The Creepy Urban Legend of Poisoned Halloween Candy
This article is a transcript of Campfire Stories: Astonishing History podcast Episode 6. You can listen to it on YouTube, Buzzsprout, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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?
Halloween, as we know it today, is the Frankenstein child of multiple holidays combined. The first is the ancient festival of Samhain. The Celts, native to Ireland and the U.K. celebrated their new year on November 1st. Because this was the beginning of winter, and winter was associated with death, Celts would dress up in animal costumes (a little more realistic than your classic Party City options) and light bonfires to scare away ghosts that they believed could be walking Earth that night. There was a heavy emphasis on fortune-telling as well.
Then when the Romans conquered the Celts, they added two of their own holidays to the mix: Feralia, the October day honoring the dead, and Pomona, a holiday honoring the goddess of fruit, which is likely where the tradition of bobbing for apples comes from. In 1000 A.D., the Catholic church moved their holiday of All Saints Day or All Souls Day to November 2 in a push to get the Celts on-board.
People celebrating this holiday would dress up as demons, saints, and angels. The night before All Saints Day would be called “All-hallows Eve” from the Middle English spelling of the word, and this eventually morphed into the word Halloween.
In America, the strict New England colonies kept Halloween out for a long time, despite the fact that Salem, Massachusetts may be considered the unofficial capital of the holiday today. Harvest festivals were popular, though, and some Halloween celebrating did make it across the pond with a heavy emphasis on the “trick” portion, with ghost stories and mischief. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, or Great Hunger, helped popularize the version of Halloween with costumes and trick-or-treating, and bring back the fortune-telling aspect as well.
In the later part of the 1800s, there was a big push to make the holiday more family-friendly and some of the more witchy elements were removed and replaced with big community parties. After World War II, with the baby boom and move to the suburbs, Halloween and especially trick-or-treating became popular with kids. Communities also embraced making the holiday mainstream with the hope of countering pranks by teens.
The idea of poisoned Halloween candy actually falls under a fairly common category of urban legend about contaminated food. During the Industrial Revolution, food production left the farm and neighborhood and went to the far-away factory, hidden from the consumer.
Rumors of doctors treated kids poisoned by candy spread across the country, so much so that the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry took action in the 1890s and 1900s to test thousands of candy samples and did find some traces of copper from pots, and cheap dyes and syrups being substituted but no poison. Causes of death were hard to determine at this time, so the experts believed these candy death rumors were simply misattributed.
The rumors about Halloween candy, in particular, started to pop up in the 1950s and 60s. Joel Best, University of Wisconsin professor of sociology and criminal justice and the nation’s top researcher on this legend said,
“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.
In 1985, advice columnist Dear Abby wrote, “Somebody’s child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade” and in 1995, Ask Ann Landers echoed the claim “In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy. It is no longer safe to let your child eat treats that come from strangers.”
Alternate events like trunk-or-treats in church parking lots, malls, or police or fire stations began to develop, and handmade treats like popcorn balls and caramel apples were discouraged. In the last several years, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and the St. Louis DEA even warned parents about the accidental or purposeful distribution of TCH-laced candies being given to children.
There have been several high-profile tampering incidents and candy poisonings that have contributed to this legend, and we’re going to be briefly discussing five of them today.
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.
At this time in history, it was fairly common for food to be adulterated, or have some of their move expensive ingredients swapped out partially for cheaper alternatives. Cheese could be colored with lead in the Victorian era, and many foods in ancient times were sweetened with it. Milk in 1800s New York turned deadly when whitened with plaster and rotten eggs.
Even in recent decades, there have been illegal cases of adulteration. Transformer oil in South Africa has been used as cooking oil even today. In the 1980s, olive oil in Spain was doctored with industrial colza oil and killed over 600 people. Milk in China and India have been found with deadly chemicals in the early 2000s. In 2013, there was even a scandal in Europe where it was discovered that horse meat was being sold as beef.
Sugar was particularly expensive in Britain, as the tropical plants shockingly couldn’t be grown in Britain’s cool, wet climate. Although it first popped among the elites in the 1300s, it didn’t become widely available until Britain set up sugar plantations in the West Indies in the 16 and 1700, although prices for this “white gold” was still high, especially because of a large tax.
In order to save money, many food manufacturers would mix sugar with other materials, such as powdered gypsum, also known as plaster of Paris, by which I literally mean the building material. It could also be mixed with limestone and lime sulfate. The gypsum was called “daff” to help hide the fact that it was literally what you cover your house in. Eating it is harmless, although I wouldn’t recommend it.
