WEIRD SUFFOLK: Spring-heeled Jack – the terrifying fire-breathing bogeyman of Suffolk with metal claws and the ability to leap
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He’s the frightening menace that terrified us as children, the bogeyman who was there to check whether or not we behaved ourselves.
Spring-heeled Jack, Suffolk’s very own monster, was the shape that shifts underneath children’s beds at night, the shadow inside the wardrobe, the footsteps on the stairs and the tapping on the window on dark nights. But Jack isn’t just an imaginary horror: he’s been seen by many witnesses. He made his first appearance in London in 1837 and was last spotted in Liverpool in 1904, but in between, he was often found in Suffolk. Lucky us.
While descriptions of the horrifying entity vary, one thing was certain – you’d be in no doubt that you’d seen Spring-heeled Jack if he crossed your path. Reports said he had claws for hands and could breathe blue and white flames, that he wore a black cloak and had “red balls of fire” for eyes while others said he was tall and thin and looked like a gentleman.
In historian Mike Dash’s history of the beastly creature, it recounts tales from London residents who reported being attacked by a “ghost, devil or imp” which chose mainly women as its prey. Spring Heeled-Jack would ring a doorbell and, when it was answered, would tear at the woman’s clothes with its terrible claws or he would ambush them as they walked – some said the creature wore red shoes. When the story appeared in newspapers, it was dismissed as fanciful and in 1838, the Lord Mayor of London, John Cowan, claimed the attacks were all the work of a gang rather than a bogeyman. But the stories continued and Jack’s terrible reputation grew, mainly on account of a talent he had…for leaping. It was said that he was able to leap up to 9ft in the air, which lent him his nickname, ‘Spring-heeled’.
Penny Dreadfuls began to star ‘Spring-Heeled Jack The Terror of London’ and parents began to use him as an invisible behaviour monitor to persuade their children to behave. Between 1840 and 1870, Jack appeared across England, from the Black Country to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, mainly targeting women, but also coachmen and anyone else who had to be away from their homes after dark. As Mr Dash writes: “The awful, fiery breath was seldom seen, but witnesses often remarked on Jack’s blazing eyes and always on the inhuman leaps he made, clearing hedges and gates, even mail coaches, in a single bound.
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Other accounts claimed Jack’s claws were made of metal, like an early prototype for A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger. It was believed that Jack was actually arrested in Eye in 1842, but he literally vanished while in custody due to, The Ipswich Journal claimed, “some chemical process”.
In the Bury and Norwich Post of Christmas Eve 1878, the curious story of the creature that frightens women and children at night was recounted
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“…one evening, about three weeks or a month ago, the porter at the Suffolk General Hospital, hearing that the mistress of the school near by had seen something she could not understand at the back of the school, searched for the supposed disturber,” the article read. “His companions soon left him, and he then strolled down the exercising-ground immediately opposite the Hospital. It was dark, and as he walked down the path he saw immediately in front of him a tall figure clothed apparently in a black and white hairy skin, which enveloped its head, and reached the ground.
“The figure stood perfectly quiet and unmoved until the porter, working round its flank, so to speak, with the intent, if possible, to see its face, prepared to throw a stone at it, whereupon the figure glided away amongst the adjacent trees, and the porter his composure somewhat disturbed, returned to the Hospital.
“He believes that what he saw was a man dressed up, and any sensible person will not be long in coming to the same conclusion.”
In 1977, the prolific Suffolk author and anthologist Peter Haining, who died in 2007, wrote The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack, pulling together accounts that spanned more than a century.
Spring-Heeled Jack, he said, was said to have appeared at Little Melton Lane (now Rectory Lane), between Attleborough and Shropham, and also at North Walsham in Norfolk. He has been seen in the Midlands, in Colchester and in Essex.
In Lincoln, townsfolk shot at him in the street while for those living in Everton in Liverpool it was them who didn’t walk alone when Jack paid his last reported visit to England in 1904, leaping from the cobbled streets to the rooftops and back.
Has Jack come back to Suffolk? Best behave yourselves or you might find out.