Friday, 5 August 2016

Schoolyard Vampire Hunters of the Gorbals - A Tale of Devilish Dentistry

When Malcolm Nicolson, a crime reporter for Glasgow newspaper, "The Bulletin", called Lawmore Street Police Station on the evening of Thursday, 23th September 1954 in search of a story, he was told that nothing of any import had happened.  But Malcolm had heard laughter in the background to the call, and someone suggesting that they should "tell him about the vampire".

The Southern Necropolis
His nose for a story may have been twitching so Nicolson visited the station later that day, finally getting to speak to Constable Alex Deeprose about events in the "Southern Necropolis", a suitably gothic graveyard near the Gorbels area of Glasgow.   The story Constable Deeprose told him ended up on the front page of the evening edition of the paper, and led to national coverage.  It was even mentioned in Parliament and may have been an important factor in the passing of a law outlawing whole genres of comics in the UK.  A law that is still on the statute books today.

The story, "Police had to Clear 'Vampire Hunters"', told of an incident earlier in the day when hundreds of school children from the Gorbels and Hutchensontown areas of Glasgow had marched on a local cemetery armed with sticks, cudgels and stones.  They were hunting for a Vampire with iron teeth who had, they believed, strangled and devoured "two wee boys".  PC Deeprose told how he had been surrounded by a swarm of children, all eager to tell him the story of the Vampire.  “When I appeared I felt like the pied piper of Hamlin” he told the reporter, “All shapes and sizes of children streamed after me, all talking at once and telling me of a ‘vampire’ with iron teeth”.   He heard how the story had spread across a number of schools and once lessons had ended kids of all ages had joined on a mission to find and destroy the vampire.

The hunt tapered off as darkness fell, and rain finally brought it to an end for the evening.  Nicolson’s story drew no conclusions as to what lay behind the event, except to note that an “H” film (the equivalent of an 18 or R cert today) had been showing in the local cinema.

 By the next day the story had changed.  Once again the children were out searching for the vampire with some accounts claiming that at least one man, dressed in a long coat, was shouted at and abused and perhaps even chased but even at the time that story was only half-heartedly reported.  By now the other main tabloid newspapers in the city, the Evening News and the Evening Times, had picked up on the story and thanks to an un-named mother (or mothers) a new culprit had been found to explain the children's behaviour, American-style horror comics.

A campaign against “American-Style comics” had been running in the UK since 1949 led by the Teachers, Churchmen and a self-styled committee called the Comics Campaign Council.  Well placed articles by committee members in influential places like the incredibly popular Picture Post magazine, and the literature of teacher’s unions and head-master’s associations (Heads would not be members of unions, they were Management) had led to an almost universal view among adults, that American comics were bad for kids.   That they led to bad behaviour, a life of crime and even sexual deviancy.  The origins of the campaign and in particular of the Comics Campaign Council are fascinating and surprising and I’ll write more about them in a future post.

By 1954 the comics in question were mainly reprints of American titles produced by small publishers.  The original comics, once imported in bulk and aimed mainly at an adult audience had fallen victim to post-war import restrictions and a number of publishers had jumped in to fill the void.  

Many stuck to ‘harmless’ superhero, western and Science Fiction titles, but some reprinted the gory and 'dangerous' Crime and Horror comics that had become the subject of a similar movement in the US.   The British campaign made no distinction.  American-style comics were sordid, immoral and likely to corrupt youth and British comics were wholesome, informative and just the thing for a developing mind.  The founding of the Eagle, with its intention to combine excellence in artwork with uplifting and stories suitable for British children was a different and more positive approach to solving the same problem.

First UK edition of Wertham's influential book
It was in this context that the press looked at the Gorbels Vampire story.  Over the next few days the story spread to the national newspapers and the idea that comics were to blame grew to be the main emphasis of the journalists.    Within a week the headlines had changed from focusing on the strange event to looking for something, anything to blame.  The Bulletin's story on the subject a week later was headlined "Be careful How we Ban these Comics", while the Scottish Daily Record cried "Parents we must Stop this Seduction", echoing the title of Fredrick Wertham’s American book on the dangers of Comic Books,  "Seduction of the Innocent".

