Victorian Periodicals are a treasure trove for stories, think pieces, and news. These mass-produced publications became increasingly popular in the 19th century British Empire.
But their illustrations often go unnoticed.
In the 19th century, famed artists like George Cruikshank, Kate Greenaway, and W. Heath Robinson rendered tragic moments of gruesome murders, miracles, or monotonous news for periodicals. Even Queen Victoria once had a drawing published in The Strand Magazine. You might have come across them in history books and thought of them as simply recording history.
But they had wide-ranging effects that still influence us, like in the case of Spring-heeled Jack.
Illustrations helped fear-monger. And to drum up pennies (today, they’d be clicks!), art certainly lent a, ah, creative hand. In this illustration of Jumbo, the artist captures an atmosphere of excitement and moodiness. Whether this is what the parade actually looked like is impossible to tell – we’re venturing into other topics about memory, truth, and manipulation. BUT, we can guess, yes, that’s probably pretty similar to what Jumbo’s journey looked like. But how do you illustrate supernatural stories and hearsay?
In January 1838 near Clapham, London (hello, old home!) a young woman was walking home when a dark figure leaped from an alley and attacked her. He tore at her clothes with cold claws. He kissed her terrified face. And he began to scratch her skin. Thankfully, her shrieks of horror made him flee. This was the first attack of the man that was dubbed “Spring-heeled Jack”.
The attacks continued and then spread from London across the country in the following months and years. From London to Scotland people claimed to see the springing man. He even inspired a play shortly after in 1840. The last “credible” (I guess..) sighting was in 1904.
Victims said he had red eyes and an oilskin cape. He belched blinding blue fire. And, most famously, he would leap away from the scene of his terrifying attacks. He leapt clear over buildings and into the dark night according to witnesses.
Naturally, this surreal man garnered national attention and fascination. If all the cases (or any) were true, Spring-heeled Jack was a very busy man. (Mass hysteria is always fun. When those clown attacks popped up a few years ago, he came to mind.)
How did artists illustrate this sinister figure? And how did they help shape the iconic urban legend?
In newspapers and blotters, he was depicted as devilish looking, with trademark horns and a billowing cape. He’s cartoonish in some ways, more of a trick-or-treater than a super-powered sex offender. Depicted as a demon, he’s nearer to earlier representations of a roguish Mephistopheles that what we think of today.
This image of Spring-heeled Jack on Newport Arch looks similar to the Mephistopheles doodle in a French occult book (pictured above).
But, soon enough Spring-heeled Jack leapt into the grisly imagination of penny-dreadful writers and illustrators. His appearance shifted to suit their needs – whatever form would be most terrifying. Sometimes he looked like a hairy beast, practically flying at victims. And this boy flew practically naked.
Or, Jack would take the appearance of a leaping lord. All the appearance of a respectable gentleman in the day, a jumping sex offender at night.
I think Jack the Ripper owns this Victorian mysterious gentleman territory. He could be the neighbor next door. And let’s be honest, he’s far more terrifying.
Spring-heeled Jack feels campy (though no doubt victims would disagree). His superpowers are hopping super high y’all and vomiting flame. I think that’s what ultimately informs his dandy-like ridiculousness stock character. So later penny dreadful and serials featured a feathered batlike man with tight pants. And somewhere in the late 19th century, this version of the Spring-heeled Jack stuck. And you know what, it works better than it should.
Target audiences were clearly younger by the 20th century.
Today, Spring-heeled Jack is a staple of Victorian folklore. And while he may not be as popular as Jack the Ripper, he’s gaining more attention in pop culture and academia. He’s not as, well, tired. And because Spring-heeled Jack is not as entrenched in popular consciousness today, artists can play up his sinister weirdo-king side, steampunk vibes, or calculated violent tendencies.
Jack is far removed from how artists illustrated the first attacks that haunted London. But, I do wish he vomited flame more in depictions.
- Spring-Heeled Jack: Man or Fiend (Penny Dreadful Press) (Volume 2)
- The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero
- The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures