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May 27, 2021

Ep. 37: The "Crying Boy" Curse

In 1985, U.K. tabloid The Sun started a frenzy of fear when they published a series of articles about a cursed mass-produced painting - dubbed "The Crying Boy" - that had been found at the sites of dozens of house fires. In each of these instances,...


In 1985, U.K. tabloid The Sun started a frenzy of fear when they published a series of articles about a cursed mass-produced painting - dubbed "The Crying Boy" - that had been found at the sites of dozens of house fires. In each of these instances, the story was the same: families had purchased the painting, displayed it, their home had gone up in flames, and the painting itself mysteriously remained unscathed, even if the entire house around it was gutted. That was enough for The Sun...the "Crying Boy Curse" was born. 

But WHY was this painting supposedly cursed? Who was the artist behind it? Was it painted with malicious intent? And why in the WORLD would so many Europeans want to proudly display the image of a weeping toddler on their wall??

We try to find some answers to this very strange mystery...and perhaps find even more questions. 
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Transcript

After college I started diving deeper into stories of the weird and bizarre, and one caught my attention on the William Shatner-hosted TV show, Weird or What? This was a story about a cursed painting of a crying boy, and I love tales of cursed objects or places, so it stuck in my mind.

Fast forward to later that summer and I’m visiting my mother’s family in Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon is a fascinating place, much like other capitals in Europe, where the very old and very modern commingle. I suppose I should’ve expected to find something curse-y there, but I didn’t expect the format it would come in. 

I walked into my Tia Maria’s house and noticed a painting on the wall that must’ve been there for decades, but I was viewing it with an educated eye. It was an eerie portrait of a young boy...crying. In context it was a weird bit of art for my aunt and uncle to have...they didn’t have any children, so why have the image of one on the wall? And why would you want one of a child that looked so...tragic? One Google search on Portuguese wifi, and I realized that this was a genuine (asterisk) Crying Boy painting. So, surprisingly, I had just found myself face to despondent face with a cursed painting, which made me a little unnerved to be in the presence of it, to say the least. Once I got home I dove into the story of the Crying Boy curse, and that’s what I’ll be discussing today.


Like I said, I love a good curse. And more “modern” curses I find particularly fascinating. As technology and science has developed, I think we’ve lost that constant interaction we used to have with superstitions, curses, and things of that nature. As a society we’ve discovered reasons behind a lot of things that are based in logic and science, and so many of those fears have fallen away.

But not all of them. Of course, that’s why we have this podcast! Among other things.

The Crying Boy Curse is one of those modern superstitions. And, as far as I can tell, this superstition began with an article by Martyn Sharpe in a September, 1985 issue of Britain’s The Sun newspaper. The article was titled BLAZING CURSE OF THE CRYING BOY! with the subtitle, Picture is a fire jinx. There is also a large picture of a painting of a boy, crying (a different particular crying boy painting than that adorning my Tia’s wall in Lisbon) with the caption “Tears for fears...the portrait that firemen claim is cursed”. So that kind of gives you the vibe right up front.

The article begins with a couple, Ron and May Hall, laughing off warnings that there was a jinx on their painting of a tot with tears running down his face. So, of course, you know that some curse is gonna tell them where to stuff those laughs. Apparently, Ron’s brother Peter was a firefighter in Rotherham, and he told them that these paintings popped up unusually often at the scenes of the house fires they’d been investigating. Peter’s colleague, station officer Alan Wilkinson, claimed that he’d recently responded to at least 15 different house fires where everything had been destroyed...except, of course, a Crying Boy painting, left perfectly intact.

The Halls, after their ribbing of those concerned about their teary toddler painting, experienced a terrible fire that gutted their council home in Rotherham, a mining town in South Yorkshire, after a blaze broke out in a chip-pan - basically, frying french fries to us Americans - and rapidly spread. Although the rooms on the first floor of the home were badly damaged, the framed Crying Boy print was unblemished, still hanging amidst the wreckage.

Though the two firemen quoted in the article hadn’t actually called the painting cursed, The Sun took the liberty, and it gave the story some credibility. But WHY did so many British families have a print of a weeping toddler on their wall?

Well, this goes back to the phenomena of mass-produced art. Nowadays you’d find its like in American stores like Kohl’s, TJ Maxx, Target, Home Goods, etc...framed prints sold wall-ready and en masse. Sometimes there are trends in mass art, like modern wooden quote blocks, Rae Dunn pieces, or signs proclaiming Live Laugh Love. It was just the same in the 80s, as well. I’m not sure HOW such a painting became a mass-produced art piece, but apparently around this era over 50,000 crying boy prints signed “G. Bragolin” had been sold in British department stores, especially those in working class areas in Northern England. One story even suggested a quarter of a million of these prints had been sold, though perhaps they weren’t all the original G. Bragolin portraits, but variations on the trend...which I’ll refer back to later. Having a TREND of weeping child paintings seems bizarre, but that was the case here. 

