Did you have much of a mess to clean up after Halloween? Any smashed pumpkins on the porch? Toilet paper festooning the tree? My neighborhood seemed mostly filled with little cuties in costumes, but later on, the mischief makers will have their way…
Our mess is quite mild compared with what people would put up with some hundred years ago. Around 1900, Halloween was a big night for parties and festivities for the genteel crowd. But for older boys, Halloween was a prankster’s dream.
A writer describing Halloween in 1895 gave a picture of the sorts of fun you might be having at a party:
In-doors they ’bobbed’ for apples, poked their noses in cups of flour, and walked down the cellar stairs at the witching hour of midnight, glancing over thier left shoulders into a mirror, to see the faces of their future helpmates.
But if you weren’t at a nice party, you were probably out and about getting into mischief:
Country boys and those in small towns reveled in throwing corn, cabbage heads, and decayed vegetables at the windows and doors of all good residents. The ubiquitous tick-tack was set up at many an old maid’s or crusty bachelor’s window and worked from a safe distance by the mischievous small boy.
Rotten pumpkins and even the “ubiquitous tick-tack” (whatever that was) were pretty straightforward. But pranks could be quite elaborate.
Residents at a teachers’ boarding house in Long Island woke up the morning after Halloween in 1900 to find their house surrounded by what appeared to be a graveyard. Their screams of horror turned to laughter as they realized they must have been the target of a Halloween prank. Tombstones had been mysteriously transported during the night from a nearby marble yard. The owner of the marble yard, who spent the day carting the stones back to their rightful place, was not so amused.
The Warden of Sing Sing prison had a scare on Halloween night 1915 when reports arrived of an escaped prisoner on the loose. Within minutes, guards captured Louis Minker, 18 years old. Minker pleaded for lenience, claiming that he was only intending to celebrate Halloween. He had found the cast off prison garb, and thought it would make an appropriate costume. The Warden threatened to throw him in a cell in retribution, but the judge let him off with a stern talking-to.
Sometimes, the fun could go sour. In 1905, ten boys were fined for soaping the trolley rails on the steepest hill in Greenwich, Connecticut, causing several cars to careen down the hill and dump their passengers. The newspaper reporter seemed sympathetic to the boys’ prank, noting in the report that they “thought it a great joke” and had “only considered the fun.” The Judge, too, took a lenient view, telling the boys “if the offense had happened on any other night but Hallowe’en he would have sent them to jail.”
In those days Americans generally accepted the notion that for one night a year, such pranks could be forgiven. But even the most lenient attitude toward boyish pranks could not forestall the occasional tragedy. William Copeland of Ann Arbor, Michigan opened fire with his shotgun when a party of boys came to rattle his fence on Halloween 1904. One boy was hit, and the police began proceedings to prosecute. Copeland was so distraught at the course of events that he ate poison, taking his own life.
Sources: All New York Times: “Halloween Fun and Mischief,” 1 Nov. 1985; “Gruesome Halloween Joke,” 2 Nov. 1900; “Masked in Sing Sing Suit,” 31 Oct. 1915; “Soaped the Trolley Tracks,” 3 Nov. 1905; “Suicide After Halloween,” 3 Nov. 1904.