Revisiting the Curse of the Crying Boy
Updated: Jul 31
It was the morning of September 4, 1985 when readers of The Sun, a popular newspaper among the English-speaking world, opened their papers to a startling headline: Blazing Curse of the Crying Boy. This article told the story of Ron and Mary Hall, a couple from Swallownest, South Yorkshire who's home of 27 years caught ablaze. All of their personal belongings were destroyed by the flames, except for one...a painting of a young, crying boy which stood out among the charred remains.
The fire started from a chip-pan, but according to Ron Hall's brother, Peter (a fireman), this wasn't the first time he encountered a crying boy painting which survived a house fire. Another firefighter, Alan Wilkinson, noted that he saw more than 50 crying boy paintings at fires he responded too since 1973. Wilkinson did, however, state that the fires were always caused by carelessness, not the paintings. Regardless of the fires being caused by normal means, they were still linked to these paintings as The Sun saw the potential for a popular news story. One journalist even stated that this could be a story that swam or had legs, i.e. it was sure to catch peoples attention and spread. After all, profits and sales sometimes outweigh good and accurate journalism. House fires starting from accidents aren't as titillating to readers as headlines which feature words like curse. This was also sure to help them succeed over the competing newspaper they were in fierce competition with, the Daily Mirror.
After the initial printing of the Blazing Curse of the Crying Boy, readers reached out to The Sun claiming to have also been receiving bad luck while in possession of these paintings; from family deaths to other house fires, terrible things were soon to come after bringing one of these paintings into your home. A follow-up article titled Crying-Boy Curse Strikes Again told a similar tale after another home was destroyed by fire, with their crying boy painting also surviving the flames. These articles spread panic as more accounts were gathered, strengthening the belief in these cursed paintings.
Most of these paintings can be traced back to Giovanni Bragolin, a Spanish artist who made a series of paintings depicting young children crying in the 1950s. The subject matter was reflective of the many orphaned children from World War II and they were largely sold to tourists. It wasn't long before mass-produced prints became available, and they were soon sold in the tens of thousands all across England as every middle-class household wanted one of these paintings for themselves. As word spread of this curse, however, people began to fear these paintings and the misfortune that seemed to follow. Attempts were made to destroy these paintings and prints (mainly lighting them on fire) but many found that they were difficult to burn. This solidified the idea of a curse and the paintings supernatural ability to survive house fires.
An editor for The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, told readers that they could send in their paintings or prints to be mass-destroyed, and readers obliged. On Halloween night, staff from the newspaper managed to burn approximately 2,500 crying boy paintings, putting the publics minds at ease. This didn't come without a struggle - it reportedly took 3 tries to get the pile of paintings to finally burn. In a following article Crying Flame! a fire officer stated "I think there will be many people who breathe a little easier now." To further ease the social anxiety over these paintings, the South Yorkshire Fire Service released an official statement emphasizing that the recent fires had normal causes, with one recent fire resulting from a heater that was left too close to a bed.
Over time, curious minds would reflect back on the crying boy curse as they wanted to know what could have made these paintings cursed in the first place. According to the book Haunted Liverpool (2000) a man named George Mallory claimed to have uncovered more details about this curse. The accounts from this book, printings from The Sun, and others speculation have led to one main legend about these paintings: It is said that Giovanni Bragolin was actually a mysterious figure named Franchot Serville. The young boy often portrayed was an orphan, Don Bonillo, who accidentally started a fire in Spain which resulted in the deaths of his parents. A curse followed him as fires started wherever he went, earning him the nickname Diablo, or Devil. The boy was adopted by a priest and eventually had his portrait painted by an artist who would end up assaulting him. The boy would die a few years later in a fire from a horrible car accident, and these paintings were now said to be cursed by the boy and his presumable grief over the loss of his parents, anger from being assaulted, and sadness from his early death.