So, okay, these weren’t all originals, and maybe this print was cursed? That’s what The Sun’s position seemed to be. Here I’ll quote Dr David Clarke, who has a PhD in British Folklore and has covered the Crying Boy Case extensively, and whose research I’m using a ton of in this episode so thanks David!, “The mass media plays 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 imagination of the masses. 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.” The editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, had apparently announced to his staff at the time that the Crying Boy story had legs, and so they published a follow up the next day, September 5th 1985. In this story The Sun reported that scores of horrified readers claiming to be victims of the Crying Boy curse had flooded the newspaper with calls, and still more were beside themselves with worry because they owned the painting, but hadn’t been targeted yet. They also published some of these new incoming stories. Dora Mann from Surrey claimed her home was destroyed in a fire 6 months after she bought one of the Crying Boy prints, saying “All of my paintings were destroyed...except the one of the crying boy.” Sandra Kaske in North Yorkshire told the paper that she, her sister-in-law, and a friend had all experienced fires in their home after they purchased copies of the painting. Which TRULY begs the question WHY?? Why are you buying this depressing print? And, like, ALL of you? Is it so that no matter where you go, if it’s to your sister’s or friend’s house, you can still see it? It’s not the goddamn Mona Lisa. Brian Parks suffered a devastating fire in his home that required his wife and three children to get medical treatment for smoke inhalation, and upon returning from the hospital and finding the painting hanging undamaged on an otherwise blackened wall in his living room, promptly destroyed it himself.

Of course, as the story continued to gain traction, even more supernatural elements gathered like moss on this rolling stone of spookiness. An owner of a print located in London saw it swing from side to side while hanging on the wall. Another said her 11 year old son “caught his private parts on a hook” after she brought the picture home...which seems like just weird bad luck and a bit of a stretch to be related to the painting. A woman named Rose Farrington wrote in to the sun stating that “Since I bought it in 1959, my 3 sons and husband have all died.” Maybe she’s talking about an original? Or a different crying boy painting? Since this one clearly was in department stores in the early 80s.

Two different readers attempted to destroy their prints by fire, but claimed they would not burn at all. Now, if we go back to fireman Alan Wilkinson, who had discussed his experiences with “Crying Boy” fires, well, even he doesn’t think there was anything supernatural about it. Though he felt the fires were caused by simple human carelessness and nothing paranormal, he had no explanation for why so many of these prints would survive them, unscathed. 

So who is the “G. Bragolin” that created the original Crying Boy painting, and had he done so with some sort of malicious intent? Though The Sun stated he was an Italian artist - probably due to his name - G. Bragolin, or Giovanni Bragolin, was a name used by Spanish painter Bruno Amadio, along with another pseudonym, Franchot Seville. And, like I mentioned, there wasn’t just ONE version of a crying boy painting. There are different kinds of crying boy portraits purported to be cursed, and not all of them were painted by Amadio-as-Bragolin. The original depicts a boy with blue eyes and short, light brown hair crying and looking directly out. Amadio also painted variations on this with different positions and different children. There were others, who were also reported to be part of the fire phenomenon, painted by Scottish artist Anna Zinkeisen as part of her series “Childhood”. These depicted a blondish toddler boy looking up and away from the viewer while crying. The one in my aunt’s Portguese home has a boy that looks a tiny bit older, maybe around 5, with shaggier light brown hair and crying eyes, but also has a hand raised supporting his chin. However, though not all from one specific artist, all are grouped into the phenomena. 

So that brings us to a mysterious fire in Rotherham reported on by - you guessed it - The Sun, not the original fire but coincidentally set in the same place. In this fire it was Zinkeisen’s print that was the one left unscathed by the fire. Widespread panic over the curse and the apparent masses of Britons who owned it prompted the South Yorkshire Fire Service to issue an official statement attempting to debunk the curse, with Chief Divisional Officer Mick Riley saying that “any connection with the fires is purely coincidental - fires are not started by pictures or coincidence, but by careless acts and omissions. The reason why this picture is not always destroyed in the fire is because it is printed on high-density hardboard, which is very difficult to ignite.” Of course, that may not have been true of all of the different variations of the Crying Boy painting, but perhaps it was common among those that were mass-produced. However, there were some like my aunt’s that were created to look like paintings, with this one looking almost decoupaged onto a wooden backer. 

