Claim: Police have documented cases of people randomly distributing poisoned goodies to children on Halloween.
Origins: Tales of black-hearted madmen doling out poisoned Halloween candy to unsuspecting little tykes have been around for decades — they were part of my Halloween experience more than forty years ago. And every year sees the same flurry of activity in response to such rumors: radio, TV and newspapers issue dark warnings about tampered candy and suggest taking the little ones to parties instead of collecting goodies door-to-door. Even Ann Landers published a column in 1995 warning us against the mad poisoner, saying, "In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy." (Recent years? Poison?)
It's a sadness that a holiday so thoroughly and greedily enjoyed by kids is being sanitized out of existence in the name of safety. Sadder still is there appears to be little reason for it.
Though I've yet to find evidence of a genuine Halloween poisoning, I have uncovered a few isolated incidents initially reported as random poisonings that, upon further investigation, turned out to be something else.
Let's set the criteria for what constitutes a Halloween poisoning and then examine the famous and not-so-famous cases often pointed to as examples of this horror:
To make his act appear more like the work of a random madman, O'Bryan also gave poisoned Pixie Stix to his daughter and three other children. By a kind stroke of fate, none of the other children ate the candy.
The prosecution proved the father had purchased cyanide and had (along with a neighbor)
Though the case was circumstantial (no one saw the father poison the candy or slip the Pixie Stix into the boy's bag), Ronald O'Bryan was convicted of the murder in May 1975. He received the death sentence and was executed by lethal injection on
The O'Bryan murder was an attempt to use a well-known urban legend to cover up the premeditated murder of one particular child. (Note that for this explanation of the boy's murder to have been believed, the legend had to have been in wide circulation by 1974.) Though cold-blooded and horrible to contemplate, this crime still does not qualify as a genuine Halloween poisoning because there was nothing random about Timothy O'Bryan's death. (The specter of the mad poisoner from the 1982 Tylenol murders was similarly employed by various murderers attempting to cover their tracks.)
Another attempt to obscure the circumstances surrounding a little boy's death by invoking this legend took place in Detroit in 1970. On
This case was widely reported as a real-life example of Halloween sadism. Not nearly so widely circulated were the results of the police investigation, which concluded the boy had accidentally got into his uncle's heroin stash and poisoned himself, and that the family had sprinkled heroin on the kid's candy after the fact to protect the uncle.
Antedating both these stories is the odd case of Helen Pfeil, a
What initially appeared to be a (non-Halloween) random poisoning attempt aimed at children occurred in
The New York Times printed the updated version of the story on
After Halloween 1994, a three-year-old New Britain, Connecticut, child was diagnosed as suffering from cocaine poisoning. Though he'd been sick earlier in the day and also had a habit of putting anything he found in his mouth, the finger was immediately pointed at tampered Halloween candy (with all the usual attendant media hysteria). More than a week later the local police announced that no traces of cocaine or any other drugs had been found on the leftover piece of candy that was supposed to have poisoned the boy.
In 1982 the police of Redford Township (Detroit) had to issue a similar statement after a youth there became ill and his doctor misread initial lab results and then went public with charges of cyanide poisoning and doctored Halloween candy. Tests done on the lad to determine what was wrong were inconclusive, and later FDA tests of the candy turned up no contamination whatsoever.
Another suspected Halloween poisoning occurred in Washington, DC in 1991. 31-year-old Kevin Michael Cherry of Montgomery County coincidentally died of heart failure after eating some of his child's Halloween loot. As told in the
A further Halloween scare case was that of Ariel Katz, a 7-year-old
In 2001, four-year-old Tiffaney Troung of Vancouver died a day after ingesting candy she picked up trick-or-treating on Halloween. Police reacted by issuing an alert to area parents to dump whatever goodies their kids had collected. The cause of death was ultimately pegged as non-contagious sepsis-causing streptococcus bacteria (which can cause everything from strep throat to flesh-eating disease). The Halloween candy Tiffaney ate played no part in her death.
An odd act of randomness occurred in the town of Hercules, California (near San Francisco) in 2000. Some trick-or-treaters came home with little packets of marijuana done up to look like miniature Snickers bars. Parents of the kids who received this beneficence quickly contacted the police, who just as quickly traced the giveaway to a particular house. There, a mystified homeowner was confronted about the find. Police investigated and were satisfied the homeowner had no knowledge of the special contents of certain bars that were handed out that night.
The marijuana packets dressed up to look like Snickers bars had landed in the Hercules dead letter office because whoever had tried to mail a package containing them either didn't use enough postage or had listed an incorrect address. A postal employee (the mystified homeowner) charged with transporting the bars plus various canned goods that had accumulated in the dead letter office to a local charity kept the candy for his own use. He brought the "candy" home to give out on Halloween, thinking the Snickers bars were, well, Snickers bars. The "trick" ended up being on him.
Putting the crazed Halloween poisoner story to rest can be quite the task, as was outlined in a
Well, they found a total of
The pranks, he said, were all of
"My favorite," Best says, "was the kid who brought a half-eaten candy bar to his parents and said, 'I think there's ant poison on this.' They had it checked and, sure enough, there was ant poison on
Best has tried mightily over the years to destroy this particular myth, but obviously to no avail. "It's the old problem of trying to prove a negative," he says.
In the ten years the National Confectioners Association has run its Halloween Hot Line, the group has yet to verify an instance of tampering, said spokesman Bill Sheehan. "These myths become truisms."
Sightings: This legend appears in a 1986 Jack Chick tract about the satanic influences of Halloween.
Last updated: 26 October 2015
Best, Joel. "The Myth of the Halloween Sadist." Psychology Today. November 1985 (pp. 14-16). Best, Joel and Gerald Horiuchi. "The Razor Blade in the Apple." Social Problems. June 1985 (Vol. 32, No. 5, pp. 488-499). Calgary Herald. "Trick-or-Treater Died of Natural Causes: Coroner." 29 January 2002 (p. A4). Canadian Press. "Halloween Candy Didn't Kill Girl." 9 November 2001. Fulbright, Leslie. "Trick-or-Treat? Hercules Kids Find Pot Inside Their Snickers." Contra Costa Times. 1 November 2000. Hill, Retha. "Autopsy Shows Md. Man Died of Heart Disease, Not Poisoned Candy." The Washington Post. 2 November 1991 (p. C2). Lee, Henry. "Hercules Parents Find Pot in Halloween Candy." The San Francisco Chronicle. 2 November 2000 (p. A19). Lyall, Sarah. "Poison Found in Jersey Candy." The New York Times. 8 October 1988. Ramos, George. "Boy, 12, on First Trick-or-Treat, Is Shot for Candy." Los Angeles Times. 2 November 1990 (p. A1). Reuters. "California Child Gets Cocaine-Laced Halloween Treat." 1 November 1996. Reuters. "Calif. Candy Scare Proves Unfounded." 1 November 1996. Schneider, Howard. "Halloween Unearths a Few Old Fears and Rumors." The Washington Post. 31 October 1993 (p. B8). Silbiger, Hollace. "Other Residents Report Bad-Tasting or Smelly Candy." The Plain Dealer. 4 November 1997 (p. B1). Squatriglia, Chuck. "Source Traced for Halloween Pot Treats." The San Francisco Chronicle. 3 November 2000 (p. A23). UPI. "Regional News: Somerdale." 11 November 1982. UPI. "Barbiturates and Amphitamines Found in Somerdale Halloween Candy." 2 November 1982.