In the night the world reveals its second nature and weird things stir and start to wander. Strange shapes hide in architectural and unlit dead zones. As has been done for centuries, darkness reawakens terrible presences in those places. Whether a hedge, fence or row of abandoned buildings, whether a narrow winding path in a distant past or the alienating cityscape of today, it is the territory of the scare. Such a fright is Spring-heeled Jack. He was born out of similar surroundings almost two centuries ago, and this article chronicles its presence in America.
Spring-heeled Jack, the fire belching phantom known for its ability to execute impossibly high leaps, is a singular figure in the annals of the anomalous. Premier Spring-Heeled Jack researcher Mike Dash traces the complex origins of the phantom in a series of partially overlapping ghosts scares with names such as The Hammersmith Ghost, The Hammersmith Monster and The Park Ghost, that infested London and its environs in 1803. Beginning of 1804, an English newspaper picked up on these unusual occurrences and published accounts of encounters with a ghostly apparition said to have ‘eyes… like a Glow Worm’ and breathing ‘fire and smoke’. In 1825 the London suburb of Hammersmith was again plagued by a fire belching spectre.
Spring-heeled Jack’s progeny appeared in various shapes. They were seen around London as a harnassed phantom, as a black bear, as shrouded ghosts with fiery eyes with or without horns and occasionally belching flames. From this brief sketch it is clear that at this date a specific image of Spring-heeled Jack still had to galvanise in the newspapers and in the minds of the inhabitants of London and its environs. This would come in February 1838 with the often repeated account in The Times. It published the now famous name ‘Spring-heeled Jack’ to a wide audience, together with a graphic description by Jane Alsop who was attacked by the phantom. She described how Spring-heeled Jack
“…appeared enveloped in a long cloak … he threw off his outer garment, and applying the lighted candle to his breast, presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flames from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire. From the hasty glance which her fright enabled her to get of his person, she observed that he wore a large helmet, and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed to her to resemble white oil skin…”
In the years to come, similar scares erupted in different places in England well into the 20th century such as in Bradford, 1926, Warrington, 1927 and Attercliffe, 1973. But it is not a thing of the past: according to an English newspaper just last year a family was travelling home by taxi when they saw a mysterious ‘dark figure with no features’ dart across the road in front of them before leaping 15ft over a roadside bank.
The earliest suggestion that Spring-heeled Jack had crossed the Atlantic and had taken root in America was published in 1961. The theory was presented in a speculative article on Spring-heeled Jack by one J. Vyner that was published in Flying Saucer Review and in FATE, the monthly magazine on various Fortean and supernatural phenomena. Lacking sources or references, it did offer a small collection of cases, out of which three concerned alleged Spring-heeled Jack sightings in America. The article became an influential source for subsequent authors on the topic of Spring-heeled Jack in America, who incorporated Vyner’s cases in their writings.
The effect was that this otherwise highly interesting idea could not be further developed, since the examples listed by Vyner have nothing to do with the Spring-heeled Jack phenomenon and cannot be taken as examples of a similar presence in America. Vyner not only added the unrelated Mad Gasser of Mattoon scare to the lore of Spring-heeled Jack, the other cases presented were an entirely different form of anomaly as well. They are not concerned with agile, jumping and fire belching creatures, but instead offer sightings of flying men, engaged in none of the activities that Spring-heeled Jack was famous for and were formative towards his unique signature. Later writers simply repeated this error. The consequence was that for decades there was no progression in charting any presence of Spring-heeled Jack in America. This fascinating topic had stranded in a cul de sac and knew of no further exploration. Stagnation set in and its true history remained unknown.
Fascinated by the possibility that a similar phenomenon was active in the United States, I set out anew to try and find cases that more fully answered the descriptions of Spring-heeled Jack, in the various digitized newspaper archives available online. With a selection of my findings I propose a new preliminary list, consisting of alleged events, sightings, and encounters with entities in America that feature one or more attributes of the Spring-heeled Jack typology. The list below, a longer version of which was published in 2007, is by no means all encompassing nor conclusive. Since then I have collected many more cases on file. I have written at length about some of these such as the Black Flash of Provincetown (Anomalist 13, 2007) and The Newhallville Terror (Darklore IV, 2009). Another entity falling in this category is the Phantom of O’Donnell Heights. This mysterious entity terrorized the southeast Baltimore neighborhood during a two-week period in the summer of 1951. It is not on my list since it has been treated elsewhere online and in print.
My sample list of nine new cases between 1885 and 1927 demonstrates what we can expect though, looking for Spring-heeled Jack in America. I also expect that, as more and more newspapers digitize their old issues, eventually other forgotten cases will emerge.
