All Hallows Eve is coming. In less than a week, I’ll be sitting on the floor watching my boys dump out the contents of their trick or treat bags. Like any conscientious father, I will sift through their loot (stealing only the occasional Lemonhead) on the lookout for questionable items. Fresh fruit? Someone might have pushed a needle or razor blade in there. Into the compost. Homemade cookies or popcorn balls? No telling what could be in those. Rat poison. Heroine. Anything at all. Into the trash. I do this because my father did it (though he was more partial to Baby Ruths), and I want my children to be safe. But is it really necessary? Has anyone ever actually been killed by Halloween candy?
After reading Michael Largo’s book Final Exits, I certainly thought the answer might be yes. Largo reports three fatal poisonings of Halloween candy and implies many more. However, I’d found errors elsewhere in Largo’s book. Perhaps he was wrong about these poisonings as well
For real answers, I went to the all-knowing debunkers of urban myth at Snopes. A 2005 post by Barbara Mikkelson digs deep into the cases mentioned by Largo, using arrest records, court documents, and other firsthand sources. Admittedly, Mikkleson’s research indicates that two out of the three children cited by Largo were in fact fatally poisoned on Halloween. But don’t forbid your children from going door to door just yet. As it turns out, none of the incidents that Mikkelson documents were the random acts of a homicidal stranger. Most were perpetrated by relatives using the idea of random poisonings to disguise deliberate murder or to cover up evidence of other crimes.
By way of illustration, consider the the 1974 murder of Timothy O’Bryan by his father, who gave the child Pixie Stix filled with cyanide. While little Timmy was killed for insurance money, other sources falsely attribute his death to a random poisoning. In Final Exits , Largo incorrectly claims that the older O’Bryan was trying to do in his neighbor’s obnoxious children and that his own son’s poisoning was an accident.
A comparable iincident occurred in 1970, when five year old Kevin Toston lapsed into a coma and died of a heroine overdose. It was later found that some of his Halloween candy had been sprinkled with the drug. While Kevin’s death is reported as a random poisoning in Final Exits and elsewhere, the truth is more prosaic. That Halloween, Kevin became fatally curious about his Uncle’s heroine stash, and the drug was put in has candy afterward to divert suspicion. In short, scary relatives are a greater danger on Halloween than scary neighbors.
Finally, there is the strange case of Helen Pfeil. Annoyed by teenage trick-or-treaters, Pfeil greeted anyone she felt was too old with bags of inedible “treats.” These included dog biscuits, steel wool, and ant pellets. These were clearly labeled as poison in both print and the traditional skull and crossbones. No teens were stupid enough to eat them, and no one was hurt. Regardless, Pfeil was convicted of child endangerment and received a suspended sentence. This somewhat unexciting chain of events has been livened up by subsequent reporters. Final Exits asserts that Pfeil covered her fake treats with chocolate and that a small child died from eating an ant pellet. According to Snopes, neither is true.
So much for poisoned candy.
Sadly, apple tampering does actually occur, though less frequently than is generally believed. Additionally, Mikkelson attests that not a single child has been grievously injured by sharp objects in hidden in fruit. Most tampering of this sort was discovered by parents, or by the children themselves, before injury could occur. The majority of children who bit into booby-trapped apples came away more frightened than hurt. Only a few required ER visits. No one has ever been killed by a razor blade in an apple.
So what are the real dangers of All Hallows Eve? The number one killer is traffic. Nationally, there are more than two-hundred pedestrian fatalities every Halloween, four times as many as an average night. So go ahead and eat that apple, boys and girls. Chances are it won’t hurt you. Just be sure to look both ways before you cross the street.
And save some Lemonheads for me.