Two More Unsolved Mysteries: Lord Lucan & Spring-Heeled Jack
I’ve got two absolute belters for you today. If you’re from the UK, like me, you’ve probably already heard of these… but, also like me, I suspect that what you have in your head is pretty vague, and a lot less disturbing than the reality.
Join me as we delve into two more of the world’s most famous unsolved mysteries…
The disappearance of Lord Lucan
In the UK, Lord Lucan’s name is synonymous with anything rare or elusive, so much so that I cannot actually remember a time before I’d heard of him. His name is used in such a light-hearted and jokey manner that I have always thought his disappearance was simply a vaguely amusing case of a British aristocrat who ‘flew the coop’ after racking up too many gambling debts.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Lucan’s name was actually Richard John Bingham (the ‘Lucan’ comes from his title, as he was the 7th Earl of Lucan), who was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who inherited his father’s estate in 1964. He was considered for the role of James Bond in the cinematic adaptations, and the picture above shows he was certainly dashing enough for the role. His own lifestyle also had parallels with Ian Fleming’s super-spy: Bingham raced power boats, drove an Aston Martin, and enjoyed gambling, particularly at backgammon and bridge.
He married Veronica Duncan in 1963, with whom he had three children, but their marriage collapsed in 1972 as Bingham’s gambling losses spiralled. An acrimonious custody battle ensued, with the children briefly transferred to Bingham’s stewardship before being later restored to their mother. Bingham did not take this defeat well, and hired private investigators to spy on his ex-wife, looking for evidence that she was an unfit mother even as his own financial problems deepened.
On 7th November 1974, the children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was at home at the Lucan family estate and had just put the youngsters to bed, and offered to make Veronica (who was also present) a cup of tea. Rivett went down to the basement kitchen to prepare the drinks, where she was attacked and bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead piping. Her killer then placed the corpse into a canvas mailbag, before Veronica herself appeared at the top of the stairs to check why her nanny was taking so long. She was then also attacked, but managed to fend off her assailant by biting him and squeezing his testicles. At this point, Bingham appeared, claiming that the attacker had fled, tending to his wife’s injuries and putting the children to bed. Veronica, sceptical and disoriented, made her escape to a nearby pub while Bingham was in the bathroom, and later claimed to have recognised his voice during the attack on her.
At around 10:30pm, Madelaine Florman, the mother of one of Bingham’s daughter’s schoolfriends, ignored a knock on her front door, and hung up on an incoherent phone caller shortly afterwards. Traces of blood were found on her doorstep the next morning, and it is speculated that Bingham may have visited her. What is definitely known is that he called his mother, asking her to collect the children, explaining that he had been driving past the property when he saw Veronica fighting with a man in the basement, and hurried inside to find his wife screaming and hysterical. After this conversation, he drove his borrowed Ford Corsair 42 miles to Uckfield to visit his friends, the Maxwell-Scotts, where he wrote two letters to his brother-in-law, Bill Shand Kydd, and posted them immediately.
This is the last time Lord Lucan was ever seen.
The Corsair was found abandoned 16 miles away, with a piece of lead piping and a bottle of vodka (still full) in its boot. Forensic analysis of the pipe found blood from both Rivett and Veronica Duncan on it, along with some of Veronica’s hair. As well as the two letters to Shand Kydd, Bingham bizarrely also wrote to the car’s owner. The three letters attempt to support Bingham’s story that he loved his children and had nothing to do with his wife’s attack or the death of Sandra Rivett, although they do offer up the fascinating idea that the attacker was actually a hitman hired by Bingham who utterly botched the operation. Bingham’s presence could be explained by an attack of conscience and an attempt to intervene before the arranged murder was carried out… however, I think it is still much more likely that Bingham himself was responsible for the heinous attacks.
First letter to Bill Shand Kydd:
The most ghastly circumstances arose tonight which I briefly described to my mother. When I interrupted the fight at Lower Belgrave St. and the man left, Veronica accused me of having hired him. I took her upstairs and sent Frances up to bed and tried to clean her up. She lay doggo for a bit and when I was in the bathroom left the house. The circumstantial evidence against me is strong in that V will say it was all my doing. I will also lie doggo for a bit but I am only concerned for the children If you can manage it I want them to live with you – Coutts (Trustees) St Martins Lane (Mr Wall) will handle school fees. V. has demonstrated her hatred for me in the past and would do anything to see me accused. For George and Frances to go through life knowing their father had stood in the dock for attempted murder would be too much. When they are old enough to understand, explain to them the dream of paranoia, and look after them.
Second letter to Bill Shand Kydd:
There is a sale coming up at Christies 27 Nov which will satisfy bank overdrafts. Please agree reserves with Tom Craig.
Proceeds to go to:
Lloyds: 6 Pall Mall, Coutts, 59, Strand, Nat West, Bloomsbury Branch, who also hold an Eq. and Law Life Policy.
The other creditors can get lost for the time being.
Letter to Michael Stoop, owner of Bingham’s borrowed Ford Corsair:
My Dear Michael,
I have had a traumatic night of unbelievable coincidence. However I won't bore you with anything or involve you except to say that when you come across my children, which I hope you will, please tell them that you knew me and that all I cared about was them. The fact that a crooked solicitor and a rotten psychiatrist destroyed me between them will be of no importance to the children. I gave Bill Shand Kydd an account of what actually happened but judging by my last effort in court no-one, let alone a 67 year old judge – would believe – and I no longer care except that my children should be protected.