Fortunately, this tragic legend lacks any and all credibility. Giovanni Bragolin passed away in 1981, four years prior to the alleged curse that would hit the newspapers. This meant that no one could ask Bragolin to verify the stories being told. According to the journalist David Clark, Giovanni Bragolin and Franchot Serville were pseudonyms used by the Spanish painter Bruno Amadio. No documentation could be found that supported the existence of George Mallory, who reportedly uncovered the story of Don Bonillo, the orphan, who also looks to have never actually existed. Because of the growing popularity of this style of painting, other artists would paint similar crying boys and girls. Coincidentally, a rumored curse would follow these other paintings and prints despite having no relation to the orphan boy legend.
As pointed out by fire fighters of the time, these reported crying boy fires almost always had a known cause, and started due to kitchen-related incidents, electrical issues, or fires starting from cigarettes or other instances of human error. Never once did they claim there was a curse. The first publicized crying boy fire took place in Swallownest, South Yorkshire, neighboring the Greater London area. This area alone saw approximately 50,000 fires in the year 1985, the same year as the initial crying boy fire and newspaper printing. It has been estimated that 50,000 crying boy paintings were sold in the UK, with some viewing this as indisputable proof of the curse: 50,000 paintings and 50,000 fires. However, a critical detail to keep in mind is that not all of these homes that burned had a crying boy painting, and many homes which did have one never experienced a fire. This reported number of fires also only accounts for the Greater London area, and the 50,000 paintings were sold all throughout the UK.
This looks like a simple case of coincidence: if a popular item of home decor is seen often in homes, apartments, or other buildings, then it will be seen in many of them that experience a fire or other tragedy. Many British households in the 1980's were decorating to the taste of classic elegance, and these sombre oil paintings certainly delivered in revisiting decor styles of the past. Also take note that these paintings and prints were first created in the 1950s - decades before a sudden "curse" would hit the papers. Why would this curse appear so suddenly in the mid 1980's, and not at the time of the paintings creation and popularity? And if they were cursed, why did it end just as suddenly as it began?
You would also expect to see a distinct and sudden spike in fires when these paintings were being sold if they were truly cursed, but existing numbers don't exactly reflect this. Graphs that document various fire-related statistics in England show a slight increase in fire-related incidents and deaths leading up to the mid 1980's, but this is because of the growing level of fire-starting items being brought into peoples homes, like electronics. It wasn't long until more fire regulations and laws were put into place, and the invention and availability of smoke detectors would also certainly help. Modern smoke detectors were first released in the 1950's, but they were large and costly. By the 1970's, cost slowly dropped as they advanced and battery-powered options became available as mass-production began. By the 1990's, more and more homes were fitted with this life-saving invention.
There is one last element of this story to go over as we seek answers behind the crying boy curse: why wouldn't they burn? Just like the house fires themselves, this can also be explained through mundane means. Canvas and dry oil paints are combustable, not flammable. This means they will begin to burn when consistently held to a flame, but they won't immediately catch fire if a flame from a match or lighter is briefly held up to them. Other factors that can slow burning include paintings which were printed on compressed cardboard or hardboard (which artists like Giovanni Bragolin were known to use) or flame-retardant varnishes that could be used on some paintings and their frames. The writer and comedian Steven Punt put the flammability of these paintings to the test for his radio show Punt PI which can be viewed in this YouTube video here. Punt purchased a crying boy painting for himself and teamed up with a construction researcher Martin Shipp. When exposed to an open flame, the string that the painting hung from burned but the rest of it remained relatively undamaged. The flames dissipated on their own, further showcasing how difficult it can be for some of these materials to burn. This isn't exclusive to crying boy paintings, and is the case for many paintings and prints in general.
At the end of the day, the popularity of the crying boy curse doesn't look to have been fueled by any real paranormal or supernatural happenings. Instead, the presence of these paintings in house fires were a mere coincidence that was recalled by some firefighters, and then taken advantage of by journalists and newspapers who saw the potential for a thrilling, re-occurring story to print. Authenticity behind such stories isn't always needed to make a good, entertaining read, which we can see not only in the success of the crying boy articles, but in the legends ability to have survive to this day. Many paranormal collectors still display these paintings in their homes in reference to this famous curse (myself included) which leads to one last question... Would you hang a crying boy painting in your home?
Want to keep reading about the curse of the crying boy paintings? Check out the main sources I used, listed below: