No. 48                                                                                                          January 2001

ISSN 1026-1001





Simpson: Spring-Heeled Jack



Body Parts News File




HIV-Infected Needles


Research Note

Spring-Heeled Jack

Jacqueline Simpson

9 Christchurch Road


West Sussex, BN11 1JH


Writing about the legendary Antjie Somers (FTN 47), Sigrid says some believed this Afrikaans robber-cum-bogey figure was a man in woman’s clothes who could moved fantastically fast because he had steel springs under his heels. I was reminded of Spring-Heel(ed) Jack in the 19th and early 20th century English lore.

The earliest known rumors about this figure (as yet nameless) centered round Barnes Common in southwest London in September 1837, where girls reported a man in a dark cloak vaulting the railings of a churchyard, tearing their clothes, and running off laughing loudly. There were similar assaults on Clapham Common the following month, in one of which the attacker left footprints which look as if there were “machines or springs” on his shoes. A barmaid attending Blackheath Fair on 11 October claimed to have been molested twice. At the fair itself a man with prominent eyes and a ringing laugh who “looked like a nobleman” pulled he shawl off; later, on her way home, a huge figure leapt out at her from a clump of trees, bounding in great strides, and began ripping her clothes with what felt like iron claws. It had fiery eyes, spat blue flames, and smelt of sulphur, but its laugh was that of a man at the fair. Naturally, she fainted. Peter Haining (1977) says that by mid-October similar reports had come from many districts in or near London: East Sheen, Richmond, Ham, Kingston, Hampton, Teddington, Twickenham, Hounslow, Uxbridge, Camberwell, and Tooting Common. They consistently described a tall, athletic figure in a long cloak and high-heeled boots, with fiery eyes, fingers as hard as claws, and sometimes pointed ears; women’s clothes were torn, but they were never raped or wounded. Presumably these are local press items, but Haining does not give the references (Haining 1977, 39-41).

On 9 January 1838 the Lord Mayor of London made public the complaint of an anonymous “Resident of Peckham” that:

It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion (name as yet unknown), that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises – a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses.

At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The con sequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses. …

The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer … has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger ends, but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.

Though the Lord Mayor seemed fairly skeptical, a member of the audience confirmed, “servant girls about Kensington, Hammersmith and Ealing tell dreadful stories of this ghost or devil”.  The matter was reported in The Times and other national papers next day, and the day after that (11 January) the Lord Mayor showed a crowded gathering a pile of letters from various places in and around London complaining of similar “wicked pranks”. One writer said he had ascertained that several young women in Hammersmith had been frightened into “dangerous fits”; and some “severely wounded by a sort of claws the miscreant wore on his hands”; another, that in Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell and Vauxhall several people had died of fright, and others had had fits; another, that the trickster had been repeatedly seen in Lewisham and Blackheath, but the police were too frightened of him to act. Another, writing from St. John’s Wood, where the “monster” had been seen “clad in mail and as a bear”, gave a sinister twist to the previous day’s story of a wager among young upper-class men;

The bet is, understood to be of an even more grave nature than is there stated, and, if it be true, amounts to murder. As far as the writer has been informed, the bet is, that the monster shall kill six women in some given time.

The Lord Mayor himself was in two minds about the affair: he thought “the greatest exaggerations” had been made, and that it was quite impossible “that the ghost performs the feats of a devil upon earth”, but on the other hand someone he trusted had told him of a servant girl at Forest Hill who had been scared into fits by a figure in a bear’s skin; he was confident the person or persons involved in this “pantomime display” would be caught and punished (Haining 1977, 22-34, based on reports in The Times of 10 and 12 January 1838).

Next day, the Lord Mayor formed a vigilante committee of magistrates and army officers to track down the villain; police patrols were set up; rewards were offered; the elderly Duke of Wellington himself joined a posse. In vain; nobody was caught, and panic continued to spread. By the end of January, the press had given the mystery assailant a name, “Spring-Heeled Jack”.

Whether or not this name was derived from the archaic or literary word “springald” meaning “youngster”, as Peter Haining things, it fits a human prankster in disguise better than a supernatural being. Never the less, those who described him often made him sound like a demon. Thus, on 18 February 1838, a girl called Lucy Scales, living in Limehouse, said a tall cloaked man who spat blue flames at her had pounced on her. Two days later another girl, Jane Alsop, opened the door of her father’s house in Bow to a man claming to be a police officer, who asked her to bring a light because he had “caught Spring-Heeled Jack in the lane”, but this man then attacked her, tearing at her dress and hair until other members of her family ran to help her. She told magistrates: “He was wearing a kind of helmet, and a tight-fitting white costume like an oilskin. His face was hideous, his eyes were like balls of fire. His hands had great claws, and he vomited blue and white flames.”

