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The Curse of the Crying Boy

Could a kitsch print bring fiery disaster to its owners?

By Etienne Gilfillan, with thanks to Alex Howe

FT234

Ancient curses invoked by tomb-raiders have remained a popular theme in fiction and folklore for centuries. However, belief in cursed objects is not confined to legends surrounding Egyptian relics, or to the stories of MR James. In the modern world, there are many who believe they have personally experienced uncanny phenomena as a result of contact with a cursed artefact. Portraits or human likenesses, whether carved or painted, are frequently the focus of this type of legend. In recent years, stories of bad luck and misfortune have grown up around certain artefacts that are presumed to have had ritual or magical functions, some of which are apparently quite recent in origin. [1]

In folk belief, the notion that a picture falling from a wall is an omen of impending death – particularly if it is a portrait – remains one of the most widespread modern superstitions. Similarly, eerie portraits whose eyes “seem to follow you wherever you go” have become a staple scene-setter in numerous horror flicks. Folklore is not static, but active and dynamic – especially when it invokes latent beliefs rooted in older superstitions. And so we find that fear and anxiety continue to surround an eerie portrait that has, quite literally, blazed a trail across the British Isles and around the world in the space of two decades.


THE COMING OF THE CURSE

‘The Curse of the Crying Boy’ appeared out of the blue one morning in 1985. The Sun, at that time the most popular tabloid newspaper in the English-speaking world, published on page 13 of its 4 September edition a story headlined: “Blazing Curse of the Crying Boy”. It told how Ron and May Hall blamed a cheap painting of a toddler with tears rolling down his face for a fire which gutted their terraced council home in Rotherham, a mining town in South Yorkshire. The blaze broke out in a chip-pan in the kitchen of their home of 27 years and spread rapidly. But although the downstairs rooms of the house were badly damaged, the framed print of the Crying Boy escaped unscathed. It continued to hang there, surrounded by a scene of devastation.

Normally a chip-pan blaze would merit nothing more than a couple of paragraphs in a local newspaper. What transformed this story into a page lead in Britain’s leading tabloid was the intervention of Ron Hall’s brother Peter, a firefighter based in Rotherham. A colleague of Peter’s, station officer Alan Wilkinson, said he knew of numerous other cases where prints of the ‘Crying Boy’ had turned up, undamaged, in the ruins of homes destroyed by fires.

Accompanying the article was a photograph of a ‘Crying Boy’, with the caption: “Tears for fears… the portrait that firemen claim is cursed.” The firemen concerned had not actually used the word ‘cursed’, but nevertheless the newspaper report had helped to give the story a certain level of credibility. The paper added that an estimated 50,000 ‘Crying Boy’ prints, signed ‘G Bragolin’, had been sold in branches of British department stores, particularly in the working class areas of northern England. Examples could be seen hanging in the front rooms of family homes across the nation, and one story even suggested a quarter of a million had been sold.


THE TERROR OF THE TABLOIDS

The mass media play a crucial role in creating and spreading modern folklore. Stories like the ‘Crying Boy’ behave much like a virus when they take root in the popular imagination. Furthermore, tabloid news values and the priority given to providing a ‘good story’ frequently override accuracy and sceptic­ism, particularly where uncanny or supernatural events are concerned.

Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie in their warts-and-all history of The Sun, entitled Stick it up your Punter! (1990), credit legendary editor Kelvin MacKenzie as the father of the ‘Crying Boy’ curse. During the mid-80s, The Sun was engaged in a battle for readers with its Fleet Street rival the Daily Mirror. It was also responsible for publishing a series of horrific and bizarre stories with tenuous origins, of which some – such as ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’ – earned a permanent place in pop culture. The Crying Boy arrived at a time when MacKenzie was on the look-out for what journalists call ‘a great splash’, which for him meant an exclusive story that none of his rivals would dream of publishing first. MacKenzie’s genius was to spot the potential ‘splash’ buried in routine copy from a regional news agency. He announced confidently to his staff: “This one’s got legs,” his phrase for a story that would ‘run and run’.

