The Curse of the Crying Boy
It was this month when the family sat around the dining table in the family home when my eldest brother – seemingly out of the blue – asked: “Who has the picture of the boy with tears streaming down his face?”
“I do,” my mother replied.
“You should get rid of it.”
“That painting has a lot of evil influence surrounding it.”
The table went somewhat quiet and my father had a confused look on his face, although that might just be his normal facial expression. While it was dismissed by most who were seated there that late afternoon, I was intrigued and sought to find out more about this. So a day or two later when I remembered the conversation that had taken place, it lead me to that old favourite resource: the internet. I googled something to the effect of “boy painting crying”, and immediately Google Images had what I was looking for, as well as some articles on various websites, including that old classic: Wikipedia.
But that first series of images that Google produced shocked me. This was the painting that had hung upon the master bedroom wall next to the window since long before I was even born. This was the painting that had haunted me as a child, causing me nightmares, watching me sleep. It was a foolish mistake to think that I could find refuge from all the terrors of the night in my parent’s bed as a child. I had no such place of sanctuary – because there things were just that much worse.
To say the least, I was not only intrigued, but a bit terrified to say the least.
How the Crying Boy ended up in my family
It was likely back in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, and my parents were up in either Vereeniging or Vredenburg, where then came upon a store, and my mom saw this painting, and thought of buying it. Upon asking her about it she says that she spoke to her mother-in-law who claimed that it was a very famous painting. When my parents got back to their home, which was at the time in Green Point, my mom found that her mother-in-law had bought the painting for her and gave it to my parents as a gift. From there it stayed with the family, moving twice, having travelled from house to house to house – where the family home is now, where it has remained since 1973 – for 41 years to date. She claims that a tag line, “You didn’t have to hit me so hard” was attached to the painting.
I often wonder if this is what a seer, who came to the house many years ago, was talking about when she said that she sensed an evil presence in the home. One that had followed the family around for a long time…
The painting’s origins
The Crying Boy, also sometimes known as The Gypsy Boy, is a mass-produced print of a painting by Italian artist Bruno Amadio (1911 – 1981), also known as Angelo (Giovanni) Bragolin, who in turn was also known as Franchot Seville, even though this isn’t a name he himself used. Bragolin was an academically trained painter who worked in Venice after the Second World War, painting Crying Boys and selling them to tourists. The exact time when the painting was actually done isn’t clear, but it was very probably somewhere in the 1950’s, and some say Bragolin produced at least 65 Crying Boys in his lifetime – although some estimate that it was really more in the neighbourhood of one to two thousand. Even though he was known for other paintings, the Crying Boys are by far and away the most popular of his creations.
A Scottish artist, Anna Zinkeisen (married Heseltine), also painted a series of similarly themed paintings which went by the name of “Childhood”. The paintings became very popular in the North of the UK, particularly South Yorkshire, among the working class in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Prints could be bought in virtually any department store, and it graced the living room walls of many homes for years. It even achieved some fame outside of the UK, evidenced by the fact that my grandmother, who resided in South Africa all her life, knew it well. It was sold in Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Scandinavia, and even in South America, where it is claimed that a lot of the superstitions surrounding the paintings arose in the first place. It has been claimed that about 50 000 of them were sold in the UK alone at one time, and that a total of about 250 000 had been sold worldwide.
The tale of the Crying Boy curse
It was in 1985 that The Sun, which was the most popular tabloid newspaper in the UK and throughout much of the English speaking world at the time, ran a story in its September 4 edition titled “Blazing Curse of The Crying Boy”, and explored how there had been many houses in Yorkshire, where the owners had at least one print of the Crying Boy, that had burned down, and yet the painting mysteriously survived unscathed. This was reported by Alan Wilkinson, a fire station officer, who had personally logged as many as 50 Crying Boy fires up until that time, which dated back to 1973. For this reason, no firefighter would ever allow a Crying Boy print in his own home. One was even offered to Wilkinson upon his retirement, presumably as a joke, and he turned the gift down. Indeed, as a joke, he attempted to hang one up in the firehouse that he oversaw, but his superiors demanded that he take it down immediately upon finding out.
