Natasha Francois reveals how a mass-produced portrait of a tearful tot blazed a trail across the British Isles – and the tabloids fanned the flames.
On September 4, 1985, Britain’s leading tabloid The Sun, published the tale of a distraught South Yorkshire family whose home of 27 years had been gutted by a mysterious fire. Bizarrely, the victims were blaming the incident on a ‘cursed’ portrait of a crying boy by G. Bragolin.
The cheap mass-market print which had been hanging on the Hall family’s Rotherham living room wall had survived the blaze unscathed.
The fire had broken out in the kitchen after the couple’s 25-year-old son was trying to cook chips and the home had suffered extensive smoke and heat damage.
Ron Hall, a 59-year-old redundant miner, told the reporter he regretted ignoring the advice of his firefighter brother who had warned them to get rid of the picture and told them it had been hanging on the wall of every house fire he’d ever been called to.
However, after the devastating blaze, Ron told Sun reporter John Murphy he intended to dispose of Crying Boy print himself. “I want to burn it to make sure it doesn’t come back.”
“If I find out who painted it, I’ll sue him,” he said.
Ordinarily a chip pan fire wouldn’t receive more than a few column inches but the revelations the painting was not only known to local firefighters but had also turned up, undamaged, in the ruins of numerous other burnt houses, gave this story the undeniable X factor.
The ‘curse’ gathers momentum
Thanks to the Sun’s massive reader base, and the ubiquity of the picture in British homes, a fear of the curse quickly spread and the paper eagerly fanned the flames.
The next day, the paper followed up by reporting that scores of spooked readers had flooded the newspaper’s office with calls claiming to be victims of the ‘Curse of the Crying Boy’ and felt jinxed by having the painting in their homes.
The Sun also estimated that 50,000 copies of the print had been sold in groceries and department stores throughout the UK. The picture had been particularly popular in the working class areas of northern England.
Although The Sun claimed G. Bragolin to be an ‘Italian artist’ in fact, Giovanni Bragolin (1911-1981) was a pseudonym used by Spanish painter Bruno Amadio, who was also known as Franchot Serville. The artist died in 1981, and no one has been able to trace him to verify his story.
Amadio was an academically trained painter who worked in Venice after the Second World War painting Crying Boys and selling them to tourists. The paintings date from the 1950s onwards and some say the artist produced up to 65 variations of Crying Boys (and Crying Girls) during his lifetime.
From there, similar stories poured in thick and fast. Dora Mann from Mitcham, Surrey claimed her home had been gutted just six months after she purchased a copy of the painting. Meanwhile, Sandra Kaske of Kilburn, North London told The Sun that she, her sister in law and friend had all suffered from disastrous fires since acquiring their own copies of the tearful tot.
On October 24, the paper featured an interview with Kevin Godber, from East Herringthorpe, near Rotherham who had arrived home with his wife Julie to find it burnt down but the ‘jinxed’ picture remained undamaged. His family were left with just the clothing on their backs.
A South Yorkshire fire spokesman warned that “these incidents are becoming more and more frequent. It is strange and we have no logical explanation for it.”
A case of mistaken identity
The interesting thing was that the photograph which accompanied this particular article was not by G.Bragolin– it was a different picture altogether. The Godber’s version depicted a a crying toddler by Scottish artist Anna Zinkeisen.
Zinkeisen’s paintings were very popular in the north of England, particularly among working class families of the 1960s and 70s. They were available through department stores and graced the living room walls, just above the mantelpiece in thousands of households.
Paintings of sad-eyed children were hugely popular in the 1950s and 60s and came in many different variations. There were crying boys, crying girls, crying velvet paintings and this later morphed into the sad eye/ big eye children trend, spearheaded by the likes of Margaret Keane, Dallas Simpson and Maio.
Despite being written off as kitsch by art critics, the crying boy (and crying girl) prints remained extremely popular genre, particularly for female collectors.
The Fire Service enters the fray
Due to widespread public anxiety, the South Yorkshire Fire Service was forced to release a statement to debunk any connection between the mysterious fires and the prints themselves. They emphasized that one of the most recent fires had been caused by a heater left too close to a bed.
Chief Divisional Officer Mick Riley said a huge 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.”
Nevertheless The Sun continued to fuel the fire. Several readers also wrote in, explaining that after they’d read about the curse, they had attempted to destroy their copies of the paintings. However, the pictures refused to burn!
Burn baby burn!
The article ended with a call to action asking its readers to send in their copies of the picture.
“Enough is enough folks. If you are worried about a crying boy picture hanging in YOUR home, send it to us immediately. We will destroy the painting for you– and that should see the back of any curse there may be.”
This resulted in the “biggest flame-up in the history of art” on October 31, 1985 when thousands of copies of the picture went up in smoke. Although they weren’t easy to burn, they did eventually succumb to the flames.
Page 3 girl Sandra Jane Moore, who believed she had met the curse head on, was pictured feeding the fires.
She told the paper she had been decorating a friend’s home when and gave facelift to a picture of the little boy- “I painted him with red spiky hair for a giggle”, she said.
However, within days she heard that her friend’s home had been flooded out… and of course, the picture was undamaged.
One reader went on to say that since she purchased the picture in 1977, she ending up losing her only daughter, mother and husband in quick succession.