On 5 September 1985, The Sun ran its follow-up, reporting that scores of “horrified readers claiming to be victims of the ‘Curse of the Crying Boy’ had flooded [the paper] with calls… they all feared they were jinxed by having the print of a tot with tears pouring down his face in their homes.” Readers were left with an overwhelming impression of a supernatural link, reinforced by the use of words like ‘curse’, ‘jinx’, ‘feared’ and ‘horrified’.

Typical of these additional stories was that told by Dora Mann, from Mitcham, Surrey, who claimed her house was gutted just six months after she bought a print of the painting. “All my paintings were destroyed – except the one of the Crying Boy,” she claimed. Sandra Kaske, of Kilburn, North Yorkshire, said that she, her sister-in-law, and a friend had all suffered disastrous fires since they acquired copies. Another family, from Nottingham, blamed the print for a blaze which had left them homeless. Brian Parks, whose wife and three children needed treatment for smoke inhalation, said he had destroyed his copy after returning from hospital to find it hanging – undamaged, of course – on the blackened wall of his living room.

As the stories accumulated, new details emerged that encouraged the idea that possession of a print put owners at risk of fire or serious injury. One woman from London claimed she had seen her print “swing from side to side” on the wall, while another from Paignton said her 11-year-old son had “caught his private parts on a hook” after she bought the pict­ure. Mrs Rose Farrington of Preston, in a letter published by The Sun, wrote: “Since I bought it in 1959, my three sons and my husband have all died. I’ve often wondered if it had a curse.”

Another reader reported an attempt to destroy two of the prints by fire – only to find, to her horror, that they would not burn. Her claim was tested by security guard Paul Collier, who tossed one of his two prints onto a bonfire. Despite being left in the flames for an hour, it was not even scorched. “It was frightening – the fire wouldn’t even touch it,” he told The Sun. “I really believe it is jinxed. We feel doubly at risk with two of these in the house [and] we are determined to get rid of them.”


FIREMEN AND FOLKLORE

Collier’s story recalls the comments of the firemen who, in the aftermath of house fires in Rotherham, mentioned prints that had inexplicably escaped damage. The real mystery, from their perspective, was how the pictures had survived fires that were in themselves perfectly explicable. In most cases, straightforward explanations of carelessly discarded cigarettes, overheated chip-pans and faulty electric heaters had been found during the subsequent fire service investigation.

Rotherham fire station officer Alan Wilkinson who, it emerged, had personally logged 50 ‘Crying Boy’ fires dating back to 1973, dismissed any connection with the supernatural, having satisfied himself that most of them had been caused by human carelessness. But despite his pragmatism, he could not explain how the prints had survived infernos which generated heat sufficient to strip plaster from walls. His wife had her own theory: “I always say it’s the tears that put the fire out.” The Sun was not interested in finding a rational explanation. It ignored Wilkinson’s comments and claimed “fire chiefs have admitted they have no logical explanation for a number of recent incidents.”

Soon afterwards, it emerged that the ‘cursed’ prints were not all copies of the same painting, nor were all the prints by the same artist. The picture that survived the fire in Rotherham that initially triggered the scare was signed by the artist G Bragolin. The Sun claimed the original was “by an Italian artist”. In fact, Giovanni Bragolin was a pseudonym adopted by Spanish painter Bruno Amadio, who is also known as ‘Franchot Seville’. Attempts to trace him floundered as art historians said he did not appear to have “a coherent biography”. To make matters more confusing, further ‘Crying Boys’ that had featured in the fires, part of a series of studies called ‘Childhood’, were painted by Scottish artist Anna Zinkeisen, who died in 1976. The only common denominator was that all were examples of cheap, mass-produced prints sold in great numbers by English department stores during the 1960s and 70s. The geographical cluster simply reflected their popularity among working class communities in that part of the North.

