originally published September 25, 2013
Nineteenth-century London was known for a few things: Dickensian gentlemen sporting all sorts of snazzy hat-wear, Poppinsian ladies singing songs about eating sugar with a spoon, and sexually deviant psychopaths wandering the foggy London streets. Needless to say, it’s that third group I find most fascinating.
Not all the smarmy shadow-huggers from this era carried the murderous bent of Jack the Ripper. Many were simply sexually repressed, frustrated, and lacking the imagination to play out their fantasies in their heads. These aren’t your dark-alley rapists or gore-craving sadists, but more the equivalent of today’s discussion forum trolls, subway trenchcoat wang-wagglers, or lonely men who load up their evening’s-worth of porn and say, “I wonder what sort of weird stuff the Germans are into these days.”
Sometimes these hormone-heavy hombres became the stuff of legend, even with a supernatural twist. Back then there was no TV, no radio, not even Snopes.com to fact-check the tall tales of seedy vermin like Spring-heeled Jack.
If Spring-heeled Jack was in fact a person and not some shared hysterical delusion spotted by numerous people over a 67-year period, then he really wasted his talents. One of the unanimously accepted traits of this mysterious creature was his ability to leap ridiculously high, suggesting either modified footwear or an unusual super-power that could have been used for good instead of rapiness.
In October of 1837, a girl named Mary Stevens was wandering home after having visited her parents one night. A strange creature jumped out of an alley and started kissing her face and tearing at her clothes with his claws. Yes, his claws. Then she screamed and the guy disappeared. The next day he leapt in front of a coach, causing it to lose control and crash. He then laughed maniacally and hopped over a 9-foot wall, earning his nickname.
A police officer knocked on teenager Jane Alsop’s door in February of 1938, claiming to have caught Spring-heeled Jack in a nearby lane. She brought a candle to help out, when suddenly the cop flung off his cloak and vomited blue and white flames from his mouth while his eyes glowed a fiery red. She got away with just a few claw-marks. This was either the work of a nutjob with access to some great home-made special effects or else someone needed to check the Alsop water supply for lead.
Eight days later 18-year-old Lucy Scales was walking home with her sister in one of London’s more respectable neighborhoods. The mysterious spring-heeled stranger appeared from an alley and breathed blue flame in Lucy’s face, blinding her and dropping her to the ground in a series of fits. The guy just walked away. These stories, along with Spring-heeled Jack’s legend, spread across the country.
Jack became known more as a mischievous devil-creature and less as a creepy horny guy who wanted to fondle some women. He was last spotted in Liverpool in 1904, leaping around the local rooftops with no apparent motive.
Back before Jack began his reign of… well, it wasn’t so much terror but more antisocial behavior, London had to contend with the menace known as Whipping Tom. Actually, that should be menaces, since there were two of them.
In 1681, women wandering around the Fleet Street, Holborn and Strand areas of London had to watch their backs. If this mysterious deviant saw a lady walking alone, he would grab her, lift her dress, then slap her ass repeatedly whilst yelling, “Spanko!”
No, seriously. I’m not nearly clever enough to make up something so arbitrarily strange. They called him Whipping Tom, and word had it that he would disappear into the night so quickly, it was as though he had supernatural powers. Victims back then really wanted their assailants to have mysterious powers – it made the stories so much more exciting.
A haberdasher and his accomplice (because yelling “Spanko” is a two-person job apparently) were caught after a number of attacks, their names lost forever due to crappy record-keeping. But in 1712 another Whipping Tom showed up in the village of Hackney, swatting 70 women with “a Great Rodd of Birch”. This time they found their assailant.
His name was Thomas Wallis, which matched up perfectly with the infamous nickname which he too had been given by local authorities. Wallis confessed that his plan had been to swat a hundred women before Christmas, take a 12-day break, then resume his nefarious activities in the new year. You see, Tom Wallis had been screwed over by a woman, and he felt the perfect vengeance would be to hit a whole bunch of other women in the ass with a stick.
Rumor has it both men were predated by another Whipping Tom in 1672, but there’s no official record of that guy. Watch out, ladies of London. You might be due for another copycat weirdo anytime now.
The London Monster, whose head was probably not quite as large as depicted above, was what crime buffs would refer to as a real sonofabitch. Beginning in 1788 he would approach women and stab them in the butt, either with a needle or pin or even a small knife. He’d invite a woman to smell a bouquet of posies, only to thrust it into their faces, where a small spike would draw blood.
Then he’d just run away. That was all he wanted to do was to inflict a little pain (sometimes more than just a little) and take off. Things got really weird when word got out that he’d only target attractive women. Some women admitted to claiming they’d been attacked just for the attention and sympathy. Other ladies claimed to have been pursued by the monster simply because there was some guy walking a half-block behind them. Some London men founded the No Monster Club, wearing pins to show off that they weren’t the monster.
Things got out of control in a hurry. Pickpockets would pluck something from someone’s overcoat and immediately point their finger and yell “Monster!”. Then they’d scurry away in the ensuing commotion. Men were afraid of walking anywhere near women at night for fear they’d be among the myriad of falsely-accused non-monsters. Women wore copper underneath their petticoats and armed vigilantes wandered the streets, hunting the beast.
Then the police arrested unemployed 23-year-old Rhynwick Williams. Williams had an alibi for one of the attacks, but his trial was a media circus before the media had even been invented. People in the courtroom cheered the prosecution and shouted insults at the defendant. Williams was sentenced to six years for the crimes, though historians aren’t completely sold on his guilt.
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts the internet has given us is the voluminous distractions that can keep perverts like these indoors and staring at a screen rather than living out their heinously odd fetishes. All the same, it’s best to keep one eye over your shoulder if you’re out on those London streets alone. And maybe a hand covering your butt, just in case.