Late evening on Tuesday 14 February 2012 the Martin family were taking a taxi from Stoneleigh to their home in Banstead when near the Reigate Road junction on the Ewell bypass they saw a fast-moving dark figure with no obvious features dart across the road in front of them. After running across one lane the figure easily jumped the central reservation fence before crossing over their carriageway and was quickly and effortlessly up and over the 15 foot roadside bank. Naturally the whole family and their taxi driver were shaken by this seemingly supernatural experience. Their young son was too scared to sleep on his own that night and the taxi driver voiced his fears of driving back alone.
This spooky experience was quickly likened to the famed bogeyman - Spring-heeled Jack.
This mysterious creature, first reported in the early 1800s, was accused of various sightings and attacks in London and later elsewhere in the country. Spring-Heeled Jack was described as tall, thin with cold, clammy claw-like hands and red eyes like balls of fire. He was often said to wear a black cloak with a helmet and light coloured tight-fitting trousers. He specialised in performing wicked pranks, so scaring women that they had fits, or wounded his victims with his claw-like hands. He was said to have a high-pitched, ringing voice and laughed like a maniac, especially when running away. He earned his name because he was said to make his escape by taking extremely high, superhuman leaps, jumping high walls or even entire houses. Some accounts say that he could breathe out blue and/or white flames. Tales of his ghostly "Devil-like" aspect were very popular during the Victorian era, fuelled by many fictional accounts appearing in books and the penny dreadfuls.
Cover of a penny dreadful magazine called Spring-heeled Jack Image source Issue 2 (1904) Aldine Spring-heeled Jack Library
One early victim, Mary Stevens, claims she was walking through Clapham Common alone at night when the creature jumped out of the dark, tightly grabbing and kissing her, then he tried to rip off her clothes. She managed to escape and raise the alarm, but her attacker could not be found. The next day a man resembling her attacker was seen near her house but was scared off by a passing carriage. Darting in front of the carriage, so causing it to crash and injure the driver, the creature escaped by jumping over a nine foot wall.
The Times reported that on 19 February 1838 Jane Aslop answered the door to a man wearing a cloak who claimed to be a policeman. He asked her for a candle and, when she returned with one, he threw off his cloak to reveal his hideous appearance and attempted to tear off her clothes with his claws, which she claimed were like metal. While trying to escape, her attacker managed to tear at her neck and arms, but she was saved by her sister and the man then ran off. On 28 February Lucy Scales was walking through Green Dragon Alley, Narrow-street, Limehouse when she saw a person standing in the passageway carrying a bull's eye lantern that looked similar to the one the police used. He spat blue flames into her face and she was seized with violent fits of hysteria that lasted for hours.
One well reported Spring-Heeled Jack sighting came in August of 1877 when a sentry on duty at Aldershot's barracks noticed a strange figure in the darkness who ended up slapping him in the face. Shots were fired at the figure but had no visible effect. Then the figure disappeared into the darkness with long leaps.
Also in 1877 Spring-Heeled Jack appeared at Newport Arch in Lincoln - a mob chased and shot at him with no effect when he escaped with his long leaps.
Spring-heeled Jack at Newport Arch in Lincoln Image source Illustrated Police News
Theories abound as to who the perpetrator was but as the phenomena lasted 60+ years no one man is unlikely to have been responsible. Were some sightings an early form of Parkour (also known as Street or Free Running)? Many of the victims were women who were alone at the time of the attack, so they may have been subjects of attempted rape or sexual assault by men who had adopted the Jack disguise to avoid recognition. However, other sightings were likely to have been carried out by youths who, seeking a 'lark', imitated Jack to spook nervous individuals. Mass hysteria is thought to account for some of the early reports but for others we currently have no explanation.
Advert for a penny dreadful magazine Image source Wikimedia