The London panic gradually died down, but sightings of a figure that leapt out oat people or vehicles were reported sporadically from many parts of the country over the next 30 or 40 years. The press did not endorse the supernatural interpretation given by some victims, but blamed a human trickster disguised as something demonic. There were occasional acts of violence: in Yarmouth in 1845 a delirious man who was wandering about in his nightshirt was beaten up by someone who mistook him for Spring-Heeled Jack, and died next day (Illustrated London News, 27 September 1845). The last major incident was in August 1877, when sentries at the army barracks at Aldershot were repeatedly scared by a fire-spitting masked figure in a tight-fitting oilskin suit which leapt down on them from walls and roofs.

Almost from the first, the figure of Spring-Heeled Jack was appropriated for fictional entertainment. A play by John Thomas Haines, in 1840, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London, shows him as a blackguard who attacks women because his own sweetheart jilted him; it was soon followed by W. G. Willis’s play The Curse of the Wraydons, where Jack is a traitor who spies for Napoleon, and stages murderous stunts as a cover. Later in the 1840s came an anonymous “Penny Dreadful” version, also entitled Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London, which appears in weekly episodes; it too made Jack a villain.

There was another “Penny Dreadful” which appeared in 48 weekly installments in the 1870s, printed by the Newsagents Publishing Company and probably written by George A. Sala. It kept the same title, but was very different in theme. Sala’s Jack is no villain; he uses his power for good, saving the innocent from the wicked; he is in fact a nobleman by birth, though 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 crimson suit, with bat’s wings, a lion’s mane, horns, talons, massive cloven hoofs, and a sulphurous breath; he moves in gigantic leaps, easily jumping over rooftops or rivers, and is immensely strong. Various boys’ comics took up the theme; a series produced by the Aldine Publishing Company toward the end of the 19th century lasted till 1904, similarly presenting Jack as a masked avenger who thwarts evil-doers.

Thus Spring-Heel Jack entered popular mythology. As presented in the later boys’ literature, he has an obvious similarly to more modern heroes, Superman, Batman, Spiderman and so on; like them, he appears threatening, but is a force for good; his seemingly supernatural powers are based on technology and physical strength, not magic; he has suffered an injustice which claims the reader’s sympathy; he has a dual life, in which the “marvelous” aspect is signaled by donning a costume which defines his powers. But in “real-life” contexts his original role as a mugger was by no means forgotten; indeed, it appears from the OED that in late Victorian times his name had become a general term for a street criminal who leapt upon people to rob or frighten them, and then relied on his speed in running to make his escape; it cites a Cheshire source from 1887, for example, where maids who had just been paid their yearly wage were said to be afraid to go out carrying much money, since “there are so many of these spring-heeled Jacks about”.

In 1907 contributors to Notes & Queries debated whether there had ever been a real Jack. One had heard of “a lively officer” at Aldershot in the 1870s who scared sentries by vaulting across a canal and pouncing on their shoulders; another, of a coal-merchant’s son in rural Warwickshire in the 1880s, “a youth not overburdened with common sense”, who leapt out at people as a prank, using shoes fitted with powerful and silent springs; another, of a hoaxer in the Midlands in the 1850s; another had been told by his grandmother, as early as the 1840s, that the “monster” was really the notorious young Marquis of Waterford [10th series Vol. 7 (1907), pp. 206, 256, 394-5, 496; Vol. 8 (1907), pp. 251, 455].

This latter identification echoes the hints about young aristocrats and their callous wagers made in January 1838; the Marquis was frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes, and vandalism, and was said to do anything for a bet. He was also named as Jack by the Revd. E. C. Brewer in 1880, who stated confidently that the Marquis “used to amuse himself by springing on travelers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example.” Peter Haining accepts this as the true explanation for the incidents between September 1837 and February 1838, when the Marquis was in London and is known to have visited Blackheath Fair; later ones would be imitations (Haining 1977, 54-73). But the sheer number of reports at this time, and their wide scatter in and around London, must cast doubt on any theory which makes a single man responsible, while modern experience of panics and flaps can only increase one’s skepticism as to their having any factual basis. We are only too familiar with the idea that “they” (police, press, government) are hushing up the truth, while the notion that wild young men are making wagers that will cost innocent lives reminds me of American rumors about would-be Satanists who undertake to murder the first motorist who flashes his lights at them as part of their initiation rites.

