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 we've yet to find evidence of a genuine Halloween poisoning, we 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 qualify as a Halloween poisoning, poisoned candy has to be handed out on a random basis to children as part of the trick-or-treating ritual inherent to Halloween. The act cannot be targeted to any one specific child.
By far the most famous case of Halloween candy poisoning was the murder of eight-year-old Timothy Marc O'Bryan at the hands of his father, Ronald Clark O'Bryan, in Houston, Texas. The child died at 10 p.m. on 31 October 1974, as a result of eating cyanide-laced Pixie Stix acquired while trick-or-treating.
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) accompanied the group of children on their door-to-door mission. None of the places visited that night were giving out Pixie Stix. Young Mark's life was insured for a large sum of money, and collecting on this policy has always been pointed to as the motive behind this murder.
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 31 March 1984 (not on the poetically-just 31 October as is often recounted in off-the-cuff retellings of the case).
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 2 November 1970, 5-year-old Kevin Toston lapsed into a coma and died four days later of a heroin overdose. Analysis of some of his Halloween candy showed it had been sprinkled with heroin.
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 Greenlawn, N.Y. housewife who was arrested in 1964 for handing out arsenic-laced ant poison buttons as part of a self-evident Halloween joke. Annoyed that many of the trick-or-treaters were too old to be asking for free candy, she made up packages of inedible "treats" to give to the teenagers. The packages contained dog biscuits, steel wool pads and the ant buttons (which were clearly marked "Poison" and labeled with a skull and crossbones). She also took the precaution of telling the teenagers that the packages were a joke when she handed them out, and there is no record of anyone's being harmed by her actions. Even so, the potential for harm was there so she was charged. She pled guilty to endangering children and eventually received a suspended sentence.
What initially appeared to be a (non-Halloween) random poisoning attempt aimed at children occurred in Emerson, N.J. On 8 October 1988, The New York Times said traces of strychnine were found in a box of Sunkist Fun Fruits Dinosaurs purchased on September 23 in a New Jersey grocery. The suspicious powder the State Police lab had initially labeled strychnine was retested by the Food and Drug Administration and pronounced corn starch.
The New York Times printed the updated version of the story on 14 October 1988, but not before Thomas J. Lipton Inc. (the manufacturer of Fun Fruits) destroyed 9400 cases of the product. The company maintained that the negative publicity surrounding this story had an adverse effect on their image. Though it's impossible to accurately measure such things, I believe their claim has merit. It's human nature to recall the destruction of the candy but forget it was a false alarm, and it is only reasonable to assume their image was somewhat damaged. (Those initial "Oh my god!" news stories do a fair deal of damage because bits of them stay in the average person's memory whereas retractions or follow-ups do not. Since they lend apparent credence to a myth that's already believed, these "facts" don't get discarded when new information comes along.)
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 2 November 1991 Washington Times, anxious parents dumped pounds of their kids' candy before the true cause of death was determined by autopsy.
A further Halloween scare case was that of Ariel Katz, a 7-year-old Santa Monica girl who died of congenital heart failure on 31 October 1990 while trick-or-treating. The police feared a mass random poisoning and acted immediately on what they suspected, as reported in the 2 November 1990 Los Angeles Times:
Santa Monica police had conducted an intense door-to-door search on the street where the youngster collapsed. They feared that other children might have picked up tainted Halloween candy, and they blocked off the 700 block of 12th Street for several hours while they confiscated candy and interviewed residents and revelers.
Seven-year-old Ferdinan Siquig of San Jose, CA. collapsed on 31 October 1996 after eating candy and cookies he was given while trick-or-treating. Initial urine analysis at the hospital revealed traces of cocaine. Subsequent tests done by outside labs came back negative, and it was further concluded that the initial test results were wrong, but this conclusion was reached at least a day after the media had picked up on the story and scared the bejeezus out of everyone yet again with tales of a poisoner on the loose.
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 9 November 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Joel Best, a professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno, who has been trying to debunk this urban legend for more than thirty years:
"We checked major newspapers from throughout the country from 1958 through 1988," he said, "assuming that any story this horrible would certainly be well reported."
Well, they found a total of 78 cases and two deaths. [The two deaths Best was referring to were the O'Bryan murder and the accidental poisoning of Kevin Toston.] Further checking proved that almost all of the 78 cases were pranks. The deaths were tragically real, but they, too, were misrepresented in the beginning.
The pranks, he said, were all of kids — after years of hearing similar stories — inserting needles or razor blades into fruit, not realizing (or maybe realizing) how much they frightened their whole town.
"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 it — significantly, on the end he had not bitten." Of course, the youngster had applied the poison himself.
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.
Sad to say, foreign objects hidden in Halloween loot are part of the trick-or-treat experience, but these incidents are few and far between, and our fear of them is greatly out of proportion with the likelihood of their occurring. Acting on this out-of-control fear, some hospitals and police departments have taken to x-raying bags of Halloween plunder, as noted in the 31 October 1993 Washington Post:
Of several contacted, only Maryland Hospital Center reported discovering what seemed to be a real threat — a needle detected by X-ray in a candy bar in 1988. But there was never an arrest or resolution in the case.
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.