Nevertheless, the panic persisted, and Sun editor MacKenzie told readers to send in their crying boy pictures if they were so worried about it, and THEY would destroy it for them, presumably removing the fire curse from their homes. We’ll follow up with the great Crying Boy bonfire...after the break.

[BREAK]

Ok! So by this point, 2,500 different Crying Boy paintings were sent in to the Sun’s offices for ritual disposal. They were all burned on a makeshift pyre, with the Sun reporting on the successful bonfire on, of course, Halloween, under the headline “Sun nails curse of the weeping boy for good.” They even including a pinup picture with it, so to speak, with a scantily clad “red hot Page Three beauty Sandra Jane Moore” feeding the fire. 

So that was it, they were all disposed of and everyone lived happily ever after. Right? Well, no. A couple things here - 2,500 destroyed prints doesn’t erase the rest of the possible 250,000 that had been sold. I mean, clearly, because my aunt all the way in Portugal has a version. But also, The Sun had whipped everyone into such a frenzy that, even when interest waned, the legend still remained. And the internet, in its way, would help spread the legend and give people the opportunity to embellish on it, especially when it came to the root issue with the whole mystery - why did THIS painting cause FIRES, specifically?

A website claimed in the 90s the fires were resuming, stating “…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.” And then, the story was conjured up yet again in a book called Haunted Liverpool, by Tom Slemen. You might remember this book and its author from our episode on Time Slips, #12, where he discussed one occurring in...obviously enough...Liverpool. But here, he brought up the Crying Boy curse once more, and embellished on it as well, with a few facts that Dr David Clarke remarks aren’t necessarily...factually correct.

Slemen stated on the “Crying Boy Jinx” 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”, and when journalists asked him if he believed the picture was evil, ‘the fire chief refused to comment.” This doesn’t appear to be the case, because there were official comments by several different fire station sources. Also, he had apparently discovered the cause of the fire part of the curse through a “well respected researcher into occult matters, a retired schoolmaster from Devon named George Mallory”. Apparently, Mallory told Slemen a story of tracing the painting to the original artist, and then meeting the artist himself. 

He discovered that the original portrait was by a Spanish artist named Franchot Seville - aka Bruno Amadio’s other pseudonym - and was able to find him living in Madrid. Apparently, Amadio told Mallory that the subject of these particular paintings was a street urchin he’d found wandering the Madrid streets in 1969, who never spoke and had a look of sorrow in his eyes. A Catholic priest saw the painting and identified the child as Don Bonillo, a youngster who had run away after seeing his parents die in a fire. Quote, “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.” Amadio said fuck it and adopted the kid anyway. Unfortunately, despite portraits selling well, Amadio’s studio was destroyed by a fire. Amadio, in a rage, accused the child of arson, and Bonillo ran off in tears, never to be seen or heard from again, until 1976...when a car exploded in flames after crashing into a wall on the outskirts of Barcelona. The victim’s body was charred beyond recognition, but his license was only partially burned, and the name? Don Bonillo. 

Attempts to trace Slemen’s story in Haunted Liverpool to a George Mallory, or even a painter named Franchot Seville or Giovanni Bragolin, have remained unsuccessful, so who knows about the veracity of this account. I will say, though, it does seem Bruno Amadio is a real person, and I’ve found a photo of him painting a young boy in his studio. David Clarke appeared on a 2002 show called Scream Team to discuss the legend, and soon after, newspaper The Star announced that the curse had returned. A fire had claimed a house in...you guessed it...Rotherham, right where the legend began. The owner of the home, Stan Jones, said this was only the latest of 3 fires in the house, and that he’d had the print hanging on the wall after finding it for 2 pounds at a flea market a decade previously. The most recent addition to the story is from a forum called Quasimondo, which still exists on the Wayback Machine. In 2004 someone posted a gif made with the painting as the base image, and many responses ensued by those familiar with the legend and even stating they were owners of a Crying Boy painting themselves. A poster claiming to be from Brazil named Rodrigo responded to the image with the following, which I’ve abridged a bit: 
“Hi Im from Brazil and these painting are well know here. The author is Giovanni Bragolin and feelings of terror and illness are always associated with his paintings. The author painted 28 comfirmed paintings of various children crying, those paintings were very famous here in Brazil in mid 80's. These paintings, after some closer investigation, show some really nasty and horrendous scenes. I've seem all the 28 and i can assure you all of those paitings are representing DEAD children. These painting are filled with subliminal evil messages. For example in the photo above the right face and left torso of the child are severely burned with even some bones showing off in his shoulder, you can clearly see his ribs beneath his shirt. The pupils are dilated, despite the fact of light in every painting. Another clue the children are dead alredy. Every painting has those terrible subte messages.
PLEASE if you have one of those paintings throw it away right now. Giovanni Bragolin regreted his actions and in late 80's he appeared in the biggest TV channel here in Brazil, Rede Globo, and told to everyone who have copies or originals to destroy them, because he made a evil pact to sell his paintings.
People say those paintings bring extremelly miss fortune and disgrace to the owners. Thiis i cant 100% believe but the fact is: These are paintings of dead children with a lot of satanistic reference. A kind of paiting that i surely don't want in my house.”

