In skulking around the alleyways of Victorian sensations, I have tried to define a category of supernatural entities: the “Jacks,” inspired by the unparalleled original: Spring-heeled Jack. Like their namesake, these creatures share some common traits: Jack was clad in black, belched fire, had the ability to make impossible leaps or glide without touching the ground, and was bullet-proof. He also vanished in impossible ways. He was never caught. And he and his namesakes caused panic wherever they appeared.
Of course, not all Jacks come with the full Spring-heel package.
Our Jack, who shocked a Cincinnati, Ohio neighborhood from about 1875 to 1878, wore nothing but a coat of grease, caused a rather prurient panic, and evaded both bullets and arrest with ease. No one knew where he came from; he simply melted away in the dark, to the despair of the police force and the titillation of the ladies. I call him “Jack the Stripper.” [Note: No relation to the 1960s British serial killer.]
WHO IS HE?
Strange Story from a Quiet Neighborhood
A Naked Man Roaming the Streets at Midnight for Three Years Defies Capture.
People living in the neighborhood of Betts and Clinton and Linn and Baymiller streets have for the last three years been occasionally exercised by the mysterious appearance in that vicinity of a naked man, running at break-neck speed through the streets, who has defied the efforts of many of the citizens, aided by the police, to capture him. Where he comes from or where he goes to is as much as mystery as why he should make such an exhibition of himself, and all attempts to penetrate either have heretofore proved futile. He has been chased dozens of times, has been fired at by policemen, and on several occasions parties who have seen him have got close enough to him to lay hands on him, but he always managed to slip through their fingers and get away. Those who have taken hold of him state that his limbs and body were as slippery as if greased, and that it was impossible to hold him.
Among others who have seen him is Mr. Fisher, of Robinson’s Circus. This gentleman says that about three years ago he was returning home along Betts street with his wife, when the mysterious man rushed between them from behind, and, without ever once turning his head, continued his course down the street. Mr. Fisher followed him four or five squares down, but failed to catch him. Since then, owing to his being away from home so much with the circus, Mr. Fisher has not seen him, but his wife says she has on several occasions. On Monday night, about half-past ten o’clock, while the latter, in company with two or three young ladies, was returning from the fire on Central avenue, the naked man rushed past them on Betts street and disappeared in the darkness. He is described as being a tall man with whiskers and is always on the run and stark naked when seen. It is impossible to doubt the testimony of the many people who have seen this man, and yet the affair looks very mysterious. The only conclusion one can come to is that these people may have, at different times, seen some patient who had escaped from the Betts-street Hospital in the vicinity, and thought it was the same man all the time, or that he was one of Mrs. Lucas’ victims who had left his clothes behind. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 October 1878: p. 8
Given that statement, one wonders how many patients actually “escaped” from the Betts Street Hospital, which was not a lunatic asylum, but a general hospital run by the Franciscan sisters? Oddly enough, there is a report from a decade later headed “An Escaped Typhoid Patient Runs Naked in the Streets, and is Locked Up in a Station-House.” The unfortunate was a brewery employe named Carl Drieh; he had escaped from his home, thrown off his clothes, and ran howling through the streets. After raving in delirium in the local police station all night, he was transported to the Betts Street Hospital. [Source: The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 1 September 1888: p. 4] Very different than our quiet “Jack.”
Mrs Lucas was an “adventuress” and “beautiful fiend” who was reported in June 1878 as the instigator of “one of the boldest and most shameless cases of robbery and black-mail that ever disgraced the criminal annals of any city.” She lured an elderly real estate broker to her hotel room where she forced him to strip at gunpoint, then made him sign a statement that he tried to rape her, as well as sign over a check for $1,000. How she escaped from the custody of the Cincinnati police is a little vague, but she went on working the same scam on wealthy men in Boston and Detroit. [Source: The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 June 1878: p. 4]
The saga continued a few nights later, with the public whipped into a naked-ghost-hunting frenzy. An imposter chose that precise moment to make an ill-advised appearance.
The Man-Afraid-of-His-Clothes Creates a Decided Sensation.
A Feeble Imitator Comes to Grief.
