Review: Spring-Heeled Jack or The Terror of London

Spring-Heeled Jack

The Terror of London

First published in The Boy’s Standard, London, in the 1840’s.

From such odd acorns are mighty oaks to grow!

I have once or twice heard tell of the penny dreadful story of Spring-Heeled Jack, which was the first example, perhaps the inspiration, for such pulp heroes as The Shadow and The Spider, who are, in turn, the inspiration for The Batman and similar nocturnal vigilantes. So I resolved to seek it out to read it.

Spring-Heeled Jack is himself not a fictional character, any more than Jack the Ripper, but one who, like him, was incorporated into fictional stories later, including science fiction stories.

If the fictional Spring-Heeled Jack has landed fewer guest star spots in science fiction or steampunk, it is because the original news stories were also less famous: although, at the time, they caused considerable commotion and stir among the London suburbs.

Newspaper reports of Spring-Heeled Jack ran from 1838 to 1904, from one end of the reign of Queen Victoria to the other, where he seems to be a ghost, or a devil, or a bear. What to make of those reports is beyond the scope of this column, which is concerned only with a story review.

Whether the real Spring-Heeled Jack, if he were real, was a prankster or a lunatic or an extraterrestrial, the reader must turn to wiser sources to seek out that answer.

The text I read was the 1878 appearance of Jack in a Penny Dreadful, the third such, allegedly written by George A. Sala or Alfred Burrage under a pseudonym.

It has little or no relation to the two or three prior tales or stageplays already told of Jack. Jack is here a vigilante, not a villain; he uses his abilities to save the innocent. His amazing leaps are due to compressed springs in the heels of his boots.

Oddly, the story begins with a long, slow introduction, quoting at length some of the previous sightings of Jack, including the nonfictional newspaper reports describing his attacks on woman.

Different witness describe him differently. In one account, he is described in the text as being of tall, thin, and gentlemanly appearance. He wears an all enveloping black cloak, but the illustrator scalloped the edges to give it a distinctly batlike silhouette.

The Shadow and the Batman adopt a similar style.

The garb underneath is tight-fitting, either as white oilskin or as bright red, like a theatrical Mephistopheles. One description has him wearing a large helmet, while others describe him sporting a small black cap pinned with a crimson feather, and a domino mask. Again, other accounts say he wears chainmail or armor. Again, at other times he wears the head of an animal, constructed of plaster and paper, over his own. He has iron claws on his hands.

One witness describes him as applying a candle to his breast, and vomiting forth a volume of blue and white flame from his mouth, while his eyes resemble red balls of fire. Another witness mentions his holding a bullseye lamp, and spurting blue flame toward a victim’s head.

The reason why I call these descriptions odd is that the story after this point never describes him thus, for he neither has iron claws, nor breaths fire, nor wears an animal head. In this tale, he never treats any women uncouthly except once when he grabs a would-be murderess by the wrist.

The anonymous author, however, clears up these inconsistencies by claiming

…many scamps and ruffians played the part of Spring-Heeled Jack in various garbs in and around London, but the story which we have told of brave Jack Dacre is the only authentic history of SPRING-HEELED JACK.

In the text, there is an episode where Spring-Heeled Jack goes from one suburban tenant to another, gathering information from witnesses he frightens into speaking. The author assures us that the terrified women and servants no doubt embellished the story, but the real Spring-Heeled Jack never ripped dresses with iron claws, nor assaulted women.

For the conceit of the story is that the author came upon a secret source of documents containing a full confession of Jack and all his eccentric crimes — but all the names are changed to protect the innocent, of course.

The author writes in an abbreviated newspaper-column style, with not even the laziest attempt at characterization. Having read the tale, I could not offer even a one-word description of any of the personality traits of any of the persons of the drama, for they have none.

There is however the henchman of the hero, a jolly sailor named Ned Chump, who is described as being as loyal as a Mastiff.

Able Seaman Chump is he who saves young Jack Dacre from drowning, when the ship on which Jack and his parents were sailing for home sinks in a storm within gunshot of shore. His father, Sir Sidney, who owned considerable plantations in India, had just become the inheritor of the family’s rich and extensive estates in England. However, his marriage to the mother, Lady Dacre, had only been witnessed by one man, a clerk named Morgan, who had been left in charge of the Indian plantations.

Tying young master Jack to a hen coop, Ned Chump throws them both overboard, and swims them clear of the shipwreck before the vortex can pull them under. Once ashore, they are bereft and penniless, and more to the point, lack any letters or records to prove Jack’s birth and linage as heir to the Dacre estates.

In short order, appearing at the family mansion, they are met by the dead father’s evil cousin, Sir Michael, who claims Jack to be an impostor, for he wishes to keep the lands and title for himself. He agrees to let the boy stay at the family mansion for a time, until the matter can be settled.

But Sir Michael decides to settle the matter by engaging one Black Ralph, described as “a ruffian who had been everything by turns, but nothing long” to kill the boy in his sleep. Jack escapes the murder attempt by fleeing to the from the bedchamber to the belltower roof, and leaping from it to the moat.

Eventually, when Morgan the clerk appears from India, he agrees with Sir Michael to defraud the boy of his legacy, in return for being given sole discretion to run the extensive Indian plantations as he sees fit, pocketing all the rents and profits himself. So he testifies that Jack is a bastard, for his father and mother were never properly wed, inventing a prior husband to whom the bigamist wife was married at the time.

This leads to the following exchange of melodramatic speeches:

“There is some villainy here, which, please Heaven, I will yet unravel. Once already you have tried to murder my body, now you are trying to murder my mother’s reputation; but as I escaped from the first plot by a clean pair of heels and a good spring from the bell tower, so on occasion I feel that I shall eventually conquer. Come, Ned, we will leave this, and make our plans for the future.”

“Aye, Master Spring-Heels, make yourself scarce, or I will have you lashed and kicked from the door, you wretched impostor!”

“Yes, cousin, I will go,” answered Jack, impressively; “and I will accept the name you have given me, as you say I have no right to any other. But, beware! false Sir Michael Dacre, the time will come, and that ere long, when the tortures of the damned shall be implanted in your heart by me—the wretched, despised outcast whom you have christened Spring-Heeled-Jack!”

Naturally, as any young man might do, his plan for revenge is to dress up as a black-cloaked red devil, and construct a special leaping boot to allow him to jump over carriages and into upper windows.

His spring-heeled boot is described thus:

One foot was encased in a high-heeled, pointed shoe, while the other was hidden in a peculiar affair, something like a cow’s hoof, in imitation, no doubt, of the “cloven hoof” of Satan. It was generally supposed that the “springing” mechanism was contained in that hoof.

*** *** ***

Unlike the Lamont Cranston or Bruce Wayne, Jack Dacre’s high birth is central to the plot, since being cheated out of his legacy and title is what drives him toward his costumed revenge.

Like the Shadow after him, or Batman in the Nolan films, Jack learns his art from the Orient.

“Some year or two ago I had for a tutor an old Moonshee, who had formerly been connected with a troop of conjurors—and you must have heard how clever the Indian conjurors are.”

“Yes,” replied Ned, “and I have seen for myself as well.”

“Then,” said Jack, “you will not be surprised at what I am going to tell you.”

“Perhaps not, skipper—fire away,” said Ned.

“Well, this Moonshee taught me the mechanism of a boot which one member of his band had constructed, and which boot enabled him to spring fifteen or twenty feet up in the air, and from thirty to forty feet in a horizontal direction.”

*** *** ***

A ‘moonshee’ is the older spelling of munshi, a Hindu clerk, secretary, or teacher.

Armed (if that is the word) with his boot, our hero decides to make his living robbing the estates and properties of the Dacre family, as these were all defrauded from him.

The anonymous author introduces a wry note of class distinction.

The faithful tar had the sailor’s natural respect for honesty, and did not quite like his “skipper’s” plan for securing a livelihood.

But Jack, who had been brought up under the shadow of the East India Company, had not many scruples as to the course of life he had resolved to adopt.

To him pillage and robbery seemed to be the right of the well-born.

