“Witches Must Beware,” declared the Baltimore American on October 31, 1918. The Maryland city’s health commissioner had placed a ban on public Halloween events, instructing the police chief to prevent people from holding “carnivals and other forms of public celebrations.” The United States was in the midst of the second, and most deadly, wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic. And that meant Americans had to curtail their usual Halloween revelry.

In the early 20th century, revelers did not knock on doors to trick-or-treat and Halloween was in general less of a child-centered holiday than it is today. Adults dressed up and held private parties or joined celebrations in the street. Meanwhile, young people—especially boys and young men—spent the night pulling pranks and vandalizing their neighbors’ property. This might mean stealing neighbors’ gates and building a bonfire with them, or stopping a train by laying a fake stuffed “body” on the tracks.

Bans Established Due to Fear of Virus Spread, And Respect for Flu Victims 

During the pandemic, cities banned or discouraged these traditions to reduce transmission of the virus, and also to be “respectful of those who might be sick or have lost loved ones,” says Katie Foss, a professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory.

Cities that had already placed bans on large gatherings might issue separate statements reminding people not to break them on Halloween, says J. Alex Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and one of the editors-in-chief of The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia. Even if cities didn’t ban Halloween events outright, they might encourage people to tone it down.

Officials “admonished parents to tell their kids: We know you’re going to go out and do these pranks and these tricks and be loud and rowdy,” he says; “but keep in mind there are lots of people who are convalescing at home and trying to get their rest, and who aren’t going to be able to go out the next day and fix all the damage that these rowdy kids have caused.”

In Spokane, Washington, Navarro says police were supposed to take away Halloween masks if they saw people out wearing them. While wearing cloth flu-prevention masks was encouraged or mandated in some western U.S. cities, Navarro says officials probably saw Halloween masks as dangerous because revelers commonly passed these homemade masks around, taking turns wearing them.

Sporadic Halloween Revelry and Mischief Reported

In many cities, it appears most people heeded officials’ bans or warnings regarding Halloween. “Hallowe’en revels lack the spirit of previous affairs: Urchins make dismal effort to revive classic forays on ash cans and fences,” reported the Buffalo Express in a headline the day after Halloween in 1918.

Still, reports of revelry differed between and even within cities. On November 3, the St. Louis Globe Democrat reported that Halloween “passed by this year without the usual gay parties and merrymaking among the youngsters, by the edict of the health commissioner.” Yet a couple of days before, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had described a completely different Halloween night in the Missouri city.

“Influenza bans seemingly did not blight Young America’s observance of Halloween in St. Louis,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “The police report the usual number of street lights extinguished and the usual number of bread boxes overturned.” More dangerously, someone had shot a woman in a car and sent another bullet through a woman’s bedroom window.

Confined Residents Were Itching to Get Out

PhotoQuest/Getty Images
A New York city street sweeper wears a mask during the influenza epidemic, October 1918.

The day after Halloween, The Birmingham News ran a headline claiming “Halloween Ghosts Are Noisiest That Ever Pestered Birmingham.” The Alabama paper speculated residents had been itching to get out after “almost a month of confinement” due to the pandemic, and may have been motivated by the news that World War I was drawing to a close.

“This night was more gloriously observed and property was more thoroughly devastated than at any time since the Magic City has sported a charter,” the article reported.

That same day in Texas, the Dallas Evening Journal ran a headline claiming “Halloween Celebration In Dallas Unusually Rough and Boisterous.” That night, a two-year-old suffered burn injuries, an eight-year-old sprained his ankle, someone struck a 14-year-old in the head with a bottle, and there were multiple injuries from drivers hitting people with their cars. There was also theft: young people stole a horse, a car, a piano and multiple tires off people’s cars.

The flu pandemic continued after Halloween, stretching past Armistice Day on November 11 and into 1919. It remains the deadliest flu pandemic ever recorded, killing roughly 675,000 people in the United States and up to 50 million people worldwide. Some experts estimate that it infected a third of the world’s population, or about 500 million people.