As to the truthfulness of the accounts listed below, who can tell? Nineteenth century American newspapers had a distinct way of presenting outright yarns, tall tales and hoaxes, as it was not considered unethical or beneath the standards of journalism. In some cases one almost feels a subtle sense of humor that would, of course, have been very much appreciated by a 19th century reader of these accounts; that very subtlety which to us, now, is lost. So we are left to ponder: did those residents in Alma really see a beautiful lady in lingerie or an elephant with fire sprouting from its trunk? What matters more is not so much the veracity of these claims and statements, but rather the way these ghosts, spirits, and hauntings were given certain attributes, such as leaping to great heights, emitting fire, and otherwise engaging in acts not unlike those of Spring-heeled Jack. As any researcher involved in this kind of research realizes, the distinct typology of ghosts, entities, spirits, specters and apparitions and their folkloristic overlaps with UFO occupants, cryptozoological marvels, and biological impossibilities is difficult to sort out. There is a general tendency to just lump various anomalies together. Precision is the keyword while I find more and more forgotten flaps, reports and events in old, long since defunct newspapers that excited, amazed, and frightened whole neighborhoods, towns and generations.
1885: The dancing ghost on the church, Lawrence, New York
In December, 1885, the people of Lawrence, ‘an aristocratic quarter of recent creation near Far Rockaway,’ were mystified and puzzled by the appearance of ‘a specter’ in the belfry of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Men gathered in dark places every night to observe the strange sight. “It flits about the belfry in the most nimble fashion, one time ascending to the apex of the steeple and at another executing a dance on the slanting roof. It playes hide and seek in the lattice work of the bell room, enlarging and decreasing in size according to the angle of observation. A remarkable thing is that it never appears on a Sunday night…every night scores of persons walk or drive to the vicinity of the Lawrence Church to verify it. Some of these declare that the specter has followed them home and hung around their residences for hours…Last Saturday night the strange figure was more than usually active, and scores of persons kept their eyes fixed on it until, benumbed by the cold, they were driven home. Half the village declares that at precisely ten o’clock the bell was tolled… Immediately after the tolling, three hearty amens were heard, and then the specter flattened itself out on the roof…. After a few minutes there was seen the liveliest skipping in and out of the lattice work, and then the phantom ran up and down the surface of the steeple, concluding by perching on the top, and disappearing in the direction of the grave yard…”
1885: The fire spitting ghost of Long Island
“…After a rest of five years, a specter with a tongue of fire has reappeared on the old Centerville race course, just south of Woodhaven, and men and women congregate every night to witness the strange sight. His ghostship appears promptly at a quarter to ten o’clock and departs at twelve minutes after eleven… There is a dispute whether the ghost wears a robe of white or a garment more the color of sheep’s wool. But on one other point there is no disagreement – the ghost spits fire like a foundry chimney and leaves a sulphurous odor behind it… It moves along space like a feather in the wind, going a zigzag course. At regular intervals it spits fire. Scores of persons have followed in its wake without getting close enough for personal contact, and all declare that when the ghost comes to stop, it invariably says ‘Whoa!’”
1889: The graveyard ghost that darted fire out of its eyes, Wading River, Long Island
“They have a lively ghost at Wading River…this Wading River specter keeps perfect silence and strikes terror to the beholders by darting fire at them out of its eyes… the figure’s dress is smoky in color instead of pure white. At 11:55 o’clock P.M. the ghost appears in the churchyard and jumps around in the liveliest possible way, apparently trying to read the inscriptions on the tombstones and locate itself properly. At precisely 12 o’clock, M. the figure mounts to the top of a stone, lets go twelve fiery darts and disappears from view entirely. It rarely appears or disappears at the same point twice and the startled people do not know where to look for it, but they have no difficulty in locating it when the moments for the earth to open up and reveal the messenger from sheol arrives… They say that long before the fiery object took to practicing athletics in the graveyard it could be discerned playing hide and seek in the church belfry, and on one occasion the bell was rung violently at midnight…”
1892: The fire spitting ghost of Raymond Street, Brooklyn, New York
“The good people living on Raymond Street in the vicinity of the jail are greatly excited over the reported visitation of an inhabitant of the other world that has been seen in and around the jail… A colored youth standing hard by was observed to remark, while his eyes danced with excitement: ‘…it wuz a great big thing, seven or eleven feet high, all dressed in white, with horns on its head.’…A business man in the immediate vicinity… said: ‘…Those who have seen it probably imagined it… I have heard it described as being anywhere from seven to twelve feet high, dressed in white; some say with fire shooting out of its mouth…”
1897: The leaping ghost with the lantern of Auburn, New York
