Springheel Jack was the star of the penny dreadfuls, and terror of London and its surrounding suburbs. He leaped tall buildings in a single bound, clichéd though that may sound to us today.
He wore a cape, or perhaps it was flappy wings, and tight-fitting dark colored clothes, with half boots. He was tall and thin, with a regal bearing, and pointed features that were often described as "devilish."
He also shot bolts of blue fire from his mouth, and his eyes could blaze red.
Now granted, most of the accounts of Springheel Jack probably mix a blend of actual attacks with word of mouth, exaggeration, and a bad mix of cheap gin and poor lighting. In many accounts, Springheel Jack leaps out from the darkness to attack a woman or young girl. He rends their clothes with knife-like fingers or metallic claws, then springs away into the darkness when she screams. In other cases he would leap out before a coach, startle the horses, cause a traffic accident, and then jump over some improbably high barrier to escape.
Springheel Jack is very closely aligned with the devil, and many sketches and accounts of the time make this quite clear. He is often portrayed with a small pointed beard, just as the devil is. His attraction to beautiful young ladies and his ability to leap away are both also traits which the Victorians assigned to the devil.
Victorian London was a terrifying place. There was no need to look for monsters, but people found them anyway. It was a filthy city, riddled with a poverty so profound that people paid extra to sleep sitting upright on a bench overnight, disease rampant, horse droppings and rotten food everywhere, and the constant haze of industrial smog and coal dust. Rape, murder, and thievery of every sort was an everyday occurrence.
And then there was Jack the Ripper, whose terrifying reign over London stretched from 1888 to 1891, and perhaps beyond.
Despite - or perhaps because - of the fundamental facts of London life in the 1800s, tales of monsters and ghosts abounded. This is the era that gave us Frankenstein and Dracula, the wolf-man, the Murders at the Rue Morgue, the birth of the Victorian ghost story, and more.
One likely culprit for Springheel Jack is the Marquess of Waterford, who hated women and the police with equal fervor. He often bragged of playing a prank on women where he would leap out from the darkness and terrify them. (Hilarious.)
Other theories include one of my favorites, which is that he was an alien from a planet where they breathe phosphorus (thus the blue flame breath), and a higher gravity (thus the ability to jump). No explanation is ever given for why an alien should want to visit Victorian London, much less why it would spend all its time scaring poor young women and upsetting carriage horses.
Photo credit: Flickr/wallyg