The Gorbals Vampire

September 23rd, 1954. PC Alex Deeprose of the Glasgow Police responds to a call of a disturbance at the Southern Necropolis – a cemetery in one of the city’s poorest areas. What he finds shocks and stuns him. As steelworks to the East and South bellow smoke and flame into the night air, they lace the breeze with a strong scent of sulphur. And before him, he watches gangs of children scour the graves and headstones. The youngest couldn’t have been older than four, whilst the leaders were in their early teens. Most were armed – with crude, homemade weapons including crosses, crucifixes, and more deadly knives, axes, and shivs.

In the dense fog and smoke-filled cemetery, they cast distorted, otherworldly shadows among the tombs and headstones. Yet they move with purpose, and as their gleeful cries and whoops reveal, they are on the hunt. 

Cornering the nearest group, PC Deeprose discovers their intended target. The man with the iron teeth, also known as the Gorbals vampire. A seven-foot monster that has supposedly kidnapped and devoured two of their own.

Only the intervention of a local headmaster, and some timely Glaswegian weather, finally persuade the children to disperse. But they return for the next two nights, determined to catch the monster.

Parental Concerns

Soon after, parents and schoolteachers were asking police if there could be any truth to the tale. After all, how and why would so many children be motivated en masse to take the law into their own hands. For them, the stakes (if you’ll forgive the pun) couldn’t be higher. They had set off into the night to confront a metallic-fanged, seven-foot-tall, child-eating monster. Not the lightest of undertakings.

The story spread as quickly as the fear. It reached the National Press and even parliament. Ultimately, it impacted and changed British law.

But was there any truth to the Gorbals vampire? Its legacy, legend, and legal consequences have certainly lingered.

The Southern Necropolis, Glasgow.

Playground Rumours

It appears that the story of the vampire sprung up very quickly – on the day of the first hunt. Ronnie Sanderson was eight years old at the time and was informed of the simple plan in the playground. 

“The word was, there was a vampire, and everyone was going to head out there after school. At three o’clock, the school emptied, and everyone made a beeline for it. We sat there for ages on the wall, waiting and waiting. I wouldn’t go in because it was a bit scary for me. I think someone saw somebody wandering about and the cry went up: the vampire was there!”

Kenny Hughes, another of the vampire hunters, said their terror built up quickly, to the point they would only move in on the cemetery together.

A third boy, Tommy Smith, suggested the fog, and fire from the steelworks, only added to the eeriness. 

“The red light and smoke would flare up and make the shadows leap among the gravestones. You could see figures walking about at the back, all lined in red light.”

On seeing a bonfire burning brightly close to the cemetery, it even began to be feared that the monster was burning the remains of those it had already killed. Yet, two nights later, it was almost forgotten – at least in the minds of the children. But uproar was to come in the aftermath.

I’ve included a link to interviews with Tommy and other witnesses to the events below.

Fangless Facts and Other Iron-Fanged Monsters

The facts show no children were reported missing, and there are no child murder cases that line up with the period. However, the Gorbals vampire was not the first monster to haunt Glasgow, and it wasn’t even the first to sport iron teeth.

Tommy Smith – mentioned above, suggested tales of the ‘iron man’, were used by parents to keep children in line. This was no Marvel superhero, but a bad-tempered ogre inclined to snack on schoolchildren. 

Before him, in the 1800s, ‘Jenny wi’ the Airn (iron) Teeth’, stalked Glasgow Green. This hideous hag shares her name with another folklore favourite – Jenny (or Ginny) Greenteeth, known for dragging children to a watery grave. Although undoubtedly based on this watery witch, especially living so close to the banks of the Clyde, Glasgow’s Jenny was differentiated by her mouth of metal. She also got her own poem.

Jenny wi’ the Airn Teeth

Come an tak’ the bairn

Tak’ him to your den

Where the bowgie bides

But first put baith your big teeth

In his wee plump sides

A bairn is a baby, and a bowgie is an old-fashioned spelling of another well-known British faerie – a bogie, or boggart.

It would appear, that Gorbals’ school-aged children had a few potential spurs to the imagination to choose from, if they wanted to think on iron-fanged monsters. But it’s still unclear why so many were suddenly motivated on one day, or how rumours spread from school to school in a matter of hours.