He had seen so much of this sort of thing amongst his father’s friends and acquaintances that his moral sense was entirely warped.

So speciously did he put forth his arguments that Ned at last yielded.

The sailor simply stipulated that he should take no active part in any robbery.

For the faithful salt could find no other term for the operation.

Later, when Jack Dacre reveals that he only intends to rob property that he already owns, the author wryly repeats:

This philosophy was undoubtedly rather Jesuitical, but allowance must be made for the manner and place in which he had been brought up.

*** *** ***

One thing which differentiates Spring Heeled Jack from The Shadow or The Batman is that the villain of the piece knows immediately who is beneath the disguise, and what he is doing and why. However, he cannot reveal what he knows without risking a publicity that might bring his own wrongdoing to light, so he must act surreptitiously.

Another thing, which I myself found amusing, even charming, was that when Spring-Heeled Jack returns at night to the estates, and enters the cottage of the lodge-keeper, startling the man awake, the fellow is pleased rather than petrified. The text explains:

The fact of the matter was, Michael Dacre was not at all popular with the servants, and they had heard with some amount of delight of the various adventures he and Morgan had had with Jack.

“Good Mr. Spring-Heeled Jack,” cried the lodge-keeper, “what do you want? If it is anything I can do for you tell me, and consider it done.”

Every now and again one sees the beautiful daughter of an evil space emperor help the earth-hero, but to have one’s own lodge-keeper rooting for the high-leaping Mephistopheles is an oddity. What makes it charming, of course, is that Jack actually is that man’s master, and when he is returned to his rightful place, will prove to be a good one.

After his first few thefts from Sir Michael, Jack has a good bit of money, and he takes up residence in disguise at a local inn under the name Turnbull. The author particularly emphasizes that the sixteen year old boy is young and hale enough to pass for twenty-four or -five, and when dressed the part, no one penetrates his disguise, even at close quarters. Since the inn is where the coaches pass, this vantage allows him to keep an eye on the comings and goings of his enemy, Sir Michael, when going to London to collect or deposit rents.

An odd historical note: when Spring Heeled Jack robs Sir Michael, that villain complains that he lost an expensive “gold repeater.”

So I looked up what a “repeater” might be. I had never heard the word before. What I discovered was more interesting even than a special superleap boot mechanism.

As it turns out, a repeater is special type of clock that chimes the time upon the press of a button, using separate tones or gongs for hours, quarter hours, and minutes. This allows the time to be read in the dark or by the blind. They fell out of use once gaslight became commonplace. The repeating clock was invented in 1676 by English cleric and inventor, the Reverend Edward Barlow. Repeaters differ from striking clocks, which do not strike on demand, but merely at regular intervals.

Repeater watches were expensive luxuries, being much harder to make than repeater clocks. Fitting the bells, wire gongs, and a separate train of wheels of the striking mechanism into a pocketwatch movement was a feat of fine watchmaking.

As best I would tell from the description I found, repeater pocketwatches exist to this day, so if your evil uncle has one, and defrauded you of your rightful lands and titles, by all means find yourself a spring-loaded super-jumping shoe, dress up like a ghost or devil, pounce on his carriage, and take it.

*** *** ***

Another differentiation from The Shadow or The Batman is the immediate introduction of our hero’s future wife. He sees her, falls in love at first sight, follows her as she and her maid stroll along the riverbank.

Whereupon he sees the maid attempt to drown her, dives in, rescues the damsel to the shore, and runs back to the Inn where she is staying, carrying her as a fair burden in his arms the whole way.

Immediately suspecting the maid and stepmother to be conspiring against the girl’s inheritance, he dons his Mephistophelian disguise, waits for nightfall, and uses his miraculous spring-boot to leap up to the balcony of their chambers, whereupon, sure enough, he overhears the two villainesses, mistress and handmaiden of evil, plotting together. He breaks open the window and leaps in, crying:

“HA! ha!” cried Jack, “your intended crime is such a monstrous one, that even I, Spring-Heeled Jack, fiend though I may be, am bound to prevent its consummation.”

