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Conspiracy in Culture: Spring-heeled Jack and the Monkey-Man

As we look at different cultures around the world, we can’t help but notice a few of the strange occurrences and coincidences that pop up from time to time, and from place to place. This segment will explore a few of the more outlandish cultural curios that we have come across in our research – side-stories that are often overlooked by history books and travel guides. We will begin with the strange tale of England’s Spring-heeled Jack.

In 1837, Great Britain was plagued by a spate of strangeness in the form of a bizarre entity that would leap out of the shadows to terrorize the country, perplex its police, and molest its women. Aside from a very odd appearance, the man-creature was said to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Obviously, only one name came to the minds of Victorian-era Londoners: Spring-heeled Jack! Descriptions of this nefarious fiend varied depending on the location of the report and the amount of absinthe that had been consumed that night. Largely, descriptions described Spring-heeled Jack as a monstrous man with primitive, ape-like features, and a very peculiar fashion sense. He was clad in a dark cape, a silver helmet, and a white body suit like an oilskin. There was also a flashing blue light affixed to his chest, which he allegedly used to disorient his victims. Some say he could breathe blue fire and emit a noxious gas – which could have been any Victorian Londoner after a binge of rotgut and pickled herrings… or whatever the hell kind of noxious foods they ate back then. Despite the occasional reports of fire and toxic odors, Jack was always armed with a metal claw on at least one of his massive hands that he used to scratch at his victims.

Artist's rendition

Artist’s rendition

Jack would then make good his escape by leaping incredible distances to avoid capture, hence his moniker. Although encounters with this ape-faced menace were reported as far away as Scotland, most of the sightings occurred in London, and most of the victims were female. One of the most popular accounts of such an encounter involved a servant girl by the name of Mary Stevens who was on her way to visit her parents one evening. As she walked through Clapham Common, Spring-heeled Jack pounced upon her. Not only did he rip her clothes and scratch her flesh with his claws, but the fiend also got fresh with the girl, giving her some dastardly smooches as he lightly mauled her. Terrified, the girl screamed, and Jack Spring-heeled away before the authorities could apprehend him. The next day, in the same neighborhood, he leaped in front of a carriage, spooking the horse and upsetting the coach. The coachman was severely injured, and Jack escaped by leaping over a 9-foot wall. England was in grips of terror as more sightings of varying degrees of ferocity and bizarre fashion sense were reported, and eventually, on the 9th of January in 1838, the Lord Mayor of London held a press conference on the issue, where he probably would have entreated the help of Sherlock Holmes, had Holmes been a real person. Instead, his public acknowledgement of the issue only fed the flames of rumor. Soon Spring-heeled Jack was said to be anything from a drunken playboy with a thing for the ladies (Henry de La Poer Beresford, The Marquees of Waterford, was the main suspect) to a ghost, demon or the devil himself.

Victorian artist's rendition.

Victorian artist’s rendition.

Spring-heeled Jack became the subject of many pulp novels, or “penny dreadfuls”, of the day, and he was also the subject of some very bad theater. However, despite the terror he inflicted on the social conscious, there were never any deaths attributed to him. The sightings continued right up until the 1870s, around the time of the invention of the camera and the introduction of electric lights to London’s city streets. To this day, however, the true identity of Spring-heeled Jack – and whether any such beastie ever even existed at all – remains a mystery. Yet as strange as the tale of Spring-heeled Jack is, it gets even stranger.

Flash forward to the year 2001, in the city of New Delhi, India. The summer was very hot that year, and many residents of this overpopulated city took to sleeping on the roofs of their apartment buildings at night to escape the sweltering heat of their rooms. They found no respite on the rooftops, however, as they suddenly found themselves plagued by a monstrous apparition that leaped from rooftop to rooftop, attacking sleepers in the open night air. How did the victims and eyewitnesses describe this night terror? You guessed it: An ape-like guy in a silver helmet, long cloak, flashing light or lights on his chest, and a metal claw that he used to scratch people. Just as in England, the New Delhi media had given this fearsome character a name befitting a mysterious super-villain: Monkey-Man! The name was catchy, mainly because it was funnier than Spring-Heeled Jack, and so the story was soon carried in the global media, and it even became a running gag on the American late-night talk show circuit. Tragically, the Monkey-Man attacks were really no laughing matter. They turned out to be much more dangerous than Spring-heeled Jack attacks as at least two people died jumping off rooftops to escape their attacker. Fortunately, New Delhi only had to deal with this terror for six weeks in the summer of 2001, rather than the 40 some years of hysteria Victorian England endured.

