STRANGE INFLUENCES: A Resource of Ideas, Characters & Campaigns

Spring-Heeled Jack

The First Masked Mystery Man.


Spring-Heeled Jack, The First Masked Mstery Man.

For the uninitiated Spring-Heeled Jack is a legendary figure from Victorian British folklore who bounded on to the scene with his first "appearance" in 1837. His was a nightmarish character who terrified Londoners (frequently women) with his devil-like visage and strange, dark costume. Various reports give him a pointed ears, glowing eyes, claws, a large helmet (or a black cap with a single red feather), and a voluminous black cloak under which he seems to have preferred white garments.

The more appearances he made the more devilish his styling became. Time and additional eye witnesses would give him horns to go with his claws. His glowing eyes would be frequently married with the ability to breathe fire. Neither of these supernatural features seemed to be at odds with the fact that his touch was cold and clammy, like that of the dead.

But he wasn't Fire-Breathing Jack or Touch-of-the-Dead Jack. He was Spring-Heeled Jack. His most distinguishing feature was his ability to leap inhumanly high and far: over carriages, onto to the top of moving trains... but mostly out of the dark at people. He was a Victorian bogeyman, an incarnation of the mystic Mephistopheles given an industrial revolution epithet.

In a word, a monster.

But 'Jack was too evocative of a character for the popular imagination to leave as a simple spook. Perhaps there was a rational explanation. Perhaps a man, a clever (but disturbed man), had created the devices necessary to perform the feats attributed to Spring-Heeled Jack. Even the Lord Mayor of London thought it likely that 'Jack was just a prank perpetrated by a cabal of youthful (and no doubt arrogant) aristocrats with a twisted sense of humor. By 1840 rumors were focusing on Henry de La Poer Beresford*, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, as the likely culprit.

So if we follow the logic of the time we no longer have a monster, we have a villain . And from villain it's just a short hop to anti-hero.

1904 bares witness to a very different Spring-Heeled Jack, at least in fiction. Author Alfred Burrage gives his version of 'Jack a clear reason for his actions (revenge after being framed for treason by his villainous half-brother), he retains 'Jack's costume (but its intended to conceal his identity while he clears his name, not just to frighten people), provides money to fund SHJ's nocturnal activities (he has managed to secret away a good chunk of his inheritance), there's even a secret hide-out (in a cemetery, no less) for Spring-Heeled Jack to use as a lair, the writing shows the "hero" using rooftops as means of observing and following culprits and 'Jack even leaves a hallmark: he carves an "S" into the forehead of his vanquished foes.

In Burrage's stories Spring-Heeled Jack also has what may be interpreted as "super" powers: in addition to his distinctive leaping ability he seems to fade into shadows like other, later, masked avengers and he can generate a powerful electric shock from his hands. All of which is fairly impressive for a veteran of the Napoleonic wars. What's perhaps more impressive is that the stories appear only one year after the first appearance of the Scarlet Pimpernel and 15 years prior to the creation of Zorro. But the idea of Spring-Heeled Jack as a dark hero go back to at least 1886. Well before the Scarlet Pimpernel.**

Of course if you're going to use 'Jack in your game you must first decided to when the game is set.

The era of 'Jack's "historical' sightings start in 1837 and the final wave is in 1843. This is a period seldom explored in RPGs, it's just after The Napoleonic Era proper (which surprising also receives scant attention in RPGs despite it's popularity with miniature/battle gamers) and too early for much of the Victorian Era. There is an upside to this: this is unexplored territory! The GM is free to rifle through the treasure trove of history and pull out incidents and people that the players haven't encountered a dozen times before. The era can be both vintage and fresh. fresh. The downside it that the GM will have to do all his own research and leg work.***

Spring-Heeled Jack could also be moved directly to the Napoleonic Era. This may make his gear (spring loaded boots, shock gloves) a bit too anachronistic. On the other hand there are still a huge amount of gaming ideas waiting to be exploited. It would also mean that Spring-Heeled Jack and The Scarlet Pimpernel would be contemporaries. If technology doesn't seemplausible as the source of 'Jack's powers throw in some magic to explain it. Susanne Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell could serve as the primary influence... the additions of dragons ala Naomi Novik's Tremeraire would handily turn the Age of Napoleon into a world of strange fantasy.

But chances are you'll want to use Spring-Heeled Jack in a Victorian/Steampunk setting.

The first option is to use the 1837 'Jack as the pre-cursor to the Victorian one:

vigilante could mine for the visage he dons to menace malefactors. Criminals are supposed to be a superstitious lot, so what The earlier "evil" Jack may have just been an urban legend. A nightmare from the subconscious that a steampunk would scare them more than seeing London's goblin king come to life?

Or perhaps the 1837 'Jack was an actual person and (dark) hero? If this is the case then the original Spring-Heeled Jack could lead directly to the Victorian masked man. All of the classic second generational hero options are open: The 1837 Jack could be the father (or mysterious uncle) of the "new" Spring-Heeled avenger, the earlier Jack could be an aging patron who takes a driven street tough under his wing, the older man could be a mad genius using he young idealist for his own secret plans... The set up of the mentor and the apprentice makes a great starting point for an RPG. Both roles can be taken on by players and the characters have a built in relationship. The possibility of eventual conflict between them is palpable. An interesting idea to explore is a campaign where a Victorian Spring-Heeled Jack puts on his boots and cowl, unaware that the 1837 'Jack wasn't just and urban legend. The original leaping marauder may not take kindly to someone else assuming his mantle...

