It’s a warning you’ve heard at least a dozen times in your lifetime. Whether it be from parents, teachers, televised PSA’s and even the occasional horror flick; the ‘no taking candy from strangers’ rule has been etched into your brain so deep, you grow up to give the very same advice to the younger generations. There is, of course, one major acceptation to this rule: Halloween.
There is still a faint tension even with the day of celebration. But with all the excitement of dressing up, spending time with friends, pulling pranks, partying and trick or treating; that gentle reminder to check your candy you only half heard your parents call after you quickly becomes background noise. Besides, the knowledge was common place at this point, wasn’t it? Every year there was the potential for someone to pass out tainted treats to the local youth in order to fulfill some twisted agenda. There is just one problem with this spooky myth though. These concerns and fears, almost as old as the act of trick-or-treating itself, are largely unfounded.
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An excellent 2018 article from Vox delved into this very same subject with Joel Best, the leading (and perhaps only) researcher on Halloween candy contamination. Best commented “I’ve done research, and I can’t find any evidence that any child has been killed or seriously hurt by any candy picked up in the course of trick-or-treating. My view is this is overblown. You can’t prove a negative, but it seems unlikely.” He went on to elaborate that the poison candy myth as we know it stemmed from stories about people in the early 1950’s heating pennies on skillets and then dumping the hot pennies in the outstretched hands of trick-or-treaters. By the 60’s it had morphed into poison, needles and razor blades.
And with the development of technology and the frequent coverage from major news stations, a cycle also developed purely driven by public hysteria. It would often went as follows: Someone- child or adult- would die on Halloween night after allegedly eating some candy. The news would report to rightfully warn the public. But when the events surrounding the majority of these deaths- including the consumption of candy- turned out to be purely coincidental? The media would fail to report with the same amount of urgency. The most follow up anyone would see is a small column in a local paper. And it certainly didn’t help that there were plenty of instances to report on thus fostering the modern-day candy tampering myth.
Like the 1959 case of a California dentist who gave out candy-coated laxative pills to trick-or-treaters. He was promptly arrested and charged with outrage of public decency and unlawful dispensing of drugs.
Or the 1964 case of a New York woman who gave out packages of inedible objects to children who she dubbed “too old” to be trick-or-treating. These objects included steel wool, dog biscuits, and buttons (which were clearly labeled with the word “poison”). Nobody was hurt and she was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to endangering children.
In 1970, a 5-year-old boy was found dead after allegedly eating some candy laced with heroin. It was later discovered that this story was developed to hide the fact the boy actually found and ate his Uncle’s heroin stash.
In 1978, a 2-year-old Michigan boy died after eating some candy. This would turn out to be a tragic coincidence as his death was determined to be due to natural causes.
In 1990, a 7-year-old California girl died in the middle of trick-or-treating. Despite early reports stating it was due to candy consumption, the child’s parents had to inform the police she had previously been diagnosed with a serious medical condition, an enlarged heart, which was the actual cause of death.
And in 2001 a four-year-old girl in Vancouver died after eating- you guessed it- some Halloween candy. Though there were rumors floating around there was no evidence of poisoned candy, and she actually died of an streptococcus infection; an inflammatory disease.
But the most noteworthy case, the one that really gave the myth some substance is the 1974 death of eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan. It was a cold, wet Texas night on Halloween 1974 when optician Ronald Clark O’Bryan took his two children, Timothy and Elizabeth, trick-or-treating. They were soon joined by neighbor Jim Bates and his children.
One of the houses the group approached had all its lights off. But the children insisted on trying anyway. When nobody answered they simply moved on. For the majority of the night Ronald kept a slower pace slightly behind the group. So it wasn’t a surprise when Bates lost track of Ronald at one point. When he eventually caught up with them, Ronald explained he gave the door one last knock and his patience paid off in the form of five enormous Pixy Stixs (measuring at least twenty inches long). Ronald gave each of the kids one pixy stix and then gave the fifth to a boy he recognized from church.
When it started to rain heavily the group dispersed to their respective homes. Before bed Timothy was given permission to eat some candy before bed. Ronald was quick to suggest the giant pixy stix. Timothy immediately noted the bitter taste the candy had. So his Dad gave him kool-aid to wash it down. Minutes later Timothy began to vomit violently, convulse and eventually went limp in his father’s arms. Timothy O’Bryan was declared dead less than an hour after consuming tainted Halloween candy.
Luckily the police were quick to collect the four other pixy stixs. Testing determined Timothy’s pixy stix contained enough cyanide to kill two adults. The other contaminated sticks had enough to kill three to four adults in each candy. The police were also quick to find and arrest a suspect: Ronald Clark O’Bryan.
Turns out Ronald was a complete douche who displayed some very odd behavior shortly before Timothy’s death such as asking around for cyanide, pondering aloud how much of said cyanide would kill an animal (which just so happened to be the same size as a human child) and confiding in friends that he would be coming into money soon. That would be because, unbeknownst to his wife, Ronald had taken out multiple hefty life insurance policies on both of his children that would really put a dent in that mountain of debt he also didn’t tell his wife about.
The evidence against Ronald was so strong it was practically bullet proof. A jury convicted him in less than 46 minutes and he was sentenced to death. Ronald Clark O’Bryan never confessed to killing his son.
The death of Timothy O’Bryan is the only documented instance of someone dying as a direct result of Halloween candy consumption. So why do these fears still hold a place in the back of our minds? We once again turn to that Vox article quoting Joel Best “We live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios. Here we are; we have safer, healthier, longer lives than people in any other point in history. And we are constantly imagining that this could all fall apart in a nanosecond.” He added, “So I think that what happens is we translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children.”
Research Sources: Medium.com’s “The Man Who Killed Halloween”