Along with my passion for the paranormal and all things strange is my interest in Great Britain's history and mythology. I'm going to piece together many of the vintage tales and occasionally post these collections. If you have a venerable narrative or anecdote that you'd like to share, please feel free to forward to me.
The old Newgate Prison harbors one of London’s most terrifying apparitions, that of an evil black hound. The legend dates back to the reign of Henry III, during a period of extreme famine, where prisoners were alleged to have gorged upon one another to survive! One of these victims was said to have been a sorcerer of the darkest arts, who claimed near death that he would seek revenge on the inmates. A fascinating account originates from the pen of a Luke Hutton, who was an inmate in the 1500s, and hanged in 1598. This oft-repeated version of the beast comes from 1638, entitled 'The Discovery of a London Monster' and reads as follows:
I maintained that I had read an old Chronicle that it was a walking spirit in the likeness of a blacke dog, gliding up and down the streets a little before the time of Execution, and in the night whilst Sessions continued, and his beginning thus.
In the raigne of King Henry the third there happened such a famine through England, but especially in London, that many starved for want of food, by which meanes the Prisioners in Newgate eat up one another altue, but commonly those that came newly in..there was a certain scholar brought tither, upon suspicion of Conjuring, and that he by Charmes and devilish Whitchcrafts, had done much hurt to the kings subjects, which Scholler, mauger his Devil Furies, Spirits and Goblins, was by the famished prisoners eaten up…
With vengeance promised by the prey: …nightly to see the Scholler in the shape of a black Dog walking up and downe the Prison, ready with ravening Jawes to teare out their bowles; for his late human flesh they had so hungerly eaten, and withal they hourely heard (as they thought) strange groanes and cries, as if it had been some creature in great paine and torments, whereupin such a nightly feare grew amongst them, that it turned into a Frenzie, and from a Frenzie to Desperation, in which desperation they killed the keeper, and so many of them escaped forth, but yet whither soever they came or went they imagined a Blacke Dog to follow, and by this means, as I doe thinke, the name of him began.
Mr Stock moved into his home in Highbury during 1849. Although the door number was 13, Mr Stock was not prone to superstition. And the overhanging trees and overgrown garden also did not deter Mr Stock. The rent was cheap, and that was the main thing.
Mr Stock employed a housekeeper, a Mrs Brown. Their first night at the property was a little strange, because as Mr Stock retired to bed, on passing a window he noticed not only his own reflection, but one of a very ugly, almost hideous looking man. Again though, Mr Stock had more important things on his tired mind. The following night whilst reading a magazine in bed Mr Stock dozed off but suddenly awoke. In the glow of the candle he noticed an old woman at the far end of the room. Eerily, the door began to open and the haggard figure slinked out the exit. Mr Stock’s yell alarmed Mrs Brown who comforted him but told him it was just a dream.
Two weeks went by without event, until that night he returned home from the theatre. With candle in hand Stock crept wearily upstairs. Staring once again, possibly by habit now, at the window, Stock noticed in the reflection that someone was following him up the stairs. Turning round he saw a terrifying apparition. A ghastly, wretched face almost obscured by a head of wild, shaggy hair. The figure had a hunched back, and its face was illuminated by some unnatural light. The sinister ghoul clutched a table knife in one dirty paw, and slowly ascended the stairs, step by step, towards the cowering Mr Stock.
Bizarrely, as the figure came closer, Stock realised that the monstrous spectre was completely oblivious to his presence, gliding by him on the stairwell and heading towards Stock’s bedroom. Stock, almost frozen with fear, found the strength and courage to follow the intruder. The beast reached the door, turned the door handle slowly and entered. Stock peered over the shoulder of the wraith at a distance, just in case the hunchback suddenly became aware of Stock, who clearly at this point was not on the same astral plateau.
Stock then saw the elderly woman he’d seen in the ‘dream’. She looked petrified as the hunchback leered with menace and approached her. Suddenly, the door slammed shut by the force of the wind. Stock reached for the handle, desperate to free himself from the horror about to unfold. However, when he quickly glanced back at the room, there was no terrified woman, and there was no evil hunchback. Stock ran downstairs and spent the remainder of the dark hours with gaslight in full flow.
