The year is 1954, and the Gorbals, a notorious patch of tenements south of the River Clyde in Glasgow, is not an ideal place to end up. A combination of industrial decay and over-population led to a horrendous amount of poverty (far from gone in modern day Glasgow, unfortunately), and a long association with razor gangs and sectarian violence. And if life wasn’t tough enough for the residents here in the middle of the 20th century, they would suddenly discover one night they had a new problem to deal with – the Gorbals Vampire.
It was on the night of September 23rd 1954 that police were called to Glasgow’s Southern Necropolis, where they found hundreds of children, armed with knives, stakes and even dogs, who had gathered to hunt a 7ft tall vampire with iron teeth they claimed had already attacked and killed two locals. Although on this night rain eventually dispersed the children and their Nosferatu-fever even when the police couldn’t, the hunt continued on for the next two nights, with all tree searches turning up nothing. Most importantly, there were also no reports of child murders or disappearances that entire year in the area. There was no victims, and there no vampire, it would appear.
Isolated to this one neighbourhood in the days before social networking, it would have been easy for this brief folk panic to remain unknown to outsiders – but here it was picked up by local newspapers.
A reporter for a now-closed local paper, The Bulletin, had been calling around police stations in Glasgow trying to pick up a story, and a Gorbals cop passed on the vampire story thinking it would give the reporter a laugh. From there it was picked up by the Daily Record, who began to point the finger first at films, and then at popular comic books, and promoted it with headlines like:
- HORROR FILM BLAMED FOR THE VAMPIRE
- IS THIS THE KIND OF COMIC YOUR CHILD IS READING?
- SO EASY TO GET THE ‘HORRORS’
It was a cause subsequently was adopted as part of a moral crusade by various social and political groups from Christians to Communists, who, like the newspapers, blamed the American horror comics which had recently became popular in Britain, namely anthology titles like Tales From The Crypt.
The comic in question is usually noted as Dark Mysteries #15, which contained a brief story by Hy Fleishman called The Vampire with the Iron Teeth (follow that link to read the comic in its entirety – at only six pages its worth a look) , where the efforts of a late 18th century, presumably central European duke to catch a vampire which is terrorising his fiefdom is relayed in a second person narrative: that’s right – you have to catch the beast!
(And while it’s this story alone that you will see most often as the root of the vampire fears, it seems worth noting that this issue of Dark Mysteries also contained stories called The Dead Can Escape The Grave, a revenge story featuring a pet woodpecker which pecked its way out of a buried coffin, and Horror of the Cannibal’s Dinner, both of which could possibly have contributed to the imagery of the supposed Gorbals Vampire. And Fleishman’s vampire short was only one of a vast influx of dark stories from America which were sought after by British children). And so, like films before them and video games after, comic books became the target of a moral crusade, even inspiring an Act of Parliament pushed forward by the then MP for the Gorbals.
But while it’s easy to image that a graveyard backed by an ironworks (Dixon’s Blazes’) which frequently turned the night sky red and no doubt cast some creepy shadows across the Necropolis (and by the way – can you think of a creepier name for a cemetery?) many of the kids involved in the hunt claimed to have no experience of reading the comics, or of even seeing films that could contain vampires? In reality, tying the panic over the Gorbals Vampire to comics was likely the knee-jerk reaction of people who already had their agenda about the imported craze set out, and were just looking for something to hold up as an exemplar of what it was doing to those poor children. Maybe its worth digging around in the mythos of the Gorbals Vampire.
The iron teeth are an interesting point, and, although they are present in the comic itself, they don’t really have anything to do with the vampire antagonist. And while vampire folklore is found in nearly every society, only the asanbosam of West Africa has iron teeth (as well as iron hooks for feet which it dangles down while sitting in trees to catch passersby).
Perhaps the best writing on the Gorbals Vampire is by Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell in their essay ‘Hunting The Monster With Iron Teeth‘ (pp115), who went to the lengths of uncovering which films were playing in local cinemas before the incident (with none being vampire-related) and also offer up this important detail:
The popular Glasgow press provides numerous items in news and features which could have helped create an atmosphere of anxiety and curiosity in young readers… The Evening Citizen (28 August 1954) had an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not on Gilles de Rais, whom it credited with murdering one hundred children. Two days later the same paper had a feature, ‘The Monster of Glamis’, concerning the first-born of a noble family who was a vampire and kept out of sight in a mysterious room in Glamis Castle in Angus. The Daily Record and its companion paper the Sunday Mail were running features on child molesting.
They later mention claims in newspaper ranging from mysterious objects in the Glasgow sky, to 300 murderer being loose and rampaging across Britain at the time.
In my reading for this blog I also came upon the vampire, and urban legends as a whole, as being part of a wider fear cultivated in society, with the Gorbals panic mentioned in relation to the Windshield Pitting Panic of 1954 (anxiety relating to nuclear war in America) and even the famous and countless-time-repeated urban legend of the Hook Man story, a cautionary tale of pre-marital se- wait a minute…. metal hands?!
But perhaps the biggest piece of a puzzle is the folklore specific to the area, and the long-standing traditions of some south Glasgow bogeymen. Hugh Macintosh, a local historian, wrote in the earlier part of the 20th century there was belief amongst children that an ogre of some kind was living in a shed near Glasgow Green, very close to the Southern Necropolis. The house itself was owned by two elderly women, one of whom was nicknamed ‘Jenny wi the iron teeth’ by local kids as the result of her visiting a substandard dentist who had left iron fillings in her mouth clearly exposed, and the ability of children to hone in on even the smallest weakness of a person. This woman, likely named Allan, and written about in Macintosh’s 1902 book ‘Origins and history of Glasgow streets‘ leads us then to an Alexander Anderson poem ‘Jenny wi the airn teeth’ (1879), in which a parent constructs a bogeyman figure out of an iron toothed woman. It’s highly likely the nickname of this unfortunate women was inspired by the poem, which was even taught in some Scottish schools at the time, and the legend of the iron-toothed figure skulking around the area and trying to stay out of sight (those damned kids just won’t leave her alone!) was passed down in playgrounds and by older siblings. Metal-fanged figures are used throughout the English language to scare kids, and people also apparently remember being told that they would be fed to the fire in Dixon’s Blazes if they were badly behaved.
And that, I think, is the final ingredient to add into the Vampire stew. It does seem significant that many of the 250,000 dead buried in the Southern Necropolis were killed in ironworks and maimed by machinery – many of them perhaps known to the children in some way. So it’s hardly surprising that local children could harbour fears, even subconsciously, of being eaten or ripped apart by metal claws.