Somewhere in the intersection of true crime and folklore exists the strange figure of Spring-Heeled Jack. First sighted in a London suburb during the 1830s, Spring-Heeled Jack has transformed over the course of intervening decades into one of the great mysteries of the British Isles. The cloaked, fire-spitting man (or creature) harassed unfortunate Londoners, showing a particular fondness for women victims and stirring up panic whenever he appeared, leaping away into the night in feats of uncanny athleticism. Who or what was Jack? What motivated his attacks? And why do people remain fascinated with stories of his mischief even in present times?
John Matthews’s The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero seeks to answer precisely these questions. An ultra-prolific writer with over 100 titles to his name, a peek at his bibliography reveals a deep passion for the folklore of the British Isles. Matthews has authored books on topics including Celtic shamanism, Arthurian legend, and Rosicrucianism. His corresponding interest in the mystical aspect of Spring-Heeled Jack reveals itself over the course of the book, creating a work that is a frequently engaging mixture of historical research, Jungian theory, and speculative pondering.
The timeline of occurrences surrounding Spring-Heeled Jack begins with a bizarre presence startling people during nighttime walks in January of 1838. Rival newspapers fueled the fire and after weeks of articles debating whether the events should be attributed to a youthful prankster or to a legitimate menace, a fully-fledged attack is reported. This assault on a young woman named Jane Alsop is recounted in terrifying detail in the book, describing a bizarrely outfitted man in a helmet who tore at her clothing with metal claws. The name “Spring-Heeled Jack” is coined in the first article describing this incident. The specter of Jack would continue to haunt press coverage of unknown “night visitors” well into the twentieth century.
Matthews’s book is at its strongest when it is discussing the intricacies of press coverage and, later, fictionalized accounts of Spring-Heeled Jack. His familiarity with the material is impressive, allowing him to draw parallels between Jack and figures like Henry de La Poer Beresford, third Marquis of Waterford, an eccentric nobleman with a taste for sometimes-vicious pranks; and the Monster of London, an eighteenth-century criminal alleged to have committed dozens of non-fatal but violent knife attacks targeting upper-class women. The author tracks the evolution of Spring-Heeled Jack as a fictional character, noting that he went from being an object of dread in the 1830s to something of an anti-hero by the late nineteenth century. This portrayal of Jack as a trickster protagonist coincides with the heyday of “penny dreadfuls,” cheap and tawdry serialized publications designed to provide thrilling (and often taboo) entertainment to members of the underclass who delighted in seeing wealthy characters get their just desserts. One such nineteenth-century story, “Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London,” is published in its entirety as an appendix. Delivering on the promise of the book’s title, Matthews devotes some pages to present-day steampunk visions of the character, but it’s clear that his interest lies in vintage sources.
In spite of the book’s strength in presenting this material, there are long periods where it loses focus, spiraling into lengthy speculations that tenuously link Spring-Heeled Jack to other Jacks of British folklore. Passages on Jack the Giant Killer, jack-in-the-box toys, Jack Frost, and numerous others are included in an effort to connect the book’s subject to a deeper tradition. Though the text establishes that the name “Jack” is frequently applied to trickster characters, it feels as though the weighty list of folkloric Jacks bogs down at a certain point, leaving the reader to wonder when the Spring-Heeled figure might re-enter the narrative. There’s an especially thin connection to Jack the Ripper that risks undermining the historical underpinnings of the book entirely.
In a more engaging if similarly speculative vein is a discussion of the connection between Jack and alien visitations. This colorful notion was first suggested in a 1954 article by character actor Valentine Dyall, host of a popular horror-themed BBC Radio show. Ufologists in the ensuing decades embellished on this theory, citing the metal hands, shiny helmet, and impossible leaps of Spring-Heeled Jack as evidence of his extraterrestrial origins. Matthews presents these hypotheses by citing articles from esoteric sources and newspapers alike, returning to the style that makes the early portion of the book a pleasure to read.
The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack is an enjoyable celebration of a strange episode in British history that is at its best when relating the core sightings of the its titular figure. Its digressions are almost certainly due to the author’s genuine curiosity and enthusiasm, but the overall result of so much extraneous material makes its inclusion feel like page-count padding. Completists of British esoterica will want to add this to their collections, but the definitive text on Spring-Heeled Jack may lie elsewhere.