Despite being dismissed by art critics as kitsch, ‘the Crying Boy’ remained an extremely popular print, particularly for female owners. Examples existed in at least five different variations. At least two of these had companion studies of ‘Crying Girls’ – some people owned copies of both – and others in the series included pictures of girls and boys holding flowers. In defiance of the scare headlines, some owners had developed such an emotional bond with the prints that they refused to dispose of them. “I’ve never cared for the picture myself because of its sadness,” the partner of one proud owner was quoted as saying. He then went on to pose two questions which many anxious Sun readers wanted answered: “Why would you want a picture of a child crying? Why was the child crying?”

Naturally, journalists turned to experts in the field of folklore and the occult for an explanation. When one approached Folklore Society member Georgina Boyes, the interview floundered when she refused to provide a suitably Satanic explanation. Consequently, the journalist concerned “went off in search of ‘a witch’ or ‘somebody into the occult’ who might make a better headline”. Then Roy Vickery, secretary of the Folklore Society, was quoted to the effect that the original artist might have mistreated the child model in some way, adding: “All these fires could be the child’s curse, his way of getting revenge.” [2]

A print of Zenkeisen’s Crying Boy became the centre of the next ‘mysterious fire’ reported by The Sun. This destroyed a council house in Rotherham, which had emerged not only as the geograph­ical location of many of the reported fires, but also as the source of the whole phenomenon. The same story quoted a Fire Brigade spokesman reassuring owners of the print that although there was no “cause for alarm… these incidents are becoming more frequent”.

The widespread anxiety this story generated led South Yorkshire Fire Service to issue a statement which aimed to debunk the conn­ection between the fires and the prints. It pointed out that the most recent blaze was started by an electric fire left too close to a bed. Chief Divisional Officer Mick Riley said a large number of the prints had been sold and “any connection with the fires is purely coincidental… fires are not started by pictures or coincidence, but by careless acts and omissions.” Riley then revealed the service’s own explanation: “The reason why this picture has not always been destroyed in the fire is because it is printed on high density hardboard, which is very difficult to ignite.”


THE BONFIRE OF THE BOYS

The Fire Service’s statement failed to have much effect in dousing the flames that The Sun was happily stoking. Soon afterwards, news came of a Crying Boy that had survived a fire which gutted an Italian restaurant in Great Yarmouth. “Enough is enough, folks,” MacKenzie told his readers: “If you are worried about a Crying Boy picture hanging in YOUR home, send it to us immediately. We will destroy it for you – and that should see the back of any curse.”

According to Chippindale and Horrie’s account, “worried readers rang in to ask if they should get rid of their copy to stop their houses burning down. ‘Sure,’ MacKenzie replied. ‘Send them in – we’ll do the job for you.’ Bouverie Street was swamped… the Crying Boys were soon stacked 12ft (3.7m) high in the newsroom, spilling out of cupboards, and entirely filling a little-used interview room.”

Until then, MacKenzie’s staff couldn’t work out how much cred­ence their boss attached to the story. When the assistant editor took down a picture of Churchill, which had been hanging on the newsroom wall since the Falklands War, and replaced it with a Crying Boy, the mystery was resolved: “MacKenzie, bustling into the newsroom at his normal half-run, stopped dead in his tracks and went white. ‘Take that down,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t like it. It’s bad luck.’”

Fireman Alan Wilkinson reacted in a similar fashion when his colleagues presented him with a framed Crying Boy on his retirement from the brigade. Like Kelvin MacKenzie, he denied being superstitious, but nevertheless immediately returned the painting, saying: “No thanks, you can keep it.” Similarly, Chief Officer Mick Riley, who was responsible for the statement debunking the ‘curse’, wouldn’t accept a copy of the print as a gift, saying his wife “wouldn’t like it; it wouldn’t fit in”. Interviewed by his local paper, Wilkinson admitted that he had been presented with another Crying Boy print by a worried woman who turned up at his home one night. He took it to work “as a joke” and mounted it on the office wall of the fire station. Within days, he was ordered by his superiors to take it down. Heaping irony upon comedy, the story continued: “The same day, an oven in the upstairs kitchen overheated and the firemen’s dinners were burned.”

