Sarah takes us through the history of Halloween and all of its spooky traditions, including trick-or-treating, costumes, pagan rituals, and more! She also investigates the origins of our favourite fun-sized candies. Becca then looks at some instances of Halloween candy tampering and the research behind the topic of Halloween sadism in North America. She discusses cyanide poisoning, misreporting by the media, and what parents should really be concerned about on Hallows’ Eve.
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S: Welcome to Dietetics After Dark - your source for food-related crime, scandal, and fraud.
S: Welcome everyone, I’m Sarah...
R: ...and I’m Rebecca. We have a super spooky episode for you today! But first, how are you feeling Sarah?
Ok - back to today’s topic. It involves candy, children and poison - do you have any guesses?
S: Oh, I’ve got guesses! Especially with Halloween coming up, and considering you asked me to research the history of trick or treating to get us started, I’d wager a guess that you’re going to tell me all about some halloween candy tampering? Some terrible cases of children getting poisoned or razor bladed?
R: You’re on the right track but there’s so much more to it! For everyone listening, we are going to start today’s episode off with Sarah giving us a background on the tradition of Halloween, then I will get into the nitty gritty of this topic.
Before we dive in though, I want everyone to know that all the citations and relevant links for anything mentioned in this episode will be in the episode description and in our show notes at thenutritionjunky.com (that’s junky with a “Y”). Also, the information in this podcast 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.
Sarah - take it away!
S: Okay, so Becca asked me to dive into the research and figure out: When the heck we started dressing up our children in costume and sending them door to door at night to do the one thing we’ve told them NEVER to do: take candy from strangers? It’s definitely a weird BUT wonderful tradition with questionable safety but I absolutely LOVED Halloween as a kid.
Did you love it? What was your favourite halloween costume growing up?!
Choosing a costume as a kid was a full month-long affair, ugh that moment when you think of the perfect costume that’s you just know is the one!
S: Okay - so Halloween, in modern day Canada, in a non-COVID-19 year, but a typical looks like this: October 31, kids <12 dress up in full costume (superheroes, princesses, lots of Anna’s and Elsa’s, whatever! etc) and hit the streets around sunset (6:00 pm), and it’s usually pretty cold, sometimes it’s even snowing already. So that’s another thing, your costume usually had to be big enough to fit a winter coat under. Younger kids go door to door with parents, older kids usually roll together as a pack, and there is this unspoken rule that once you hit your teens, shouldn’t go trick or treating. So it’s a lot of fun for the kids, BUT this is not how it’s always been! Trick or Treating, as we know and love it, actually only became popular in North America in the 1900s, with the earliest North American records dating back to 1911 in Ontario, Canada (Yep! More on that later!). All of my information sources are linked in the show notes, but I wanted to give a special shoutout to a book called “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night” by Nicholas Rogers - I got so much information from this book, so if you’re looking for a thick read all about Halloween, check it out!
Some historians trace trick or treating back to ancient Rome to something called the feast of Pamona, who was the Goddess of Fruit and Seeds, but most sources link Halloween and the more modern trick-or-treating customs to the Celtic festival of Sow-in (which, if I was to pronounce it phonetically I would want to say Samhain, but it’s pronounced Sowin) which celebrates the summer’s end and welcomes the dark nights ahead and this occurs around the end of Oct/early november. This is a super spooky quote from that book I mentioned from Nicholas Rogers: “It was a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad, spilling over from the sidh (shay), the ancient mounds or burrows of the countryside.” So very spooky origins. We’ve got darkness, we’ve got decay, and we’ve got super natural intensity - sounds pretty Halloweeny.
The Sowin festival is said to have pre-Christian roots, but in the 19th century the catholic church made November 1 All Saints Day, which honors all saints of the church that have attained heaven and which had the same spooky vibes as Sowin, and it’s believed that the first trick-or-treating evolved from an All Saint’s Day tradition where people would impersonate the souls of the dead and receive offerings of food and drink on their behalf.
It’s interesting, we think of Halloween as this pagan holiday, but it’s actually got significant Christian roots, There is a christian tradition in 15th century Britain called Allhallowtide which spanned October 31-Nov 2, in which people would go house to house and collect soul-cakes and this practice was called “souling”. So that’s starting to sound a little more like the Halloween we know today.
Costumes begin to enter the picture around 16th century Scotland where we see youths starting to go house to house with masked or painted faces, reciting rhymes, and often threatening to do mischief! Honestly, I can’t think of anything more terrifying than a band of 16th century scottish youths reciting rhymes at me. What do you think mischief was in the 16th century? Pulling up all their potatoes before they were ready? Milking their cow and stealing the milk?
