The Crocodile from Paris Again

Veronique Campion-Vincent | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 6, 1996

Veronique Campion-Vincent has sent us an unidentified clipping from an unidentified French newspaper, dated January 1996. It concerns the crocodile rescued from the sewers of Paris, discussed in Dear Mr Thoms 36: 13–15. The crocodile, captured in 1984, now resides in the aquarium at Vannes in Britanny and the story concerns the need to move it into a larger tank. Initially it was about 80 centimetres long and was put in a tank with turtles. However, it has grown considerably since then. The article claims that it could reach seven metres when fully grown.

The article describes the difficulties faced by the biologist, Pierre-Yves Bouis, who was in charge of Ihe crocodile's tank. he had twelve tries at lassoing the crocodile's jaws shut before managing to hoist it onto a stretcher to make Ihe move.

SH notes: This tells us little more than that the aquarium probably ha quite an effective press officer. However, most interesting from the point of view of contemporary folklore is the brief account given of the crocodile's origins. he was "saved by firemen from the sewers of Paris. near the Pont Neuf, where his previous owner had rid of him".

In reality. we do no know how the crocodile got into the sewer. It may have been abandoned by its owner. However, describing the location as "near the Pont Neuf" conceals another possibility, namely that it was an escapee from a pet shop. The sewer ran under the Quai de la Megisserie, renowned as a centre for the sale of exotic plants and animals.

Another French Crocodile

Sandy Hobbs | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 3, 1995

Dear Mr Thorns… carried a number of items about crocodiles in France, summed up in "The Crocodile from Paris" (No. 36, pp. 13-15). Veronique Campion-Vincent has sent us a copy of an article in the popular French newspaper, France-Soir, 8th June 1995. Entitled "Cache-Cache Croco å Bry-sur-Marne" (Hide-and-Seek Crocodile at Bry-sur-Marne), it deals with a sighting the previous day in the Eastern suburbs of Paris. We cannot hope to convey the distinctive colloquial style of France-Soir writing. However, the key points of the article are as follows.

The alarm was raised at ten o'clock in the morning of 7th June. Two municipal police officers went and were able to verify with their own eyes that a crocodile was "having a dip" in the river Marne, near 101 quai Louis-Ferber. It was between one and a half and two metres long. Witnesses reported seeing it eat a waterfowl.

Gendarmes, firemen, river police, soldiers and a vet were called called to the scene. The crocodile had taken refuge on an island (called "Amour"!) in the river. Unsuccessful attempts were made to lure the crocodile with bait.

The origins of this "handbag on legs", as France-Soir calls it, are unknown. One theory is that it has escaped from the home of a local enthusiast for exotic pets. A gendarme was quoted as saying that it might have been abandoned by people about to go on holiday, which, he says, happens to tortoises imported from Florida. According to this gendarme, a few months previously, a dead crocodile had been discovered in a pare at Chanpigny, also in the Eastern suburbs of Paris. However, the present crocodileu is "very much alive".

As a security measure, canoing on the river Marne was suspended.

Update — The Crocodile From Paris

Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell | Dear Mister Thoms # 36, 1994

Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell
(With thanks to Veronique Campion-Vincent)

Regular readers or Dear Mr Thoms… may be aware that we have carried a number of short pieces referring to a crocodile found in the sewers of Paris. Some conversations with Veronique Campion-Vincent which took place at this year's Conference on Contemporary Legend made us feel that these should be consolidated and commented upon.

First, in DMT 25, there appe<tred, courtesy of Veronique Campion-Vincent, the text in French of two newspaper articles describing the capture of a crocodile by sewer workers in Paris. We did not attribute these articles at that time. They appeared in France-Soir, 3 March 1984 and 10 March 1984.

In DMT 26, there was a report from David Cornwell that the aquarium at Vannes, Brittany, has on display a Nile Crocodile which it says was found in the sewers of Paris.

DMT 28 contained an extract from an article on the Paris sewers as a tourist attraction, found by Bill Nicolaisen, in the Aberdeen Press and Journal. A key sentence, referring to sewer employees, read:

They say they have also found pet snakes which escaped down lavatories, and a crocodile that was flushed down as a buaby and survived to become fully grown.

The second half of this sentence, though brief, is pretty much the "classic" version of The Alligator in the Sewer" legend, except, of course, that it is a crocodile and in Paris.

If we assume that all of these items have a common reference point, then to read them side by side is instructive. The Scottish newspaper article refers to the capture of a fully grown animal flushed down the toilet when a baby. However, the French articles which are pretty much contemporary with the actual capture refer quite explicitly to a "jeune" (young) and "bébé" (baby) crocodile. Its length is given as RO centimetres (around 30 inches). Thus it was not fully grown when captured.

But where did it come from? One of the difficulties about believing the "flushed down the lavatory" part of the Alligator in the Sewer story is wondering how anyone can know that part of the creature's history. France-Soir refers more delicately to New Yorkers releasing crocodiles "avec l'eau du bain" (with the bath water). However, it does not offer that explanation for the Parisian crocodile, writing only of it being "abandonné par ses mâitres" (abandonned by its masters).

France-Soir does give us one clue which might indicate that the crocodile got into the sewer by non-legendary means. The sewer where it was captured lies under the Quai de la Megisserie. This street by the River Seine is renowned for two kinds of shops — those selling plants, and those selling animals. Some of the animals one can see on display are relatively exotic. An escape from a pet shop may be less dramatic than a flush down a lavatory, but it is surely a more likely beginning to this crocodile story.

One further French newspaper clipping has come to hand, from Le Telegramme, 12 December 1992. According to the author, Alain Le Bloas, after its capture the crocodile spent two years in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. (Despite its name, this is a zoo as well as a Botanic Garden.) It was then transferred to the Aquarium at Vannes where it is the star attraction. It has now grown to 1.8 metres (well over five feet) in length. It has been given the name Lacoste.

