Masks and costumes have been a part of human culture since man first began making art. We disguised ourselves as animals with the belief that sympathetic magic would endow us with the physical and mental aspects of these creatures.
I have long been fascinated by werewolf mythology and the origins of the man/wolf hybrid. A major aspect of the werewolf myth is the belief a man could take on the animal form by wearing it’s skin. I believe that our modern conception of the comic book superhero derives directly from man’s early attempts to harness these natural forces through the donning of masks and costumes.
I want to start this series of articles by looking at the beginnings of our modern fascination with costumed superbeings then branch out in later articles to discuss the broader implications of masked heroes throughout history. We begin this journey in 19th century London. A mecca for Gothic horror writers and the birth place of modern popular culture.
The Real Life League of Extraordinary Gentleman
1837 sees the first appearance of Spring-heeled Jack. If the above picture of Jack looks familiar you are not mistaken. Spring-heeled Jack could easily be mistaken for Batman. The descriptions of Jack parallel Batman in more ways than one. From scaling buildings, to jumping from rooftop to rooftop, Jack was even said to wear a skin tight oilskin suit with a winglike cape, and had metal razors on the end of his fingers. Mike Dash in his article “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” states that Jane Alsop who spoke to Jack describes him as, “hideously ugly; its eyes blazed red as the coals of hell and its pinched, tight features were topped by a peculiar sort of helmet; the body, meanwhile, was encased in a tightly-fitting, shining suit, and a strange object, resembling a lamp, was strapped to the chest. ” (Dash)
Beyond some superficial similarity of Jack to Batman (ignoring the lamp on his chest) officials at the time believed Jack to be a gentleman of means who was engaged in a series of nightly pranks. Of course as the legend of Spring-heeled Jack grew so did his array of super powers. From breathing fire, to being able to fly, and shoot beams out of his eyes (that sounds familiar) Jack’s powers grew as his legend did. Jack was never seen to stop crime and often caused mischief but the idea that a costumed person with super abilities (springs in his heels) certainly did not go unnoticed by fiction writers. Jack was soon the subject of many penny dreadfuls and his legend moved from the streets of London to the pages of popular fiction.
Jack was not the only costumed character running around Victorian London. At the same time that Spring-heeled Jack was terrorizing London another lesser known figure was also on the prowl. Called the “Rossian Bear” and sometimes mistaken for Jack, the bear roamed London in a Bear skin suit frightening those who saw him. He was considered either the same person as Jack or another one of a gang of well off gentlemen who were playing an elaborate game of dress-up on the streets of London at night.
There was also Queen Victoria’s own stalker “The Boy Jones”. Boy Jones was not quite as successful at concealing his identity as the other masked men, but he achieved fame for being able to enter Buckingham Palace repeatedly. “Time after time, he sneaked into Buckingham Palace to spy on her, sit on the throne, and rummage in her private apartments…the Boy Jones had been discovered lurking underneath a sofa in the room next to the one where she (Victoria) slept.” (Bondeson). Jones had an uncanny ability to use disguise, guile, and his physical prowess to enter one of the most guarded buildings in the British Isles not once but three times often hiding for days before being discovered. Like the others Jones was built up in the press and it was suggested he had some sort of supernatural abilities which allowed him to enter the palace unseen. He was caught and eventually exiled to Australia, but only after another adventure where he was kidnapped by the British Government and forced into service with the navy.
These masked “supermen” in Victoria’s London were more often than not merely criminals and pranksters but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it came to masked and costumed characters that paraded through the 19th century. In the second part of this article we will examine the many masked men of the American frontier and how that nation owes it’s very existence to a group of masked vigilantes.
Dash, Mike. “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” mikedash.com, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.
Bondeson, Jan. “Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The remarkable story of the ‘Boy Jones'” Fortean Times, July,2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.