This practice gets a little more contemporary by 1895 in Scotland when people in costume visited homes carrying scooped out turnips and asking for cakes, fruit, and money! Money is a bold ask. Especially in 1895 Scotland. Wouldn’t money be like.. Gold coins?
*Fact Check: In 1707, Scotland and Britain were united into one kingdom and this included a monetary union, so the pound Scots that were being used in Scotland were replaced by the pound sterling, which is still used today, and often just referred to as “the pound”*.
I love this idea of old-timey teens going around collecting cakes and fruit into a scooped-out turnip. I can just imagine, every Scottish youth ate the cakes right away and then had a rotting pile of fruit and turnip under their bed 2 weeks later.
Okay so this is where things get fun: by the 1800s, Canada has a growing population of settlers from Ireland and Scotland, and the earliest reference to Halloween in NA 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!
How fun is that - we got insulin, poutine, and the phrase “trick or treat”.
So the popularity of trick or treating spread throughout the United States and Canada, with a brief pause during WWII due to sugar rationing and just saving resources for war efforts, so parades and celebrations were cancelled, trick or treating was discouraged, and kids would sometimes still go door to door, people gave what they could, but after the war, in the 1950’s, that’s when candy and trick or treating really took off and it’s been increasing in popularity ever since.
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. So clearly, Halloween is still a popular tradition.
So now lets get to the goods, when did Candy enter the picture? Halloween has come a long way from scooped-out turnips filled with fruit and cakes. When I was a kid we would use our pillow cases and honestly we’d nearly fill them, so much candy! In the early 1900s the “trick” part of trick or treat actually used to be much more prominent; youths (mostly boys) would engage in light pranking, targeting mailboxes, fences, and gravestones. You could not pay me enough money to prank a gravestone!
In the 1950s, candy makers decided this was their time to shine. The way was over, trick or treating was back in fashion, and they began making smaller, individually packaged inexpensive candies that were easy to buy and distribute, and by the 1970s, these individually wrapped candies were seen as the only legitimate treat to distribute to trick or treaters. Before that you could kind of get away with apples and cupcakes and things like that, but it wasn’t socially acceptable anymore by the 70s which I’m sure Becca will tell us all about.
I still remember the house in my neighbourhood that gave out toothbrushes though. And I also more fondly remember the house that gave out FULL SIZE Oh Henry’s! Okay, so to wrap this up, I wanted to give the history of some of the most popular halloween treats! This is all from history.com, and it sounds like a story I would have written when I was like … 8.
So Milton Hershey made the first Hershey’s milk chocolate bar in 1900 and the first Hershey’s kisses in 1907, and he was really a pioneer in the mass-production of chocolate (a hero, some might say), chocolate had previously been super luxurious and now it was available to average Americans. In 1917, Harry Reese joined the Hershey’s chocolate factory and was so inspired by what he saw that he began experimenting with chocolate creations in his own basement and this is where the Reese’s peanut butter cup was born in 1928. Visionaries!!! Meanwhile, in 1923, this is an astounding period of innovation, Frank Mars is a struggling Minnesotan candy-maker when he creates the Milky Way, followed by the Snickers bar, then the 3 Musketeers, then the Mars bar, and finally, M&Ms. How wild is that? Thank you, Frank Mars!!!
Candy corn was actually invented in the 1880s. Not much else to report there, other than that candy corn is the best. And finally- the worst candy of all time- Rockets. Or as American’s call them, Smarties. Let’s talk about this for a second. There actually used to be a Rocket candy factory on King West in Toronto and those are the Candy Factory Lofts today! Canada calls Rockets Rockets so that they are not confused with Nestle’s Smarties, which are colourful candy-coated chocolates that cannot be sold in the United States because of the other kind of Smarties aka Rockets (aka. The chalkiest, worst candy of all time).
R: Halloween candy tampering, or halloween sadism has been a controversial topic since the 1950’s. The term halloween sadism includes any tampering of halloween candy that would result in harm - so the poisoning or weaponizing of candy with things like needles or razor blades. As the legend has it, there are multiple strangers looking to poison children every year.
Dressing up and trick or treating is something that is done mainly in North America - specifically the US and Canada.
While halloween sadism is something that I have definitely heard of as a kid living in Canada, it is by no means as hot of a topic as it is in the US. This time every year there are newspaper articles and segments warning parents about their children’s halloween candy. To show you the extent of the fear mongering around this topic I pulled some headlines for you.
Like this one by the International Business Times titled: Halloween Candy Gone Wrong: 4 Dangerous Goodie Bag Treats. In this article they claim that meth, edibles, rods and thumbtacks are things to look out for in your children’s treat bags.
