sources or references, it did offer a small collection of cases, out of which three concerned alleged Spring-heeled Jack sightings in America. The article became an influential source for subsequent authors on the topic of Spring-heeled Jack in America, who incorporated Vyner’s cases in their writings.
The effect was that this otherwise highly interesting idea could not be further developed, since the examples listed by Vyner have nothing to do with the Spring-heeled Jack phenomenon and cannot be taken as examples of a similar presence in America. Vyner not only added the unrelated Mad Gasser of Mattoon scare to the lore of Spring-heeled Jack, the other cases presented were an entirely different form of anomaly as well. They are not concerned with agile, jumping and fire belching creatures, but instead offer sightings of flying men, engaged in none of the activities that Spring-heeled Jack was famous for and were formative towards his unique signature. Later writers simply repeated this error. The consequence was that for decades there was no progression in charting any presence of Spring-heeled Jack in America. This fascinating topic had stranded in a cul de sac and knew of no further exploration. Stagnation set in and its true history remained unknown.
Fascinated by the possibility that a similar phenomenon was active in the United States, I set out anew to try and find cases that more fully answered the descriptions of Spring-heeled Jack, in the various digitized newspaper archives available online. With a selection of my findings I propose a new preliminary list, consisting of alleged events, sightings, and encounters with entities in America that feature one or more attributes of the Spring-heeled Jack typology. The list below, a longer version of which was published in 2007, is by no means all encompassing nor conclusive. Since then I have collected many more cases on file. I have written at length about some of these such as the Black Flash of Provincetown (Anomalist 13, 2007) and The Newhallville Terror (Darklore IV, 2009). Another entity falling in this category is the Phantom of O’Donnell Heights. This mysterious entity terrorized the southeast Baltimore neighborhood during a two-week period in the summer of 1951. It is not on my list since it has been treated elsewhere online and in print.
My sample list of nine new cases between 1885 and 1927 demonstrates what we can expect though, looking for Spring-heeled Jack in America. I also expect that, as more and more newspapers digitize their old issues, eventually other forgotten cases will emerge.
As to the truthfulness of the accounts listed below, who can tell? Nineteenth century American newspapers had a distinct way of presenting outright yarns, tall tales and hoaxes, as it was not considered unethical or beneath the standards of journalism. In some cases one almost feels a subtle sense of humor that would, of course, have been very much appreciated by a 19th century reader of these accounts; that very subtlety which to us, now, is lost. So we are left to ponder: did those residents in Alma really see a beautiful lady in lingerie or an elephant with fire sprouting from its trunk? What matters more is not so much the veracity of these claims and statements, but rather the way these ghosts, spirits, and hauntings were given certain attributes, such as leaping to great heights, emitting fire, and otherwise engaging in acts not unlike those of Spring-heeled Jack. As any researcher involved in this kind of research realizes, the distinct typology of ghosts, entities, spirits, specters and apparitions and their folkloristic overlaps with UFO occupants, cryptozoological marvels, and biological impossibilities is difficult to sort out. There is a general tendency to just lump various anomalies together. Precision is the keyword while I find more and more forgotten flaps, reports and events in old, long since defunct newspapers that excited, amazed, and frightened whole neighborhoods, towns and generations.
Read the original article by Theo Paijmans here for his list of nine new cases between 1885 and 1927.