Bingham was never seen again, although rumoured sightings abounded over the subsequent decades, ranging from New Zealand to India. He was formally declared deceased in 1999, and his death certificate issued in 2016.
Although Bingham was never proven to have committed these brutal crimes, the circumstantial evidence is damning. Now that I understand the specifics of this case, the name 'Lord Lucan' will forever hold much darker connotations for me.
This Victorian villain was Britain’s premier spook story before he was usurped by his much more depraved (and much more real) namesake, the Ripper, and indeed people sometimes conflate these two very different stories.
(The introductory sequence of Shadowman on the PlayStation springs to mind – you knew I couldn’t write a blog post without at least one obscure nerdy reference! Here’s the link for anyone curious about this underrated game which was sadly undermined, at least on the PS1, by frustrating technical issues.)
Yet, unlike the world’s most famous serial killer – whose mythology is grounded largely in real facts (the five canonical victims, the grisly nature of the crimes, the hoax letters sent ‘from Hell’ to taunt the hapless detectives) – Spring-Heeled Jack’s legend seems to be a hotchpotch of urban myth, mass hysteria and baffling eyewitness sightings.
He first appeared as far back as 1837 when, while walking across London’s Clapham Common, young Mary Stevens was attacked by a man who kissed her face and tore at her clothes with hands ‘as cold and clammy as those of a corpse’. The very next day, a man apparently jumped out in front of a carriage in the same area, causing the coachman serious injury when he lost control and crashed. Several witnesses claimed that the culprit evaded capture by jumping over a 9-foot tall wall, cackling with high-pitched laughter as he escaped.
Despite initial scepticism from the authorities, Jack received public recognition early in 1838, when he was reported in national newspapers including The Times, and discussed at a public session held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan, who read out an anonymous complaint he had received from ‘a resident of Peckham’. The letter read thus:
‘It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises—a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman's gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.
At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.
The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.’
The speculation that the man’s actions are a result of some sadistic aristocratic bet seems odd to say the least, as does the bizarre claim that the papers are assisting in some sort of cover-up; but the contents of the letter are certainly disturbing, and Cowan clearly thought there was at least some legitimacy to them. The fate of the two women who were destined to ‘become burdens to their families’ is particularly troubling – had they suffered nervous breakdowns? Debilitating injuries? Had they fallen pregnant?
Further sightings began to add more outlandish characteristics and capabilities to the miscreant.
A report as far afield as Brighton appeared initially in The Brighton Gazette, subsequently relayed in The Times, stating that a gardener had apparently been pursued by a creature ‘in the shape of a bear or some other four-footed animal’ that scaled the garden wall to escape after terrifying the poor man.
Another case reported in The Times in 1838 featured Jane Alsop, who answered a knock at her door to find a policeman asking her to bring a light, because he had caught Spring-Heeled Jack in the lane. However, when she returned with a candle, he immediately threw back his cloak to reveal ‘a most hideous and frightful appearance’, and began to spew blue flame from his mouth. He apparently also wore a large helmet, and tight-fitting clothes resembling a white oilskin. He began to tear at her with claws she believed were ‘of some metallic substance’, and only fled when one of Alsop’s sisters emerged to interrupt his attack.
Only nine days later, and again reported in The Times, 18-year-old Lucy Scales and her sister were returning from a visit to their brother in Limehouse, when a cloaked figure emerged from an alleyway to breathe blue flame into her face. She was temporarily blinded, and suffered from seizures for several hours as a result of the attack.
Over the coming decades, sightings became more and more widespread across the country, and mass panic and the religious sensibilities of the time led many to question whether Spring-Heeled Jack was the devil himself wandering among us to wreak havoc and mischief (he was even referred to as such in the popular Punch and Judy shows of the time). The final reported sighting of Jack occurred in Liverpool in 1904, almost seventy years after the first appearance of this enigmatic and bizarre mischief-maker.
But what are we to make of all this? Some of Jack’s capabilities – fire breathing, incredible feats of high-jumping to evade capture, metallic claws – are easy to dismiss as ludicrous, but it must be remembered that at least some of these alleged attacks were grounded in reality. Indeed, assaulted women perhaps preferred to blame an otherworldly demon for the crime than a real-life assailant, for fear of being branded a trollop or blamed for ‘leading on’ their attacker (such, sadly, were the gender politics of the time).
However implausible Jack’s reign of terror may seem, he clearly made a strong impression on the public in the 19th century, enough for his legend to persist even today. He frequently appears in popular culture, featuring in several video games as well as episodes of popular television programmes like Luther and Primeval. In some ways, with his pattern of widespread sightings, seemingly far-fetched characteristics and an ability to endure despite public scepticism and outright dismissal by the authorities, he is similar to the 20th century’s UFO craze; perhaps every generation needs such a ‘bogeyman’ to reflect the deepest fears of the time, or simply to give us something to talk about.
If so, I wonder what the 21st century equivalent will be...?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this pair of truly unsettling mysteries, and look forward to bringing you more in the future. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to discuss them further, or have any theories of your own!
Until next time,