Last Wednesday’s Enquirer contained an item in reference to the strange conduct of an unknown man, who has frequently been observed in the neighbourhood of Betts and Linn streets, rushing along the highway in a state of nature—that is, perfectly naked. Who he is, or what is the cause of his strange actions, is a profound mystery. He has been seen by numerous citizens, and by the policemen on those beats within the past three years, but all efforts to catch him have proved futile. He slips through one’s fingers, it is said, as though he were greased. One night, about a year and a half ago, as Officer Davis was sitting on a salt-barrel at the corner of Baymiller and Clinton streets, he was started to see this “What Is It” dash from a hallway near him and run up Clinton street. The officer’s cry of “Halt!” had no other effect than to increase the speed of the flying man. Davis then fired two shots at him, but the man still ran, and was soon lost in the darkness. Ever since the publication in the Enquirer of the strange antics of the “Unknown,” public interest in the West End has centered in the locality where he was last seen—that is, in the alley running in the rear of the Betts-street Hospital. Crowds of men, women and children flock there nightly as soon as the lamps are lit, and stand for hours waiting to see the “ghost,” as he is now called. Last night Linn street, for a square both above and below Betts street, and for a square along the latter thoroughfare was lined with an excited mob of people, whose only topic of conversation was the “naked man,” the “ghost,” the “wild man,” Travel up and down Linn street was entirely blocked, and, finally, Officers Davis and Cannon found it necessary to arrest a number of men as a warning to the crowd that the streets must be kept clear. Twenty-four citizens were taken to the Oliver-street Station-house on the charge of obstructing the sidewalk, but the example had not the least effect on the expectant multitude that stood its ground and gossiped about the mystery. Presented a sensation was enjoyed, gotten up for the occasion.
While the crowd was thus anxiously standing on the corners and peeping up alleys, anxious to get the first glimpse at the unclothed ghost, a builder of bread in that neighbourhood conceived an idea. It was J. Christ Hearting whose bakery is on time [sic] near Betts street. Christ is a man who loves his joke, and he concluded it would be more fun than a barrelful to play the ghost and scare the masses. So, forgetting that the ghost of the neighbourhood was careless about its clothes, Christ wrapped a sheet around his form, slipped out in the alley, began dancing a war jig and howling very much as ghosts do not. The result was startling—not to the crowd, but to the baker. The ruse didn’t have the desired effect; but, on the contrary, the crowd made a rush toward the whooping ghost. Christ saw his mistake and took to his heels, followed by the howling mob. What would have been the end no one knows, had an officer not nipped the baker in his mad flight and trotted him off to the Station-house. The next time he goes ghost masquerading he’ll first be careful how he does it.
An Enquirer reporter mingled with the waiting crowd on the sidewalks and tried to get the prevailing sentiment. He swung around and anchored under the bows of a large hulk riding upon the bosom of the gutter.
“My good man,” addressed our reporter, “what are you expecting to see?”
“Why, that ‘er naked feller.”
“And are all these people bustling round here to see the same thing?” “Just bet yer life they are.”
“But these women don’t want to catch the mysterious man, do they. That’s not what there [sic] here for?”
“Wal, no, I dunno. A good many of them old gals’d like to ketch some man, clothes or no clothes, just bet yer life.”
At this moment two girls pushed and elbowed their way up to the mouth of the alley, and peeped down with eyes that stood out half an inch in expectancy.
“Oh, dear,” simpered one of the modest damsels. “I hope the dreadful man will not come this way! I know I should die if I saw him.” Then she peered down the alley again, as if death were a luxury.
Our reporter turned to his male philosopher. The latter winked, dropped a pink of tobacco juice from his mouth upon his broad boots, and observed:
“She don’t want to see him—oh, no.”
“But,” said our reporter, as an idea struck him—“but, after all, it may be a woman and not a man.”
“It’s not a woman, bet your life,” asserted the philosopher.
“Why?” inquired the man in search of information.
“Why? Why? Do you suppose a woman could run around town this way and not get kotched? Bet yer life she couldn’t.”
And the huge philosopher worked his fingers spasmodically as though he’d like to start out on the hunt right away. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 October 1878: p. 4
And there the story ends. Like so many panics, this one has no resolution that I can find. The greased skin is a nice touch. It runs in my mind that wrestlers used that trick; either this fellow used it to help him evade capture or the grease was to keep him warm in his “state of nature.” October nights in Cincinnati can be quite chilly.
Perhaps what we have here is not a “Jack,” but the urban equivalent of a wild-man, with the armed posse replaced by police officers. This slice of life narrative uses the common catch-phrases used in the newspapers for wild men “what-is-it,” “ghost,” “Unknown.” Wild men are often naked (although usually they are hairier) and they too run at unusual speeds to outwit their pursuers. The 1870s was a fruitful time for wild man reports. As an aside, I suspect that the date suggests that at least some of these creatures are Civil War veterans with PTSD who fled to the wilderness.
But whether “Jack” or “Wild Man,” what I find baffling is his invincibility. I’ve said this before in reference to ghost impersonators as well as other Jacks, like “Jack the Ink-slinger” and the female equivalent of a “Jack,” The Women in Black, but how can someone flit around for that length of time and not get caught or shot, particularly when being chased by the police who knew his “beat?”
If you know or have an ending for Jack, just one naked story in a city of less than three million, I would be pleased to hear your thoughts. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.