Le Bloas sheds no more light on how it got into the sewer, other than speculating that it was a pet brought from abroad which had grown too large to continue living in an apartment. However, he pictures Lacoste as having been "liberated" in the subterranean jungle. No hint of flushing toilets or bath water.

Update: Crocs

| Dear Mister Thoms # 28, 1992

Extract from the (Aberdeen) Press and Journal (1 September 1992} – courtesy of Bill Nicolaisen. See paragraph 13!

Dispatch from Paris.

Tourists head down sewers. Each day, say guides, 500 to BOO tourists from many countries make the tour. Britons are notably rare. Visitors do not loiter long beside the black rivers.

THERE may be nicer things to do on a summer holiday in Paris than tour the sewers. Yet, every day, hundreds of tourists take time away from the Palace of Versailles or the Louvre museum to plunge into the bowels of the City of Lights. It is hot and stuffy. It stinks. Rats are plentiful.

"This is a bit sick, but it is unusual," said Spanish tourist Yolanda Pasamio. "I thought it would be worse."

Guides claim Paris is the only major city in the world showing its sewers. A visit to the few galleries open to the public under the elegant Eiffel Tower district offers a rare insight into a mysterious city beneath the City.

Guides say that each day 500 to 800 tourists from many countries make the £2 visit. Britons are notably rare. The Japanese wear surgical masks against the stench.

Visitors do not loiter long beside the black rivers.

They are rewarded at the end of the tour with a fitting exhibition by Benyamina, an artist who works with lavatory seats. He turns them into mirrors, funeral wreaths, keyholes, clocks and letterboxes.

To avoid setting off explosions of accumulated gases, the underground city is devoid of lighting, except in the visitors' section. It has its own residents-up to 2 million rats, whose frantic breeding defeats any extermination campaign.

The 1,300-mile-long network runs 16ft to 260ft deep and follows the capital's streets. Each gallery bears the name of the street above it, marked on a traditional blue Parisian street sign, with street numbers corresponding to each building.

Thus, the 500 sewer workers know exactly where they are at all times.

The story goes that sewer workers, seeking to punish occupants of an apartment block who had been stingy with New Year tips, stuck a fork across its evacuation pipe, causing a blockage that backed up the sewage.

The maze of dark galleries is said to have provided haven for resistance fighters during World War II.

Access to all but the visitors' section is barred. Police fear that terrorists could set off bombs under key targets and burglars could burrow their way up into banks. Employees say anything can be found in the sewers: rings lost in lavatories, empty handbags discarded by thieves, and incriminating pistols thrown away by gangsters. Hundreds of weapons turned up in the wake of the war and in the troubled period after Algeria's war of independence from France.

They say they have also found pet snakes which escaped down lavatories, and a crocodile that was flushed down as a baby and survived to become fully grown.
Life in the sewers is far from healthy. Workers carry gas detectors to avoid being asphyxiated or setting off explosions.

A fall into the fetid rivers, called "baptism" or "assbath" in their own slang, can mean several days in hospital for anyone swallowing even a mouthful of water.

Staff are retired at 50, sometimes with lung trouble. Yet "My grandfather, father, two brothers-in-law and several cousins worked in the sewers," said 33-year-old Jose Lahaye, who shows visitors around.

Another danger looms from rainstorms, which can rapidly swell the sewers into roaring torrents. Headquarters keep in constant contact with weathermen to warn workers-and tourists-to return quickly to the surface.

Update: French Crocs

| Dear Mister Thoms # 26, 1992

David Cornwell has sent me a leaflet from the acquarium at Vannes, France. Claiming to be unique in France and to have the finest collection in Europe, Vannes aquarium offers, among other things, a Nile crocodile found in the sewers of Paris. David says that he visited the zoo last summer and there was indeed a crocodile there, “showing no signs of its alleged travels.”

Crocodiles bribe to voters By Ben Fenton

| Dear Mister Thoms # 25, 1992

Manifesto launch: Lord Sutch

The Official Monster Raving Loony party issued its manifesto yesterday, a four-page photocopied document with the slogan “Vote for insanity-you know it makes sense”.

It included a pledge to allow anyone attending court, not simply judges and lawyers, to wear wigs and gowns and to reduce income tax to zero for anyone below the national average wage.

They also propose extending the Chunnel tunnel to Switzerland and decimalising time. Crocodiles will be introduced into the Mersey and the Thames as part of a plan to create six giant Loony theme parks.

(The Daily Telegraph 19.3.92 p. 7)

Update: Crocodiles

Véronique Campion-Vincent | Dear Mister Thoms # 25, 1992

Some French crocs courtesy of Véronique Campion-Vincent

Avant d'eire capturé
par un commando d'égoutiers

Le crocodile des égouts de Paris s'est bien défendu

Sur les bords du Nil ils sont partis, n'en parlons plus. Mais on, les crocodiles sont revenus. L'un d'entre eux hantait récemment les egouts parisiens. Mercredi apres-midi audessous du quai de la Mergisserie (1er), les égoutiers se sont trouvés nez à nez avec un jeune crocodile à l'allure noble et fière: il faisait tranquillement sa promenade quotidienne.

Amateur de liberté et familier de ces espaces souterrains, le saurien ne s'est pas laissé impressionner par les intrus, égoutiers et pompiers venus à la rescousse. Il leur a
opposé une resistance farouche. Mais l'ennemi fut le plus fort. Bâillonné, ligoté, il a été conduit au vivarium du Jardin des Plantes. Adieu la liberté.

Ce crocodile (si ce n'est lui c'est donc son frère) était bien connu des égoutiers et de la police parisienne. On, l'avait dêja aperçu a plusieurs reprises il y a quelques mois, sans
doute après qu'il eut été lâchement abandonné par ses maîtres. On avait essayé sans succès de le capturer.

Il y a quelques années, a New York sévissait la mode des petits sauriens domestiques. Effrayés par la croissance aussi rapide qu'inquiétante de leur animal familier, les maîtres indignes les jetaient avec l'eau du bain … Résultat, quelques mois plus tard, les égouts de Manhattan grouillaient de crocodiles …

(B) [accompanying picture omitted]

Ne vous y fiez pas: bien que ce bébé crocodile ne mesure que quatre-vingts centimètres de long, ses dents sont solides. Il vous couperait un doigt comme rien.

Les égoutiers qui l'ont capturé Mercredi dans les soussols du quai de la Mergisserie (1er), ont pris leurs précautions.

Finalement, malgré une belle défense, le "croco" a eu le dessous. Il est aujourd'hui au vivarium du jardin des Plantes où il a retrouvé ses copains sauriens.

The Supernatural Female as Carrier of Disease in Medieval Welsh Tradition

Juliette Wood | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 5, 1996

The Aids virus is the subject of numerous contemporary legend narratives at the moment and the prevalence of these narratives has caught the interest of folklore researchers. (“Welcome to the World of Aids: Fantasies of Female Revenge” Western Folklore 1987 46, 192–197.) One of the most dramatic of these narratives is the story of a man who has sex with a woman and wakes the next morning to find a message scribbled in lipstick on his mirror welcoming him to the Aids club. Central to this legend is the image of a personified female plague carrier and the moral ambiguity (to say the least) of the actions of the male character. The characterisation of Aids as a modern plague with moral implications for the society which it afflicts has a number of historical precedents. The narrative too, at least as far as it personifies the disease, has earlier parallels.

My concern is solely with a small number of Welsh examples which attached themselves to the figure of an historical sixth-century Welsh king, Maelgwn Gwynedd. Maelgwn is mentioned by the monk Gildas in his De Exidiae Britanniae. The fame of this work rests on the fact that Gildas
and Maelgwn, both unassailably historical figures, would have been contemporaries of King Arthur, a more famous figure by far, but one whose historicity is in doubt. Maelgwn’s legendary persona touches on the development of the legend of King Arthur in Wales and Britain and indeed Maelgwn as hero may have been displaced by the increasing popularity of King Arthur legends. (Juliette Wood, “Maelgwn Gwynedd: A Forgotten Welsh Hero” Trivium Vol. 19 1984, 103–17) Nevertheless, Maelgwn’s death as a result of plague demonstrates an interesting interplay of historical fact and
legendary fiction in which a personified plague figure plays an important role. In the Annales Cambriae Maelgwn’s death from plague is mentioned as occurring in 547 “Mortalitas magna inqua pausat mailcun rex gene dotae” (great mortality in which died Maelgwn king of north Wales). Kingly deaths were important events. As they often died violently, those who died of natural causes or disease were in themselves unusual. The
early manuscripts of Annales Cambriae however, say nothing more than that Maelgwn died of plague. Later sources however develop the circumstances surrounding his death. In a copy of Annales Cambriae made at the end of the thirteenth century, the original entry has been expanded to “Mortalitas magna fuit in Britannia in qua pausat Mailcun rex Genedotae. Unde dicitur ‘Hir hun Mallgun en llis Ros.’ Tunc fuit lallwelen.” (There was great mortality in Britain in which Maelgwn king of north Wales died. Thence it is said ‘the long sleep of Maelgwn in the Court of Rhos’ then there was a yellow plague.) (John Cule “Pestis Flava: Y Fad Felen” pp. 141–155 in Wales and Medicine ed. J. Cule, Gwasg Gomer, 1973)

Maelgwn’s impious and boastful behaviour was castigated by the monk Gildas. His death is not mentioned in Gildas’ writings, although these are close to Maelgwn’s historical floruit. Maelgwn’s choleric reputation followed him into the later body of Welsh saints’ lives. As a symbol of temporal power, he, impiously and unsuccessfully, challenges the miraculous power of the Welsh saints. His death too, begins to attract legendary elements. He is said to have retreated to Deganwy Church, the main church in what was to all intents and purposes his capital city, to escape Y Fad Felen (The Yellow Plague) usually identified as pestis flava (Cule pp. 141-15 5). Maelgwn, in a move consistent with the impiety and daring of his character as depicted by Gildas and the Saints’ Lives, looks through the church keyhole and sees the plague. Catching sight of the creature is suffident to nullify the safety afforded by the Church and Maelgwn dies. The adventures of the magician-poet Taliesin are recorded in the Hanes Taliesin, a work dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century, although based on earlier tales. Taliesin tells an arrogant and obstreperous Maelgwn that a supernatural creature will emerge from a marsh, Morfa Rhianedd, and will cause Maelgwn’s death. Iolo Morganwg, the great eighteenth-century inventor of Welsh folklore, links this with Y Fad Felen and as his comments on the subject were published as part of Charlotte Guest’s very influential edition of The Mabinogion in the nineteenth century, the incident became widely known. (Cule pp. 148-49, 150, 154-55) In this instance, however, Iolo’s story is substantiated by references in the work of earlier scholars. Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt in the seventeenth century notes several traditions about Maelgwn including one that he died after seeing Y Fad Felen through a hole in the church door where he had gone to protect himself from the plague. (Cule, 150, 154-55)

Several references to a plague demon, this time even more clearly female, were noted by nineteenth-century Welsh folklorists. Both John Rhys and Jenkins mention a creature called Gwrach Y Rhibyn. (John Rhys, Celtic Folklore (1901) rpr. Wildwood House London, 1985 pp. 81, 463) The accounts do not tally in every detail, but the image is of a preternaturally thin, cadaverous female, associated with blasted marshy areas who brings death, sometimes through ague, sometimes just by her appearance. Long black teeth are mentioned in one account, and Rhys compares her with another banshee-like figure, Y Cirhireath. He also offers a suggestion for the meaning of her epithet, Y Rhibyn which provides a link to the preternatural thinness. The term, he says, is used to describe the stick which is placed over the hayrick as a base for the thatch. Although these figures do not tally in every detail with Maelgwn’s Yellow Plague, the implications arc nevertheless suggestive. Thinness, and images of starvation, in particular when associated with supernatural female figures, arc linked in all these cases to death and in particular death from disease. One might also add that in Pembroke the terms craf sgin or craf sgin starvo are applied to the phantom funeral phenomena. Here again, ideas of cadaverous appearance and wasting are associated with death portents.