When I was collecting Sussex folklore in the late 1960s I picked up some echoes of Jack as a bogeyman exploited by adults to control children. I heard that in Lewes in the 1890s some children were told that if they were not good he would leap up and peer in at them through their bedroom windows; they imagined him as a weirdly tall figure in white, whose springs rattled as he leapt. At the same period in Worthing, boys used his name for a ghostly apparition reputedly haunting a certain alley. His legend is remarkably long lived.



Anon., 1975. Readers Digest Book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. London, New York, Montreal, Sydney, Cape Town: Readers’ Digest Association. 358.

Anon., 1999. Exploring the Unknown. London, New York, Montreal, Sydney, Cape Town: Readers’ Digest Association. 286-287.

Brewer, E. C. 1880. The Reader’s Handbook of Allusions, References, Plots and Stories. London: Chatto and Windus.

Haining, Peter. 1977. The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring-Heel Jack. London: Frederick Muller.

Notes & Queries, 10th ser. Vol. 7 (1907), pp. 206,256, 394-6; vol. 8 (1907), pp. 251, 455.

Turner, E. S., 1975. Boys Will Be Boys (rev. ed.). London: Michael Joseph. pp. 63-5, 98.



News Watch


Kidnappings, Mob Violence, Body Parts Press File

Véronique Campion-Vincent, CNRS,


Thailand Oct 2000 (Supplement)

"[Dossier Surgeons Thailande]." The Bangkok Post, 1 July 1999-31 October 2000.

No Case For Murder Against Doctors, Says Prosecution, October 5, 2000


Kenya August 1999

"Devil Worship Causes Uproar In Kenya.” 13 August 1999. [Published In The Daily Nation (Nairobi), August 4, 1999


Turkey September 1999

"Organ Snatchers." The Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 26 September 1999.


U.K. 1999

Freeman, Colin. "Doctors Took Parts From Dead Children." Evening Standard, 3 December 1999. Date: Friday, December 03, 1999 8:58:28


Philippines Jan 2000

Villa, Benjie. "Street-Smart Girl, 9, Puts One Over Her Kidnappers." The Philippine Star Online, 13 January 2000.

________. "Kidnappers Selling Victim's Organs?" The Philippine Star Onlire, 14 January 2000.


Guatemala, April-May 2000

“Mob Kills Tourist, Bus Diver” New York Times April 30, 2000

Miyakawa, Masaaki. "Natives Attack Tourists In Guatemala, 1 Japanese Dead. Camera-Toting Tourists Beware In Guatemala." Asahi Shimbun, 1 May 2000.

“Japanese Tourist Killed In Guatemala Villagers Attack Tour Bus Amid Wild Rumors Of Child-Stealing Foreigners” The Japan Times: May 2, 2000 

Mcgirk, Jan. "Two Die As Mob Attacks Japanese Tour Group." The Independent, 2 May 2000. 

"12 Mayan Villagers Sought In Slaying." The Japan Times, 3 May 2000.

Villelabeitia, Ibon. "Satanic Rites Rumors Linked To Guatemala Attack." Reuters Online, 4 May 2000.

Will Weissert "Japanese Tourist Killed In Guatemala” Associated Press, May 12, 200o


Sudan May 2000

"Man Held For Selling Body Parts After Rape Murders." Reuters Online, 14 May 2000.


Malawi July 2000

Gama, Hobbs. "Malawi Police Make Two Key Arrests In Body Parts Trade." African Eyes News Service, 30 July 2000.


Mexico August 2000

"Angry Mexicans Try To Lynch Baby-Snatch Suspects." Reuters Online, 2 August 2000. 


India August 2000

"Another Corpse’s Eyes Gouged Out In Bihar Hospital Mortuary.” 4 August 2000.

"Man In Hospital Wakes Up To Find Kidney Missing." Times Of India, 4 August 2000.


Nigeria August-September 2000

Razak, Musbau. "Lagos, Reign Of Ritual Killers.” 25 August 2000.

"Man Held For Ritual Child Murders." Afp Agence France-Presse, 18 September 2000.

Akinrosoye, Idowu. "The Old Money Machine."[Analysis] Tempo (Lagos), 28 September 2000.


Kenya October 2000

"Child Kidnappings Spark Mob Justice.” 6 October 2000.

"Kenya Warns Citizens On Lynching.” 6 October 2000.

"Mob Attacks Kill Three In Kenya." New York Times, 6 October 2000.

"Mob Kills Five In Revenge." The Nation (Nairobi), 23 October 2000.