“Auburn, N.Y., Aug. 5 – Hundreds of people have been greatly annoyed by the antics of a new kind of ghost. It is in the habit of appearing at 1 o’clock at night, and is tall, clothed in white and carries a lantern. It does not glide, as most specters do, but bounds like a kangaroo…rising from the center of the oat field a strange apparition, it was apparently the figure of a man clothed entirely in white. The ghostly figure stalked across the oat field, swinging a lantern in its hand. It advanced to the fence facing the round, and after flourishing his lantern up and down several times like a brakeman signalling a railroad train, the white figure gave a tremendous bound into the air and vanished from sight….About 10 o’clock the ghost appeared, carrying his lantern with him. The spectre made its appearance, apparently rising from the ground at the foot of a beech tree which stands at the west end of the field. The white robed figure dodged in and out, seen at one minute, the next lost to sight. After continuing his performance for a few minutes, the figure advanced boldly toward the astounded spectators. It came on with abounding movement, similar to that made by a kangaroo while in motion. When within a few feet of the spectators, the ghost stood motionless for a second, and after waving the lantern in the air three or four times, suddenly vanished from sight…”
1899: The headless leaper of Hillsboro, Indiana
“Near Hillsboro, in western Indiana, there is a strip of wild, hilly country known as Red Hills, which for several years, according to the stories of reputable and reliable people, has been haunted by a headless ghost. Quite recently two farmers, driving through the hills after nightfall, were attacked by the ghost, which jumped into their wagon. Both deserted their team and fled in wild dismay. More recently a gang of coon hunters were stampeded, and none of them can be again persuaded to venture in that locality after night. Other people profess to have seen the same apparition, which came bounding toward them, frequently leaping 10 and 15 feet into the air, but disappearing when close at hand. Recently, William Pithoud, a farmer, makes declaration that as he was driving homeward the ghost appeared, armed with a huge club, and began belaboring his horses. Pithoud jumped out and fled in terror, never stopping until he reached the home of Harry Barton, who armed himself with a rifle and furnished Pithoud with a weapon. Together they returned to the scene of action, and they found the horses lying in a ditch, quivering with terror and showing every indication of having had a rough time.”
1908: The fire spitting elephant ghost of Alma, Colorado
“Alma had a sensation this week in the shape of a ghost, which appeared at night. People coming from the saloons about midnight saw a strange sight, or imagined they did. One night the phantom was seen near the Thomas saloon, another time it was at the bridge, on Main Street. The courageous Almaites gave chase, but when they arrived at the spot the apparition had mysteriously disappeared. Some describe it as a beautiful woman, clad in the finest white lingerie. The spot where the beauty disappeared was fragrant with the perfume of roses and violets. Others again say it looked to them like a huge elephant, with streams of fire issuing from its trunk, and when they arrived at the spot where it had vanished, the smell of sulphur and brimstone permeated the air. The young ladies of Alma are frightened and will not venture forth in the evening without an escort. The gallant young men act with the greatest of pleasure in this capacity. So far, the ‘spook’ has not been caught, but if this should be the case, would summarily be dealt with.”
1909: The Devil In Black of Georgetown, Delaware
“More than seven feet in height and swathed in a long black cloak, closely wrapped around its face, a new mystery has been exciting some parts of Georgetown, where it has followed women and young girls and jumped out from behind trees at them. The ‘Devil in Black,’ as it is called, first appeared several nights ago, when a dozen or so persons saw it during the course of the evening. From behind a tree it jumped at Mrs. William Curdy and sent her screaming with freight into a neighbor’s house, while a daughter of Joseph Carnel also was chased by the mysterious stranger until she fell almost fainting into Fred Rust’s grocery store. The men of the neighborhood, informed of the affair, led by William Curdy, ran across fields, jumped fences and through back yards, with the ‘Devil’ but a few yards ahead of them, but, while crossing the big ditch known as the Savannah, the figure completely disappeared and, despite search, could not be found. Again it was seen by several young girls and last night it made its appearance and was seen closely by Mrs. Carn Josephs, who heard a noise as she passed her woodshed. She turned to look and distinctly saw the ‘Devil’ walk out of the shed and after her. Almost fainting with fear she ran screaming into the house, while her husband ran into the yard with his gun and fired at the tall figure, which was plainly distinguished at the woodshed. In a second it was gone with no trace of injury from the gun. Many superstitious declare that bullets cannot hit it, but some of the more determined men declare it is the work of a practical joker and expect to put a load of shot into it at their first opportunity.”
1927: The black robed entity from the murder house, Oakland, California
“The people of Oakland are pretty well convinced that a house where a murder was committed last week is haunted. The experience of a certain electrician as recounted by the worthy A.P. was terrifying enough: John Smith, electrician, said he passed the murder house recently and a tall, heavy set man, garbed in a gown like a black kimono and wearing a ‘strange looking thing on his head,’ walked out and started after him. Smith said he ran as fast as he could.” The context is that the house was the crime scene of the gruesome murder of the 15-year-old schoolgirl Mabel Mayer, a murder that got nationwide coverage and remains unsolved to this very day.