Shortly after, Stock was brave enough to search the house but found no other presence or sign that anyone had been there. However, he did find that many years ago the house had been inhabited by a woman and her rather deformed son. Rumour had it that the woman left home and allegedly died abroad and the hunchback stayed in the house, never venturing in to daylight. Local word said that the reclusive figure then mysteriously vanished.
Dragon-like ‘sky serpents’, which have also been connected to sightings of weird-shaped craft throughout history, have been occasionally seen over London. The Brentford Griffin, if genuine, was the last of the ‘dragon’ sightings, but a similar beast was spotted during the 1700s, and was mentioned in "The Gentleman’s Magazine":
“In the beginning of the month of August, 1776, a phenomenon was seen in a parish a few miles west of London, which much excited the curiosity of the few persons that were so fortunate to behold it. The strange object was of the serpent kind; its size that of the largest common snake and as well as could be discovered from so transient a view of it, resembled by its grey, mottled skin. The head of this extraordinary animal appeared about the same size as a small woman’s hand. It had a pair of short wings very forward on the body, near its head; and the length of the whole body was about two feet. Its flight was very gentle; it seemed too heavy to fly either fast or high, and its manner of flying was not in a horizontal attitude, but with its head considerably higher than the tail, so that it seemed continually labouring to ascend without ever being able to raise itself much higher than seven or eight feet from the ground.”
Even more amazing was the fact that the magazine recorded, in 1797, another flying serpent account, this time between Hyde Park Corner and Hammersmith, on 15th June late one evening. The witness, merely known as ‘J.R.’, wrote a letter describing the weird encounter, stating “…the body was of a dark colour, and about the thickness of the lower part of a man’s arm, about two-feet long.”
The witness continued, “…the wings were very short and placed near the head. The head was raised above the body. It was not seven or eight-feet above the ground.”
Whilst the creature seemed very life-like, and indeed almost like a flying snake, the letter ended in morose fashion, concluding, “…being an animal of such uncommon description, I was particular in noticing the day of the month, and likewise being the day preceding a most dreadful storm of thunder and lightning.”
One of the most curious and persistent of all paranormal creatures is Spring Heeled Jack. Reports of his existence date back to the early 19th century in Sheffield, England, and he has been reported on and off in England and the US as recently as 1995. And while a decent case can be made that the legend of Spring Heeled Jack is nothing more than a series of cruel hoaxes, it would represent a conspiracy of impressive scope and durability.
In 1808, a letter to the editor of the Sheffield Times recounted how "Years ago a famous Ghost walked and played many pranks in this historic neighbourhood." The writer went on to identify this entity as the "Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack," and briefly described its ability to take enormous leaps and frighten random passers-by, but concluded, "he was a human ghost as he ceased to appear when a certain number of men went with guns and sticks to test his skin."
The following is the chronicle of chaos:
September 1837 – Barnes Common. Over the course of two nights a businessman, and then three girls, were confronted by a fiery-eyed, darkly clad figure. The apparition tore at their clothes and laughed.
Early October 1837 – Cut-Throat Lane, Clapham Common. Mary Stevens, heading towards what was then Lavender Hill, was groped and kissed by a laughing maniac. The following night, a carriage on Streatham High Road was attacked by a creature. Both coachmen and the footman were injured in the crash. A woman walking near Clapham churchyard with her two sons observed a tall, thin and darkly clad gentleman who mocked them.
October 11th 1837 – Blackheath. Polly Adams was assaulted by a mysterious, bounding attacker, described as being cloaked, having glowing eyes and a mouth that spat blue flame. With iron like claws the assailant tore at her clothes, exposing her breasts, and then fled in a rapture of mocking laughter.
Late autumn 1837. Rumours of a stalking spectre at Hampton, Richmond, and Kingston.
Winter 1837. Two young girls were cornered in Dulwich; the clothes were ripped from one. In Forest Gate a couple were confronted; the man had his face slashed whilst a gypsy lady hampered the exploits of the criminal, calling for nearby help before the attacker could strike. He disappeared into the mist.