Iron and Steel

Two metallic monstrosities dominate the story. The first is the iron teeth of the vampire, and the second is the steel industry and its impact. The area was heavily laden with air, noise, and light pollution. The work itself was dangerous and those not in the factories, were still subject to their fumes and imposing presence. The foundries were active 24/7 and constantly backlit the night sky with hellish plumes of orange and billowing smoke. It wouldn’t take much to imagine a demonic denizen dwelled nearby.

Gorbals was also an area stricken by poverty. As a home for heavy industry, it attracted significant numbers of immigrants, not just from the surrounding Highlands, but also Irish Catholics, Jewish, and Italian communities. A huge amount of people (up to an estimated 90,000 by the late 1930s), were crammed into a little over a square mile. Gorbals was known for a high crime rate, and its equally high infant mortality rate. Perhaps these factors made it the perfect place to inspire a story about a monster with iron teeth that killed children.

After all, it’s not hard to imagine this story was a personification of the hazards faced by the residents and workers crammed into Gorbals. And nearly a century before, in 1867, Karl Marx alluded to the similarities between industrial capitalism and vampires.

“Capitalism is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour…”

Karl Marx, Capital

To me, as an amateur with an interest in the strange and monsters especially, this makes sense. We now know that a cultural knee-jerk response to tragedy is to make monsters. Whether it’s Japan’s post-Hiroshima Godzilla, or America’s post 9/11 Cloverfield, they usually aren’t far behind disaster and difficulty.

But a scapegoat would help avoid the accountability implied by over industrialisation and the impoverishing of society.

A Comic Craze?

By the time the story reached parliament, a plausible yet convenient culprit was firmly in the sights of the outraged public. American horror comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, were polluting young minds and driving them to such madness.

A 1953 issue of Dark Mysteries was especially cited, after featuring a story titled ‘The Vampire with the Iron Teeth’.

The labour MP for Gorbals, Alice Cullen, led a debate in the House of Commons, backed by a coalition of teachers, Christians, and communists – the latter joining the fight on terms of limiting the influence of American culture. For everyone else though, the accusation was that these stories inflamed imaginations with graphic images of monsters and mayhem. The result was the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955, which banned the sale of ‘repulsive or horrible’ reading matter to children. It is still in place today as ‘active’ legislation. 

Monsters, Mass Hysteria, and ‘Magination

So, it was back to The Beano for Gorbals’ monster-hunting school kids. But in hindsight, there are several issues with placing the blame on the comics. First and foremost, it seems none of the children involved had access, or had even seen such American comics. Experts suggest they were more likely to have gotten hold of the Crown Jewels than one of these – which had very limited circulation and availability anywhere in the UK, let alone Gorbals. 

As for that conveniently titled story in Dark Mysteries, research suggests this was published in December 1953, over three months after the events in Gorbals, and notably, also after the story had been heavily featured in the National Press.

As Bob Hamilton, and several of the monster hunters admitted, they had no idea what a vampire was. They were just swept up in the idea of a monster hunt and joined in with everyone else.

The Southern Necropolis is a graveyard for over 250,000 Glaswegians. But in the early 1950s, for the children of Gorbals, it was ‘the gravy’ – and a playground. Swapping trees for tombstones, and nursery rhymes for scary stories, it’s not hard to imagine their thoughts were haunted by the macabre. 

It’s not the first time that mass hysteria among children has led to a monster hunt. It’s not even the first time it happened in Glasgow. In the 1870s, the Cowcaddens area saw a hunt for hobgoblins. In the early 20th century, spring-heeled jack became their quarry. In 1964, Liverpool saw a lively hunt for leprechauns. More recently, and with more tragic consequences, the slender man stabbing in 2014 showed the dire consequences of believing such stories, and the international reach of the phenomena. 

And as cases such as the Highgate Vampire and the Cardiff Giant show, adults are not immune either. 

I was first introduced to the Gorbals vampire when I visited Glasgow for a friend’s wedding and stayed in a hotel opposite the mural depicting the legend. In more recent times, the monster has been the subject of a locally staged play and many works of art and sculpture.

I am left with two thoughts. The first, that it’s not entirely implausible, despite the lack of record, that a dishevelled, down-and-out steelworker fabricated himself a pair of metal teeth and got his kicks by scaring children in the graveyard. The second is, seventy years on, the only slaying a teenager is likely to do is via Call of Duty. But back in the day, they heard about a monster, believed it, and made killing it their first order of business. One thing is clear; don’t mess with the kids from Gorbals. 