Victorians surely had a sense of the theatrical we would do well to remember. Imagine how much better an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone movie would be, if he, face covered with marine camo paint, burning cigar in lips, toting a vehicle-mounted Vulcan autocannon in one burly arm, were to confront Muslim terrorists, Crooked cops, or Evil warlocks with a shout of “HA! Ha! Your intended crime is such a monstrous one that even I, Rambo the Barbarian, am bound to prevent its consummation!”

The servant girl faints dead away — such is the expected habit of Victorian females. But the stepmother is made of sterner stuff.

Upon the hardened Lady Grahame, however, his appearance produced no outward appearance of fear. She stood erect and looked Jack dauntlessly in the face.

“I fear not fiend nor man,” she cried; “the former I doubt the existence of, therefore you must be the latter. So name your price, Spring-Heeled Jack, I will pay it whatever it is, and trust to your honour to hold your tongue when you have received it.”

I am deeply impressed that the murderess is bribing black-cloaked fiend in a fright mask, but expects his sense of honor will bind him securely, once he accepts the bribe. Those were simply better days.

“Not that you could do me any harm by repeating the words that you have doubtless overheard,” she went on.

Jack gave a demoniacal grin.

“Who would take the word of a highwayman and midnight thief against that of Lady Grahame?” she cried, defiantly.

As it turns out, the husband takes his word, or at least listens to the red-garbed fiend, and, as often happens, the one conspirator betrays the other out of hope of clemency. The fainting maid recovers and throws herself at the husband’s feet:

“Oh! forgive me, Sir Charles,” cried the girl, as she grovelled on the ground in front of the astonished baronet. “It is all true; but I was sorely tempted by Lady Grahame, who had me in her power, as I had once stolen a diamond ring belonging to her, and she threatened me with imprisonment if I did not comply with her request, or rather commands. Pray—pray forgive me.”

The villainess of the piece knows herself to be immune from the law, for she doubts her husband will expose the family name to shame by having her arrested and tried. Her fate (we discover later) is to be locked into an insane asylum for two years, and, if her husband is merciful, to release her thereafter and send her overseas.

Spring-Heeled Jack steps to the window to leap away, but ere he does, takes his adieu with a flourish, saying

“My work is done; I have saved your daughter’s life; with the punishment you may mete out to these two wretched women I have nothing to do. Farewell!”

“Stay!” cried the baronet, recovering his self-possession, after a struggle. “Who are you, mysterious man? At least let me thank you for my child’s life.”

“I want no thanks,” said Jack …

Any aficionado of superhero stories will recognize this exchange: it is iconic. One wonders if this were the first time this trope was played, or if earlier stories about incognito heroes did also.

Note that he is not willing to shake the hand of the baronet, as Jack himself regards his own villainous behavior as shameful.

*** *** ***

Lucy Grahame (for such is the young lady’s name) is not the first damsel rescued by Jack. Earlier, he had visited a farmer named Brown, a tenant of Sir Michael, counting out the rent money which Jack meant to take for himself.

Jack leaps in the man’s upper window.  Farmer Brown faints instantly upon seeing Jack, as many folk in this narrative do, keeping him nicely out of the way so that Jack can rifle through his papers.

Jack discovers not only the cash but a hidden last will and testament showing Brown was not lawfully in possession. The land in truth was owned by his orphaned niece,  Selina Brown, a lunatic who was kept chained in the attic.

Jack undoes the frees the girl, takes the will, and spirits her away to the local squire, with evidence enough to have the farmer arrested, tried, and transported to a penal colony overseas.

Selina happened to recover her wits once her due was restored to her. The author assures us that she marries and mothers a large family in the very farmhouse which was once her prison.

I notice that Jack never once in this story throws a punch or fires a pistol: his epigones The Shadow and The Batman routinely leave a much larger number of fallen criminal behind, either in jail or in a grave.

*** *** ***

The story could not have been told in America, only in England, because the main plot point that drives the plot is the practice of entailing land, that is, preventing land to be sold, subdivided, or pass to anyone other than the eldest heir in entirety.

Every part of the drama is driven by this law.

