A Sinister History of Halloween Pranks

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Teenage riots, major property damage, and how Halloween nearly became "National Youth Honor Day"

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In Omaha, by 1923, Halloween had become one of the most dangerous -- and feared -- nights of the year. The city's bad boys caused havoc in the streets, damaging property and terrorizing their neighbors.

The city's police commissioner came up with a solution: he would recruit 500 of the city's "worst boys" to serve as "special policemen" on Halloween, turning over to each a badge and a beat. "The boy police," reported the New York Times, "will not have the power to make arrests, but will report to the regular officers."

This psychologically deft strategy of turning petty criminals into miniature cops worked, at least according to the item's anonymous author, who wrote, "Every boy in the city wants to qualify." The commissioner suspected that his plan would nearly eliminate mischief on the holiday.

Mischief comes from the Middle English word meschief, or "misfortune," which itself derives from the Old French meschever, "to end up badly." In the U.S., mischief has a legal definition, even today. "Criminal mischief" includes true vandalism -- that is, the defacement or destruction of property -- but also fully reversible pranks, like toilet-papering a house. In some states, it covers even vanishingly minor annoyances, like ding-dong-ditch. (At the other end of that spectrum, many states define "criminal mischief in the first degree" as the destruction of property with explosives.)

In North America, by the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween had mostly become a celebration of mischief in all its forms, but it retained its early, otherworldly tones. According to most sources, the holiday emerged out of the Celtic feast of Samhain, a pagan Day of the Dead -- the day of the year when the boundary between the spirit world and the world of the living is most flexible. In the U.S., it developed into a pidgin holiday. (As the landscape historian John Stilgoe has written, jack-o-lanterns, for instance, first came to this country as part of an English rural ritual called "perambulation," the yearly policing of land boundaries.) Many adults tolerated pranks because they represented the spiritual origins of the holiday -- they were supposed to be perpetrated by mischievous sprites or goblins, who played tricks and then disappeared.

In one case of vandalism reported in 1948, three boys broke into a vacant summer home on Long Island. Once inside, they managed to do $10,000 worth of damage -- nearly $100,000 in today's dollars. "The furnishings" damaged in their assault on the home, according to the Times, "included imported rugs, oil paintings, statuary, medieval spears and swords and a collection of autographed photographs of prominent persons of the operatic stage." 

The house's apparently kindhearted owner -- a well-regarded ear, nose, and throat doctor (hence the autographed photos of opera stars) -- asked that they be fined only $500 ($5,000 today) in damages. The settlement specified that the boys work until they had made enough money to pay off the debt themselves.

In some towns, Halloween extended into a week's worth or more of misrung doorbells, spooky, far-off lights, and vanished kitchen implements. Reported the Times:

There is, for instance, the night called "moving night," in which household objects, partitions, gates, shutters and sundry other items are transferred from their original places to foreign parts. Elders keep a sharp vigilance over their property; yet the next morning finds the need of a clearing house for the return of "mislaid" objects. Then there is the night called "door-bell night" when boys go about sticking pins in door-bells, thus locking the bells and causing prolonged ringing.

The merely spooky, however, could quickly turn sinister. In some places, children rioted on Halloween. In 1945, near Kew Beach in Toronto, for reasons unknown, a group of high schoolers started bonfires on a main thoroughfare, fueling them with gasoline and bits of fencing. Mounted police arrived; instead of turning and running, the students threw rocks at them, and set up barricades to prevent firetrucks from entering the street and putting out the bonfires. When police finally arrested and booked 13 of the rioters, a mob of 7,000 young people -- boys and girls -- gathered and marched down to central booking to free them. It took tear gas and water canons to disperse the crowd, and bail for the ringleaders of the Kew Beach incident was set at $1,000 (about $10,000 today). Most of them spent several weeks in jail.

In other cities and towns, Halloween took on undertones of bigotry, as youth targeted for (sometimes vicious) pranks and harassment members of the community who were thought to be outsiders. As one scholarly work on the holiday notes, even the most harmless pranks were often "collective retributions directed at those elements of society that were thought to be alien, snobbish, or antisocial." Despite its evolution over time, Halloween was still a holiday of boundaries. But rather than a celebration of boundaries between the spirit world and the living one, or of boundaries between parcels of land, it had become about boundaries between full members of society and liminal ones. Mischief was the soul of Halloween, but when it became violent, it had to be stopped.

The deployment of "bad boys" as boy cops, as the Omaha police commissioner planned, would subvert this holiday that was itself a subversion of ordinary life. And Omaha wasn't the only city to give "bad boys" an incentive to be nice on Halloween. To tempt kids off the street, many towns threw parties. Others incentives were not as well conceived: In 1938, Boston's police commissioner gave "engraved awards" to "the three schools in districts which showed the 'least vandalism' on Halloween."

For obvious reasons, such incentives rarely worked. The fire-starters in Toronto, for instance, had been invited to a public Halloween party meant to deter violence, but skipped out on it. In the U.S., no less youthful a group than the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended in 1950 that Halloween be re-designated "National Youth Honor Day," to celebrate and cultivate moral fiber.

What ultimately succeeded in moderating Halloween behavior? Giving kids candy. Communities began to encourage trick-or-treating in the early 20th century as a way to channel youth energies, and the practice gained traction after World War II. Its appeal was obvious: Homeowners prefer the minor annoyance of handing out treats to major property damage.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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