I can’t find any record of Giovanni Bragolin appearing on Brazilian TV in the late 80s, so I can’t really verify that part of the claim. Other responders also had stories to tell, like Rachel, who stated “I have a copy of Bragolin's crying boy I bought for $10AU (australia) in a second hand shop, his eyes called me, and though the shop assistants weren't willing to sell him, i talked them round. The background is a dark green forrest colour, the boy is wearing a dark blue turtle neck sweater and is turned slightly side on, his face looks as if he has just been scolded for something he didn't know was wrong and his tears are that of bewilderment and slightly hurt. I work for a lady who has the same boy but maybe a year younger, he's wearing a red jumper and his face looks more upset and harder than mine. I'd like to hear from anyone with these paintings and what they think. sometimes i feel like this child, who I have named Yorick, is my soul child and in the future (Im 19) will give birth to someone like him...strange I know, but the paintings are very powerful. What do you guys think?” So, uh, that’s weird. The story also lives on thanks to the internet, paranormal TV shows, films like Curse of the Crying Boy, and of course, creepypasta.

I’ll end with this clip from BBC 4’s Punt PI, a radio show where host Steve Punt investigates different stories. Here, he’s tracked down one of the original Crying Boy claims, made by a Jane McCutcheon from Nottingham.

[CLIP 4:27 - 5:07 / 5:13 - 5:47 / 6:50 - 6:52]

Punt himself attempted to light a Crying Boy picture he was able to purchase on fire for his show, but it wasn’t really damaged. Punt and construction researcher Martain Shipp hypothesized that a fire-retardant varnish had been applied to the picture and that it was printed on compressed board, making it difficult to burn.

But at least for those impacted by the supposed Crying Boy curse, the experience still looms large in their minds and fears. If you’re interested, you can apparently join the Crying Boy’s fanclub at cryingboyfanclub.nl, which shockingly is still up and explores other legends and curses. As for myself? As far as I know, there has never been a fire in my aunt and uncle’s home. We lost my Tia Maria last year not to a curse, but to COVID, which is, as we all know, very real. I expect when I make my way back to Portugal I’ll enter her home and find the painting, still on the wall, silently crying tears that perhaps are mourning her now, his owner for decades having now sadly disappeared.

Sean, do you believe in the Crying Boy Curse?

[BREAK]

NEWS

We’re still on disclosure watch here at Ain’t it Scary, so it’s time for Cryin’ Saucers! 

Tom Rogan, commentary writer for the Washington Examiner, told Tucker Carlson this week that, referring to the upcoming UFO Disclosure by the Pentagon this June, “An area we will learn more about is the interaction between US Navy submarines – nuclear ballistic submarines and attack submarines – picking up sonar contact of things moving at hundreds of knots under the water. There is an undersea dimension to this, on top of what the pilots are seeing above water. Whether this being is worldly or otherworldly, we don’t know. It’s just part of a much larger series of events we are going to be learning about.”

So yeah, get ready, because disclosure won’t just be about UFOs...it apparently will also be about U S O’s, or unidentified submerged or submersible objects. While being interviewed on The Late Late Show With James Corden this past Monday, former president Barack Obama was asked by bandleader Reggie Watts about the existence of UFOs. Here’s a clip with his answer:

[:48 - 1:56]

The audience laughs but I don’t think he’s joking! There must be stuff he knows, as a former president, that we don’t. After this he deflected into very charmingly calling Reggie Watts an alien but I think that’s just what it was - a deflection.

OBAMA WHAT DO YOU KNOW??
Perhaps we’ll find out...next month. Until then, hoping all you Americans have a safe, thoughtful, and relaxing Memorial Day weekend! And everyone else...well, just enjoy your weekend.

[END]

That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. You can support the show by supporting our sponsors, and becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/aintitscary. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts...we’ll be forever grateful.

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See you next Thursday! 


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