The notice of Maelgwn’s death as a result of a plague adds to our knowledge of events in fifth-century Britain. The legend that had crystallised about this event by the thirteenth century and was repeated in stories about the Gwrach Y Rhibyn in the nineteenth suggests a series of links between moral behaviour, gender and disease which are echoed in modern narratives concerning Aids.

The Clowns

David Cornwell and Sandy Hobbs | Dear Mr. Thoms... # 24, 1992

Notes on an investigation in progress

In September and October 1991, stories have been circulating amongst school children in parts of the West of Scotland concerning approaches by ill-intentioned adults dressed as clowns. We have been gathering information about these stories in various ways and would be glad of any help in pursuing them. In particular, we would welcome information concerning equivalent stories in other areas, now or in the past. In the meantime we present below some of what we have collected, along with a few preliminary comments.

We first became aware of the stories through an item in the Sunday Mail, 15 September 1991, headlined "Riddle of the Clowns: Police probe kids' scare".

Police chiefs are baffled by floods of reports that children are being scared by two mystery … CLOWNS.

One definite, genuine report was received in Hamilton on September 4.

It concerned one man dressed in a clown's outfit, driving a purple mini, and offering sweets to children.

Since then, Lanarkshire Police have been inundated with forty reports – of two clown men, in a blue van.

However, the reported sightings have failed to provide police with leads, despite a helicopter and extra patrols being used. Joe Hogan, Strathclyde region's divisional education officer for Lanark, has told teachers:

"As a precaution you should alert pupils and parents. Anyone who sees a suspect person should phone the police. But no direct approach should be made."

Initial claims put the clowns in the Blantyre, Cambuslang, and Hamilton areas. One headmaster had information about similar incidents around Lesmahagow. Biggar and Douglas.

A police spokesman said: “There could be a perfectly inno¬cent explanation, but we must have information.
Anyone who sees something sus¬picious should note details such as registration numbers and notify us immediately.”

Three days later, a friend rang one of us, SH, with a story of clowns which he had heard from a child in the Easterhouse area of Glasgow and which he suspected might be an urban legend. That same day, unknown to either, the story, "Schools alert over strangers", appeared in the Glasgow Evening Times, 18 September 1991.

Schools in Lanarkshire have put parents and children on the alert.

Education chiefs have put out a warning after continued sightings of people in clown outfits offering sweets to children.

Strathclyde Police last week advised parents and young school children to beware and not to accept sweets from, or speak to, strangers.
Now some schools in Lanark¬shire have written to parents warning them of the situation.

Numerous sightings have been made in the Blantyre, Cambuslang, Hamilton. Coatbridge, and Stonehouse areas of a man tourinlg in a blue transit van.

A spokesman for Strathclyde Region’s education department said: “The division has written to all schools in the area making them aware of the situation.”

The next day a colleague at work approach SH with a story he later recorded on tape.

Yesterday morning my child was reluctant to go to school and complained of a slight tummy ache. On previous occasions where that's happened she's gone to school and been fine afterwards. So she went to school as normal. On the way to school in the car, she happened to mention that a friend of her's had told her the previous day that there had been someone going round dressed in a clown's outfit giving sweets to children. I didn't take the story very seriously. Three hours later, I got a phone call from her childminder saying that Kerry had come home, the school had sent her home, and she was complaining of still having a sore stomach. The childminder then phoned back half an hour later to say that Kerry had been saying that a rumour was going -, a story was going round the school, that there were -, there was someone, a person or people, dressed in a clown's outfit, going round in a blue van, giving sweets to children, and that she was very anxious about this and this was going round the school. Following that call, I telephoned the headmaster who said that the rumour was right round the school, that to try and reassure the kids they had asked five parents to come at the interval into the playground and that they had also contacted the community involvement police. He also mentioned that he thought they had calmed the kids down but at lunchtime two girls had gone to the local newsagent's and seen the local newspaper with a photograph of a clown on the front page. It was in fact a promotional item. The two girls had returned to the school in a state which he described as being hysterical. When I went home and went to pick up the kids from school that evening, my son who is eleven, my daughter is eight, my son's eleven, told me that in fact there were three individuals that were going round, one with a Bart Simpson mask, one with a Ronald McDonald mask, and one with a turtle mask. They were driving around in a van that was disguised as a police van, throwing out bags of sweets to children, and that in fact the sweets were drugged. And my son became quite irate, quite distressed when it was put to him that really there was very little basis for that story.

Since we were also picking up the story from other sources now, we decided to try to estimate its extent, and possible variants, in a more systematic way. On Monday 23rd September, over a hundred post-graduate student teachers (whom we shall call Group A) would return to Jordanhill College from teaching practice in a wide variety of primary schools in the region. With the agreement of their tutors, DC presented them with a questionnaire.

Children’s encounters with strangers

I am interested in the extent of anxiety amongst children, teachers and parents concerning approaches to children by unwelcome strangers in public places.

I would be grateful if you would help in this inquiry by reporting anything relevant to such anxiety which you might have observed or heard about during your recent period in school.
Any information, however slight, might be of value.

If, on reflection, you decide that you have nothing relevant to report, please write "NIL" but complete the details requested at the bottom of the sheet.

