Stupid Question ™
March 29, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: In 100 words or less, what’s the difference between Spring-Heeled Jack and the Jersey Devil?
—anonymous, from the Internet
A: A hundred words or less?! Everybody’s an editor!
These two 1800s bogeymen, both of whom existed mostly in the fevered brains of sensationalist newspaper writers, certainly have a lot in common. Winged, horned, semi-dangerous, thoroughly silly…the list goes on.
The basic difference is that Spring-Heeled Jack was a figment of the English imagination, while the Jersey Devil was dreamt up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Also, Spring-Heeled Jack is the more likely to have some basis in reality. He may also have inspired the Jersey Devil mania.
Typically for such urban (or rural, as the case may be) legends, the histories of these fantastical fiends are hazy and vary from source to source.
Spring-Heeled Jack may date to early-1800s legendry about a high-jumping, quasi-supernatural man. In any case, the London papers got ahold of the idea in 1838, quickly regaling readers with tales of three young women who were assaulted by a person who somehow blew fire into their faces and assaulted them.
In one case, he was reported to be wearing some type of helmet and a white oilskin jumpsuit. As the stories grew more outlandish, he supposed was also seen dressed as a white bull, clad in a suit of armor, and so on.
In any case, he supposedly appeared suddenly and then sprang away to escape. The idea that he jumped superhumanly high to do so—going over walls or even rooftops—appears to be a later invention not found in the original reports from the women.
In the 1840s, a high-jumping, fiendish man was reported in other parts of England. He was usually described as diabolical in appearance, with horns and wings, whether “natural” or part of a costume. One of these sightings was a proven hoax.
Another fad of sightings arose in the 1870s, and Spring-Heeled Jack then sprung his last (aside from some more self-conscious modern “reports”) in Liverpool in 1904.
That Jack was mostly B.S. is patently obvious. He was instantly the subject of lurid adventure magazines and cheap theatrical plays, so it didn’t take long for “sightings” to spread.
However, there does seem to be some credibility to the early stories of women being attacked, exaggerated as they may have been. A truly weird sex maniac is certainly a possibility.
Most modern accounts of Spring-Heeled Jack actually assume it was all a “prank,” albeit one both especially deranged and technologically enhanced in a Jules Verne way. One bizarre story, for which I could not immediately find any primary source, is that an anonymous nobleman actually informed the authorities that he had accepted a bet that he could scare people to death, and Spring-Heeled Jack was the result.
Also regularly repeated now, for absolutely no good reason that I have found, is that Jack was Henry de la Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquis of Waterford, an Irish peer who died in 1859 when he fell off his horse.
Supposedly, he was an inveterate and cruel prankster. ’Twas tempting to investigate this slur upon his memory further, but that wasn’t really your question—and I’m already well over my hundred words.
As for the Jersey Devil, it is so varied it has two basic forms. One is a sort of diabolicized human with horns and a tail. The other is a kind of flying dragon with parts of various other animals. It is known primarily for screaming, and secondarily for flying.
You can take your pick of origin stories. The classic version is that it was spawned as a deformed or otherwise unwanted child of a Mother Leeds in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens in the 1700s. Crawling into the woods, it was somehow vested with diabolical power. (If you consider looking scary and yelling at night to be diabolical.)
The legend does indeed appear to have arisen in the Pine Barrens—southern New Jersey’s vast sandy pine forest—sometime in the 1800s. The story has served various purposes; early versions made it a sort of omen of doom.
However, it was actually Philadelphia newspapers that made the Jersey Devil a mania. These early-1900s stories led to “sightings” throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. One wave of “sightings” included vast trails of cloven hoofprints in the snow, which led nowhere. One can only presume they were fun for someone to create. (Another hoaxer was busted using severed bear feet on a stick.)
It may be significant that these stories popped up around the same time as the last Spring-Heeled Jack stories were hitting the English papers.
The last big hurrah for the Devil was in the 1950s, again affecting a much larger area than the Pine Barrens, and this time resulting in more Bigfoot-like descriptions of the beast.
The New Jersey Pinelands Commission perpetuates the Jersey Devil myth as a reality in its literature to this day, spinning him as a sort of nature spirit who only attacks people who don’t want to save the Pine Barrens. Look out when all these children grow up, realize the Devil is a silly lie, and therefore fully back the completely deforestation of the Barrens.