The Woman at the Window: Spring-heeled Jill? Nov 29, 2013 23:03:19 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Nov 29, 2013 23:03:19 GMT -5
The legend of Spring-heeled Jack enthralled Victorian London but, one of his most notorious and spectacular visitations was presaged by a mysterious apparition ....
Who was Spring-heeled Jack? The mysterious Victorian phantom assailant may not have generated as much speculation as his more infamous namesake Jack the Ripper, but theories about him have been a good deal more varied. A ghost, a bear, a devil, a wayward aristocrat and a stranded alien from a high-gravity planet have all been proposed as the “solution” to the mystery of the fabled 19th-century leaping entity. With the possible exception of the bear, the underlying assumption has always been that Spring-heeled Jack was male.
Undoubtedly, from his extensive study of the contemporary press reports, Dr. Mike Dash has put up the best case for Spring-heeled Jack as an example of an urban ghost or bogey, a supernatural rumour run riot. Examining the evidence, Dash also finds the alleged distance of the great leaps and bounds that earned SHJ his nickname grow with the remoteness of testimony from the events. Although a consistent aspect of the story, no first-hand witness accounts of great leaps are available.
All too frequently when one traces a rumour back to its original source, the story evaporates. But occasionally, new evidence emerges, serving only to deepen the mystery. As Dash acknowledged, more reports might remain to be discovered and just one such intriguing example has come to light through the online library of the Society for Psychical Research.
In 2003, the SPR placed its entire 120 years of Journals and Proceedings online to members and subscribers, opening up a veritable Tutankhamen’s tomb of anomalous data. Type “Spring-heeled Jack” and not one entry appears. But a different result arises if one types “Aldershot Barracks,” scene of SHJ’s later outrages reported in 1877. From the accounts, also included in part in Phantasms of the Living Vol II (1886) and the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (May 1897), the following extraordinary testimony may be found from a Captain Cecil Norton:
About Christmas time 1875 or 1876, being officer on duty, I was seated at the mess table of the 5th Lancers, in the West Cavalry Barracks at Aldershot. There were 10 or 12 other officers present, and amongst them Mr. John Atkinson.
At about 8.45pm Atkinson suddenly glared at the window to his right, attracting the notice of Russell, who seizing his arm, said “Good gracious, Doctor what’s the matter with you?” This caused me to look in the direction in which I saw Atkinson looking, viz, at the window opposite and there I saw (for the curtains were looped up, although the room was lighted by a powerful central gaslight in the roof and by candles on the table) a young woman, in what appeared a soiled or somewhat worn bridal dress, walk or glide slowly past the window from east to west. She was about at the centre of the window when I observed her, and outside the window.
The most significant detail emerges from Norton’s account:.
No person could have actually been in the position where she appeared, as the window is 30 feet above the ground.
Amazingly, Norton claims, “The occurrence made little if any impression upon me, though it impressed others who were in the room.” His only uncertainty was the actual date of their experience.
Mr. Atkinson wrote: “The appearance of a woman which I saw pass the mess-room window at Aldershot seemed to be outside, and it passed east to west. The mess room is on the first floor, so the woman would have been walking in the air.” He added: “There has been a very nice story made out of it – like most other ghost stories, founded on an optical illusion.”
The SPR obtained additional information in 1897 from two other witnesses who had been in the mess room that night – a Lt Beaumont and a Lt Col Williams, who confirmed witnessing the strange reactions of fellow officers and hearing their testimony. Atkinson had died by this time, but his widow recalled her husband talking of his experience. These further statements helped date the episode to Christmas 1875, because of the presence of another officer who was recorded as dying shortly afterwards, on 3 January 1876. (Psychical researcher Edmund Gurney, who initially investigated the case, dismissed speculation that the apparition had been a portent of death for one of the officers present).
Perhaps this sighting was the origin of the later reports of Spring-heeled Jack more than a year later, in 1877 – what Aktinson had referred to as the “ very nice story made out of it.” As Dash notes, first-hand testimony was hard to come by and none is identified in the coverage of the alleged 1877 SHJ attacks in the Illustrated Police News and other publications. These alleged sightings were reported with imaginative illustrations of phantoms in diaphanous clothes floating about sentries who are collapsing in terror.
Nonetheless, at the core of the Aldershot stories remains the testimony of contemporary witnesses who saw an apparition some 30 feet in the air – but a female apparition, a Spring-heeled Jill!
Probably it has been the detail of the figure floating in the air that has led almost all other writers to omit this case from studies of apparitions. While the SPR was keen to accept testimony of crisis-apparitions, seen at the time of death, it had less time for portents. Even psychical research can have “damned data” on occasion.
Source: Alan Murdie, Fortean Times.