Here's a list my publications in English on the subject:


1990 " The Baby-Parts Story. A New Latin American Legend " Western Folklore 49, [special issue edited by Bill Ellis Contemporary Legends in Emergence]: 9-25.

1993 " Demonologies in Contemporary Legends and Panics. Satanism and Baby Parts Stories " Fabula 34:238-251

1997 " Organ Theft Narratives " Western Folklore 56 (Winter): 1-37

2001. " The Diffusion of Organ Theft Narratives " in Joel Best (ed.) Spreading Social Problems: Studies in the Cross-National Diffusion of Social Problems Claims. Hawthorne, NY, Aldine de Gruyter.


From FHM December 2000: 95.

"Exterminator" by Jimmy Jellinek.

John M. Bodner


Eight month old Tamelka Young, who lived with 10 family members in a roach-infested housing-project apartment in Atlanta, GA, died after choking on a cockroach. According to her mother, Shawntello Young, before she put Taneka to sleep, cockroaches were crawling all over her crib. According to autopsy reports, the bug crawled down Tameka's throat and blocked her airway.




Recently Heard


HIV-Infected Needles

[The following was sent to the FTN email account: on 8 December 2000]


Hello Everyone!

I was asked to pass this on, very important warning. Please be careful.

This is forwarded on behalf of Jerry Janes, Emergency Preparedness Canada.


This very shocking!!! No wait I mean disturbing!!! This is happening in Canada. For your information, a couple of weeks ago, in a movie theater, a person sat on something sharp in one of the seats. When she stood up to see what it was, a needle was found poking through the seat with an attached note saying, "You have been infected with HIV."


The Centers for Disease Control reports similar events have taken place in several other cities recently. All of the needles tested HAVE been positive for HIV. The CDC also reports that needles have been found in the coin return areas of pay phones and soda machines. Everyone is asked to use extreme caution when confronted with these types of situations.


All public chairs should be thoroughly but safely inspected prior to any use. A thorough visual inspection is considered the bare minimum. Furthermore, they ask that everyone notify their family members and friends of the potential dangers, as well. Thank you.  The previous information was sent from the Regina City Police Department to all of the local governments in the Saskatchewan area and was interdepartmentally dispersed. We were all asked to pass this to as many people as possible.


This is very important!! Just think you could save somebody's life just by passing this on. Please take a couple of seconds of your time and pass this on.




FTN needs your contributions!

Please send me news, queries, research notes, clippings, calls for papers, book and movie reviews, or notes about local rumor and legend cycles for inclusion in FTN.


Deadline for next issue:

1 April 2001



Next Issue Out:

May 2001


FoafTale News (FTN) is the newsletter of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.  We study "modern" and "urban" legends, and also any legend circulating actively.  To join, send a cheque made out to "ISCLR" for US$30.00 or UK£18 to Mark Glazer, Arts & Sciences, University of Texas - Pan-American, Edinburgh TX 78539-2999, USA for North American subscriptions, or Sandy Hobbs, ASS Department, University of Paisley, Paisley, Scotland, PA1 2BE for European subscriptions. Institutional rates available upon request.  Members also receive Contemporary Legend, a refereed academic journal.  Most back issues of FTN are available from the Editor at a charge of US$3 each.   FoafTale News is indexed in the MLA Bibliography.

This newsletter is called FoafTale News for the jocular term current among legend scholars for over twenty years.  The term "foaf" was introduced by Rodney Dale (in his 1978 book, The Tumour in the Whale) for an oft-attributed but anonymous source of contemporary legends: a "friend of a friend."  Dale pointed out that contemporary legends always seemed to be about someone just two or three steps from the teller  — a boyfriend’s cousin, a co‑worker’s aunt, or a neighbor of the teller’s mechanic.  "Foaf" became a popular term at the Sheffield legend conferences in the 1980s.   It was only a short step to the pun "foaftale," a step taken by a yet-anonymous wag. 

FoafTale News welcomes contributions, including those documenting legends” travels on electronic media and in the press.  All research notes and articles are copyright by the individual authors who reserve all rights.  For permission to reprint, contact them at the addresses given in the headnote of the article. Send queries, notices, and research reports to a maximum of 3000 words to the Editor; clippings, offprints, and citations are also encouraged.

The opinions expressed in FoafTale News are those of the authors and do not in any necessary way represent those of the editor, the contributing compilers, the International Society for the Study of Contemporary Legends, its Council, or its members.

Editor:  Mikel J. Koven, Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies, Parry-Williams, Building, Penglais Campus, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, United Kingdom, SY23 2AJ 




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ISSN 1026-1001