Humbug Billy would purchase his supplies from a local man named Joseph Neal, and he often used daff to replace some sugar in the candy. On this day, Neal sent a man named James Archer, who was staying with him, to buy gypsum from pharmacist Charles Hodgson. Hodgson was sick that day and initially told Archer he would have to come back another time, but reportedly Archer insisted he needed it, so Hodgson told his young apprentice William Goddard to get the gypsum out of the corner of the attic.
Neither man had a strong familiarity with the materials, and instead of the gypsum, Goddard sold Archer twelve pounds of arsenic trioxide, another white powder which is odorless and tasteless, in basically the reverse of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, where young George the pharmacy assistant stops the drunk pharmacist from giving out deadly poison instead of medicine.
In Goddard’s defense, it looks a lot like gypsum or sugar and they were stored together at the pharmacy. Against his defense, they might have wanted to invest in some labels. There had been a growing concern about poisoning deaths in Britain before the Bradford incident.
The 1851 Arsenic Act had already passed, which required records of its sale to be kept, and called for non-medicinal arsenic to be colored with dye to stand out from other powders, but clearly, this policy was not in use at this pharmacy.
When Neal got the powder from Archer, his employee James Appleton made 40 pounds of Humbugs by using forty pounds of sugar, twelve pounds of arsenic trioxide, four pounds of gum, and peppermint oil to make about 40 pounds of humbugs . Appleton was an experienced candy-maker and noticed that something was off with this batch of candy and they were darker than usual.
Humbug Billy also noticed the discoloration and only accepted them after a discount. Appleton and Humbug Billy both tried the candy and were sick for the next few days with vomiting and pain in their arms, but it wasn’t until later that they realized it was connected to the candy. Humbug Billy sold 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of the deadly humbug candies.
The first two people who died were thought to have caught cholera, a common intestinal illness of the time. But as twenty-one people died within the next several days and 200 became severely ill, with intestinal distress and pain, the authorities were led to Humbug Billy and then to the suppliers.
Several doctors analyzed the humbugs and the patients and it is estimated each candy had enough arsenic to kill two people. The total amount of arsenic in the 5 pounds of candy handed out that day could have killed 2,000 people. Police tracked down people who had bought the sweets and offered treatment for those who had already eaten them, possibly preventing more deaths.
Goddard the assistant was arrested first and then the pharmacist Hodgson and the supplier Joseph Neal. The three of them were all were charged with manslaughter by gross neglect. Eventually, all three men were acquitted in December of that year.
But there were long-term effects from this tragedy. The Pharmacy Act of 1868 was passed which controlled the distribution of poisons and created a national Poison Register. It also required record keeping of the purchasers and the pharmacists. The act led to a major drop in deaths, especially for children under 5.
The Act also kind of helped women gain the right to practice pharmacy by listing over 200 women on the pharmacist registry, mostly the wives or daughters of male pharmacists. The first female pharmacist in England, Alice Vickery, officially qualified in 1873. British prime minister W. E. Gladstone also took action to prevent adulteration of food with materials like gypsum plaster in the wake of this incident. The 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink Bill also passed in the aftermath of the poisonings.
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.
When the girls returned home, their mother dumped out the buckets and sorted through the hauls. When she arrived at the napkins, she found that they had small cyanide-filled ant traps labeled “poison”. The family called the police and they spread the word around the town to turn in their candy to church leaders and volunteers who were combing it for poison.
Nineteen ant traps were found total that night and authorities were led back to Helen Pfeil. She told police that it had been a “joke” and that she was upset because she thought the teens were too old to trick-or-treat, despite the fact that her own 15 and 16-year-old sons were out doing the same thing. Pfiel received a mental evaluation and was charged with child endangerment. She received a two-year suspended sentence and the nation kept the idea of sifting through children’s candy.
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.
On September 29, 1982, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman took a Tylenol to soothe a sore throat and died suddenly before 7 a.m. That same day 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus was rushed to the hospital in Chicago, Illinois for what seemed to be a heart attack after taking Tylenol from a completely different bottle. He died that same day. His 25-year-old brother, Stanley, and nineteen-year-old sister-in-law Theresa went to Adam’s house, and each of them took Tylenol from the same bottle that Adam had to help their headaches.
They died soon after. Three more people in the Chicago area suffered the same fate in the next several days: 31-year-old Mary McFarland, 35-year-old Paula Prince, and 27-year-old Mary Reiner. The fact that three of the seven victims were named Mary was one connection, but the much more important connection that police put together was that they had all taken Tylenol. Their bottles were collected and tested and cyanide, a deadly poison, was found in all of them.
