Have you ever wondered why we started to dress children in costumes and send them door-to-door at night to do the one thing we’ve told them never to do: take candy from strangers? Where did that tradition come from? And should we be worried about Halloween candy tampering? Read on to find out!
History of Halloween
Trick or treating only became popular in the 1900s in North America, but this popular tradition can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in).
The Samhain festival is believed to be the earliest rendition of Halloween. Some of the Samhain traditions included people dressing up as the souls of the dead and impersonating them to receive offerings of food and drink on their behalf (clever).
It was around the 16th century in Scotland where costumes began to enter the picture. Youth would get into mischief by going house to house with masks or painted faces and reciting rhymes. By 1895 in Scotland, people would visit homes in costumes carrying a scooped-out turnip asking for cakes, fruit, and money.
Photo by The Irish Times
By the 1800s North America had a growing population of Irish settlers. The earliest reference to Halloween in Canada comes from Kingston Ontario in 1911 when a newspaper reported children “guising” from house to house. and the earliest reference to the phrase “trick or treat” appears in 1927 in Blackie, Alberta! Two amazing claims to fame for Canada (not to mention poutine and insulin).
In the early 1900s, the “trick” part of “trick or treat” was much more prominent. Youth, especially boys would engage in light pranking, targeting mailboxes, fences, and even gravestones! The popularity of trick or treating spread through North America with a brief pause during WWII due to sugar rationing. In an attempt to save resources for war efforts, Halloween parades and celebrations were cancelled and trick or treating was discouraged. During these hard years, children would sometimes still go door to door and people would give what they could, but it was far from the pillowcases of candy and chocolate that we know today. It's not surprising that after the wars, that’s when candy and trick-or-treating really took off and it’s been increasing in popularity ever since.
How Did Candy Become The Star of Halloween?
A report from the National Confectioners Association in 2005 indicates that 80% of adults in the US give out Halloween candy, and 93% of children and teenagers intend to either trick or treat or enjoy a Halloween-related activity. Candy definitely shines as the star of Halloween!
In the 1950s, candy makers and chocolatiers decided to take advantage of the Halloween market. They began making small, individually-packaged, inexpensive candies that were easy to buy and distribute. Before this, you could get away with apples and cupcakes, but by the 1970s this wasn’t socially acceptable anymore. Why? Stranger danger.
Halloween Candy Tampering
Every year after Halloween, news reports of Halloween candy being tampered with leaves parents dumping out their kid's candy and sifting through it to check for razor blades and signs of tampering. Where did these fears come from? Is candy tampering something that parents should really be worried about? Based on our research - no.
Real Cases of Halloween Candy Tampering
Starting in 1959, a dentist named William Shyne handed out laxatives instead of candy. 30 children became ill with gastrointestinal issues, but thankfully none suffered any long-term damage. Shyne was charged and this was the first case of Halloween “stranger danger” ever recorded.
In 1964, the next case of candy crime was by a housewife named Helen Pfeil. She handed out candy buttons full of arsenic steel wool cleaning pads as well as dog treats disguised as candy to children she deemed “too old" to be trick or treating. Thankfully no children were injured.
There, unfortunately, have been cases of child death due to candy tampering.
The first case was in 1970, in Detroit when a 5-year old boy named Kevin Toston became seriously ill after eating some Halloween candy. Police began investigating what seemed like a case of candy tampering. Kevin passed away a few days later and the cause of death was actually determined to be a heroin overdose. After an investigation, it was concluded that Kevin had actually swallowed a heroin capsule from his uncle’s stash. When the family heard that the uncle may be found guilty of criminal neglect, they sprinkled the candy with more heroin to throw the police off.
One of the most famous cases of candy tampering leading to child death is the story of Timothy O’Bryen. In 1974 in Pasadena Texas, Timothy went trick or treating with his sister and friends. As they were going through the neighbourhood, they stopped at one house that seemed empty. Timothy’s dad told them to go ahead and he waited to see if the homeowner would come to the door. He later caught up to the group of children with a handful of Pixi sticks for the children. Timothy ate one of the Pixi sticks and allegedly claimed it was bitter. His dad got him a drink to wash it down. Timothy began vomiting almost immediately and was dead upon arrival to the hospital.
The Pixi sticks were analyzed and found that the top 2 inches of each straw were filled with cyanide crystals.
After Timothy’s death police tracked down the homeowner, Courtney Melvin. However, Melvin had an airtight alibi as he worked at the nearby airport and had 200 people who could prove that he was working until 11 pm that night. Detectives then turned to look into Timothy’s dad, Ronald. Why had he been so persistent at that empty home? Turns out, Ronald was in a tremendous amount of debt and had recently sold his family's home. A month before Halloween, Ronald purchased $20,000 life insurance policies on each of his children. Hours after his son’s death, he made a call to collect the policy (red flag). A few months earlier he had also made a call to a friend who worked at a chemical company to inquire about what constitutes a fatal dose of cyanide. He had also recently bought 5 lbs of cyanide (HUGE red flag). Ronald was charged with murdering his son.
Should We Be Scared to Let Our Children Trick or Treat?
In Canada, between 2008 and 2019, there were only 4 reports of suspected tamperings made to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, but no illnesses or deaths were reported.
So has anyone died of Halloween candy tampering at the hands of a stranger? Doesn't seem like it. The initial stories make for scandalous headlines and get a lot of public attention, but the retractions of these stories attract much less buzz. This allows the fear to persist, despite the fact that most of these claims are unfounded.
For more details (and great storytelling), check out Episode 001 of Dietetics After Dark, Trick or Truth.
Disclaimer: The information in this podcast and blog post is for entertainment and educational purposes only. If you’re interested in medical nutrition therapy or personalized nutrition advice, please talk to a doctor or registered dietitian in your area. This podcast may contain coarse language, mature subject matter and content of a violent or disturbing nature. Listener discretion is advised.