The Sun and other newspapers stoked interest in the story by entertaining horrific stories from people who had called the newspaper or wrote in about their own experiences with the painting, and eventually The Sun organised a massive bonfire, on Halloween, October 31, 1985, whereas many as 2500 prints of the Crying Boy, that had been sent in by worried home owners, were burned. Other bonfires may have followed into November.
Then it seemed as though the curse vanished, as all went quiet for some time, but then stories started to surface abroad about Crying Boy fires, and it has even seen a resurgence in the UK once more in more recent years.
What is the curse, then?
People who have an original painting or a print of the Crying Boy are apparently at severe risk of injury, or there’s a large chance that their house will burn down. Some claim that the painting is filled with subliminal messages, which encourages people to buy the painting, take it home, and hang it on the wall, and that as a result they will possibly even set their own house on fire while under the control of this painting and not have any recollection of even starting the fire. This would perhaps answer the question that has been posed by some: “Why would anyone want a picture of a crying child?”
Paintings of the Crying Boy are often found intact and still hanging on the wall after everything else in the house, including most of the house itself, has burned to a cinder. And this is probably for the best, because it is said that if a portrait were to fall off of a wall, that would be even worse, because that is regarded as an omen of impending death.
Can the curse be broken?
The only two ways the curse can be broken is to either give the painting away to someone, seeing as burning it doesn’t always seem to work according to those who have tried – or you need to get a hold of a Crying Girl picture. The two of them together will bring good luck, cancelling out the bad luck, according to legend. Others claim that being kind to the print can bring you good luck.
Why don’t the paintings burn?
According to Steven Punt, a writer and comedian, who applied a little bit of scientific method to try to debunk the curse, claims that the paintings don’t burn for two main reasons: one is that the print is put on a high density hardboard which is difficult to burn, and the second is that the print itself is covered in a flame resistant varnish. In addition to this, the paintings were said in some cases to fall on the floor after the string at the back of the painting perished, and from there the painting would collapse face first on to the floor, thereby preserving the print. This last theory contradicts some eyewitness accounts that detail how after the fire, the painting was still hanging on the wall, and it also fails to explain why other paintings did not survive the fires if they had been given the same treatment or were exposed to the same circumstances. Firefighters themselves were unable to come up with any real reason why the paintings didn’t burn. Those of a more superstitious orientation claim that the tears running down the boy’s cheeks put out the flames that attempted to burn it.
In fact, some people other than Steven Punt have even tried to burn the painting themselves in a controlled environment, only to find that they indeed didn’t burn. This has to make one wonder how The Sun was so successful at burning some 2500 paintings – or whether they were really burned at all.
Are the paintings worth any money?
Seeing as a lot of them have been destroyed over the years, yes, they can bring in some money. Prints aren’t worth all that much to be honest, maybe $40 at most, but original paintings (not prints), especially if they are framed, can bring in considerably more. Crying Girls are rarer than Crying Boys, so if you have an original of one of those, that would be worth up to $3000 and over. The one worth the most that I've seen is an original Crying Boy oil painting going for over $5000! These are the prices I’ve seen on eBay for these items.
Theories on the identities of the Crying Boys
Tom Slemen, an author, claimed that he had a source by the name of George Mallory, a retired school headmaster, who had apparently met with the artist, Giovanni Bragolin. Bragolin told him that the boy was a sad little street urchin by the name of Don Bonillo, who was despised and unwanted by everyone in Madrid, because it was said that fires were said to start in any home he settled in (including his parents’ home, consuming them in the blaze) – which has lead some to believe that he was an arsonist, possibly even a “fire genius” – someone who has no control over the fires they start. Sounds unbelievable, but apparently there is at least one known person who has this ability in the world, named Nina Kulagina.