In a very apocalyptic-style but effective plan, authorities patrolled the streets of the city with loudspeakers warning them not to take Tylenol, and a media storm soon made sure everyone knew of the potentially deadly substance in their medicine cabinets. Chicago-area residents turned over any bottles they had and three more poisoned ones were found on store shelves, not yet sold.
Police dove into figuring out who had masterminded the murder of seven people and the attempted murder of at least three more. The poisoned bottles had all been found in Chicago and had come from different manufacturers, so they could not have been contaminated during their production. It became clear to police that the bottles had been removed from store shelves, poisoned, and then put back over several weeks.
Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of Tylenol, issued a nationwide recall of the 31 million bottles of the drug currently in households and stores, costing them today’s equivalent of over $265 million. They also offered an exchange program of the capsule form that had been poisoned with a tablet version, they issued warnings to medical providers, offered a reward for information about the crime, and they stopped all production and advertising of Tylenol. The company was widely praised for its response.
There were several possible suspects identified by police. Laurie Dann, an Illinois murderer was considered as a suspect. In 1988, she stole arsenic and mixed it into juice boxes and milk and delivered the poisoned drinks to former babysitting clients and others, but the poison was diluted and the drinks tasted foul so no one was killed. She later entered a school and killed one student, wounding four others, and then held a family hostage before taking her own life. Her use of the same poison and her location in the Chicago area were suspicious, but she was eventually cleared.
A man named Roger Arnold was also investigated as a suspect, and media attention eventually led to a mental breakdown in 1983. Arnold murdered a man, John Stanisha, outside of a bar because he mistook him for bar owner Marty Sinclair, who Arnold thought had informed police on him. Stanisha did not know Arnold at all, he was just an unlucky doppelganger. Police cleared Arnold, but even if he was guilty, he was still sentenced to thirty years in prison for Stanisha’s murder and he died in 2008.
The most prominent suspect was James William Lewis. Immediately after the murders, he sent a letter to Johnson and Johnson requesting $1 million to stop the poisonings. His fingerprints were found on the envelope, but he was living in New York City, so it was difficult to link him with the crime. As recently as 2009, the Department of Justice stated that they believed he was responsible, but they were unable to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. He was convicted of extortion and served 13 years in prison.
In 2011, the FBI requested DNA from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, in connection with the case, as his first four attacks happened around Chicago where his parents had a house. But for now, no one has been charged with the Tylenol Murders.
There were hundreds of copycat attacks that happened in the 1980s and tampering scares became etched in the American conscience. The U.S. government made product tampering a federal crime with the Tylenol bill of 1983, and drug and food companies scrambled to create tamper-proof packagings like seals and security rings. The capsule form of drugs was also largely phased out because they could easily be opened, emptied, and refilled. Instead, Johnson & Johnson created the “caplet”, which was still gel-coated but were much harder to tamper with.
The Man With 21 Faces (1980s)
In Japan there was another candy-tampering crime in the 1980s. A group referred to as the “Mystery Man with 21 Faces” kidnapped the president of candy company Ezaki Glico from his bathtub in his Osaka home, but he escaped. Then there were two cases of arson at the Glico factory with a promise to stop if $1.3 million was handed over, but the man they kidnapped to collect the drop-off was arrested (and later freed).
Then they sent a letter to his company threatening to poison their candy with cyanide unless they received a ransom of $4 million. The company’s sales were instantly halved, and they had to lay off 1,000 workers. Stores pulled their candy from the shelves, but there was no poison found. The group eventually sent a follow-up letter that they were “bored with this affair”, had destroyed the tainted products, and were moving to Europe for the summer.
Then months later, a second set of letters threatened candy company Morinaga & Company that 20 boxes of their candy had been poisoned and scattered across central Japan, and if they didn’t receive $410,000. 30 more would be distributed with no more warning.
The letters were addressed to “all mothers in the country” and stated that the candy would “now taste a bit bitter since we have added a special seasoning of sodium cyanide” and were signed “the mystery man with 21 faces” or “the monster with 21 faces”, which was a reference to a children’s mystery television show and book series of the same name.
When the candy was pulled and examined this time, several packages of cookies and sweets were found with type-written labels warning they were poisoned. And they were. Six items were contaminated with cyanide, although only one had enough to be deadly. Nobody was harmed by this, but the criminals were never caught.
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.
