Outrage at Old Ford
London, 9th January 1838. Afore the public assembled at the Mansion House, a letter from a Peckham resident was read out loud by mayor Sir John Cowan. It alluded to a media cover-up of a number of recent assaults on young ladies, by a gentleman from the "highest ranks of life" that had struck a wager to dress up and prank the people of London. Many of the Mansion House crowd had heard of the events, and related their own news. Over the next few days, the mayor was bombarded with letters detailing other recent attacks.
The perpetrator was consistently described as having some most eccentric characteristics: he was said to dress in oilskin clothes, have whirling eyes, and be able to breathe fire. Most characteristically of all, however, was the fact that his heels were equipped with a spring mechanism that enabled him to traverse walls when fleeing his crime scenes. The papers termed him Spring Heeled Jack, and covered the unfolding story. It was fifty years after the monster, and fifty before the ripper, that this most perplexing of criminals was at large.
Even the Duke of Wellington, now in his seventies, lent a hand and took to the streets at night on horseback attempting to apprehend the scoundrel. It was proposed that the fire-breathing was a stage trick, and in one of the most prominent cases, an attack on the eighteen year old Miss Jane Alsop, a Mr. Farrell of the Pavilion Theatre was brought in as an expert witness to testify as to which compounds could be used to produce such an effect.
It was a quarter to nine on the evening of February the 20th. Sunset had been at a quarter past five, so it was pitch black outside Mr. Alsop's cottage in Bearbinder Lane, recorded as Berebyndereslane in 1341 but now called Tredegar Road, between what were then the villages of Bow and Old Ford. Bear-bind Cottage, as it was called, was "at a considerable distance from any other", and indeed the Greenwoods' 1827 Map of London only shows one one residence along Bearbinder Lane, opposite what is now Shetland Road. Mr. Alsop's daughter Jane heard a commotion at the gate outside and opened the front door to find a stranger who said he was a policeman, who called to her: "For God's sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane!"
Jane brought the policeman a candle whereupon she saw that he had "a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and [white] flame from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire." He then attacked her, clawing at her shoulders and neck, before her sister, Mrs. Harrison, came and pulled her inside. Mrs. Harrison later testified that at this time "her sister's dress was nearly torn off her; both her combs dragged out of her head, as well as a quantity of her hair torn away." But the attacker had been beaten and fled, dropping his cloak in the process, which was not found.
This was reported in The Times of 22nd February, on p.6, and is usually the only part of the story that is retold. It's even the full extent of the coverage on Wikipedia, but the story didn't stop there. The next week, everyone who was concerned in the "Outrage at Old Ford" was summoned to Lambeth-street-office, to be interrogated by the investigating officer, Mr. Hardwick, in front of a county magistrate. The room was packed on each of the two days over which the case was heard.
The family had called loudly for the police from their top windows after the incident, and it was only then that the mysterious man had vanished. Soon on the scene were a number of people that had been passing, or drinking in the John Bull local pub, "some distance off", where the cries had been heard. One of the witnesses who was passing by was James Smith, a coach wheelwright living at 9 Prospect-place, Old Ford-row. Also present was Mr. Milbank, a carpenter, who had been in the area and was now suspected as being involved, along with a master bricklayer called Payne. Payne and Milbank had been drinking in the White Hart and Morgan's Arms pubs that night, and Milbank said he could remember nothing of the evening from drunkeness. James Smith, on the other hand, remembered the night's events clearly:
"when I had got a few yards up it
(the Coborn-road), I saw the same two men whom I had met
before in Bear Binder's-lane. They were in conversation, and
Payne said to the other, "It was rascally; I would not have
had it done upon any account," or words to that effect. I was
carrying my work upon my shoulder at the time, and they
recognized me, and the man in the shooting-jacket said,
"There's the —— who was in the lane." He then came up
to me, and caught hold of the wheel I was carrying, and
pulled it off my shoulder, saying at the same time, "What
have you to say to Spring Jack?" I desired him to leave
my wheel alone, and then Payne came and took him away.
"I went into the Morgan's Arms public-house, and they fol-
lowed me in, and and went into either the tap-room or parlour.
I inquired of the landlord who the man in the shooting-jacket
was, and he said that his name was Milbank, and that he
resided nearly opposite to his house. I have no doubt but
that the man Milbank was the person who had so frightened
the Misses Alsop; and with respect to the "blue lights,"
neither Mr. Richardson nor myself observed anything of the
—The Times, Friday, 2nd March 1838; p.7
Payne admitted to having been with Milbank all night, but after some hesitation denied everything else. Milbank was wearing the same white fustian smoking-jacket to the inquiry that he had been wearing on the night of the incident. The next day, the inquiry continued, but the Misses Alsop refused to change their statements. Though Mr. Hardwick had said that "it was evident, from what had taken place, the two persons suspected knew more about the affair than they wished to acknowledge", when the statements went unchanged the matter was left hanging in the air. The papers report no more, and though it's technically still a mystery, it's not difficult to see what happened.
As John Adcock has put it, "what is reported is suggestive of a fraud on the press and the public by penny-a-line reporters during a slow news and parliamentary period." But it's hard to discover the truth behind the stories now, and even if the Alsop event is representative of the larger macrocosm, some of the earlier attacks especially may be more reputable. It does at least show, amongst other things, that believable stories get repeated as fact, and that great but simple mysteries can be comprised of many small but complex ones.
Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Outrage at Old Ford", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/oldford