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The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack

The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures

Karl Bell
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack
    Book Description:

    This book uses the nineteenth-century legend of Spring-Heeled Jack to analyse and challenge current notions of Victorian popular cultures. Starting as oral rumours, this supposedly supernatural entity moved from rural folklore to metropolitan press sensation, co-existing in literary and theatrical forms before finally degenerating into a nursery lore bogeyman to frighten children. A mercurial and unfixed cultural phenomenon, Spring-Heeled Jack found purchase in both older folkloric traditions and emerging forms of entertainment. Through this intriguing study of a unique and unsettling figure, Karl Bell complicates our appreciation of the differences, interactions and similarities between various types of popular culture between 1837 and 1904. The book draws upon a rich variety of primary source material including folklorist accounts, street ballads, several series of 'penny dreadful' stories (and illustrations), journals, magazines, newspapers, comics, court accounts, autobiographies and published reminiscences. 'The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack' is impressively researched social history and provides a fascinating insight into Victorian cultures. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in nineteenth-century English social and cultural history, folklore or literature. Karl Bell is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-039-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Spring-heeled Jack leapt into the popular imagination on Tuesday 9th January 1838. This may seem like uncannily accurate dating for a cultural process, but it was the day on which The Times reported on an announcement made the day before by Sir John Cowen, the Lord Mayor of the City of London. Cowen had made public a letter from an anonymous ‘Peckham resident’ who wanted to bring news of a supposedly supernatural attacker to the attention of the authorities.¹ Since the previous autumn tales had been circulating among the villages that fringed south London, firstly of a phantom bull or...

  5. Part I The Legend

    • 1 The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack
      (pp. 19-46)

      Whilst the name of Spring-heeled Jack may be reasonably familiar, the story from which it originates is not so well known. The principal aim of this chapter is to set out a narrative of the legend’s development from rural rumours around the fringes of south London in late 1837, through the metropolitan scare popularised in the press in early 1838, and then on to a migratory character of predominantly provincial folklore until his last sightings in the early years of the twentieth century. In doing so it aims to provide both a chronological framework of the legend’s story arc and...

    • 2 The Cultural Anatomy of a Legend
      (pp. 47-72)

      Spring-heeled Jack was a ‘new’ legend who also had identifiable links to earlier cultural influences. It was this rich hybridity that prevented him from merely being a nineteenth-century version of a pre-existing migratory motif. Although wholly original, Spring-heeled Jack’s originality was located in the gestalt derived from his opulent cultural compilation. In many ways Spring-heeled Jack was not so much born as evolved, his legend defined by a transformative, acquisitive nature that left him in a state of constant gestation. Whilst this may sound like a convoluted way of saying it was made up as it went along, the legend’s...

  6. Part II Cultural Functions

    • 3 Spring-heeled Jack, Crime, and the Reform of Customary Culture
      (pp. 75-99)

      When Spring-heeled Jack has been remembered at all it is as a curious footnote in the history of nineteenth-century crime, and this chapter approaches its various concerns from this perspective. Spring-heeled Jack intersected but never clearly correlated with contemporary notions of criminality. Whilst accounts firmly indicate Spring-heeled Jack was male, the rumours that he was a malevolent aristocratic prankster contradicted more conventional views that most criminals were lower-class men motivated by poverty. Given his peripatetic nature, Spring-heeled Jack was not associated with any of the capital’s perceived criminal localities. Despite multiple appearances around London he appears to have studiously avoided...

    • 4 Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society
      (pp. 100-121)

      As with gender, issues of social class were intricately woven into the development and operation of Spring-heeled Jack’s legend. This chapter firstly examines the way anti-aristocratic feelings informed both ‘official’ and popular interpretations of his suspected identity. At the same time the swirl of popular supernatural rumour that surrounded his name enabled the lower classes to be conceived and presented as a superstitious ‘other’ compared to the respectable bourgeoisie. Following from this, it then examines how social position informed the credibility (or not) of witnesses and victims and argues that it was only when middle-class witnesses spoke out that Spring-heeled...

    • 5 Spring-heeled Jack and London
      (pp. 122-142)

      When the Lord Mayor of the City of London was informed of Spring-heeled Jack’s appearances around the metropolis in January 1838 his characteristically detached response was that such a figure ‘was not calculated for the meridian of London’.¹ A few days later a magistrate and barrister echoed this sentiment when he declared that ‘this visitation in the nineteenth century, so near the metropolis … [is] too absurd for belief’.² Whilst such bizarre and superstitious accounts may have been expected to find fertile soil in rural communities, they seemingly had no place in London, at least as it was perceived by...

  7. Part III Cultural Dynamism

    • 6 Cultural Nodes: Localities
      (pp. 145-169)

      Following the London scares of early 1838 Spring-heeled Jack was swiftly appropriated by numerous localities beyond the metropolis. In March 1838 the Hampshire Advertiser claimed a local criminal was as hard to catch as Spring-heeled Jack.¹ The following month the Brighton Gazette recorded that Spring-heeled Jack had ‘found his way to the Sussex coast’.² By June the Bristol Mercury reported that Spring-heeled Jack was appearing ‘in most of the boroughs, villages and cities in England’.³ Unlike Jack the Ripper’s enduring connection with Whitechapel, an association which branded his legend into the psychic geography of the district, Spring-heeled Jack’s migratory nature...

    • 7 Cultural Modes: Oral, Literary and Visual
      (pp. 170-199)

      Spring-heeled Jack’s grammar of the fantastical was transmitted and translated across a variety of cultural modes, causing him to become an ever-shifting reproduction and reconstruction of himself. Whilst this led to alterations in Spring-heeled Jack’s actions and appearances, even his very nature, these developments should not be viewed as elaborations upon or degenerations of a ‘pure’ ur-story. Rather all versions, with their resonances and disparities from one another, were incorporated into the legend.¹ Writing in 1869 James Greenwood suggested a scale of influence in regard to three popular cultural modes of the period. Whilst cheap literature was prone to stirring...

    • 8 The Decline and Demise of Spring-heeled Jack
      (pp. 200-222)

      Following the brief revival of interest in Spring-heeled Jack at the Aldershot and Colchester army bases in 1877 and 1878, the cultural dynamism that had powered his legend began to ebb, his grip on the popular imagination slackening. The 1880s seemed to mark an important transitional period in his decline as there was a noticeable dip in reported ‘real’ encounters in this decade compared with earlier years. This was recognised by contemporaries. In December 1887 the Liverpool Mercury reported on popular interest in a bright star seen in the south-eastern sky before dawn, noting, ‘Now that the “Spring-heel Jack” craze...

  8. Conclusion: Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Popular Cultures
    (pp. 223-230)

    This study has attempted to engage with popular culture at a relatively abstract level, trying to bring a degree of joined-up thinking back to a concept that is now more frequently viewed through the fragmented lens of particular subdisciplinary interests and perspectives. It has tried to tether these somewhat amorphous conceptualisations through exploration of a specific historical artefact, the Victorian urban legend of Spring-heeled Jack. Whilst this may obviously make me guilty of the very charge I have just leveled at practices elsewhere, it is my hope that I have been able to indicate the broader reflections upon popular cultures...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-254)
  10. Index
    (pp. 255-264)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-265)