Villagers called the boy Diablo, meaning “Devil”. So Bragolin adopted him, against the advice of a local catholic priest, painted him, and managed to capture the sad, tearful expression on his face. Some believe that the artist may have beaten the child (perhaps due to his pyromaniacal behaviour) and that is why he was crying in the painting. In fact, it is claimed that Bragolin’s studio burned down after having painted the child’s portrait, and that Bragolin blamed the boy for it and chased him away. It was several years until the name would resurface, but eventually, in the mid 1970’s it was reported that an individual had been involved in a traffic collision, and that the car had exploded into flames. The name on the driver’s licence read “Don Bonillo”. This tale was partially backed up by a psychic, who had apparently no knowledge of any of the stories surrounding Bragolin and the child.
The above story sounds very unlikely, and most likely fictional, mainly because of the dates involved. In this interview between Mallory and Bragolin, which apparently took place in 1995 (keeping in mind that Bragolin died in 1981), it was claimed by Bragolin that he adopted and painted a portrait of Don Bonillo in 1969 – but the paintings have been dated before then, as far back as the 1950’s. This fact is supported by people who wrote into The Sun to tell their stories of how the paintings had ruined their lives. Rose Farrington claimed in her letter to The Sun: “Since I bought it in 1959, my three sons and my husband have all died. I’ve often wondered if it had a curse.”
That date alone was a full ten years before the meeting between Bragolin and Bonillo allegedly took place. Unsurprisingly, nobody has ever been able to trace this George Mallory character to verify his story.
This also only explains the identity of one of the children.There were other children, boys and girls, who were painted by both Bragolin and Zinkeisen.
Theories on the identity, history and motives of the artist
Bragolin himself has been difficult to trace, no doubt in part due to his insistence on using pseudonyms, of which we know of at least a few: Giovanni Bragolin (as well as Angelo Giovanni Bragolin and J. Bragolin), Bruno Amadio, and Franchot Seville – he may have had others. The reason why he likely used different names is because not only were the paintings (and by extension, the subject in the case of Don Bonillo, if he was at all real) viewed as being cursed, but Bragolin was said to be cursed as well, and thus he may have had to use different names in order to get work.
It is claimed that in the 1980’s when the painting became popular in Brazil, Bragolin went on a TV show and explained that all the paintings were of dead children or at least represented them, leading some to have an even stronger belief that the paintings were cursed or haunted in some fashion. Bragolin apparently admitted that he had made a pact with Satan in order to sell his work and become wealthy. How many starving artists in the world haven’t thought of doing the same?
This tale is unlikely seeing as Bragolin died in 1981, so it could only have happened in 1980 or 1981, and no later than that.
Others claim that he fled to Spain after the war, and that all of the boys and girls he painted were orphans. And not only that, but the orphanage that they lived in burned down.
Was the curse just a publicity stunt?
In short, yes. It was the product of a readership war between The Sun and The Daily Mirror. Kelvin Mackenzie, who was the editor of The Sun at the time, decided that this story ‘had legs’, and so decided to publish it. There may be evidence that Kelvin was possibly superstitious himself and may have believed in the curse, leading to some sort of biased reporting on a story that others would have ignored, because when the assistant editor hung a print of the Crying Boy on a wall in the staff room before a meeting one day, Kelvin apparently said: “Take that down. I don’t like it. It’s bad luck.”
The reality surrounding the curse
As has been stated by others: paintings don’t cause houses to burn down. People do. Most of the fires that were caused in the homes in Rotherham and elsewhere in South Yorkshire and indeed worldwide at the time were caused by human carelessness. This is how most house fires start, likely. The fact that these houses all contained prints of The Crying Boy is just down to coincidence. There were probably many more fires in that area in the same time frame in houses that did not have Crying Boys in them, and those fires were also caused by the homeowners in some manner, likely by accident.
As for Bragolin, he was apparently a hard working, devoted husband and father with many friends, and had no need to make a pact with the devil to sell his paintings, seeing as he was a naturally talented artist who had all that anyone could truly want out of life. And it's a shame that people, particularly the media, once again had to conjure up a story just to sell newspapers and make money, with little thought to how it would affect the reputation of the artist, and the public, preying on the minds of those who had bought his paintings over the years, driving them into a panic.
As for our Crying Boy, I think he'll likely stick around for a while longer, but I have to be honest – this is one family heirloom I'm reluctant to inherit.
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