Thank you for your help.

David Cornwell

It will be noted that this questionnaire was intentionally vague and did not mention clowns.

The results were as follows:

Total number of respondents: 103
No information: 36
Information (no mention of clowns): 36
Information (mentioning clowns): 31

In most cases more than one student visited each school. Expressed in terms of schools, we found that at least one report of the clown story in 22 out of the 58 schools (38%). Although the affected schools were predominantly in the area indicated in the press report, the story had reached some schools in outwith the area.

Subsequently DC obtained information from another, smaller group. These were first year BEd students (Group B) who had not yet had any teaching experience.

Total number of respondents: 16
Information mentioning clowns: 14
Clown story heard from child: 11

We shall now turn to a more detailed look at the content of what was reported by these two student groups, including, where appropriate, information from more informal sources.

A. Perspective

The students vary considerable in the attitude they appear to take up towards the story. There follow two comparatively short statements, one displaying scepticism, the other more accepting in outlook.

Respondent 02: Children in P2 were telling the teacher of men in vans dressed up as clowns. The headmistress tried to scotch the rumour, as no hard evidence was found. Teachers speculated that it might have been on the news some weeks passed; that could have been the catalyst.

Respondent 01: During my placement there was a lot of talk among the kids about a clown going around Coatbridge offering sweets, kidnapping the children and threatened to shoot a girl. However there is some truth in this as there was an incident of a shooting and kidnapping and a separate incident of a man dressed as a clown offering sweets. The school was alerted of this and a letter sent out to all parents which caused a lot of anxiety among the children and the teachers were worried to(o).

B. Story Content

Blue Van A van is a regular, but. not invariable, feature of the story. It is normally blue; on a couple of occasions it is specified to be an ice-cream van.

Group Clown stories Van Blue
A 31 17 13
B 14 10 4

One might wonder why such an apparently trivial detail as the type of vehicle~ and its colour~ should be so comparatively stable. If the story is treated as a warning, then it would be important to remember that the vehicle was a blue van, as this would be a sign of possible danger.

Names and Variants No regular name for the figures featured in these stories seems to have emerged~ "Killer Clowns" and "Bad Clowns" have both been used, but neither frequently. In any case, costumes other than clowns have appeared~ including monkeys, turtles and policemen. In one case the clowns were said to be gypsies, perhaps echoing a much more ancient fear.

The Approach The most common way in which the clowns are said to approach children is by giving or offering sweets. On a couple of occasions, it is an offer of face-painting that is made.

Outcome But what happens after the approach? That is more problematic. In some cases, the child enters the van or is just "taken away". Is something more being implied? With the exception of a single reference to rape, sex is not explicitly mentioned. However, it may be that an offer of sweets from a stranger is such a stereotyped introduction to events which end in sexual attack that the tellers take that outcome for granted. (It should be noted that the "tellers" are our adult informants; we have not been collecting from children directly.)

A few versions mention some sort of physical attack, the most interesting of which are those which seem to allude to the distinctive sort of cuts to the mouth attributed to the so-called "Chelsea Smilers" (Roud, 1989). It is not clear whether the phrase "Chelsea Smile" we have picked up here derives from the children or is adult labelling of a child's description. Only a couple of versions deal in more extreme violence, one of which we quote.

Respondent X12: I came home from college last week and my little sister (aged 9) told me a story of how a friend of hers had heard about men who wore clown masks and drove an ice cream van. These men (or women) were kidnapping children and chopping them up with big knifes and putting them in freezers and eating them for lunch. She also said that the blood was sold with the ice cream as raspberry sauce to get rid of the evidence. When I asked her if she was worried she said no because it was happening in schools near our house but her school is in Glasgow.

C. Sources and Effects

The reports from our informants include not simply story "texts" but also references to possible origins and to observed outcomes. Parents, police and the mass media are all cited as possible sources. One student reports that older children told the stories in order to frighten younger ones. Others appear to assume that the story derives from an actual incident, even although it may have become exaggerated in the telling.

In a number of cases the students appear to have had fairly direct experience of children becoming hysterical, set off, for example, by the approach of a van or a police helicopter. In another case, the response of children appears to have been more aggressive.

Respondent X05: In my son and daughter's Primary School the story of two men in a van dressed as clowns swept through the children. The tension in the children was quite noticeable. My own children were reassured by going over the list of "what to do if approached" that we had already decided on. My friend's son however became anxious about coming home for lunch because he would have to walk back to school alone. About a week after this there was an incident in the playground when some workmen next door were actually stoned by about a dozen children while many more watched. My own children were not involved but a friend's daughter was accused of throwing stones. This is entirely out of character for her.

D. Antecedents

As already mentioned above, one possible origin of such a story is an actual incident of the sort the story portrays. However, this by no means the only possibility. It has not been necessary for us to seek alternative explanations. Informants have suggested them to us. These include, at the local level, a road safety campaign aimed at school children and featuring a clown, balloon sellers who dress as clowns, and a promotional campaign for a brand of sweets featuring clowns. In the mass media, our attention has been drawn to It, a novel by Stephen King and a video based on it. The video was released for rental in Britain on 23rd August 1991; the poster advertising it in video shops features a sinister clown-figure.

We have not reviewed the literature on satanic abuse systematically, but have noted two cases, one in America (Nathan, 1990) and one in the Netherlands (Jonker and Jonker-¬Bakker, 1991), in which an abuser is alleged to have dressed as a clown. It is possible that such a notion could have been spread through satanic abuse seminars to those educationists who eventually give warnings to children.

Two final point of speculation. First, although clowns are figures which appear in adult entertainment, often devised for children, can we sure that children always regard them as amiable?

Secondly, there is the question of the time of year at which this has taken place. The Gorbals Vampire Hunt (Hobbs and Cornwell, 1988) took place in September, 1954. We wonder whether such events are more likely to take place at this time of year. September is a month when children are still able to play out of doors after school, making the spread of rumours easier. The next major children's calendar custom is Hallowe'en, associated with dressing up and with frightening figures.


