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In the 1970s department stores such as Woolworth’s were selling cheap prints  of paintings in the UK and elsewhere.  Among popular items were the Chinese Lady (who for some strange reason had green skin), a naked woman in a forest, and the Crying Boy.  The latter of these was a print of a painting of a little urchin boy in ragged clothes, with a sad look, big eyes and tears running down his face.  Why anyone would actually want such an object on their walls is beyond me. But it was the 1970s and there’s no accounting for taste.

The story of the “curse” of the crying boy dates back to 1973 when a fire officer in Rotherham, England, Alan Wilkinson, had recorded 50 house fires in which there had been copies of crying boy prints which had survived the flames undamaged.  Being a rational man, Alan Wilkinson had put each and every fire down to human carelessness and did not offer any opinion on how the prints survived.

From then on, rumours of “crying boy fires”, in which such a print had survived infernos started spreading.  It was not however until a media story in appeared in 1985 that it became legend.  Popular British tabloid newspaper The Sun, under the then editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie, carried the story on 4 September 1985 under the headline “Blazing Curse of the Crying Boy”.  The story ran that the cottage of Ron and May Hall in Rotherham had been gutted by a chip pan fire.  The house was apparently utterly destroyed, yet their print of the crying boy was hanging on the wall, completely unscathed.  The couple blamed the blaze upon the print, claiming that it was cursed.  The article in The Sun carried a photo of the popular print, which had been signed by one G Bragolin, with the caption “Tears for fears… the portrait that firemen claim is cursed.” and claimed up to 500,000 had been sold.  Alan Wilkinson, or any other fire officer for that matter, had never claimed the prints were cursed.  But then, far be it from The Sun or Kelvin Mackenzie to let facts get in the way of a good story.

Enter our old friend mass hysteria.  On 5 September 1985 The Sun ran a follow up story claiming they had been inundated with phone calls from people claiming they too had experienced fires where crying boy paintings had survived, while others who had copies of such prints were now afraid their homes may be cursed.  Stories and claims poured in of houses being gutted by fire with crying boy prints surviving.  While others claimed that they had lost loved ones after purchasing such prints and one woman claiming that her son had caught his “private parts” on a hook after she had bought and hung a crying boy print.  One woman claimed to have tried to destroy her print on a bonfire, and it simply would not catch.  This was followed up by security guard Paul Collier who claimed he threw his two prints onto a fire and found that they were not even scorched after an hour.

The hysteria continued up and down the country, with stories of fires and wild claims of supernatural happenings in houses with crying boy prints.  It was around this time it emerged however that they were not all of the same painting as the one in the Hall’s cottage, as reported in The Sun.  Some of the paintings came from a series entitled Childhood by the Scottish artist Anna Zinkeisen, who had died in 1976.  And not all of the stories surrounded crying boys. There were crying girl prints as well as some of girls holding posies of flowers.

Then came another fire in Rotherham in which a council house was destroyed and one of Zinkeisen’s crying boy prints apparently survived.  Despite South Yorkshire Fire Brigade issuing a statement to the effect that the blaze had started due to an electric fire being left too close to bedding and any connection to the painting was purely coincidental, public fears would not be allayed, particularly after a fire in an Italian restaurant in which another crying boy print apparently survived.  It was then that Kelvin Mackenzie took a decision that, while it made good copy, he must at least for a while regretted.

In a leader in The Sun, Mackenzie told his readership “Enough is enough” and invited anyone worried about crying boy prints to send them to their offices and that the newspaper would destroy them for them.  It could not have been more successful – the prints soon were all over the offices of The Sun, stacked in a 12 foot high pile, inside and on top of cupboards and filling an interview room.  In the end Kelvin Mackenzie and his staff were left with in excess of 2500 crying boy prints to dispose of.  No doubt he felt like crying himself, particularly when both London and Thames Valley Fire Brigades refused to participate in a mass burning on the roof of the newspaper’s offices.   Apart from the dangers involved in such a foolhardy stunt, who could blame them?  Due to the sensationalism of The Sun fire brigades the length and breadth of the UK had been called out on false calls by more gullible crying boy print owners, afraid the prints were going cause their homes to burn down at any second.

Never daunted and always one for effect, Mackenzie organised a mass burning of the prints on a piece of waste ground on 31 October – Halloween.  Accompanied by Sun Page 3 girl Jane Moore, the prints were driven out to the site near Reading, doused with an accelerant and set alight.  Oh, strangely enough – not one survived.  The Sun claimed that the Halloween burning had broken the curse and, naturally enough, the calls and letters quickly subsided.