The battle for readers heats up
The ‘Crying Boy’ exclusive occurred at a time when legendary editor Kelvin Mackenzie was involved in a war for readers with its Fleet Street counterpart, the Daily Mirror and was on the lookout for what was known in industry speak as ‘a great splash’.
His masterstroke was to spot the potential of a story buried in boring news agency copy and turn it into a scoop that none of his competitors could have conceived of.
After the bonfires, the curse itself began to smoulder, only to be reignited in the age of the world wide web.
The legend gains a new life
The arrival of the internet helped give the curse a new lease of life, independent of the tabloid media which had spawned it. Soon it morphed into a fully-fledged urban legend.
According to internet message boards, mysterious Crying Boy fires again began to be reported from other parts of the world during the 1990s.
This rebirth helped provide it with the missing ingredient – a convincing reason for why the prints would catch fire in the first place. Thanks to the web, the idea surfaced that the spirit of the boy was trapped in the painting and ignited fires in a bid to free itself.
Others claimed the paintings depicted dead children and that’s why they attracted paranormal activity.
The notion that the crying boy had somehow been badly treated by the artist also gained traction.
The tale of Don Bonillo
In 1995, as part of a series called Haunted Liverpool, a writer called Tom Sieman resurrected the tale in book form.
As part of his research, Sieman recounted the experience of “well respected researcher into occult matters, the retired schoolmaster George Mallory.”
Mallory was said to have tracked down the artist who painted the original – an old Spanish portrait artist Franchot Serville who lived in Madrid. According to Mallory Serville revealed the subject of his paintings to be a mute street urchin he discovered on the streets of Madrid in 1969.
A Catholic priest identified the sorrowful looking boy as Don Bonillo, and said he had run away from home after witnessing his parents die in a fire.
The priest was said to have advised Serville to have nothing to do with the runaway due to a spate of mysterious fires following him around. The boy had been dubbed ‘Diablo’ on account of this.
Ignoring the priest’s advice, the artist adopted the boy anyway. However, one day his studio was burnt to the ground, the artist was ruined and the little boy fled in tears.
The above story is entirely unsubstantiated and likely fictional. The mysterious George Mallory is as untraceable as Franchot Serville. However this has done nothing to erode its popularity stoked by supernatural discussion boards on the web.
Rumours persist that the reason for the reason the prints were able to survive infernos which generated heat sufficient to strip plaster from the walls included the notion that “the tears put the fire out.”
The curse reignites in the 2000s
The curse reappeared in 2002, after an episode of the reality TV show Scream Team chose six young people to travel around Britain on a bus investigating legends, curses and haunted places.
For The Curse of the Crying Boy, the team were deployed to Wigan, Lancashire to meet the owners of a transport cafe who had recently experienced a devastating fire.
Local media had connected the event to what they claimed was one of the last surviving copies of the print. It had been unharmed in the blaze and continued hanging on the blackened wall. The cafe’s owners, Eddie and Marian Brockley disagreed what to do about the painting. Eddie believed the fire was a mere coincidence, while Marian wanted the picture destroyed.
The reality show hired a medium who conveniently detected a direct link between the painting and an artist based in Spain. She also reported a burning sensation and images of a car crash. She even hinted at his name.
At the end of the show, the painting was doused in petrol and set alight. It took three attempts before it eventually caught fire.
Back with a vengeance
Later that year, The Star reported that the curse was back with a vengeance. This time the fire had destroyed a home in Rotherham– the town where the curse began.
Homeowner Stan Jones said it was after buying a two pound copy of the picture at a market 10 years earlier, he’d experienced a series of house fires, each which had the picture hanging on the wall.
These events have fueled further internet discussion.
If you search the internet, you’re bound to stumble on interesting message board threads with visitors adding their own experiences to the mix.
Some report growing up with a sense of dread and foreboding as the picture hung on the wall of their family home. They sensed an evil presence and remembered feeling like the boy was watching them.
There’s also the story that when the paintings became popular in Brazil, Bragolin appeared on a TV show to explain that the paintings were all of dead children or at least represented them.
Many say just looking at pictures today give them a shiver down their spine.
The only way to break the curses is to either give the painting away or you need to get hold of a Crying Girl picture. The two together will bring good luck, as the legend has it. Others believe being kind to the picture can also bring good luck.
As to why the paintings refuse to burn, this was scientifically put to the test by Steven Punt who found the reason for them not catching alight easily was twofold: firstly they happen to be printed on a high density hardboard which is difficult to burn, secondly, the print itself is covered in a heat resistant varnish.
I’ve collected these prints for about 12 years and I have a pretty decent collection. I often find the same ones pop up time and time again (Toby and Alfie are often listed on the likes of TradeMe) and it’s harder to get my hands on some of the more rarer ones. I even have a creepy paint by numbers version which has its own handmade gaudy gold frame.
I remember seeing some of the original oil paintings on eBay a few years back going for a few thousand dollars apiece and have always regretted not being able to afford one.
The story of the Crying Boy has already been turned into a “disturbingly dark” book by Jane E James. Now I hear an indie filmmaker has plans to create a 90-minute supernatural thriller based on the phenomenon. If this comes to fruition, it’s bound to give the curse a third wind.
What do you think of this so-called curse? Have you ever owned one of these prints? Would you hang one on your wall? Let me know in the comments!
Stay tuned for a future post featuring my personal Crying Boy (and girl) collection!