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ACID Tattoo scare

Why do people persist in believing that children are under threat from psychedelic transfers?

From Fortean Times Magazine


Last year, a pamphlet called Metropolitan Police Neighbourhood Watch (Issue No. 10, February 1991) dropped through my door in Hampstead. The lead story began: "Information has been received from HQ EAOR of a worrying new drug danger to school children which has emerged on the continent. To date it is confined to Holland and Switzerland [..]

"Gifts, in the form of self-adhesive stickers, designed to be stuck to the skin for decoration, are being offered to children of all ages. The stickers are soaked with LSD and strychnine which causes a quick and unpredictable reaction. The aim is ultimate dependency and therefore new customers. The drug is absorbed through the skin, even if only held in the hand.

"The stickers discovered to date are: Bluestar on white back-ground; small card with ROTE PYRAMIDE (Red Pyramid) printed on it; small tokens named 'Window Pane' with motifs to cut out and tiny coloured grains/seeds to swallow.

žIf either you or your children see or are offered any of the above, DO NOT TOUCH, prevent contact to the skin and inform local police. If contact has been made and the following occurs the individual must be taken to hospital immediately: hallucinations, vomiting, headaches and/or fluctuating temperature."

As any informed student of contemporary folklore, chemist or drug squad policeman will tell you, there is not, and never has been, a distribution of LSD 'tattoos'. but two decades or more of official denials seem to have no effect. (The reference to 'dependency' shows that the instigators of this hoax know nothing about LSD anyway: the drug is not addictive.) The story is a bit like a vampire; no matter how many times it is cut down it rises again to scare the pants off another generation of ill- informed parents.

This was not the first police bulletin to help spread the story; a Baltimore police precinct bulletin did it in August 1986. One version of the story had a brain-damaged child dying in a Baltimore hospital after handling the blue stars. In Tacoma around the same time, a police query, apparently a response to the rumour, was worded: "Have you seen any drug-laced tattoos?" This was repeated as: "We have seen many drug-laced tattoos!" That's one way these stories build up steam. (See Curses! Broiled Again! by Jan Harold Brunvand, W.W.Norton & Co. 1989.)

In March 1991, a similar letter was pinned on a notice board at BICC Cables in Wrexham, North Wales. This one was said to have first circulated in Merseyside. One sentence read: "A young child could happen upon these [tattoos] and have a fatal trip." Wrexham drug squad officer DS John Atkinson said: "These are just stupid chain letters that cause nothing but alarm". Evening Leader , (Clwyd and Chester) I Mar 1991.

In July 1991, Detective Inspector Neil Kingman, head of Hampshire drug squad, was busy rubbishing similar leaflets circulating in Portsmouth. The News (Portsmouth) 4 July 1991. A week later, the Yeovil (Somerset) Star (12 July) said a similar letter was being distributed in schools and workplaces in Somerset, with the added detail that the 'tattoos' depicted "brightly coloured cartoon characters such as Bart Simpson and the Turtles characters." The dire symptoms included "uncontrolled laughter and changes in mood". Yeovil police spokesman Paul Hardiman said that the letter was panic material, an "elaborate hoax started in Canada some years ago." (Have you noticed that hoaxes are nearly always 'elaborate'?)


Obviously, the West Midlands police had never heard of the 'elaborate hoax' because they were busy frightening parents in September 1991 with a tattoo warning letter. Additional tattoo images were mentioned: Superman, clowns, butterflies and Mickey Mouse. "Each one is box wrapped in foil" the parents were told. A facsimile of the letter to Grestone junior School in Birmingham, dated 10 September 1991, is reproduced in FLS News (The newsletter of the Folklore Society) No.14, jan 1992.

Despite the earlier denials in March, LSD transfer scare letters were again circulating in Wrexham in November. This time they purported to come from the Welsh Office, and the chief environmental officer of Wrexham Maelor Borough Council did the rumour-trashing. Evening Leader 13 Nov 1991.

The fear spread to France in December. A much-photocopied leaflet, apparently bearing a French police stamp, turned up in offices and schools. The drugs, it stated, were "probably already circulating in Switzerland and will rapidly invade the rest of Europe." A spokesman for the narcotics department of the French Interior Ministry asserted that the hoax surfaced in Western Europe a few years ago. Int. Herald Tribune 19 Dec 1991.


A poster warning parents about LSD transfers was given to a sub post office in Gunard, Isle of Wight, in March 1992. A spokesman for South West Surrey Health Authority, whose name was printed at the foot of the poster, said the posters were bogus. "We have been receiving calls from all over the country where these posters are appearing", he said. Isle of Wight County Press 3 April 1992.

The Blue Star acid transfer story was long discredited when it reappeared in a big way across America in 1986. In Newsweek (24 November 1986), reporters investigated rumours of LSD microdots, resembling blue stars, in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, Kansas and Nebraska, and concluded that some may have existed" around 1971. By the end of 1987, the scare letters had been circulated coast to coast in the USA and Canada.

The folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand studied the acid transfer legend in 1981, calling it "Mickey Mouse acid" because this character was most often named in the warnings. I remember seeing tiny squares of LSD-impregnated cellulose with a picture of Mickey Mouse back in 1969, but they weren't skin transfers.

A 1980 New Jersey police bulletin did warn: "Children may be susceptible to this type of cartoon stamp believing it a cartoon transfer"; but there is no evidence that actual cartoon 'tattoos' have ever circulated.

LSD call, of course, be ingested through the skin if the amounts are large enough. The police dismantling the Hampton Wick 'acid factory' in the London suburbs a week after the massive 'Operation Julie' bust in March 1977 had been warned by the chemist that a carpet was saturated with LSD after a mishap where enough acid for 150,000 trips had been spilt. Three policemen took insufficient precautions and soon afterwards headed for outer (inner?) space after handling the carpet and other items. After some hilarity down the pub, they became confused and had themselves arrested and carted off to Kingston Hospital. Leaf Fielding gives a colourful account of the police-men's trip in City Limits (1-7 Nov 1985). A string debunking newspaper articles in the American press a few years seemingly had little effect: "Tattoo Tripped Up (Chicago Sun-Times 20 May 1987); "Only a Folk Tale" (Dubuque Telegraph-Herald October 1987); "No Cause for Alarm" (Washington Post 2 June 1988). No drug enforcement agency has ever seen an LSE transfer; but the "stupid chain letters" carry on to eternity.

This page was taken from issue 63 of the "Fortean Times".