Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Spring-Heeled Jack - Terror of London

"It was at 1 Bearbinder Lane, on the 21 February around 8:45 in the evening, at the home of one of the areas most well to do families, that the most infamous Spring Heeled Jack encounter occurred.

Jane Alsop, the 18 year old daughter of the then invalid John Alsop and his wife, was at home with her two sisters, when she heard an urgent ringing of the bell at the gate. On investigating it, a black cloaked figure in the path exclaimed, "I'm a policeman. For Gods sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane". Jane went to fetch a light for the man. She returned with a candle and as she was handing the light to the man, it shone on his face and she 'realised that it was Spring Heeled Jack'. The man is then said to have grabbed the candle and cast off his cloak, revealing him to be wearing a white oilskin-like coverall and large helmet which fitted him very tightly. His face was 'most hideous and frightful' according to Jane, and his eyes glowed a fiery red. Without warning he spat balls of a blue and white fire into her face, stunning her, before grabbing her neck and proceeding to assault her with his metallic claws. She attempted to run back into the house but he held her firmly in head lock and began tearing into her flesh and clothes with his claws...

Later in the 1840s came the first Penny Dreadful to feature Jack, also entitled 'Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London' which appeared in weekly episodes and was written anonymously; it too made Jack a villain, and drew as much from the play as it did reality. A Penny Dreadful from 1843,'The Old Tar and the Vampire' had featured a mysterious fiend called 'Jack' who leapt around the streets of the east end of London, and set at least one person alight with his pyromaniacal skills, but he was not overtly identified with Spring Heel Jack.

In 1863 another play, 'Spring-Heel'd Jack: or, The Felon's Wrongs', was written by Frederick Hazleton. Between 1864 and 1867 'Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London' was reissued in a rewritten version. 1878 saw the third Penny Dreadful which appeared in 48 weekly instalments, probably written by George A. Sala or Alfred Burrage under the pseudonym of Charlton Lea. It kept the same title, but totally transformed the story. Jack is no villain in these stories; he uses his powers to right wrongs, and save the innocent from the wicked. Here he is in fact a nobleman by birth, cheated of his inheritance, and his amazing leaps are due to compressed springs in the heels of his boots. He is dressed in a skin-tight glossy red outfit, with bat's wings, a lion's mane, horns, talons, massive cloven hoofs, and a sulphurous breath; he makes spectacular leaps, easily jumping over rooftops or rivers, and is immensely strong.

One interesting aspect of the later fictional stories is how they arguably manifest the first notion of the 'superhero'.The basic image survives in the prototypes of the spooky 'masked crimefighters' of a later age, such as the Shadow, and even more so in their more famous culmination. As an heir of a wealthy family, who initially seeks revenge for some wrong done, disguising himself in a tight jumpsuit with a bat like cape and a pointy eared cowl, and using sophisticated gadjets he has invented to give him superhuman abilities, Jack is not too dissimilar to another well known character of almost exactly a century later, who appears to have been particular influenced by him."

- Steve J Ash