Hobbs, Sandy and Cornwell, David, Hunting The Monster With Iron Teeth, pp 115-137 in Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (Eds.) Monsters With Iron Teeth, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.

Jonker, F. and Jonker-Bakker, P. Experiences With Ritualist Child Sexual Abuse, Child Abuse and Neglect 15, 1991, 191-196.

Nathan, Debbie. The Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax, Village Voice, 12 June 1990, 36-44.

Roud, Steve. Chelsea Smilers, Foaftale News 15, September¬1989, 1-2.


Thanks to all the students who responded to our questions and to John Brady, Donald Christie, Tony Clarke, Sheena Crozier, Janet Fabb, lain Ferguson, Kevin Hobbs, Effie Maclennan, lain McKechnie, Jim and Margaret McKechnie, Joan Menmuir, Gerry Mooney.

Papal Bulls: More On Howler Collecting

Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 2, 1996

in our previous contribution we described the emergence of collections of “howlers” in Britain (Cornish, 1886) and the United States (LeRow, 1887, Twain, 1887), following which the publication of such comic errors became common. We would like to draw attention to three features of howler collecting. These have to do with the authenticity of the examples, the purposes of the collections, and the possible shaping of the howlers they record.

First, both Cornish and Twain take the trouble to assert that the errors quoted are genuine. Why should they do this, unless on previous occasions when they have cited them — orally, say, or in private correspondence — they found some resistance on the part of the audience? This practice of proclaiming the authenticity of the items in a collection became almost universal subsequently. For example, the Journal of Education, publishing a list of “Fresh Howlers” stated that they were “warranted genuine by the sender” (Anonymous, 1898:102). The editor of the Pocket Book of Boners (1941) expressed “profound contempt” for the “doubting Thomases" who suspect that some have been manufactured (Anonymous, 1941:X). Cecil Hunt (1951:5) denies suggestions that he has invented any howlers. “The genuine supply is ample", he says. Gregory (1977:9) claims, in any cases, that “a connoisseur has little trouble spotting the fakes".

Thus the assertion of the authenticity of one’s own collection is sometimes coupled with a claim that items cited elsewhere are not authentic. Strachan (1930:9) states that examples appear in the press which are “obviously artificlal", whilst Thomson (1935:144) says of such examples that they “smell too much of the lamp". Occasionally, an editor will acknowledge that a few items are “not uncut gems” (Hunt, 1951:5) or, as Muir (1986:7) less coyly states, “some are apocryphal” and have “grown in the telling”.

Yet, when one notes how frequently editors acknowledge the help of an earlier printed source or of a correspondent, one may doubt whether these collectors are really in a position to “guarantee” items collected initially by others. To put it bluntly, they have to rely on the word of the previous collector. Collectors of howlers are not normally seeking to meet the standards of some academic discipline, and there is circumstantial evidence that some howlers have circulated pretty much as folklore does. Before leaving this point, we must note too, that some editors’ claims to have gathered their material themselves is open to doubt. One writes that “over the years I have collected schoolboy howlers…here are the best” (Brandreth, 1983:2l2). However, when one examines the list of 100 one discovers that two groups, totaling 56 in all, which are virtually identical with items published by Gregory (1977) and are even printed in the same order!

Both Cornish and Twain, whilst seeking openly to amuse their readers, also claim to have some seriousness of purpose too. Cornish (1886:619) expressed the hope that his attempt to classify boys’ blunders would “prepare the way for a scientific study of a most interesting subject”. Twain, on the other hand is more concerned with the light which the mistakes shed on issues of educational policy. The proper object of our laughter is not so much the pupil or even the teacher, but the policy makers, “the unintelligent Boards, Committees and Trustees", who are responsible for the fact that “a large part of the pupil’s ‘instruction’ consists of cramming him with obscure and wordy ‘rules’ which he does not understand and has no time to understand” (Twain, 1887:936). The Century Magazine apparently received a large amount of correspondence about Twain's article and subsequently published a letter from Caroline LeRow who had originated the matter in the first place. She wrote in even stronger terms than Mark Twain, quoting Herbert Spencer, that “The wrong things are taught at the wrong time and in the wrong way" (fellow, 1888:804).

Thus in these early writings the howlers was treated both as a subject for laughter and as a matter for serious public debate. However, there was to develop an approach to “howlers" in which the desire to amuse far outweighed and even swamped the more serious purpose. A sign that this might happen can be found quite early, in an article in the Boy's Own Paper in 1889. The introduction leads one to expect a serious discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the examination system:

The great examination question has lately come to the front again – is it good for boys to be examined. (Anonymous, 1889:99)

However, the article soon becomes dominated by what were then still called “blunders". The howlers which frequently appeared as “fillers” in magazines of the late Victorian era seem to have been presented in the main without any pretence of seriousness of purpose. However, attempts to treat howlers seriously have survived up to the present day.

The eminent educationalist, Sir John Adams, interestingly started his book Errors in Schools (1927) with a chapter largely devoted to howlers. The chapter's title is “The Aesthetic Side", i.e. the aesthetic side of error, and he gives a good deal of attention to why certain errors are amusing, the influence of different circumstances, and so on. However, he argues that those concerned with education should not simply laugh at these mistakes:

The plain man can encounter a howler, smile and pass on without sin. Not so the teacher. It is part of his business to note and to understand howlers. (Adams, 1927:11)

This, of course was the main purpose of his book. This tradition survives up to the present day in the writings of those psychologists and educationists who seek to understand children’s errors by considering them seriously.

