The History of the Glasgow Smile

If you’ve ever seen the Batman movies, you’re probably familiar with the Joker’s leering, painted-on grin. It’s a bloody smile that stretches far beyond the corners of his mouth, making it evident that his cheeks have been sliced open from ear to ear. 

What you may not realize, is that this was an actual form of punishment back in early 20th century Scotland. Known as the “Glasgow smile,” it was a part of the gang violence that erupted throughout the city in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Youths roamed the streets with knives looking to retaliate against rivals or anyone else who crossed their path. 

But the history of the Glasgow smile doesn’t end there. It has its roots in the industrial revolution and continues to be used by criminals today. 

The Glasgow smile is a mix of cruelty and creativity. As grim as this history may be, it reveals something about the darker side of human nature and reminds us that sometimes violence can be truly shocking.

Glasgow, circa 1920

Why Glasgow?

During the 1920s and 1930s, Glasgow was overrun by an array of gangs that fought each other viciously for control of the streets.

These gangs formed a complicated patchwork of alliances and rivalries that made a dangerous situation all the more volatile. Gangs fought both with police and with one another. Even residents who wanted nothing to do with the violence were often caught in the crossfire.

This gang violence stretched back to the industrial revolution. Dismal working conditions and squalid housing created slums where desperation and despair were the norms.

A lack of decent jobs and decent living conditions meant that many residents turned to crime to solve their problems. Compounding the situation, the rural population poured into the city throughout the final decades of the 19th century, adding to the already overcrowded neighborhoods.

To make matters worse, many of the newly arrived immigrants from the rural countryside were Irish Catholics, whom the Protestant residents saw as an economic threat.

For years, Scotland had been primarily a Protestant country. The newcomers were viewed with contempt. That animosity only grew in the early decades of the 20th century, causing sectarian discrimination and violence to spread.

An already tense situation became even deadlier in the aftermath of the First World War. The Scottish economy was in a slump and the city’s unemployment hovered between 25 and 33 percent.

Many protestants blamed Irish immigrants for taking their jobs and they didn’t hesitate to lash out at their neighbors. It was in this atmosphere of violence and resentment that the horrifying Glasgow smile was born.

Gang Violence and the Glasgow Smile

The Glasgow smile became a symbol of the gang violence of the interwar period. Rival gang members slashed the hideous mark into one another’s cheeks to send a message to others.

The violence spilled out beyond the gangs themselves and affected regular citizens. If you found yourself in the wrong part of town, or if you crossed the wrong person, you could end up scarred for life.

Avoiding the conflict was more complicated than you might imagine. Gangs were split based on both territorial claims and religious beliefs, creating a complex tapestry of hatred.

The city was divided into areas that were either Protestant or Catholic. Residents knew where they could and couldn’t safely go. Even children internalized sectarianism and identified each other based on their religion.

But the lines were not always so clearly demarcated as many victims found out the hard way.

If you were caught by one of these roaming gangs, you were in for a cruel punishment. Each gang member tended to carry a razor or work knife, which they used to administer the Glasgow smile.

While holding down their victim, they would plunge the knife into the corner of their victim’s mouth and slice as far up to the earlobe. Then they would often repeat the act on the other side.

This left the victim with a scar for life that often resembled a demented grin.

Scottish actor, Tommy Flanagan, with scars from a Glasgow Smile attack

The Glasgow Smile Abroad: The Black Dahlia Murder

Although the Glasgow smile originated in Scotland, it soon spread elsewhere. 

Perhaps one of the most famous cases of the Glasgow smile occurred in Los Angeles in 1947, when a 22-year-old woman’s grisly death made national headlines and transformed her overnight into the “Black Dahlia.”

Elizabeth Short was trying to make it as an actress when she was murdered in January 1947. 

Her corpse, which was found in a park in Los Angeles, was cut in half and had knife marks covering her arms and legs. Her organs had been pulled out and placed underneath her carefully posed body. 

But perhaps the most nightmarish part of the act was the bloody smile slashed across her face from one ear to the other.

The story made national headlines. An attractive young woman was murdered in the most grisly way possible. People took notice. 

Her cut-up face was splashed across newspapers all over the country. But despite the publicity and a nationwide investigation, the killer was never found. 

The mystery of the “Black Dahlia” murder would go down as the most shocking cold case in American history.

Police bulletin distributed by the Los Angeles Police Department regarding victim, Elizabeth Short, aka the “Black Dahlia”

The Glasgow Smile in the 21st Century

As barbaric as the Glasgow smile is, it re-emerges in the news from time to time.

Until recently, Glasgow was the murder capital of Western Europe, with someone receiving a face wound every six hours. This is even though up to two-thirds of injuries went unreported.

Right up until the 21st century, gangs continued to roam the streets. This is very similar to how it was in the 19th century, when gangs fought for control of territory and swept up a generation of teens into their ranks.

Their methods of violence remained similar as well. Beatings, broken teeth, and knife wounds were commonplace for a long time in hospitals around the city.

Although Glasgow has become much safer recently, the Glasgow smile is still the method of choice for some gang members who want to make sure they’re remembered.

It would be nice to think that this grisly act will soon disappear; but judging from its long history, that may not be the case.

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