The hero’s father goes to India to earn his fortune, because he is not the firstborn, and hence is penniless. After making a fortune in the tea trade, he receives news that his elder brothers, both killed in war with the French, now leave him sole heir. He was on his way back to England to claim this patrimony when the storm struck that sunk his ship, orphaned our hero, and destroyed the letters and records Jack needed to prove his identity.

The entail means that there is no legal way for Jack and his evil cousin to share the property or to compromise. One or the other owns the whole possession, and the title of knighthood. This prompts the murder attempt against Jack, earns him his nickname, and drives the whole plot.

Likewise, the murder scheme by the stepmother against the daughter Lucy is prompted by this rule of primogeniture, as Lucy is the sole heir from the prior marriage, and no provision is possible for the stepmother once her husband, the baronet, dies.

Thomas Jefferson, in the greatest act of legislative wisdom in his long career, but the least well known, promoted the idea that entailing land would not be legal in the newborn United States: all would hold in fee simple, or in trust, or by some other form of title.

How much mischief the nation thereby has avoided, one need only ask Spring-Heeled Jack, or his lady love.

*** *** ***

His bride to be is not the only innocent Spring-Heeled Jack saves from wrong during his career as a pretend highwayman.

By yet another Dickensonian coincidence, Jack at midnight interrupts a real highway robber threatening a farmer with a “finely mounted pistol.” On impulse, Jack decides to interrupt the tableau by leaping over the heads of the two men on their horses, looking like a giant bat.

The farmer’s horse panics, bolts, and carries him away, but the highwayman coolly turns and shoots Sping-Heeled Jack through the skull — or, rather, through the oversized mask he wears, which, being taller than his skull, means the bullet passes through the paper mâché and does no harm.

This convinces the highwayman that Jack is indeed supernatural, and he turns and spurs his horse, leaping a hedge and away.

“Well, that was a lark,” said Jack to himself as he rapidly strode on in the direction of Dacre Hall; “but it was a close shave, though, for I felt that bullet graze the top of my scalp in a most decidedly unpleasant manner.”

The Batman would not have let a highwayman get away, Jack! You could have spring-heeled after him, and defeated him with the cunning Hindu ju-jitsu you learned in India!

The boyish nonchalance of our hero nearly being shot in the head is a reminder that we are reading a penny dreadful, not meant to be deep, or terribly realistic, but gripping.

I must confess that the tale held my interest all the way to the end, despite the marked difference in the story telling conventions and techniques of the Victorian days and the my own.

This story is lacking in such things as character development, pacing, and description which modern readers expect. The plot elements are disconnected one from another: nothing further comes, for example, of this episode. The highwayman is described as such imposing and impressive figure that I thought he was to be a major character. More words are spent describing the details of his costume than Jack’s. And yet he vanishes, never to be mentioned again. The whole episode could have been dropped, or moved to another spot in the narration, without change.

At the risk of spoiling the surprise ending, Jack breaks into the bedchamber of Morgan, who, you may recall, is one of the two conspirators who cheated Jack from his legacy, in order to recover papers proving his birth legitimate. Again, in a plot twist less to be expected these days, once robbed, the man, rather than face the hangman for his crime, cheats the hangman by hanging himself.

The other conspirator, upon being confronted with those papers, surrenders.

Michael Dacre had been so shocked by the suicide of Morgan that he at once caved in, and agreed to quit the country, Jack, of course, having no wish to prosecute any one of his own kith and kin, no matter how treacherous his conduct might have been.

One paragraph later, the tale is wrapped up in the hastiest ending that could be:

In due course, as our readers must have guessed, Jack and Lucy were married.

Ned was appointed to a post of trust at the hall, and as children grew up around them few mortals enjoyed so much earthly happiness as the family and household of Sir John Dacre.

Our story is ended.

Spring-Heeled Jack is one of those spooky and inexplicable figures half-forgotten by history, perhaps real, perhaps fraud, perhaps supernatural, much like the odd events chronicled by Charles Fort. Perhaps he merits a writer of more skill to invent new adventures for him; and perhaps he has found them, for I have heard rumors of his appearing in steampunk or time travel or other fantastical stories and radioplays, including a tale by Phillip Pullman of His Dark Materials fame.