July 09, 2020

The Clown Scare of 1981 That Terrified Boston

With the COVID-19 pandemic I haven't been taking any long road trips to visit strange places. I've been exploring closer to home, though, and luckily there are some weird places very close by. That's one of the nice things about New England. There are spooky stories all over the place. 

Recently I took a short trip to the Lawrence School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Built in the early 20th century, the Lawrence School is part of Brookline's public school system. It's a very stately looking building, but in May of 1981 some students at the school reporting something very unusual: creepy clowns. 

Actor Lon Chaney as a clown in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

On Tuesday, May 5, 1981 the Brookline Police received a report that two men dressed as clowns had approached children on Longwood Avenue near the Lawrence School. The men were driving a van and tried to entice the children into the van by offering them candy. According to The Boston Globe

The vehicle was describe as an older model black van with ladders on the side, a broken front headlight and no hubcaps.  
Brookline Police called the town's school department and told administrators to be "extra cautious." 
School Superintendent Robert I. Sperber instructed all ten elementary schools to warn pupils. (The Boston Globe, May 7, 1981, p. 21, "Beware 'clown' pupils told")

This was not an isolated incident, but was instead just one of several creepy clown sightings across greater Boston that spring. Officials in Boston's school system were told the last week of April to warn elementary and middle school pupils about sinister clowns. The memo was sent on May 6:

"It has been brought to the attention of the police department and the district office that adults dressed as clowns have been bothering children to and from school," the memo said.  
"Please advise all students," it continued, "that they must stay away from strangers, especially ones dressed as clowns." (The Boston Globe, May 7, 1981, p. 21, "Beware 'clown' pupils told")

Yes, especially ones dressed as clowns. Boston Police even issued a citywide bulletin for a clown who had been seen in a black van near Franklin Park in Roxbury and the Curley School in Jamaica Plain. He was reportedly naked from the waist down and was wanted for questioning. 

Just a few days later, though, the clown scare had died down in Boston. On May 9, The Globe reported that a clown driving a pickup was stopped by police in Randolph, but was released when they realized he was delivering a "clown-a-gram" to a department store in Canton. No other clowns were arrested because no other clowns, particularly creepy ones, could be found. There was nothing behind all the reports the police had received. 

... police officers in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, Randolph and Canton all said yesterday that their departments had received no calls from adults who claimed to have seen clowns doing anything questionable.  
The police said virtually all reported sightings of clowns originated with children aged 5 to 7. Police could offer no evidence of any child being harassed, molested, injured or kidnapped in the metropolitan area by a person in a clown's get-up. 
No adult (civilian) or police officer has even seen a clown. We've had calls saying there was a clown at a certain intersection and happened to have (police) cars sitting there, and the officers saw nothing. When the officers get there, no one tells them anything. I don't know if someone's got a hoax going or not, but it's really foolhardy." (The Boston Globe, May 9, 1981, p. 15, "Police discount reports of clowns bothering kids")

A May 13 article in The Globe told parents how to talk with their children about 'stranger danger,' noting that 27 children had been murdered in Atlanta. The clown scare may have been a hoax, but the world could indeed be dangerous for young children. 

The Lawrence School in Brookline
That seems to be the end of the 1981 creepy clown scare in Boston, but the phenomenon popped up in other parts of the country later that spring. Author Loren Coleman notes in Mysterious America (2007) that children in Providence, Rhode Island reported scary clowns soon after the Boston clown scare, and by late May children in Kansas and Missouri were reporting the same thing. Children were seeing the clowns in Pennsylvania by June. Once again, Massachusetts was the cradle of innovation, since we brought America its first scary clown panic. I don't think tour guides on the Freedom Trail will be bragging about this one too much.

Coleman thinks that the media helped to spread the panic. Parents read about the clowns in the newspapers or saw it on TV and mentioned them to their children. The children then reported seeing the clowns, which got reported to the media. More parents read about the clowns and told their kids. And so it went. Luckily, unlike the Satanic panic that came a few years later, no innocent people were arrested.

The creepy clown phenomena first appeared in 1981, but has happened several times since then. Many of you might remember the big, nationwide clown scare in 2016. Although no one really knows why America was receptive to the idea of creepy clowns back in 1981, Coleman notes that creepy clowns (or phantom clowns, as he calls them) tend to show up in election years. That was certainly the case in 2016, and I feel like those clowns were just foreshadowing the scary circus we're living through now. Will clowns show up to scare us in time for this year's election? I hope not. We all have enough to worry about already. 

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