Kelvin MacKenzie faced a similar dilemma. At the end of his six week ‘Crying Boy’ campaign, the editor of The Sun had to dream up a suitable way of disposing of 2,500 copies of the print that readers had sent in. His initial plan to burn them on the roof of the paper’s Bouverie Street offices was vetoed by both the London and Thames Valley fire brigades. Both refused to co-operate and denounced the whole campaign “as a cheap publicity stunt”. The reasons for their reluctance were becoming clear. It emerged that nationally the fire service had been the focus of hundreds of calls and visits by anxious owners who believed the prints were cursed, or that they were made of a dangerous flammable material.

Eventually, reporter Paul Hooper, with photographers and Page Three girls in tow, left the paper’s Bouverie Street HQ with two van-loads of prints ready for burning on a makeshift pyre near Reading. The Sun splashed the story – appropriately on Hallowe’en – under the headline: “Sun nails curse of the weeping boy for good.” A photograph depicted a scantily-clad “red hot Page Three beauty Sandra Jane Moore” feeding the bonfire as bemused firemen looked on.

The Hallowe’en burning was widely believed to have exorcised the ‘curse of the Crying Boy’, and the number of tabloid stories began to decrease. But in March the following year, a columnist in the Western Morning News pointed out that the industrial turmoil faced by News International (owners of The Sun), involving strikes and violent picketing at their new Fort Wapping production plant, began shortly after the paper’s bonfire. Poking fun at its Fleet Street rival, the paper implied the jinx so feared by Kelvin MacKenzie had finally been visited upon its creator.


FROM TABLOID TALE TO URBAN LEGEND

As tabloid interest waned, ‘Crying Boy’ stories began to morph into a modern legend. New versions appeared, including one which sugg­ested those who were kind to the prints were rewarded with good luck. Another was the idea that placing a picture of the ‘Crying Girl’ next to that of the Crying Boy would bring good luck. What the story lacked was a satisfying narrative explaining how the print came to be an ignition source. Soon, that story would be supplied and the arrival of the Internet would provide the legend with a new lease of life independent of the print media which originally set it running.

One web-source claims that during the 1990s Crying Boy fires began to be reported for the first time from other parts of the world. It also reflects how the basic ‘cursed painting’ motif was being moulded by professional story-tellers and paranormal investigat­ors for a new audience: “A medium claims the spirit of the boy is trapped in the painting and it starts fires in an attempt to burn the painting and free itself. Others claim the painting is haunted or attracts poltergeist activity. Stories of the artist’s and subject’s misfortune had attached themselves to the painting.” [3]

The notion that the ‘Crying Boy’ had been badly treated by the artist was gaining popularity. Few cared that there were several diff­erent paintings and artists, or that this idea began life as a throwaway remark offered to The Sun a decade earlier. In 2000, Tom Slemen revived the story in book form as part of his Haunted Liverpool series of largely unreferenced books. Like many others in this genre, the stories they contain are presented in an entertaining, narrative style which appeals to a mass readership. In his entry on ‘The Crying Boy Jinx’ Slemen states as fact that the “head of the Yorkshire Fire Brig­ade” had told newspapers that the Crying Boy print had turned up in the rubble of houses that had “mysteriously burnt to the ground”. According to Slemen, when journalists asked him if he believed the picture was evil, “the fire chief refused to comment.”

This factually incorrect account introduced the narrative which followed, finally explaining why the picture was evil. The story was uncovered by “a well respected researcher into occult matters, a retired schoolmaster from Devon named George Mallory” in 1995. Mallory traced the artist who had painted the original, “an old Spanish portrait artist named Franchot Seville, who lives in Madrid”. Seville, as astute readers will recognise, was one of the pseudonyms used by Bruno Amadio, otherwise known as ‘G Bragolin’ whose signature appeared on some of the prints. So far so good.