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The story however did not die there.  The Curse of the Crying Boy continued on, having become an urban legend to some extent.  From the mid-80s onwards there have been stories of people claiming that a friend of a friend (of a friend of a third-cousin-twice-removed) had a fire in which there house was destroyed and their crying boy print survived.  Other claims included bizarre paranormal events allegedly taking place in houses with crying boy prints.

In 2002 investigative journalist David Clarke joined a group of young people on the Reality TV series Scream Team to investigate the Curse of the Crying Boy.  They went to Wigan in Lancashire where a crying boy print had survived a blaze in a roadside cafe.  The owners, although hard-headed realists, believed all too well in the curse by now and refused to let the print, one of Anna Zinkeisen’s, back in the premises.  Following a trance medium allegedly making contact with someone named “Din”, “Don” or “Dan”, a little boy who it was claimed died in a car crash, it was decided to destroy the print by fire outside.  Needless to say, the print simply would not burn.  Despite being doused with petrol, it took three attempts for it to ignite.

David Clarke followed this up with an excellent article on the Curse of the Crying Boy in Fortean Times magazine (issue 234, April 2008), and I thank him for his research, without which this article would not have been possible. In that article David went at lengths to dispel any myths about any crying boy curse, but far from the story lying down, it just seemed to fan the flames, as it were.  Soon the letters pages and the internet were full of Crying Boy fires, paranormal activities and even wild claims about the source of the curse.  Among these included that the little boy was crying because he was an orphan (he is always depicted in ragged clothes), or that he had been physically and/or sexually abused and was now either disturbed or seeking revenge in the form of fire-raising.  Needless to say all of these claims are pure conjecture, without one shred of evidence or any basis in fact.

In fact, there is no proof there ever was a crying boy model.  Various theories abound but most of these come from the annals of the paranormal, are obscure, and not at all convincing.  Besides, given the works of Anna Zinkeisen, we are not just looking for one crying boy but at least six, as well as crying girls and girls carrying posies of flowers.  The original artists may well have drawn the children from their own memory, or more likely from imagination, particularly if they were contracted to produce kitsch for department stores.

And still it continued, through the 90s, into the noughties and up to the present day.  Enter again The Sun, copy dated 12 January 2011, in which Steve Punt claimed “Solved: The Curse of the crying boy”.  In a terrible article, Punt related how he had taken a crying boy print to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) near Watford, where it had been subjected to a naked flame.  This was filmed and the flames, two foot high at times, scorched one side of the print but it did not ignite and the fire petered out without damaging it.

So what of Punt’s claim to have solved the mystery?

“But it turns out there is a reason why paintings often survive fires relatively undamaged: It is to do with the string on the back burning through first.  The painting falls face-down, giving it protection from smoke and heat.”

As one ever ready to apply Occam’s Razor, there may be something to this theory, for a number of paintings surviving the fires.  What however of those where owners maintain that their premises were gutted, and the print was still hanging on the wall?  Steve Punt’s hypothesis certainly cannot explain those instances.  Besides, in the controlled fire at BRE, one theory put forward is that the prints may well be covered with a fire-retardant coating.

Add to this that Steve Punt is a comedian, and a pretty left-wing comedian at that, and it seems that his theory of the string burning through may well have been said just for a laugh – with the joke being on one of Britain’s most right-wing sensationalist tabloid newspapers.

I have always been of the mind that the crying boy prints have been coated in some way which makes them flame-retardant, and the filmed burnings on both Scream Team and at BRE would seem to confirm that.  To that we can add the actual statement which South Yorkshire Fire Brigade released to ally fears in 1985:

“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.”

Add the two, high density hardboard back and flame-retardant coated front, and you have one print that is going to be particularly difficult to burn.

Despite all explanations, stories of the Curse of the Crying Boy continue, and no doubt shall do for a long time to come.  It is now an urban legend, firmly stuck in the public imagination, so don’t be surprised the next time you hear of a friend of a friends cousin’s granny’s house burning down and her crying boy painting being the only thing to survive.

Have you heard or experienced a fire or unexplained occurance concerning a Crying Boy print?  If so, please leave your story below.   Do NOT however, on any account, send your prints to me.  It’s not that I believe the curse or am in any way afraid, it’s just that they are bloody awful and I can’t stand the damned things.