A book with the title Scottish School Humour (1935) might have been thought to represent an entirely different point of view. However, the author, Charles Thomson, a retired Scottish headmaster, is not so different in spirit from Adams. Although clearly hoping to amuse his readers, the laughter is sometimes at the expense of teachers, administrators and parents. His treatment of the notion of a “howler" is expressed with a passion slightly unexpected in an essentially light hearted book. He says that he does not know who invented the term “howler" but he does recollect when he first heard it used. lt was by

… an Oxford-trained lecturer at Glasgow University about 45 years ago (that is, around 1890, when the first appearance in print seems also to have occurred). I felt it then to be hateful word. I still think so … it betokens a wrong frame of mind — an unsympathetic attitude. Rightly considered, the child's mistakes are natural and inevitable. They should seldom be greeted with derisive laughter. The laughter they stir should not be that of the gullet, but of the diaphragm, which is nearer the heart. Often they are worthy of careful study. (Thomson, 1936:143)

Nevertheless, Thomson does go on to quote many errors largely to amuse the reader.

Doubts at whether we should be laughing at student error continue to be expressed. For example, two British professional academic bodies, the British Sociological Association and British Psychological Society have found objections being raised when “howlers" were published in their newsletters for members. (See, for example, Benthall, 1975, Cross, 1979.)

In contrast we can see the development of a type of publication where the aim to do nothing more than to amuse is proclaimed.

“The compilation of this book lays no claim to literary achievement. It is purely and simply an effort to amuse those who, perchance in an idle hour, may scan its pages.” (Richmond 1934:iv)

More recent volumes contain similar unequivocal statements of simple goals. Muir (1986:7) states that his criterion of including an item is “lf I had a good laugh". Lederer (1987:vii) says:

“Mainly, I’ve written Anguished English to make you laugh."

That qualifying “mainly” may be a give-away, however, for it may be that the compilers of howler books only wish to present themselves as mere entertainers, that being part of the expected public pose.

The third aspect of the Cornish and Twain papers which we suggest is worth noting is the presence of items which bear interesting relationships with items appearing in later collections. The nature of such relationships may be illustrated by taking two examples. The first and most straightforward has already been mentioned in our contribution to Letters to Ambrose Merton 1; Cornish and LeRow both had a “blunder" in which Socrates, who was described as “no use at fighting", destroyed some statues and had to drink the shamrock. We have not come across the substitution of “shamrock” for “hemlock” again, but in collections ranging in date from 1928 to 1987 we have a similar error. Jerrold (1928:200) has:

Socrates died of an overdose of wedlock.

In four other collections there occurs the virtually identical:

Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock. (Hunt, 1951:30, Gregory 1977:81, Brandreth, 1983:215, Lederer, 1987:14)

Of the “wedlock” texts, there seems good reason to believe that some collectors have been borrowing either from each other or from other a common source. As to their relationship with the earlier “shamrock" texts there is more room for doubt. However, there does seem to be a distinct possibility that the “wedlock" texts represent the outcome of a process of polishing. The less pointed references to fighting ability, to appearance and to destroying statues may have been dropped leaving the more striking and more memorable simple sentence. “Wedlock” has the advantage over “shamrock" of having wider connotations. Shamrocks are not proverbially harmful, but wedlock is a state about which mixed feelings are often expressed, and if “wedlock” were taken to be a euphemism for sexual relations, then a further dimension would be added to the humour.

The second example is rather more complex. Cornish (1886:622) provides the following example and explanation:

A young law-student stated that the statute of Praemunire had to do with “purple boots", which were by it declared illegal. He had apparently been told something about “Papal Bulls”; these words conveying no idea to his mind, he had substituted others more familiar and intelligible.

Since the Statutes of Praemunire were indeed used to assert the authority of the English crown at the expense of Papal authority, the origin of “purple boots” in “Papal Bulls” is plausible, even if it is only inferred. However, from 1896 onwards, we have noted many howlers based on a misunderstanding of “bull" meaning a decree from the Pope, the name deriving from the seal or “bulla" attached to it. The Girl's Own Paper has this example:

Did Martin Luther die a natural death? No, he was excommunicated by a bull. (Anonymous, 1896:653)

Ash (198S:20), who claimed simply to be providing a selection from Hunt’s numerous volumes, has an almost identical formulation. Two American collectors, (Anonymous, 1941:57, Lederer, 1987:10), both refer to this as a “horrible death” but otherwise the howler is the same. Gregory (1977:11) refers to the fact that “Martin Luther was executed by a bull” has been appearing regularly “for the last forty years". However, we have not come across the “executed” form elsewhere. All this suggests a long standing and apocryphal howler. However, this by no means exhausts the plays on “bull” to be found in howler collections.

Thomson (193 5:14-4) has a different summary of the Statute of Praemunire, quoting it as forbidding “the execution of bulls belonging to the Pope". He contrasts this seemingly genuine howler with what he calls an example of “forced wit”:

The Diet of Worms was what the monks ate during Lent. At Easter they were allowed beef, which was called the Papal Bull.

This is a “one-off”; we have found nothing quite like it in any other collections. Other unrepeated howlers involving “Papal Bull" include the following fairly simple examples:

A Papal Bull is a male cow. (Gregory, 1977:72)

A Papal Bull is a rare kind of bull with red spots and generally a black tail. (Hunt, 1934:27)

Under Henry VIII no bulls were allowed to land in England. (Hunt, 1934:17)

Note that in the last case, though “Papal” is missing, the sentence reads like a misunderstanding of a statement about the conflict between Henry VIII and the Pope. A more complex “one-off” and perhaps of dubious authenticity is:

A Papal Bull gave you the alternative of obedience or of being excommunicated from the privileges of the Church. It is a bull with reference to the horns of a dilemma. So an Irish Bull is a choice — You may believe it or you may not believe it. (Richmond, 1935:49)

There remain a number of cases where the Papal Bull is kept in the Vatican — but for rather different purposes:

The Papal Bull was a mad bull kept by the Pope in the Inquisition to trample on Protestants.

