The Creepy Urban Legend of Poisoned Halloween Candy

A drawing of a skeleton stirring a pot with candy on the counter behind him
A newspaper cartoon of the Bradford Sweets Poisonings

Background

Welcome. Come gather around the campfire and let me tell you a story. Today we’ve going to be talking about the urban legend of poisoned Halloween candy. Should you be dumping your kids’ Snickers and Smarties when they come home? Was your parents taking your pillowcases to be sifted through by police or x-rayed by a hospital really necessary? How did Americans become convinced that there might be razor blades or arsenic in their Hershey bars? And is there any truth to this lasting legend of real horror hiding at the bottom of your plastic pumpkin buckets?

A painting of people in togas eating a feast
Roman artwork of Feralia
Schoolchildren dressed up for Halloween sitting at desks
Vintage Halloween costumes

“The older versions of this that I know of were stories in the early 1950s about people heating pennies on skillets and then dumping the hot pennies in the outstretched hands of trick-or-treaters. This morphed by the 1960s into poison and pins in candy bars.”

In the 1960s and 70s, the idea of good, respectable, *cough* white neighborhoods being invaded by African-Americans and those untrustworthy career-women added fuel to the fire of nefarious neighbors preying on children. The media helped spread these rumors. A 1985 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 60% of parents were afraid of candy tampering.

A black and white drawing of a woman selling candy from a stand
Artistic depiction of candy-sellers

The 1858 Bradford Sweet Poisoning

Throughout history, there have been several cases of large-scale accidental poisonings through dangerous and unregulated production of food. One significant one that affected candy happened the day before Halloween in 1858 in Bradford, England. There was a local candy-maker named William Hardaker, who was nicknamed “Humbug Billy”. But this was no Scrooge-style insult. Humbugs were actually one of his most popular candies, and a traditional sweet in the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. They’re hard, generally peppermint flavored, and have a base of gum and sugar.

A bag of white powder labled gypsum
Powdered gypsum
Black and brown striped hard candies
Humbugs
A newspaper clipping with a woman in dark sunglasses and a headscarf
Helen Pfiel

Long Island Helen Pfeil (1964)

On Halloween night of 1964 on Long Island, NY, several older children got something in their candy buckets even worse than those tiny rolls of black licorice. Elise and Irene Drucker were trick-or-treating as hobos when they came to the house of 47-year-old housewife Helen Pfeil. She asked the young teens, “Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” before dropping something wrapped in napkins into their bucket.

Tylenol bottles and opened pills with loose powder in front of them
Tylenol being tested

Chicago Tylenol Tampering (1982)

Another case that is often brought up as adding to the candy-tampering panic didn’t involve candy at all, but Tylenol.

A spread of victim photos and information
A news spread showing the victims of the poisonings
A mugshot of a woman
Laurie Dan
A mugshot of a bearded man in glasses
Roger Arnold
A bearded man in glasses carrying a large stack of bound papers
James “John” William Lewis

The Man With 21 Faces (1980s)

A creepy drawing of a man glaring and smiling, holding up a diamond. The title of the book is The Fiend With Twenty Faces
A cover of the book the criminals took name inspiration from
Magazine cut out letters spelling “Give us all your candy and no one gets hurt”
Not an actual case photo
A courtroom photo of Ronald Clark O’Bryan
Ronald Clark O’Bryan

The Man Who Killed Halloween (1974)

Ronald Clark O’Bryan born on October 19th, 1944. He married a woman named Daynene and they had two children, Timothy and Elizabeth in 1966 and 1969. The family lived in Deer Park, Texas, where Ronald worked as an optician and a Baptist deacon. He also sang in the church choir (which I also did, so we’re not all murderers), and ran the town’s bus program. Everything seemed to be normal with the family until Halloween night, 1974.

A school photo of a young boy
Timothy O’Bryan

“When police got to Whitney Parker’s house, his parents almost died on the spot because they couldn’t find the Pixy Stix. They found him holding it asleep. His little fingers were not strong enough to get the staples out. It just sends shivers down your spine.”

Each of the Pixy Stix had two inches replaced with cyanide, and each could kill two to four adults.

A mug shot labeled “Texas”
O’Bryan’s mugshot

“We were all shocked that someone would kill their own son, their own flesh and blood, for a lousy … $40,000 life insurance policy,”

“The Candyman” as O’Bryan came to be called, used the urban legend of the crazy stranger slipping razor blades and deadly substances into candy. But the jury was unconvinced, taking only 46 minutes to find him guilty, and just over an hour to sentence him to death. After his conviction, his wife divorced him and remarried, and her second husband adopted Elizabeth. She maintained that she had no knowledge of the life insurance policies against her children and never cashed them, calling it “blood money”. Prosecutor Hinton said of O’Bryan: “This is the man who killed Halloween.”

A news article headlined Father Is Charged In Halloween Death
A newspaper article
Men hold a sign that says “Trick or Treat Candyman”
People outside waiting for O’Bryan’s execution

Conclusion

So should you be scared of Halloween? Despite these several scary incidents, the research says no. Joel Best, that candy legend expert from earlier said,

“I’ve done the 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 found about two cases a year of sharp objects in candy being reported, but up to 95% were hoaxes. None of them have been deadly, with the most severe injury being a dozen stitches.

“It’s the greatest thing in the world you can be afraid of because you only have to be afraid of it for one night a year. You know, maybe there’s somebody down the block who’s so crazy that he poisons little children at random, but he only does it one night a year. Throughout the rest of the year, he’s normal.”

If you really want to be safe on Halloween, officials recommend being extra careful of any passing cars, if you’re driving keep it slow on residential streets, stay visible with flashlights and groups, and if you’re still concerned about the candy, make sure the packing is sealed and not punctured or torn, throw out any homemade goods (and floss, because nobody wants that), if you’re listening to this in 2020 wear a mask, and try to keep the kids to a couple of handfuls on the night of. Because the biggest Halloween threat is likely a stomachache.

Jack-o-lanterns
(Source: Pexels)

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Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Gather round, campers, and let me tell you a story! We cover the best true tales of mysteries, histories, true crime, and real heroes from all over the world.