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Meet the Sabretooths

Warning – potential book spoilers ahead

I like to keep a lot of visual references and trinkets of inspiration around me when I write. Dotted around my workspace are various Schleich dinosaurs – Carnotaurus and T. Rex have prominent places (what can I say, I like predators!); and a selection of plush toys including a sabretooth, Nessie, and a black jaguar cub. Then, there are black jaguar and black leopard models, slightly overshadowed by the huge ‘stray cat’ Smilodon from Rebor.

On my desk is a selection of teeth and claws. Some are real, whilst others are museum replicas. I have megalodon, great white, and mako teeth that are all the genuine article, as well as two other fossil shark teeth I’ve never been able to identify 100% (found on a beach on the Isle of Sheppey). Incidentally, the great white tooth was found on a beach in La Jolla, California.

My desk collection of modern and prehistoric shark teeth.

Among the replicas is the tooth you see in the picture below. It’s a cast of a canine from Homotherium. Also known as the scimitar-toothed cat, this was one of the most widely distributed sabre-toothed predators to have existed, having roamed North and South America, Eurasia, and Africa. 

Sabretooths are featured in my books, and I’m often asked why I didn’t choose Homotherium as the species that ultimately plays a major role in the ongoing storyline. There’s a couple of reasons, but first, did you know how many different sabretooths there are to (hypothetically) choose from?

Homotherium belonged to the Machairodontinae (meaning daggertooth) sub-family within the Felidae (true cat) family of mammalian carnivores. Like all in this sub-family, they are most known for their enlarged maxillary canines. In almost all cases, these protruded from the mouth on either side of the jaw and were visible even when the mouth was closed. But, in the case of Homotherium, it’s likely that despite having relatively large canines, they would have been hidden by the upper lips and lower gum tissues, just like in modern big cats. This was just one reason Homotherium didn’t make the cut. I needed a sabretooth that could be recognised for what it is – despite Homotherium’s convenient European fossil record.

A museum replica of Homotherium, alongside a skeletal reconstruction.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Homotherium didn’t pack a punch though. They were about the size of a male African lion. And not only were its teeth designed for slashing, but also a powerful gripping bite capable of delivering deep puncture wounds.

Joining Homotherium in the Machairodontinae is also Amphimachairodus (thought to be some of the earliest sabretooths to inhabit Europe); Lokotunjailurus (think a long-legged, more gracile lioness) was known from the Miocene epoch across Kenya and Chad; Nimravides – a tiger-sized sabretooth that appeared in the late Miocene and has been found exclusively in North America; and Xenosmilus. 

If you’ve read my books, you’ll know why I’ve paused there. Xenosmilus was big, even for a sabretooth. In fact, only Smilodon (who’ll we’ll come to later) was noticeably larger in terms of mass. Yet it stands out among others in the sub-family for other reasons.

Before Xenosmilus was discovered, sabretooths fell relatively neatly into two categories. Scimitar-toothed cats, like Homotherium, had mildly elongated canines and long legs. Dirk toothed cats, like Smilodon, had long upper canines and stout legs. Xenosmilus broke the mould. It had short, muscular legs and a robust body – yet its canines weren’t as pronounced. And those teeth were different in other ways too. All of Xenosmilus’ teeth were serrated, and its top teeth aligned with the bottom in a way that enabled it to concentrate its bite force on two teeth at a time. This is where Xenosmilus gets its name – which means ‘strange smile’. The unique way that its canines and incisors operated together in biting, also led to the moniker, ‘the cookie-cutter cat’. 

The skull of Xenosmilus also features a pronounced and significant sagittal crest compared to others in the family. This meant it had phenomenal jaw strength and bite force, thanks to the muscles that would have been attached here. Together, these features have led to the theory that Xenosmilus adopted a bite and retreat hunting strategy. It would use its formidable teeth to inflict a deep wound, then wait until the prey was incapacitated. The peccary bones found close to the two type specimens indicate not only a liking for pork, but also that the species may have hunted collaboratively. 

It was these unique features that led to Xenosmilus playing the role it does in my stories. But we’re only halfway through the very top layers of the sabretooth family tree.