According to Slemen, Seville/Amadio/Bragolin told Mallory the subject of the paintings was a little street urchin he had found wandering around Madrid in 1969. He never spoke, and had a very sorrowful look in his eyes. Seville painted the boy, and a Catholic priest identified him as Don Bonillo, a child who had run away after seeing his parents die in a blaze. “The priest told the artist to have nothing to do with the runaway, because wherever he settled, fires of unknown origin would mysteriously break out; the villagers called him ‘Diablo’ because of this.” Nevertheless, the painter ignored the priest’s advice and adopted the boy. His portraits sold well but one day his studio was destroyed by fire and the artist was ruined. He accused the little boy of arson and Bonillo ran off – naturally in tears – and was never seen again. The story continued: “From all over Europe came the reports of the unlucky Crying Boy paintings causing blazes. Seville was also regarded as a jinx, and no one commissioned him to paint, or would even look at his paintings. In 1976, a car exploded into a fireball on the outskirts of Barcelona after crashing into a wall. The victim was charred beyond recog­nition, but part of the victim’s driving licence in the glove compartment was only partly burned. The name on the licence was one 19-year-old Don Bonillo.” [4]

Could this be the same orphan the villagers knew as ‘Diablo’? In Wild Talents, Charles Fort referred to such people as fire genii – “[B]y genius I mean one who can’t avoid knowledge of fire, because he can’t avoid setting things afire.” While the existence of some fire starters, such as the telekinetic medium Nina Kulagina, is well documented, this was not the case with Don Bonillo. The source of Slemen’s story is unknown and the mysterious ‘George Mallory’ proves to be as untraceable as ‘Franchot Seville’ or ‘Giovanni Bragolin’.

The appearance of the Don Bonillo story completes the meta­morphosis of the ‘curse of the Crying Boy’ from tabloid obscurity to a fully fledged urban legend accessible to anyone via the world wide web. The lack of any factual basis for the Bonillo legend has done nothing to erode its popularity.


THE CRYING BOY RETURNS

In 2002, I was invited to comment on the story for an episode of the reality TV series, Scream Team. Inspired by the success of Most Haunted, this plucked six young people from hundreds of hopefuls, then sent them out in a large silver bus to travel around the British Isles investigating legends, curses and ‘haunted places’. The premise was to encourage the sceptics and believers in the group to resolve each puzzle by drawing upon the expertise of assorted ‘experts’.

For the ‘Curse of the Crying Boy’, the team was dispatched to Wigan, Lancashire, where the owners of a transport café, Eddie and Marian Brockley, had recently suffered a disastrous fire. The local media had linked this to what they claimed was “one of the last surviving copies” of the print. It had survived the café blaze and remained hanging on the blackened wall, untouched by smoke or fire. Eddie, it emerged, was a typically bluff northern pragmatist. He believed the link was pure coincidence, but his wife was less certain. She had heard of similar fires associated with the Crying Boy and refused to allow the offending print – a Zinkeisen – back into the café.

Although the couple were largely ambivalent about the idea of a curse, they played along with the TV show’s plan. Then along came the sceptical journalist who did his best to place the story in its true context. My contribution, provided over a hearty full English breakfast, summarised the various stories surrounding the print that were circulating on the Internet, including Tom Slemen’s account of the infant fire-starter. There was no factual evidence, I explained, that ‘Don Bonillo’ actually existed; rather the story itself was a classic example of an urban legend created by a newspaper, and spread by the Internet.

Inevitably, the next expert introduced to the team was a trance medium whose task was to ‘tune in’ to the painting about whose history, viewers were assured, she knew absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, within minutes she was able to divine not only a direct link between the painting and an artist who lived in Spain, but also a sensation of burning and visions of a car crash. She was even able to name the little boy involved in the crash as “Din, Don or Dan”. This was enough to convince the more superstitious members of the team that there really was something in ‘the curse’.

The programme ended with the team agreeing to destroy the Brockleys’ copy of the Crying Boy outside the café in order to disperse any surviving evil influence it might retain. The print was doused with petrol and attempts were made to ignite it. Three attempts were made before the print finally succumbed to the flames, to the great relief of the Scream Team.