Or this one written for the New York Times titled: Those treats may be tricks. In this article, they discuss numerous unconfirmed instances of poisonings and sharp objects put in candy wrappers.
This leads us to what we will be doing today: we will do a deep dive into the cases that made halloween candy tampering the seeming issue that it is, then we’ll look at the research to uncover whether or not parents should be concerned about their children’s candy.
To start, there are a few instances that have lead to the creation of the term halloween sadism and the fear that surrounds it. And as I mentioned these begin in the 1950’s.
It is said that the birth of halloween sadism occurred in 1959, when a dentist by the name of William Shyne handed out laxatives instead of candy. About 30 children became ill (laxative ill), but luckily no one suffered any long-term damage. Regardless, he was charged with “outrage of public decency” and “unlawful dispensing of drugs.” That is the first case of halloween “stranger danger” ever recorded.
Only a few years later, on halloween in 1964, a Long Island housewife by the name of Helen Pfeil began handing out ant buttons full of arsenic, steel wool cleaning pads (like those SOS pads you clean your sink with) and wrapped dog treats to children she deemed “too old” to be trick or treating. She was sent to a hospital for observation - as one would do when a woman was behaving “hysterical” in the 1960’s - and was given a misdemeanor charge for having “endangered the health and life of a child”.
So, nothing actually happened in either of these incidences - they were moreso the founding fathers/mothers of this fear. However, there have, unfortunately, been a few deaths associated with Halloween candy.
In 1970, in Detroit Michigan, a 5 year old by the name of Kevin Toston became seriously ill after consuming some Halloween candy. He died a few days later in what ended up being a heroin overdose. Upon their initial investigation, the police found heroin sprinkled over Kevin’s candy. But it didn’t really make sense that all of his candy was laced with heroin. So after further testing, they concluded that Kevin had actually swallowed a heroin capsule and that the capsule had come 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. I spent too much time trying to find out what the uncle was charged with, but I couldn’t find a single source of anything online. Which goes to show that the media seemingly lost interest when they realized that the story no longer fit their narrative.
Now this next story is super tragic but it is also the most famous. In 1974, in Pasadena, Texas Timothy O’Brien, who was 8 years old at the time, and his sister Elizabeth, who was 5, went trick or treating with their father, Ronald O’Brian. A friend and their father, Jim Bates also joined them. While making their way through the neighbourhood, they stopped at one house where no one was coming to the door. While the kids and Jim continued to the next house, Ronald hung back to see if the homeowner would come to the door. When he caught up with the group, he had a handful of pixy stix and distributed them to the children. When they got home Timothy asked his father if he could have some candy and picked the pixy stick to have. Upon tasting it, he claimed it was bitter, so Ronald got him a beverage to wash it down with. Timothy began vomiting almost immediately and was dead upon arrival to the hospital.
Four other pixy sticks were found in the neighbourhood - one child had actually fallen asleep with the candy in their hand, after being unable to open it. They brought them in for analysis where they found that the top 2 inches of each straw was filled with cyanide crystals.
Now, I want to take a minute to explain what cyanide is. In popular culture, it is often what spy’s or secret agents have placed in the back of their mouths in case they are captured.
It contains a carbon atom that is triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom. The chemical is claimed to have a “bitter almond” taste and smell and synthetically comes in either a gas or crystal form. You can also find small amounts of cyanide naturally in some things. So cigarette smoke, but also the pits and seeds of fruit which contain small amounts of this stuff in the form of cyanogenic (glai-kuh-side) glycoside. If consumed or inhaled, the natural plant toxin transforms into hydrogen cyanide - which is poisonous to humans; but also animals. Which is how I initially learned about this - you’re not suppose to give your pets pits or seeds as the concentration of cyanide will be much higher in their small bodies. Obviously, small amounts of this in humans is okay, as it would take multiple seeds or pits to cause any harm. However, in 2017, a UK man named Matthew Creme cracked open a cherry pit and tasted the inside claiming it was similar to an almond. He ate 2 more cracked pits and was rushed to the hospital with cyanide poisoning. Swallowing the pits whole does not have the same effect; but consuming the interior can result in death.
The synthetic form of cyanide is most hazardous as a gas, but also has lethal effects as a crystal. The reason it is so lethal is that it stops the body’s cells from being able to use oxygen. The heart and brain are usually the most affected. So you can see how this would be a recipe for disaster.
Anyways, back to the story. I thought that was interesting so I figured I would share. Days after the death of Timothy, his father Ronald helped police retrace their steps. He pointed out the home that they had gone to that was seemingly vacant on Halloween. This home was owned by a man named 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 11pm that night.