Xenosmilus skeletal reconstruction on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

A smaller, sub-group are the Machairodontini, made up of; Machairodus – meaning ‘knife tooth’ and who gives this little clan their name; Hemimachairodus – known from finds in Java and Indonesia; and Miomachairodus, known from finds in China and Turkey. They were large cats, similar in size to the smaller subspecies of modern-day tigers.

The Metailurini include Metailurus – a cat we know from only partial remains, but its elongated rear legs mean that it was probably an accomplished jumper. Others in the group include Adelphailurus, Stenailurus, and Yoshi – a species proposed to be quite cheetah like in behaviour. Because these species have only been identified from small finds, what we know about them is limited, but new details are being published regularly with study. 

The exception in this group is one of my favourites – Dinofelis, whose name means ‘terrible cat’. There’s some argument that Dinofelis belongs to the Smilodon sub-family, but for now, they lie here. These jaguar-sized cats were powerfully built with prominent sabres and extremely robust front limbs. They were also widespread, with fossils found across the North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, from between 5 and 1.2 million years ago. It has also been proposed that Dinofelis preferred forest habitat and may have had a spotted or striped coat – like the modern day clouded leopard and ocelot. 

Finally, we come to the best known of the sabretooths – the Smilodontini. These include the three sub-species of Smilodon, but also the family groups of Rhizosmilodon, Promegantereon, Paramachairodus, and another favourite – Megantereon. The latter may have been a direct ancestor of Smilodon and was jaguar-sized, but even heavier set with lion-like forelimbs. Despite this, they are thought to have been able to climb relatively well and take down prey as large as a horse. And unlike its relative Smilodon, who was limited to North America, Megantereon was found in Eurasia and Africa too.

Homotherium skull

Smilodon is not only one of the most well-known sabretooths, but also one of the most easily recognised prehistoric mammals ever discovered, thanks in part to hundreds of fossils retrieved from the La Brea tar pits. Its name means scalpel, or ‘two-edged knife tooth’. Its teeth are easily the most impressive of all sabres in terms of size and were tools used for precision kills. However, these formidable upper canines were relatively weak and fragile. They had stocky, bear-like bodies and are thought to have been ambush predators that preferred thick forest and vegetation as habitat. Again, we’re not sure if they were co-operative hunters – but it is thought likely that they lived in small family groups. 

All the above sabretooths are part of the Felidae family – making them true cats. But they weren’t the only sabretooths out there. There are others, most of which fall under what are known as false sabre-toothed cats – including the nimravidae and barbourfelidae. These animals are part of the Feliformia sub-order. Again, if you’ve read my books, you’ll be familiar with that name in terms of hyenas and their fossil relatives. But it also includes animals like the Madagascan fossa, the binturong of Asia, as well as civets, mongoose, and meerkats. Cats too are part of this sub-order, and the false sabre-toothed cats are obviously more closely related than these others – but are still different from true cats.

As for sabretooths and their modern-day cat relatives, it’s thought that they shared a common ancestor from about 18 million years ago. But the family ties between the sabretooths themselves are quite strained too. For instance, Homotherium and Smilodon are probably more distantly related from each other than your typical house cat is to a tiger. But genetically, we can still forge that connection to modern day big cats like lions and tigers from studies carried out on fossil mitochondrial DNA. It’s more direct in species related to Homotherium, which is another reason Xenosmilus was a good fit on paper. It had the strength and size of Smilodon but benefited from being part of the larger sabretooth family, with more of a genetic tie (however slight) to modern big cats.

Xenosmilus skull – its name means “strange smile”.

As for would a modern-day big cat, like a jaguar, be able to breed with a sabretooth like Xenosmilus… we obviously don’t know. My conjecture is that as true cats, it’s technically possible and viable. There would no doubt be many unknown evolutionary and biological barriers to overcome, but, as a favourite fictional character facing similar concerns famously once said… “life finds a way”. 

And whereas we’ll never be able to bring back a dinosaur from its DNA to find out what it might conveniently splice with, don’t be so sure when it comes to prehistoric cats. Their DNA – from cave lions to Smilodon, has been found and identified, and in some cases, even mapped. Maybe in the near future, just like in my books, we’ll be able to visit something akin to a Pleistocene Park!

If you can’t wait until then, you can discover how these cats and others play a role in my books here.