Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Footprints in the snow

The great blizzard of December 2010 has come and gone, but my upstate New York village received a mere dusting as compared to the 18 to 24 inches they got in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine.  In fact, this morning the sun came out for a bit, and yesterday's snow is beginning to melt, although at this time of year I figure that the comparative warmth is only a tease.

Watching the effect that the sun had on footprints I made yesterday while hauling firewood, as they widened from the clear indentations of a human wearing ridge-soled Timberland boots into diffuse, open blobs, put me in mind of one of the most peculiar legends of Merrie Old England.  Perhaps you've not heard of it; if not, you may find it an interesting tale for a cold, snowy winter day.

Early in the morning on February 8, 1855 (so the story goes), the people of five small towns in south Devon -- Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish -- woke to find a line of footprints in the snow.  The London Times of February 16 reported on the story in detail:

"It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighborhood of Exeter and the south of Devon.  On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot-prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places - on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields.  There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the footprints were not observed.

"The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other.  The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across.  Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the center remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex.

"The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor.  On Sunday last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the footprints being those of a kangaroo; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.

"At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors at night."

The snow, as it melted, accentuated the strangeness of the prints, just as it did with the bootprints in my front yard.  The resemblance to a cloven hoof, with its suggestion of the devil, became more pronounced, and the fear grew to near hysteria.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, for those of us who like to know the solutions to mysteries) the events were never repeated, and never satisfactorily explained.

The Devon footprints were credited by some as a visitation not by Satan, but by one of his uniquely English cousins -- Spring-heeled Jack.  Spring-heeled Jack was first sighted in London in 1837 by a businessman walking home from work.  The gentleman described being terrified by the sudden appearance of a dark figure which had "jumped the high railings of Barnes Cemetery with ease," landing right in his path.  The businessman wasn't attacked, and was able to keep his wits sufficiently about him to describe a "muscular man, with a wild, grinning expression, long, pointed nose and ears, and protruding, glowing eyes."  Sort of like the love child of Salvador Dali and Mr. Spock, is the way I think of him.

Others were attacked, and some were not so lucky as our businessman.  A girl named Mary Stevens was attacked in Battersea, and had her clothing torn and was scratched and clawed, but survived because neighbors came to help when they heard her screams.  The following day Jack jumped in front of a coach, causing it to swerve and crash.  The coachman was severely injured, and several witnesses saw Jack escape by leaping over a nine-foot-high wall, all the while howling with insane laughter.

Several more encounters occurred during the following year, including two in which the victims were blinded temporarily by "blue-white fire" spat from Jack's mouth.

Although publicity grew, and Spring-heeled Jack became a character of folk myth, song, and the punch line to many a joke, sightings grew less frequent.  Following the footprints in the snow-covered Devonshire countryside in 1855, there was a flurry of renewed interest (rimshot), but the last claimed sighting of Spring-heeled Jack was in Lincoln in 1877, and after that he seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

As intriguing as this story is, all of the evidence points to pranksters (and, in the case of Mary Stevens, an unsuccessful rapist).  I'm not inclined to believe in Jack's phenomenal jumping ability, except in cases where Jack jumped down off a wall -- that requires no particular skill except the agility to get up there in the first place, and after that gravity takes care of the rest.  It seems to me that nighttime, fear, a wild costume, and the witnesses' being primed by already knowing the story create a synergy that makes their accuracy seriously in question.

The fact remains, however, that it's a very peculiar story.  I remember reading about the Devon footprints when I was a kid (I didn't find out about Spring-heeled Jack until later), and the idea of some mysterious non-human creature pacing its way across the English countryside, silently crossing fields and farms and streets, peering in the windows at the sleeping inhabitants, was enough to give me the cauld grue.  Still does, in fact.  Enough that I hope that the fitful December sun has eradicated my bootprints in the front yard completely -- which goes to show that even a diehard rationalist can sometimes fall prey to an irrational case of the creeps.

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