Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives


Spring-heeled Jack and the terrified child

Spring-heeled Jack

Spring-heeled Jack cut such a fearsome figure in his prime that it is no surprise that he has been blamed, over the years, for causing a number of fatalities. On at least one occasion he is supposed to have actually murdered his victim, but in most cases he is said to have polished them off using that old bogeyman's stand-by, the ability to frighten an unfortunate witness to death.

The most notorious of Jack's killings, of course, is his alleged murder of a 13-year-old London prostitute named Maria Davis. She is said, by a good number of secondary sources, to have been flung into the foetid waters of Folly Ditch, in Jacob's Island, in November 1845 and left there to drown. The Davis killing is, however, a fake; it was first mentioned by the notoriously unreliable Peter Haining in his The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring-heeled Jack, pp.84-5, and an examination of the surviving London coroner's records and death certificates shows that no such incident ever occurred.

Haining is also the source for at least three other cases in which Jack was allegedly blamed for a mysterious death – the discovery of a man found dead by a roadside in Surrey in 1848 'with claw marks across his face and body'; the murder of a 'pretty young girl' in Hertford seven years later whose breasts were scratched and whose legs were covered with burn marks; and the demise of an 'old woman' whose body was discovered by the side of a road in Middlesex in 1863 'with such fear written across her face that she could only have been frightened to death by a terrifying attacker.' [Ibid pp.85-6] His reputation in matters of accuracy has sunk so low that it seems almost superfluous to point out that he provides no sources to back any of these statements, either, and not one of these three cases have ever been reported anywhere else. As it happens, however, the archives do hold records of at least one case in which Jack actually was found guilty – by a coroner's court – of frightening a victim to death. The story was reported in the Liverpool Mercury of 15 December 1887, at the tail end of what had been a considerable Spring-heeled Jack scare on Merseyside. Here it is:

Child frightened to death.–Last night, Mr. S. Brighouse held an inquest at Churchtown, Southport, on the body of Jane Halsall, seven years of age, daughter of Peter Halsall, gardener, Mill-lane. The father said the deceased met him last Wednesday as he was returning from work and told him that the children with whom she played said the Liverpool ghost, “Springheeled Jack,” was coming to Southport. She afterwards repeated the statement to her mother, who tried to allay the child’s fears by telling her that the ghost was “dead and buried.” During the night the child became seriously ill, and when Dr Hawksley was summoned the next night he found her unconscious, in which state she remained until her death. About six hours before the deceased expired she was heard to say, “The ghost is coming.” The cause of death was certified to be congestion of the brain, due to fright.– The Coroner remarked that whoever personated the ghost was a mean and despicable fellow. When he learned that he had caused this child’s death he would no doubt feel it very much. It was such a monstrous thing that a man should have the power to strike terror into children and timid people in this way, that he hoped the delinquent would be caught and be the recipient of severe punishment if the law could reach him.– The jury concurred in these remarks, and returned a verdict of “Death by Fright."

It would not do, of course, to take this story at face value. "Congestion of the brain" was one of those imprecise blanket terms common in the nineteenth century, and was used to describe a bewildering variety of conditions, among them strokes and brain haemorrhages. Neither seems likely to have killed a seven year old child, but meningitis was also often referred to in this way, and (judging from the scanty description of Jane Halsall's symptoms) it was most likely this that actually killed the unfortunate girl.

Wrong though the coroner's jury may have been, however, there is no gainsaying its verdict. The plain fact is that Spring-heeled Jack really was judged, at least once, and found guilty in a court of law.

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