This appears in virtually identical forms in Ash (1985:14) and in the Pocket Book of Boners (Anonymous, 1941:19). Richmond (1934:55) has:

The Papal Bull is the father of the cow kept in the Vatican to supply the Pope's children with milk.

Jerrold (1927:193) and the Pocket Book of Boners (Anonymous, 1941:19) have what seems to be a polished version of this:

The Papal Bull was really a cow that was kept at the Vatican to supply milk for the Pope's children.

Just as Socrates dying from an overdose of wedlock adds the possibility of a double entendre, so too in the last quoted Papal Bull howlers, there is additional possibility of inducing some anti-clerical amusement from the idea of the Pope having children.

A question may be asked about these “bull” howlers. Does their frequency mean that misunderstanding “bull” Is a common error or simply that it is widely regarded as a likely error? It is perhaps relevant to note that it is not necessary to employ the “howler” form to make a verbal play on “bull”. OED has a quotation which describes the Pope as issuing “roaring Bulls” against her majesty. The majesty in question is Elizabeth 1st and the date 1593. The joke is an old one.

A type of item not to be found in those early papers by Cornish and Mark Twain, but commonly found in more recent collections of howlers, is the supposed extract from letters to teachers from parents. Thomson has a chapter called “Parents’ Lines” which includes:

Dear Teacher, James Fraser has swollen glands and a bad throat. I will get them cut in the summer time. (1936:239)

Gregory’s chapter is called “Dear Sir or Madman” (sic). An example from it is:

Dear Sir, Kindly excuse Jimmy’s absence from school yesterday. He fell in the river. By doing same you will oblige. (1977:46)

Muir’s equivalent chapter is simply called “Dear Teacher”:

Jessie cannot come to school as she has haricot veins. (1984:10)

In some respects, the presence of such material alongside school students’ howlers is unremarkable. They have is common with the latter the fact that they do purport to contain errors. If and when such parental slips are genuine, they will be noticed by the very people, that is teachers, who identify the school howlers. The fact that substantial collections of parents' howlers seem to come later than collections of those attributed to pupils may simply be due to the fact that parental errors are less common.

However, if we are seeking to understand the nature of howler collecting, parental howlers take on a special interest because of the fact that they can form a link between so-called “schoolboy howlers" on the one hand and what might be termed “claimants‘ letters" on the other. These latter have been discussed by a number of writers, e.g. Jaffe. Some of the examples he quotes are:

Unless l get my husband’s money pretty soon, I will be forced to lead an immortal life.

I am glad to report that my husband who was missing is dead.

Mrs Jones has not had any clothes for a year and has been visited regularly by the clergy. (Jaffe, 1975:145)

MacDougall (1958:291-292) suggests origins for such apocryphal letter extracts around the First World War, citing the War Risk Insurance Bureau as the body to which they were first attributed. However, most of MacDougall’s quoted texts are from the 1930s. Jaffe cites a racist leaflet, Laugh and Let Laugh Way Down South, apparently published in 1943 but probably with an earlier origin, in which such items are quoted ln a mock-“coloured” style. The use of the supposed errors to express hostility to those who supposedly made them could not be clearer.

Jaffe terms these items “welfare" letters but “claimants’ letters” is probably a more satisfactory name since there are similar letters supposedly addressed to insurance companies, e.g.

I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way.

An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and vanished.

I had been driving for 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident. (Dear Mr Thoms 15:21)

The similarities between parents’ letters and claimant letters seem clear. We are invited to laugh at “clients”. Does that mean they originate, and have main audience within “professional" groups, where the knowledgeable professionals can share responses to the clients? This could be said to be true of schoolboy howlers too.


Adams, J. (1927). Errors In School: Their Causes And Treatrnent. London: University of London Press.

Anonymous. (1889). “Cross questions and crooked answers”, Boy’s Own Paper, 11, 699–700.

Anonymous. (1898). “Fresh howlers”, Journal of Education, 20, 102.

Anonymous. (1941). The Pocket Book Of Howlers. New York: Pocket Books

Ash, R. (1985). Howlers. Horsham: Ravette.

Benthall, J. (1975). “Letter to the editor”, Network, Newsletter of the British Sociological Association, 3, 4.

Brandreth, G. (1983). The joy Of Lex. New York: Quill.

Cornish, J.F. “Boys’ blunders”, Cornhill Magazine, 6, 619–628.

Cross, M. (1979). “Miscellany”, Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 32, 263.

Gregory, R.E. (1977). Knight Book Of Howlers. London: Hodder & Stoughton 8

Hunt. C. (1934). Latest Howlers. London: Harrap.

Hunt, C. (1957). My Favourite Howlers. 2nd Ed. London: Benn.

Jaffe, H.J. (1975). “The welfare 1etters", Western Folklore, 34, 144–148.

Jerrold, W. (1928). Bulls, Blunders And Howlers. London: Brentano’s.

Lederer, R. (1987). Anguished English: An Anthology Of Accidental Assaults On The English Language. London: Robson.

LeRow, C. (1887). English As She ls Taught. New York: Cassell. .

LeRow, C.B. (1888). “The public school problem”, Century Magazine, 13, 804–805.

MacDougall, C. (1958). Hoaxes. 2nd Ed. New Yorker: Dover.

Muir, J.G. (1984). Classroom Clangers. Edinburgh: Gordon Wright.

Muir, J.G. (1986). More Classroom Clangers. Edinburgh: Gordon Wright

Richmond, F.M. (1934). School Yarns And Howlers, London: Universal Publications.

Strachan, R. (1930). Humour In The Schoolroom. London: Stockwell.

Thomson, C.W. (1936). Scottish School Humour. Glasgow: Robert Gibson

Twain, M. (1887). “English as she is taught", Century Magazine, 11, 932–936.