The idea of the curse has so much latent energy that my own interest in the legend has led me to become the unwitting agent of its resurrection. Early last year, the Sheffield Star carried a leading article on my research into the story of the cursed painting. Soon afterwards, the paper – and my inbox – was inundated with emails and letters from owners of surviving prints, many of whom wanted me to remove them from their property. One reader, who had just cleared his mother’s house, in which a Crying Boy was discovered, wrote to say: “My wife will not have the picture in the house. I have had to hang it in the garden shed with fire extinguishers at the ready!”

Then, in July, The Star announced that the curse had returned. A fire had gutted a house in Rotherham – the very town where the legend began. The owner, Stan Jones, claimed this was the latest of three separate house fires, each of which had the picture hanging on a wall. He bought his copy for £2 at a market a decade ago and had become fond of it, but now he was naturally having second thoughts. On the third occas­ion, Stan and partner Michelle Houghton, who was heavily pregnant, narrowly escaped death after falling asleep after leaving their supper cooking on a grill. Stan raised the alarm and firefighters were able to reach his unconscious partner just in time to revive her.

Meanwhile, discussion boards across the world continue to debate the source of the ‘curse’ which animates the portraits. Prints occasionally turn up for sale on eBay, while a Dutch ‘Crying Boy Fan Club’ website briefly appeared, then disappeared, in 2006. A Google search throws up an intriguing posting from Rodrigo Faria from Brazil, which attributes the painting to the Spanish artist Giovanni Bragolin and adds that “feelings of terror and illness are always associated with his paintings.” Faria says the prints were popular in Brazil during the 1980s. “I’ve seen all the 28 and I can assure you all of those paintings are representing DEAD children,” he writes. “[They] are filled with [subliminal] messages.” [5]

Another Brazilian adds that Bragolin appeared on a popular Brazilian TV channel where he admitted making “an evil pact with the Devil” to sell his paintings. His advice was: “PLEASE if you have one of these paintings, throw it away right now.”

Like other enduring modern legends, the curse of the Crying Boy is alive and well… and looking for new victims.



NOTES

1 See FT76:19 ‘Stealing the Hopi soul’. For examples of curses associated with carved Celtic stone heads and ‘screaming skulls’ see Fortean Studies 3 (1996), 126–158.
2 Georgina Boyes: Perspect­ives on Contemporary Legend vol 4, Sheffield, 1989.
3 www.messybeast.com/dragonqueen/cryingboy.htm.
4 Slemen’s story, from Haunted Liverpool 4 (2000), is reproduced online at http://board.dogbomb.co.uk/archive/index.php/t-21079.html.
5 For this posting and others continuing the discussion see: www.quasimondo.com/archives/000104.php.


FURTHER READING

The Sun, Daily Mirror, The Star, Guardian, Rotherham Star, Rotherham Advertiser, Sept 1985 – Mar 1986.
Sheffield Star, 21 Feb, 5+15 Mar, 7 July 2007.
Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie: Stick It Up Your Punter!: The uncut story of the Sun newspaper, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
FT46:22; 47:36 (1986); 69:17 (1993).
‘Curse of the Crying Boy’, The Scream Team, (Living TV, 15 Oct 2002).
Tom Slemen: Haunted Liverpool 4, Bluecoat Press, 2000.

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In one of Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie's publicity stunts, "red hot Page Three beauty" Sandra Jane Moore helped dispose of 2,500 Crying Boy prints sent in by the tabloid's readers.

 

The author with a Crying Boy that has taken pride of place in the front room of a suburban Sheffield home for the past 30 years.

 

One of many different versions of the 'cursed' Crying Boy print

One of many different versions of the 'cursed' Crying Boy print

 

One of many different versions of the 'cursed' Crying Boy print

 

One of many different versions of the 'cursed' Crying Boy print

The Sun's first Crying Boy story, published 4 September, 1985

 

The Curse seemed to return in March 1992, this time to a council house in Middlesbrough. Angela Worthington was given a Crying Boy painting by her aunt and - the day after hanging it - suffered three fires. Photo courtesy of Middlesborough Evening Gazette

 
Author Biography
David Clarke lectures on investigative journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. He is a regular FT contributor, and is looking forward to a major Crying Boy revival.

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