For nearly 200 years, American newspapers have chronicled the evolution of the eve of All Saints Day from religious observance into night of devilish doings. Articles brim with accounts of prayers and prognostications, banshees and bar hopping, parties and property damage, tasty confections and rumors of hidden pins, poison and razor blades. Depending on perspective, the darkening days of late autumn represent either a time of fear and dread or a chance for fun and frivolity.
Halloween’s transformation over the years can be tracked in America’s Historical Newspapers
from the early nineteenth century up to the present. Early references to the day, including articles from 1823 that mention Robert Burns’ 1785 poem “Halloween,” describe the use of spells and incantations by single young men and women to foretell the name of a future spouse.
Among Halloween traditions originating in Scotland and Ireland, most common was the practice of wandering with eyes closed into the vegetable patch at night to pull the first stalk of kale or cabbage that comes to hand. One article explains that the vegetable “being big or little, straight or crooked, is prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their spells – the husband or wife. If any earth stick to the root, this is a fortune
; and the taste of the heart of the stem, is indicative of the natural temper and disposition.”
Connections between Halloween and cabbages began with prophetic rites and grew into an excuse for recklessness. Often gangs of boys would pelt the doors of homes with cabbages and eggs, preferably rotten ones.
These pranks and strikes of vandalism escalated during the 19th century, until tricks turned bad resulted in serious financial losses, accidents and even deaths. Judging by the number of articles about such mishaps, it appears that police nationwide had a busy time of it every evening toward the end of October.
In 1894 a tidbit in the Philadelphia Inquirer
describes an incident in Bangor, Pennsylvania: “Wednesday night boys broke into Flory & Miller’s storehouse and stole 500 pounds of flour to celebrate Halloween. Twenty warrants have been issued.”
In November 1900 several papers, including Michigan’s Jackson Citizen
, carried this sensational article, date lined Rochester, New York: “Skeleton Attached To Wire Frightened Woman To Death. Halloween Jokers Played A Trick On A New York Woman. Dropped Skeleton from a Tree While Women Were Retuning from a Party – Efforts Made to Find the Guilty Party.”
A 1917 report from Michigan’s Kalamazoo Gazette
dramatically announced: “Vandalism Stalks Through City in Hallowe’en Guise.” Apparently, the rise of the automobile gave pranksters a new target. “Parts of cars were found hanging on telephone poles and the owners have not yet been identified.” The article’s writer notes, “The police say the night was more strongly observed than those of other years.”
That same year Arkansas’ Jonesboro Daily Tribune
pronounced the successes of local police in containing such behavior: “Halloween Pranks Nipped In Bud By Strong Arm Of Law.” Twenty young boys were apprehended on a vandalism spree and “marched to the jail, but there they begged not to be confined, agreeing that they would do anything to make reparations for their wrongs if they were not locked up. Finally the officers let them go home on a promise they would clean up the streets this morning.” All the miscreants did appear, and “worked hard clearing up what they had done.”
In addition to continuing reports of disorderly Halloween conduct through decades of the 20th century, American newspapers also recounted fun-filled parties and entertainments. Churches, social groups and other town residents picked up the celebration spirit, as adults used the occasion for fun and fundraising with parties and dances. In 1903 alone, a search of the term “Halloween dance” yields notices ranging from Tucson, Arizona and Biloxi, Mississippi to Olympia, Washington and Juneau, Alaska.
The familiar custom of trick-or-treat blossomed in the 1930s, prompting an impassioned Oregonian
column by Marian Miller in Portland. Its headline states: “Halloween Jollity Within Reason Need. Parents Urged to Curb Wild Pranks of Youngsters. Day of Hoodlum Past.”
The term “trick or treat” fills seasonal newspaper advertisements for candy, plastic pumpkins, costumes and decorations. Around 1953, two changes are reflected in Halloween news.
Children took up the cause of supporting UNICEF by collecting change instead of candy to help the United Nations Children’s Fund. In the following article, Massachusetts’ Springfield Sunday Republican
reports on the local promotion of the movement in its early days.
Also in 1953 reports began of candy or apples tainted with poison, pins and razor blades. Fear intensified across the country, and hospitals invited children to bring their goodies in for x-ray examination. Parents frequently forbade the eating of anything until each “treat” could be examined in the light of the kitchen table. This practice continued for decades, as seen in this 1983 article from the Seattle Times:
Despite numerous accounts of negative deeds reported over the years, most Americans recall the holiday as an exciting time when the worst of their experiences was going to bed with a tummy too full of candy.
Happy Halloween to all!