O’Bryan, who a newspaper described as “portly and bespectacled” took eight-year-old Timothy and five-year-old Elizabeth trick-or-treating with some neighbor after a group dinner. At one point in the night, they came to a house that didn’t answer the door. The kids ran ahead, while O’Bryan lagged behind. When he returned, he told his kids that the house had actually opened up and given him five giant Pixy Stix. He gave one to each of his kids, one to two neighbor’s kids, and one more to a boy from his church. At the neighbor’s house, O’Bryan “leaped over the table” to stop a friend’s child from eating Timothy’s Pixy Stix.
When they got home, O’Bryan offered Timothy the Pixy Stix, and helped him open it because it was oddly sealed with a staple. Timothy complained about the bitter taste and drank some kool-aid to wash it down, but he almost instantly started to vomit. He died on the way to the hospital, and the community went into a panic.
Families dumped their kid’s candy by the pillowcase at the police station. Timothy’s family wasn’t considered suspicious until potassium cyanide was found in his system after the coroner smelled the tell-tale scent of almonds that comes from the poison. The authorities tracked down three of the four uneaten Pixy Stix, but when they called the final family, the parents panicked when they couldn’t find the Pixy Stix. A lawyer on the case described what happened:
“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.
Police decided to question O’Bryan about the deadly Halloween night. He told authorities he couldn’t remember which house the Pixy Stix came from, but the O’bryan’s had only been to two streets before they stopped because of rain, and none of those houses were giving out Pixy Stix that night. Police forced O’Bryan to show them which house had reportedly cracked open the door, stuck out a hairy arm, and handed him the candy.
When the police looked into who owned the house, they found out it wasn’t a Halloween-hater hiding from the neighborhood children, but an air traffic controller named Courtney Melvin. There were almost 200 witnesses who confirmed that he was at the airport until late into the night.
The police were now highly suspicious of O’Bryan but were still looking for a motive for O’Bryan to murder his own son. But as they dug deeper into his financial situation, the clues came together. O’Bryan had held 21 jobs in the past 10 years and was today’s equivalent of $520,000 in debt. He was on the verge of losing his car, his house, and his job as an optician, where he was suspected of stealing.
Perhaps the most damning evidence was that O’Bryan had taken out today’s equivalent of over $50,000 in life insurance on both of his children in January of that year, and an extra $20,000 policy on both just days before Halloween. The morning of November 1st, he called after insurance company about collecting the payment for Timothy’s life.
He had also gone to a chemical supply store and asked about buying cyanide, but was told the smallest amount available was five pounds, and he left. They never found out where he acquired the cyanide that he actually used. They did, however, find O’Bryan’s pocket knife with traces of sugar and plastic packaging in his home.
O’Bryan was arrested on November 5th and charged with one count of murder and four counts of attempted murder, to which he played not guilty. His trial began in May of the same year. And unluckily for O’Bryan, a parade of friends, co-workers, a chemist, and chemical salesperson all testified that he had been asking questions about cyanide and how much would be needed to kill someone, for years leading up to Timothy’s death, to which I’d like to add if your friend is asking a loootttt of questions about poison, and they’re not an author, chemist, police officer, exterminator, or podcast host, maybe give the police a quick call.
O’Byran’s sister-in-law and brother-in-law both testified that O’Bryan had talked to them at Timothy’s funeral about how he was taking a vacation with the life insurance money. His wife, Daynene, testified against him as well. The prosecutor Assistant DA Mike Hinton said,
“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.”
As O’Bryan awaited his execution in prison, he was described as “absolutely friendless” by the prison chaplain. His fellow inmates hated him so much for killing a child, that they actually tried to hold a demonstration against him on the day of his execution. His execution date was rescheduled three times until the eighth anniversary of the crime, Halloween 1982. The judge was apparently so fed up with the delays that he said he would drive O’Bryan to the death chamber himself. He attempted to appeal a fourth time, but it was rejected.
On March 31st, 1984, O’Bryan was executed by lethal injection just after midnight He left his belongings to a fellow death-row inmate accused of killing his own mother, and O’Bryan offered his eyes for scientific research. . He maintained his innocence until his death, but this didn’t stop over 300 people from waiting outside the prison for the news he had died, throwing candy at anti-death penalty protestors. When it was announced that O’Bryan was finally gone, the waiting crowd had a morbid phrase to shout out: “Trick or treat!”
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.
Why does Best believe that this rumor holds on?
“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… So I think that what happens is we translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children.”
He also offered this comfort to parents,
“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.