January 9th 1838. The Lord Mayor at Mansion House addressed the audience with mention of a disguised prankster, appearing also as a ‘ghost’, ‘bear’ and ‘devil’, claiming that the “unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses”. In the same month, rumour spread that the ‘Peckham Ghost’ had attacked and killed in areas of Vauxhall, Brixton and Stockwell. In St John’s Wood the ‘monster’ attacked for two weeks and police believed the criminal would murder six women.
Late January 1838. The name Spring Heeled Jack was born, originating from his ways of leaping, described as ‘springald’ – a jumping jack.
February 1838. Sisters Lucy and Margaret Scales visited their brother Tom at Narrow Street, Limehouse. The girls left Tom at 8:35 pm, and as they walked along a dimly lit passageway, Lucy saw a fleeting figure, which then pounced. She was enveloped in his cloak, the glow of a lantern showing his mouth of blue flame. The figure vanished into the night. Two days later at the home of a Mr Alsop, a knock at the door during a late hour disturbed his three daughters, Mary, 16, Jane, 18, and the married Sarah. Jane went to the door and in the gloom of the shadows saw a tall, dark figure wearing a top hat. “I am a policeman,” the figure muttered, “for God’s sake bring me a light we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane!” he exclaimed. Jane hurried indoors to grab a candle but upon turning around was met by the figure the whole of London had become so fearful of. Again, his eyes were aglow, as was his flaming mouth. He wore a large helmet and tight fitting garb, and with razor claws slashed at Jane’s garments. It was sister Sarah who took on Jack, freeing her sister from his fateful grasp and then screaming for the police, sending the attacker of into the shadows. According to Mr Alsop, the fiend left his cloak behind.
February 27th 1838. A servant boy at Turner Street, off Commercial Road, answered the door to a figure with glinting claws and fiery eyes. The boy screamed and the form fled. The next day whilst under questioning, the boy claimed that upon the chest of the intruder he saw a breastplate showing off some ornate crest and also the letter ‘W’.
1839. Reports of bounding, fiery-eyed attackers come from as far afield as the Midlands.
Early 1840s. A cloaked, spring-heeled figure was rumoured to have terrorised the Home Counties.
August 26th 1843. A cloven-hoofed ‘Jack’ assaulted a man at Commercial Road. However, the victim fought back against the cloaked figure, even setting him on fire, although such a figure seems like a hoax.
November 1845 – Bermondsey. A springing, leaping figure was seen by several witnesses, bounding through Jacob’s Island. The figure then grabbed thirteen-year old prostitute Mary Davis on the bridge crossing Folly Ditch, spat flame in her face and then threw her into the murky depths where she perished. Her body was recovered and she became the first recorded victim of SHJ.
1870s. Reports from 1845 onwards seem a little vague. During the 1870s the ‘Peckham Ghost’ attacked a wagon at Lordship Lane, and was also seen at Dulwich College, but many of these figures seem to appear as pale imitations of the original, sinister terror.
1900s. SHJ haunted parts of Aldershot.
Spring Heeled Jack’s exploits, since their birth, have embedded themselves in world folklore with similar apparitions being sighted across the United States, South America, France and elsewhere in the UK. Many researchers believe that the Marquis of Waterford was the man behind the original London crimes, an eccentric Irish nobleman about whom author Peter Haining claimed, “the exploits of Spring Heeled Jack were wholly within his capabilities”, in his detailed book on the legend (The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack). Waterford died in 1859, although similar attacks occurred in Norfolk in 1877.
Some theorise that SHJ was an extraterrestrial, but whatever your beliefs on alien humanoids, this theory just doesn’t hold weight. Jack was also blamed for the mysterious set of footprints covering snowy Devon in 1855, which could not be attributed to any known animal or means of human capability.
Whether ghost, devil, serial killer or prankster, the crimes and events that many claimed were the work of the infamous shadow will always remain foggy, because, just like Jack The Ripper only a few decades later, Sweeney Todd, the London Monster previous, and many other puzzling mysteries, they are simply best left unsolved, even as they persist to the present day.
"The Blacke Dogge of Newgate" - Luke Hutton - 1638
"Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London" - Anonymous