Following this deadend, detectives began looking into Ronald. It turned out that he was in a tremendous amount of debt and had recently sold their family 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 but was unable to do so so soon after. 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.
So Sarah, who do you think did it? Case closed.
He never admitted guilt, but it only took a jury only 1-hour of deliberations to convict him. On March 31st, 1984 he was sentenced to death by lethal injection, which is stilll used as a capital punishment in Texas today. His wife, Daynene, left him and he never saw his daughter again. The wife actually claims that before halloween that year, Ronald had booked an appointment to buy a life insurance policy for her, but that the premiums were too expensive. So she believes that she was the intended victim.
Daynene never cashed in the life insurance policy for Timothy claiming that it was “blood money”. While Robert was dubbed the “Candyman Killer”, his ex-wife had some less flattering ways to describe him. She went on record saying “he is perverted”.
For year after these incidences, many hospitals offered to x-ray halloween candy; however, this practice is a bit impractical as you can’t detect poison or drugs with with an x-ray, so, not only is it super expensive, but it may offer a false sense of security. Now, I don’t remember any hospitals in my hometown doing this, did they do this in the Sault?
I am going to tell you one more story before we get into the cold hard stats. This one from Canada, in Vancouver. In 2001, a 4 year old girl by the name of Tiffaney Troung also died after eating some Halloween candy. This incident made news headlines and parents were advised by police to throw out all Halloween candy. However, after more investigation, it was found that this poor girl had contracted a streptococcal infection and had died of sepsis. Streptococcus leads to infections ranging from strep throat to Necrotizing fasciitis or flesh-eating disease.
I am sharing this one last, since this is one instance where the news properly covered the retraction and true story.
But also MOST of the stories that I came across were more so similar to this one than to the stories of Timothy O’Brien or even that of Kevin Toston. Some other instances of death included heart failure, drug overdoses or allergies that coincidentally occured around Halloween night. While there are MANY reports of Halloween candy tampering, MOST of them are isolated events and very very few have resulted in death. Most have also been reported to be false, where children have tampered their own candy as a joke or to get attention. There was even one incident in 2018 where a man in Oakdale, California was arrested after falsely reporting metal objects in his childrens’ candy. After further investigation, they found that the objects had the father’s DNA on them.
In Canada, between 2008 and 2019 - so last Halloween - there were only 4 reports of suspected tamperings made to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But no illnesses or deaths were reported.
There are a lot more reports in the US. And there is a researcher and criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware who has dedicated some of his work to things like halloween sadism. This guy is amazing - on his website, which is joelbest.net, he has a photo of himself popping out of a large chocolate bar. We will definitely be reaching out to him for an interview next Halloween.
The research shows that there has only been 102 reported cases of halloween sadism between the years of 1958 to 2012. Best states that he has “been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating”.
Of the reported cases, the highest peaks over the years occurred in 1970, 1971 and 1982. Best claims that these peaks often occur years when there are public health scares. Do you know what happened in 1982, specifically in Chicago? They had the Tylenol poisoning murders. In September and October of that year 7 people died after taking what they thought was Tylenol, but that was actually capsules of potassium cyanide. The culprit was never caught; but the incidences lead to new anti-tampering laws and the implementation of that peel-back lining on pill bottles. But obviously it caused a lot of fear in communities throughout the US as they didn’t know whether the cases were specific to Chicago.
So to answer this episode’s looming question - has anyone died of halloween candy tampering at the hands of a stranger - it doesn’t sound like it. And while crime rates do tend to go up on devil’s night, the issue of halloween sadism seems to be taken out of control with media reporting. The initial stories make the headlines, BUT the retractions or follow-up disclosing that there was no association found between the candy and injury are either not published, or are not spread quite like the articles promoting the initial fear.
A study conducted by MIT researchers found that fake news spreads 10-20 times more quickly than real news on Twitter and that fake news is 70% more likely to be shared than real stories. So reporting is definitely part of the problem.
While candy may not be the real harm to children on Halloween, the actual danger seems to be something we deem far less scary - cars. A 2019 study found that the risk of a pedestrian being hit by a car was 43% higher on Halloween when compared to control evenings. So wear bright colours or reflective gear, and look both ways to have a safer halloween this year. Oh and wear your masks!
S: Sneak peak for next week: Okay Becca, you walk into Subway. What do you order?
R: Thanks for listening to this episode of Dietetics After Dark. You can find all the references and materials used to put this podcast together in our show notes at thenutritionjunky.com/dieteticsafterdark.
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