As the Louisville Short Line chugged its way through Newport, Kentucky, the passenger train’s engineer peered out into the dark night of October 31, 1879, and saw something truly frightening—a body lying across the railroad tracks. Pulling on the brake with all his might, the engineer halted his iron horse in the nick of time and jumped out of the locomotive. As he rushed to the lifeless figure, the train operator quickly discovered why it wasn’t moving. It wasn’t a person at all, but a stuffed figure placed there by 200 boys hiding along the tracks, who started to howl with laughter at their Halloween trick.
Although the juveniles had threatened his safety and that of his passengers, the engineer did not utter a single admonishment. After all, he engaged in similar antics when he was a boy. Such things were to be expected on Halloween during the Gilded Age when the ghoulish holiday was free of candy and full of pranks, vandalism and even violence.
When immigrants from Scotland and Ireland brought their Halloween traditions to the United States in the middle of the 1800s, they celebrated as they did back in their homelands—not with costumed children going door-to-door for sweets but by pulling pranks.
“In Ireland, boys would carve spooky faces in turnips to scare unwary travelers, and they would tie strings to cabbages and pull them through fields to scare people,” says Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. “The Scots had one really obnoxious prank where they would pull up a cabbage stalk, get it smoking and shove it up to a keyhole at someone’s door so that when that person came home, they would find a house filled with this noxious-smelling vapor.”
Across the American countryside in the latter 1800s, common Halloween tricks included placing farmers’ wagons and livestock on barn roofs, uprooting vegetables in backyard gardens and tipping over outhouses—be they occupied or not. In some regions, so many gates were taken off their hinges or opened to allow livestock to escape that October 31 was known as “Gate Night.” A teetotaling Protestant minister in Steubenville, Ohio, awoke after one Halloween to discover his front porch decorated with beer signs and towering pyramids of beer kegs. The advent of the automobile delivered further opportunities for mischief such as removing manhole covers from streets, deflating tires and erecting fake detour signs to confuse motorists.
“At first, the pranking was pretty innocent and limited to rural places,” Morton says. “But as metropolitan areas expanded, kids took the pranking into cities and it became more destructive with setting fires, breaking glass, and tripping pedestrians.” Boys ran through city streets splattering people with bags of flour or black stockings filled with ashes. One year, youths in Kansas City waxed streetcar tracks on a steep hill causing a vehicle to slip and crash into another streetcar, seriously injuring a conductor.
After a spate of Halloween destruction in 1902, the Cook County Herald expressed the frustration felt by many residents of Arlington Heights, Illinois. “Most everybody enjoys a joke or fun to a proper degree on suitable occasions; but when property is damaged or destroyed it is time to call a halt,” the paper intoned. “We would advise the public to load their muskets or cannon with rock, salt or bird shot and when trespassers invade your premises at unseemly hours upon mischief bent, pepper them good and proper so they will be effectually cured and have no further taste for such tricks.”
Some Americans did take up arms against the Halloween tricksters—with fatal consequences. When pranksters in Tucson, Arizona, stretched a wire across a sidewalk to trip passers-by in 1907, one pedestrian thrown to the ground drew a revolver and shot dead one of the jokesters. That same year, newspapers reported that a woman in Logansport, Indiana, was literally scared to death when her heart stopped after her daughter answered a knock on the door and screamed when a group of boys “thrust a grinning pumpkin lantern” in her face.
The malicious violence and looting connected with Halloween only grew worse during the economic free fall of the Great Depression. Morton says that by 1933, the holiday had become so destructive that cities were considering banning it. “Many of the cities were smart enough, though, that they thought that while banning might not work, they might be able to buy these kids off,” she says.
During the 1930s, civic and religious authorities, community organizations and neighborhood families began to program parties, carnivals and costume parades on Halloween to keep kids out of trouble. “There’s not a lot of money during the Great Depression so people pooled their resources and staged house-to-house parties.” Morton says. “The first house might give out costumes such as a white sheet to be ghosts, or soot to smudge on kids’ faces. The next house might give out treats, the next might have a basement set up as a tiny haunt. This starts to morph into kids getting dressed up and going house to house trick-or-treating.”
In the midst of World War II, youngsters took pledges to support the soldiers and sailors abroad by not engaging in Halloween vandalism. Children in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, vowed to “back our fighting men by observing Halloween as they would want me to. I will share in good, clean fun and merriment, fight against waste and damage!”
While Halloween itself grew tamer as trick-or-treating became part of the American culture in the 1950s, the mischief didn’t disappear completely. It just moved to the night before Halloween. “Kids wanted both the trick-or-treating and their pranking, so they moved it to October 30, although it seemed to be a Midwest and East Coast thing. It didn’t really make it to the West Coast.”
In parts of the Northeast, October 30 became known as Mischief Night. It was called Goosey Night in parts of New Jersey. Harkening back to the old Scottish pranking tradition, it was even known as Cabbage Night in some locales. While the vandalism was usually along the lines of soaping windows, spraying shaving cream, throwing eggs at houses or tossing toilet paper over trees and bushes, it took a truly dark turn in Detroit and other Michigan cities such as Saginaw and Flint, which were set ablaze in what became known as Devil’s Night.
During the 1970s and 1980s, arsonists turned the Detroit night sky a Halloween orange by setting fire to trash cans, dumpsters and abandoned buildings. The destruction peaked in 1984 when more than 800 fires were set across the city in a three-night arson spree. Detroit responded by instituting dusk-to-dawn curfews for unaccompanied youths under 18 and mobilizing a city watch. With garden hoses at the ready and vigilant eyes, more than 30,000 volunteers participated in neighborhood patrols in 1990.
Thanks to these continued efforts, the number of fires around Halloween in Detroit have steadily decreased to near-normal levels on what city leaders now call Angels’ Night.