The usual suspects

The usual suspects

Neither Spring-heeled Jack nor the Monkey Man ever answered for their crimes, and both affairs were eventually chalked up to mass hysteria. Still, the similarities between these two bizarre cases are striking, especially when you look at the history of the two countries in question: England and India. In the 1600s, England saw India as a gateway to trade with all of Asia. With the Dutch, they pushed Portugal out of the region and moved in with their English East India Trading Company.  At first, the British were only interested in the spice trade, and the British soldiers there were only concerned with protecting company holdings. However, the British were talked into assisting with the overthrow of the Nawab, the rulers of Bengal. Bengal was a very wealthy province, and the British could easily see the benefits of taking control of it. Despite the British forces being greatly outnumbered, the Nawab’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Jafar, a puppet ruler who was friendly to England, was put on the throne. Realizing how easy it might be to take even more territory, the British began to move more military into the region. By the middle of the 19th century – when Spring-heeled Jack was terrorizing London – England had colonized India.

Could the Monkey-Man be a recessive form of acculturation, left over from the British colonization?  Perhaps stories of Spring-heeled Jack were introduced to the Indian psyche, when the locals heard British soldiers telling wild tales from back in England about this terrifying phantom. Was the Monkey-Man of New Delhi just a bit of post-colonial anxiety manifesting in heat-induced hysteria? These seemingly supernatural tales, combined with the terror of occupation and with just a little bit of the Hindu traditions mixed in, could very well have produced a chimera like the Monkey-Man in the collective Indian imagination.

There is also the possibility that Britain didn’t introduce Spring-heeled Jack/Monkey-Man to India, but rather it was India that introduced Jack to the Brits as a type of psychic revenge during colonization. It’s no secret that the Indians resented British colonization, but felt powerless to do anything about it. Rather than try to fight the British, they embraced their own culture and traditions with a greater devotion. The Hindu god Hanuman was said to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva the Destroyer. Hanuman was described as having an ape-like face, and would have been the perfect avenging spirit to go after England as retribution for the colonization of India.

Hanuman, monkey god extraordinaire

Hanuman, monkey god extraordinaire

According to the legend, Hanuman fought for Rama against evil in the Ramayana War and therefore may have been seen as a kind of avenging angel to many of the oppressed. Hanuman was also great at leaping, and was said to once have jumped over a great ocean. It was said that Brahma even gave Hanuman the power to strike fear into his enemies and to change his shape at will, which would account for the varying descriptions of Spring-heeled Jack.

Although, Jack gave up his wave of terror in England 77 years before the British finally decided to leave India, and for a Hindu god, Jack really didn’t do much in the way of vengeance, other than frightening the occasional citizen and ripping a few petticoats. Perhaps he was just a manifestation of Empirical guilt felt collectively by the British citizenry? Conversely, could the Monkey-Man in India have been a manifestation of lingering resentment, perhaps now directed at India itself for allowing the colonization? Was Monkey-Man the vengeance of Hanuman, revisiting his own people to punish them for being colonized for so long? Was he the result of some sinister conspiracy, as William “Captain Kirk” Shatner might have us believe? Or could he have simply been some pranksters dressing up in a monkey suit — in the 48-degree (118F) heat of the New Delhi summer — to parkour their way across the rooftops? Perhaps Occam’s razor is the best tool for cutting to the truth of this mystery.

Still, for two figments of the human imagination, from two different continents and two different time periods, the similarities are oddly striking. Two cultures clash nearly 200 years ago, and the effects still reverberate to the present day in the form of an ape-faced phantom with a metal helmet and sharp, metal claws, leaping over buildings and centuries alike, to remind us of what we get when we don’t get along: We get leaping, helmeted monkey-men scratching at our evening wear with metal claws.

Or some very freaky fodder for B-movie scripts.

Or some very freaky fodder for B-movie scripts.

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Written by Matthew Leach

I am an American expat that has been living overseas since 2007. Most of that time has been spent in East Asia as I lived in Korea until 2012. Currently I reside in the Sultanate of Oman. I enjoy traveling, and I always bring a towel, but ultimately I hope to return home to Pittsburgh. So if you hear of any jobs...

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