Even then the newspapers were circumspect, the first assertion that comics had directly led to the incident came in the Catholic Observer in October, and was repeated in the Scottish Educational Journal a few weeks later.  What had started out as speculation had become cold, unassailable fact.

Indeed the following year the story of "the Gorbel's Vampire" was the only definite example of harm caused by American-Style or horror comics to be quoted on the debate for the act of Parliament outlawing them.     In answer to Roy Jenkins, who was opposing the passage of the Bill and who said:

We should be mindful of how little we really know about the direct causal
relationship between horror comics or anything else people may read and
people's actions, whether undesirable or not ... We should not jump too
quickly to the conclusion that, because two things happen, one necessarily
happens as a result of the other.

John Rankin, a supporter of the Bill said.

 'Generally that is true ... Nevertheless one can give many examples ...’

Yet the only concrete example he was able to give was that of the Gorbels Vampire Hunt.

Yet this seems to have been a conclusion with no evidence to back it up.   Nobody had identified any Children in the group who actually read horror comics and no-one had identified a specific comic which could conceivably led children to panic about a "Vampire with Metal Teeth".

Bailie John Mains, a Glasgow councillor, cited Startling Terror Tales number 1 as being involved.  But the comic includes no vampire stories, no hunts and certainly no mention of metal teeth.   It is possible that Mains was using this as an example of the type of comic that he was concerned about and was not claiming that this was the specific comic which caused the panic, but this was not made clear and is an example of the tendency of the anti-comics campaign as a whole to mix generalised examples with specific conclusions.  He might just have easily have pointed at Leo Baxendale's Bash Street Kids, with its frequent scenes of kids acting together in comical, if amusing, gangs that had started to appear in the Beano.  But that would not have fitted with the established narrative.

Early Bash Street Kids by Leo Baxendale.
So if not horror comics then what?  What was it that caused hundreds of children to go in search of monsters?   At the time newspaper reporters did not look at any other cause.   If it was good enough for Catholic Church and Teacher's journals then it was good enough for them.   It was only much later when academics looked at the case that alternatives began to arise.  In the third volume of the journal "Perspectives on Contemporary Legend", published in 1988, Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell drew together a detailed examination of the case.  Perhaps most interesting was their research into previous examples of 'children's hunts' in the area, showing, perhaps, that this was a 'local custom' among school kids.

In the years from the early thirties through to 1969 there were seven separate incidents in the Glasgow area of large numbers of children banding together to seek out supernatural creatures.  In the earliest incident (no exact date is recorded) it was a banshee that was sought, later in 1934 it was a mythical White lady and a year later "Spring-Heeled Jack".  Jack returned again in 1938 in the biggest incident when thousands of children were involved.  Other hunts involved a Miniman, a Grey Lady and a loosely defined Maniac.

Clearly there was some sort of cultural tendency towards hordes of children hunting evil in Glasgow, but that does not mean that horror comics were not the spark that set of this particular incidence.   Other suggestions have been made. 

Horror films had been put forward as a possible factor, and indeed it was mentioned in the original newspaper story that an 'H' certificate movie was showing at the time.   But Hobbs and Cornwell have identified that the film in question was “Them!”,a movie about giant mutated ants attacking humanity.  It difficult to see how this could have caused a panic about a Vampire in a local cemetery.

Perhaps the most likely explanation relates to one of the two Allen sisters.  A "spinster lady" said to have lived near the site of the Southern Necropolis with her sister around the turn of the 20th Century.  The women had apparently complained about frequent raids into their garden by children as they passed along a public path outside her house.   One was said to have had metallic fixings left in her teeth by a dentist and to have been referred to as "Jenny with the Iron Teeth" by the children who she confronted.

It’s not known if her name really was Jenny, as this is likely a reference to an older story.  Jenny with the Iron Teeth was a Scottish boggy-man used by mothers to scare children.   The story was recorded, or perhaps invented, by poet Alexander Anderson in his poem "Jenny Wi The Airn Teeth" which appeared in Ballads and Sonnets in 1879.   The poem - reproduced at the bottom of this post - had been included in a number of anthologies intended for children and used in Scottish schools at the time.

