Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

The Terror of London!

Penned upon the 18th of September, 2009

I love a good mystery – Ms Merah will attest to my Sherlock Holmes mania – but the most fascinating cases are those which actually happened. A lot of people have a favourite mystery – they make good stories to tell and re-tell, meaning that writers and such will pick them up as inspiration, spreading the story further. Unfortunately, this often causes the original stories to collect more than a few fictional elements along the way. Take the Bermuda Triangle, for instance; if I’ve got my facts straight, what really happened was that a squadron of planes on a training flight got badly lost and ran out of fuel, and that one of the search-planes sent out to look for them was an unreliable old model and crashed too. End of mystery, but beginning of an ever-more ridiculous legend, of ships and aircraft vanishing by the dozen. Tchoh.

There’s a not insignificant industry catering to such tall tales – speculation as to the extra-terrestrial nature of the Egyptian pyramids, and so forth. This distressingly distracts from the fascinating genuine history – i.e., the ingenious construction methods of the Egyptians. Not all such stories are so exaggerated, of course! Most concern, not facts impossible to reconcile with known physical laws and historical narratives, but simply the absence of facts at all. The Mary Celeste, for instance; found adrift, ship and cargo intact but crew and instruments missing. A series of similarly brutal murders, attributed to a single unidentified killer, dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper.’ Barring unexpected new evidence, we can but speculate as to the truth of such affairs – truth which seems so teasingly near, which inspires the brain to wonder, to imagine, to experiment.

If I could know the truth of just one of these cases, it would not be any ghost ship, nor the masked prisoner of the Bastille, nor even the Ripper, but another Jack – that is, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London. This Jack is an odd figure – a difficult story to follow, you see. He began as a rumour, a moral panic – as a title given by the press of 1830s London to a cumulation of folk tales, about leaping devils and spectres preying on travellers. Publication inspired imitation – bored youths and drunks started calling themselves ‘Jack’ and spooking or mugging citizens, more or less at random. Amid these ghost stories and minor nuisances hides the faintest possibility of a true oddity, though – of a flesh-and-blood rogue who, presumably taking advantage of existing fears, invested a great deal of effort and ingenuity into terrorising the vulnerable.

How is this? Well, some clever-clogses – including the wonderfully sensible Fortean historian Mike Dash – have located the handful of Spring-Heeled Jack sightings which were investigated by the police, supported by witnesses, and well-recorded in contemporary publishing, but were never conclusively settled. These accounts, including but not limited to the testimonies of the Alsop family following the assault of Jane Alsop, describe a villain dressed in a black cloak and close-fitting oilskins, a fierce-looking mask or helm, and gloves fitted with metal claws. He would catch his victims, usually young women, in lonely locations, or lure them there with a trick, before revealing himself as Jack – by name, in some cases – and, if they were unable to escape, setting about them with his claws, and even spraying fire from his mouth (presumably by means of a reservoir of alcohol.)

Naturally, it’s likely that the more fantastical elements of these reports were exaggerated in all the excitement – the tremendous leaping which gave Spring-Heeled Jack his name; the oddity of his dress; the surely quite dangerous tricks with fire. If any of these accounts were even broadly accurate, though, then someone assembled an elaborate (and probably expensive) costume, fashioned unique and cruel weapons, and probably practised their methods, all in aid of doing injustice and injury onto the young women of London. What manner of man would do such a thing? A popular theory, then and now – though without much evidence to support it – was that a wayward Regency buck was dared or otherwise spurred by his disreputable gang of friends into outraging the common folk of the city. It’s all very Hellfire Club, but even without such speculation, Jack seems something like a real-life supervillain – an early counterpart to real-life heroes like Superbarrio.

In my heart of hearts, I suspect that the truth was far more mundane – that those unfortunate souls like Ms Alsop were attacked by common rascals employing cheap tricks, taking advantage of the rumour mill to sow confusion in their victims. This is why I should like to know the truth of the affair – while the possibility is slight, did someone really do what Spring-Heeled Jack was said to? How did they do it? Rubber-soled boots? An actual spring mechanism? A mask and hood, with a tube for spraying a flammable solution? And why was it done, for pity’s sake – what malicious impulse would have inspired someone to set upon innocents with fire and claw? I suppose the answer to that is the same element which inspires all cruelty achieved from behind a veil of anonymity, of secrecy, or of power.

Whatever the truth, Jack became a favourite of penny-dreadfuls for years afterwards, and still appears in fiction, on occasion. If nothing else, these have furnished us with a number of delightful illustrations of the fellow – usually as a villain; occasionally as a hero, avenging some wrongdoing. We’re driven by stories like his to fill in the blanks, to connect the dots – a worthwhile creative exercise, so long as we keep track of what we do and do not know. That’s why mysteries are good for us, I think – even those concerning actual crime might do good if they bring us to a generally-applicable solution. Oh, and incidentally, Jack sightings still crop up every now and then, so take care next time you go out alone… keep an eye on the rooftops, and if a cloaked stranger calls for a candle, run, run away!


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Commentary upon “The Terror of London!”

  1. Meaghan was heard to remark,

    Upon the 18th of September, 2009 at 8:41 pm,

    I adore popular and ‘pulp’ crime. I think my favourite case is that of Lizzie Borden, but purely because of the rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her father forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one” (some reverse the order of the parents in the rhyme).

    Good to have Frilly Shirt back, too!

    And shouldn’t it be Mrs. or Ms. Merah?


  2. Sir Frederick Chook was heard to remark,

    Upon the 18th of September, 2009 at 9:08 pm,

    Ahh, Lizzie. Whether she did it or not, messed up household.

    Thank you! And, quite right, of course!


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