The easiest way to make Spring-Heeled Jack into a late Victorian Era character is to just drop him fully formed into the 1880s or 1890s. All you really need to make 'Jack work is a dark city and a reason for revenge. London remains a habitat for lost souls and for vicious criminal of all stripes (and social standings). Spring-Heeled Jack is a natural fit for the grimy alleys and dangerous roof tops of the Empire's capitol. The real key element that makes 'Jack so steampunk is his equipment. Spring loaded boots that allow him to leap over carriages, electro-shock gauntlets and a fire-breathing mask, they all just scream inventor from the era when science was a wild frontier and anything seemed possible. Just take the stories from the 1830s & 1840s and move them to the late Victorian Era. The simple truth is that most gamers don't know the difference between the early and late Victorian anyway. Besides if you move Jack to the late 1880s you have a built in archenemy for him: the other Jack. The Ripper.

So let's assume that you've gone with the last option. As such we'll take a look at building the late Victorian Spring-Heeled Jack by reviewing his Pros and Cons.

We'll start with the Cons first:

Revenge seems to be 'Jack's traditional motivation (at least at the beginning of his career). Obsession: Revenge or Driving Goal: Clear My Name are both likely challenges for this character. Depending on how he was framed SHJ may also be a Wanted Criminal or at least Socially Outcast. All of this implies an Enemy, a Nemesis, who constantly acts to put an end to our Hero.

Depending on how anti-heroic you want to make 'Jack more options come to light: Megalomania ("Only I can protect the innocent of London"), Delusions ("The conspiracy against me goes all the way to the Queen") or even Bloodthirsty (this SHJ won't just settle for clearing his name his enemies will pay, and pay dearly). Modern views of masked avengers often burden them will long term emotional scars that could blossom into full blown mental diseases like Split Personality or lead the hero to devalue his own life making him Suicidally Reckless.

On the plus side Spring-Heeled Jack is a hero and is blessed with many Pros:

The stories always feature him as a former soldier so Military Training is a good place to start. A stint in the navy climbing about a ship's rigging might be where 'Jack learned his love of high flying Acrobatics (but SHJ should have this skill even if he's never been a naval man). His military experience is where he learned Brawling, Sword Fighting and Pistol Handling (he was so skilled at the latter the fictions make mention of him attacking with a gun in each hand!). A good urban avenger should have Local Lore: London to keep him abreast of current events and to know his way around the great city. Having a secret source of income that makes the hero Rich always comes in handy (and is an element of the stories).

When it comes to his amazing equipment Spring-Heeled Jack either learned the designs in his travels (recreating them would mean he's an Engineer or Talented Mechanic) or invented them outright. Obviously Inventor or Gadgeteer would cover the second option. The stories seem to favor the theory that he learned how to make his gear from other experts. If this is the case (and the GM doesn't want to have a hero who's so talented that he can easily whip up a new invention to easily overcome any obstacle thrown at him) 'Jack's gear may be considered as Pros in their own right ("Leaping Boots", "Shock Gauntlets", "Dragon Mask"). This means that SHJ will never make new inventions, but on the plus side the GM can never take away these items permanently. If lost or destroyed 'Jack can rebuild them quickly and easily.

Another option regarding his gear is to give 'Jack an Inventor Compatriot. This means that the inventions would be in the hands of the GM who could create them a befits the story. Of course this Inventor might also make an excellent character for one of the other players.

Despite their lone wolf facade mystery men are rarely on their own. The 1886 penny dreadful makes sure that 'Jack has a Side Kick: sailor Ned Chump. Side Kicks are always useful, if for no other reason do be the background that the hero shines against or to act as handy hostage. But Side Kicks are rarely the only companions a hero has. We've already mentioned possibilities for a Patron and suggested the Inventor Compatriot, additional Contacts and Allies might include the Amicable Constable, the Journalist, Noble Physician (to patch up the hero), the Foppish and Amusing Criminal, the Former Military Commander Now Member of Polite Society or the Informant (if your going to include one Informant you might want to go all out and give 'Jack a network of Informants a la Shelock Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars. It also wouldn't hurt to have a Consulting Detective as a Contact).

There's a nice bonus in having a good number of Allies and friends for Spring-Heeled Jack: any one of them would make an excellent character for one of the other players!

Of course I'm just scratching the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to the possibilities for masked avenger options. Just because Spring-Heeled Jack go there first doesn't mean a good gamer should ignore what came after. The comic books and their pulp precursors have been exploring mystery men for almost 100 years. It would be foolish for the GM and the players to not work in elements from the tales of their favorite urban vigilantes.

Now, oil up those springs, and practice your menacing laugh. The sun is about to go down on London Town...


Spring-Heeled Jack on Wikipedia:

Spring-Heeled Jack's entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana:

Spring Heeled Jack. The Terror of London. an 1880's penny dreadful featuring an "heroic" 'Jack:

*Fans of writer HP Lovecraft should note the name "de La Poer" and refer to the story "The Rats in the Walls".

**Of course one could create a game world that features a succession of historical heroes where The Scarlet Pimpernel may act as an inspiration to Spring-Heeled Jack. Or, if the group is game enough, the Pimpernel may be an actual blood relation to Spring-Heeled Jack... who could, in turn be an ancestor of Sherlock Holmes... Philip Jose Farmer's "Wold Newton" theory would be of interest to any gamer going this route.

***GURPS Age of Napoleon may be of some assistance, at least in regards to the setting's history.