Ye Olde Poison Candy
In the early years of the twentieth century, as today, children seemed vulnerable. They ate a lot of candy. Bad candy. Penny candies in particular were blamed for endangering children’s health with “adulterants,” non-food ingrediants including such alarming substances as furniture glue, coal tar, and all sorts of chemicals, that were clearly not meant for human consumption.
It was obvious to every one in the 1900s that candy was dangerous. Or was it?
In New York City in 1899, three year old Robert Wilkerson and his five year old sister Lucy fell ill, supposedly as a result of eating poisoned candy. The boy died, but a doctor who examined Lucy “thought the symptoms were more like meningitis than poisoning.”
Two years later, the parents of two children who died blamed “candy, apples and sour milk.” The doctor had a different explaination: “meningitis, resulting from ptomaine poisoning.”
In 1906, the Times reported the announcement of the examining coroner who concluded that the death of a ten year old girl, Christina Klewin, “of what was supposed to be candy poisoning, was a victim of spinal meningitis.”
And in 1914, after New York papers charged that seven year old Willie Oppenland had been killed by poison color adulterants in his candy, an autopsy revealed that he had in fact died of cerebro-spinal meningitis.
The candy industry would spend huge amounts of money trying to combat the notion that there was something unwholesome about candy itself. The National Confectioners Association (NCA), the main candy trade group, was organized in the late 1800s with the primary goal of refuting accusations of candy adulteration and encouraging better manufacturing practices to raise the standards of the trade. Each report of “candy poisoning” was met with aggressive investigation and in most cases, alternative explanations ranging from overeating to deliberate attempts at murder.
So far in my research, I have not encountered a single credible case of illness or death caused by shoddy or criminal candy manufacture. But that didn’t mean candy couldn’t be a killer. Here’s another version of the candy poisoning tale, this one from 1913:
Dying from hailstones he had eaten, thinking them candy, a five-year-old boy Luther Quinn, met with an unfortunate end at South Orange NJ recently. The boy went outdoors after a storm and gathered hailstones. They looked so much like candy that we was tempted to eat them. [He died two days later due to indigestion] caused by the sudden and violent chilling of the hailstones.
Sources: “Two Children Poisoned,” New York Times 24 February 1899; “Another Kruger Child Dead,” New York Times 10 January 1901; “Meningitis, Not Candy Poisoning,” New York Times 9 March 1906; “Poison Candy Charges Fail,” International Confectioner March 1914, p. 42; “Blame it on Candy,” Confectioners Journal May 1913, p. 71.