There is, again, no direct evidence that children got the idea for their hunt from this poem, or from tales of the Allen sisters, but the linking of an already existing local legend with a 'tradition' of children hunting the unexplained in packs seem much more likely than an unidentified comic that may or may not have been read by equally unidentified children drove them to this behaviour.

And yet this event was a key part of the debate on the "Children's and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955" which banned horror and crime comics and caused publishers to abandon the genres overnight.

It became the single definite link between the so-called 'horror' comics and the corruption of British children.   This link became fact not through the gathering and sifting of evidence, but by simple repetition.  The press appear to have matched the story to an ongoing campaign and stopped investigating.  By repeating speculation as fact, Church and Teachers groups provided expert corroboration of the stories.   

British publishers stopped printing horror comics as soon as the act was passed.   A number went out of business while other turned to more acceptable western or mystery comics.  But in a single move, Parliament made it illegal to produce, import or sell any publication, likely to fall into the hands of children which "consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures, being stories portraying the commission of crimes of violence or cruelty or incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature". 

Only one prosecution, in 1970, was ever made, but the act remains on the statute books to this day and is likely to have been the basis under which UK customs periodically barred the importation of, for example, certain issues of Warren comics from the USA in the seventies.  Indeed the act was renewed in the mid-eighties but requires permission from the attorney general for a case to be brought.  Only 2 prosecutions have been brought since the passing of the act, out of 48 referred to the DPP.

This very strange event was a big factor in the British campaign against American comics.   But the campaign itself was a strange affair, one aspect of a much wider movement to counter the impact of new American culture on the British.  In many ways the leaders of the campaign hid their true motives.  The anti-comics crusade was their most successful, leading to a real change in attitudes, one that persisted well into the sixties and beyond.    I’ll write a bit more about that in a future post.

Main Sources: 
Paranormal Glasgow – Geoff Holder, The History Press 2011.

Monsters with Iron Teeth, Perspectives on Contemporary Legend Vol III – Article - Hunting the Monster with the Iron teeth - Sandy Hobbs & David Cornwell.   Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.

Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics – John Springhall, St Martin’s Press 1998.

A Design for Depravity: Horror Comics and the Challenge of Censorship in Australia, 1950-1986.  Kevin Patrick, Script and Print 35:3.

30th Century Comics – Image of cover Startling Terror Tales no 1 taken from this excellent London comic shop’s web-page.

Jenny Wi’ the Airn Teeth

What a plague is this o' mine,
     Winna steek his e'e,
Though I hap him ow'r the head
     As cosie as can be.
Sleep! an' let me to my wark,
     A' thae claes to airn;
Jenny wi' the airn teeth,
     Come an' tak' the bairn:

Tak' him to your ain den,
     Where the bowgie bides,
But first put baith your big teeth
     In his wee plump sides;
Gie your auld grey pow a shake,
     Rive him frae my grup—
Tak' him where nae kiss is gaun
     When he waukens up.

Whatna noise is that I hear
     Comin' doon the street?
Weel I ken the dump-dump
     O' her beetle feet.
Mercy me, she's at the door,
     Hear her lift the sneck;
Whisht! an' cuddle mammy noo
     Closer roun' the neck.

Jenny wi' the airn teeth,
     The bairn has aff his claes,
Sleepin' safe an' soun', I think—
     Dinna touch his taes;
Sleepin' weans are no for you;
     Ye may turn about
An' tak' awa' wee Tam next door—
     I hear him screichin' oot.

Dump, dump, awa' she gangs
     Back the road she cam';
I hear her at the ither door,
     Speirin' after Tam.
He' a crabbit, greetin' thing,
     The warst in a' the toon;
Little like my ain wee wean—
     Losh, he's sleepin' soun'.

Mithers hae an awfu' wark
     Wi' their bairns at nicht—
Chappin' on the chair wi' tangs
     To gi'e the rogues a fricht.
Aulder weans are fley'd wi' less,
     Weel aneuch, we ken—
Bigger bowgies, bigger Jennies,
     Frichten muckle men.

Alexander Anderson

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