Spring Heeled Jack – The Terror of the Black Country
Out of the dark, supernatural depths of Victorian England one name stands out. Jack.
Not Jack the Ripper, but a more supernatural fiend – Spring Heeled Jack!
It could be argued that he was more notorious than Jack the Ripper, for there were sightings of him outside London. Rumours about Spring Heeled Jack swept through the Capital and surrounding villages in the autumn and winter of 1837/8. The figure of Jack was characterised by his ability to leap over high walls, his glowing red eyes, fire breathing and his horns and dark cape. In many respects he is a precursor to the literary Count Dracula, published by Bram Stoker 60 years later in 1897.
Reports of Spring Heeled Jack soon spread beyond London. In 1845 in Yarmouth a delirious man wandering about in his nightshirt was mistaken for the fiend and was beaten up. In Peckham in 1872 there was alarm over a ghost leaping over walls and vanishing into thin air with startling speed.
Rumours soon circulated of copy-cat Jacks. In Sheffield in May 1873 rumours sprang up that a tall man in a white sheet was scaring women for a bet. In 1877 at Aldershot barracks, two glowing spectral figures were reported jumping around making a terrible noise by terrified sentries. The last documented reports of Spring Heeled Jack were in Liverpool in 1904 and Bradford in 1926.
The Black Country did not escape the scare. In 1855 in Old Hill, customers at The Cross Inn swore that they saw a frightening figure with cloven hoofs and horns leap from roof to roof straight across the road to the roof of the butchers shop opposite. Police who investigated the sighting confirmed the presence of cloven hoof prints on nearby rooftops. Speculation soon grew that some two legged fiend was roaming the Black Country. Similar reports of hellish hoof prints were apparently frequently reported by quarrymen at Timmins Hill, Dudley and by the landlords of The Gate Hangs Well and The Boat on Slack Hillock. What makes this story so interesting is that in the same year, cloven hoof prints appeared in the snow around Devon, leading many to speculate that the Devil himself was stalking the countryside! There were surely those at the time who put the hoof prints down to the demon drink rather than a demon, as many of these reports were close to pubs. For example, reports were made at The Dragon (Blackheath), The Swan (Whiteheath), The Wheatsheaf (Lye Cross) and The Lion (Tividale). Rumour soon spread that death followed the hoof prints, and many a superstitious local must surely have lost much sleep worrying if they were going to be visited next.
Over 20 years later, in 1877, Spring Heeled Jack put in another equally dramatic appearance along the Himley Road near Wall Heath, not far from the Dudley Arms pub. Sentries were posted at several spots along the wooded lane, but they made a hurried retreat after Jack leapt out of the darkness to slap them hard across the face with an icy cold hand before bounding away with his mocking laughter echoing through the night. One Gornal farmer reportedly took a shot at him as he loomed out of the darkness like a monster bat, but the buckshot only appeared to ignite “a ball of flame from the thing’s mouth”. Next morning, a circle of scorched grass in the meadow testified to the farmer’s tale. But perhaps Jack lived to tell the tale, for in Dudley in 1882 he jumped out from behind a young courting couple, putting paid to their romantic inclinations!
In Netherton a terrified old lady was carried into the police station babbling about Spring Heeled Jack and how she had seen him jump “across the cut” near Jaw-bone bridge, with flames coming out of his mouth. An immediate investigation was carried out by the local police. As they approached the bridge at midnight they were startled to see a light flying through the air, going from one side of the canal to the other! The brave boys in blue made an arrest, but not of Spring Heeled Jack! The culprit turned out to be a young Joseph Darby wearing a miner’s helmet with lamp attached, as he practiced jumping over the canal! This strange, nocturnal exercise, lead Joseph to become the World Spring Jumping Champion, defeating the American holder of the title, W.G. Hamlington, in 1887.
Imitators of Spring Heeled Jack’s antics soon became a national craze. These didn’t come any better than the hoax perpetrated by ‘Robin Goodfellow’ in Birmingham in 1886. In a letter to the local press he announced that he was an acrobat, and he intended to imitate Jack by leaping from the roof of the Market Hall to the spire of St. Martin’s church in the Bull Ring. On the promised night thousands of people gathered to watch the daring jump, and when Robin/Jack failed to appear, they weren’t best pleased!
Warwickshire did not escape the reports of the hellish fiend either. Reports seem to have begun in the region in October 1883, and sometime in 1887 a youth was apprehended as he lay in wait behind churchyard hedges. He was wearing a mask and a white sheet with springs on his feet!
The solution to Spring Heeled Jack is certainly more prosaic than supernatural. Spring Heeled Jack fits into a long line of urban scare stories, which have seen their most notable manifestations in the London Monster (1788-90); The Mad Gasser of Matoon (1930s); The Halifax Slasher (1938) and more recently the Birmingham Vampire (2005).
David Taylor is founder and chairman of Parasearch (founded 1986). He has been researching local history, folklore and reports of ghosts for over 20 years. He is author of ‘Beer & Spirits: A Guide to haunted pubs in the Black Country & surrounding area’ (Amberley Publishing, 2010) as well as various peer-reviewed articles on parapsychology and folklore.