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The Men Who Murdered Halloween

Myths and realities of poisoned candy.

So I’m at the gym this morning, and what comes on the local news but the latest Halloween candy scare: ecstasy pills shaped just like those sweetheart candies that we used to give out to our classmates on Valentine’s Day. While the reporter does state that the $10-per-pill price tag makes it unlikely that a devious mind would choose this expensive method to poison the neighborhood kids, parents were urged to check all Halloween candy to make sure it does not look tampered with. Watching the news brought back memories of my own parents sorting through my sack of goodies to make sure nothing seemed amiss.

So where do these tales of razor-blade-filled apples and poisonous Snickers bars come from? Is there an escalation in emergency room visits every Halloween night by children who have innocently consumed deadly candy? Or is this an urban legend that has the added bonus of encouraging parents to rummage through their child’s Halloween stash and extract the giant-sized Hershey bars and Kit Kats?

The Disgruntled Dentist and Booby-Trapped Booty

One of the first tales of tainted treats occurred over 50 years ago. On October 31, 1959, California dentist William V. Shyne decided to play a very mean practical joke. He handed out 450 candy-coated laxatives to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters who were unlucky enough to knock on his door. No one seems to know why he did it but 30 kids got pretty sick although one suffered irreparable harm. The laxatives were quickly traced to his house and he was charged with several crimes, including “outrage of public decency.”

But what about the old razor-blade-in-the-apple rumor? According to Professor Joel Best, there have been approximately 80 reports of sharp objects inserted into Halloween treats since 1959. The great majority of those reports turned out to be hoaxes; the sharp objects were usually placed in the food by a relative or friend as a misguided prank (such as the kid who put ant poison on a half-eaten candy bar to get a rise out of his parents). Of the few verified instances of stranger-on-trick-or-treater candy sabotage, such as the year 2000 when James Joseph Smith was arrested after sticking needles in the Snickers bars he handed out, the only injury was a slight prick to one teenager’s mouth.

The Real Boogeymen

Sadly, law enforcement officers haven’t had to scour the neighborhood to find the perpetrators of the only two children’s deaths who have been linked to Halloween candy. All they had to do was visit their homes. The first death occurred in 1970 when a 5-year-old Michigan boy died after ingesting a horrific amount of heroin. Tests on his Halloween candy found heroin dust, setting parents on high alarm. Police, however, soon discovered that the little boy had stumbled across his uncle’s heroin stash and mistakenly eaten it. His family then sprinkled the drug on the boy’s Halloween candy to throw off investigators.

However, it was the actions of Ronald Clark O’Bryan who almost ruined Halloween for American children. On Oct. 31st, 1974, neighbors O’Bryan and Jim Bates, of Deer Park, Texas, took their children out trick-or-treating. Bates’ job was to wait on the sidewalk while O’Bryan escorted the trick-or-treaters to the front door of neighborhood houses. At one point, O’Bryan disappeared briefly behind a shadowy part of the front porch, then emerged holding five large Pixie Stixx filled with flavored sugar. While no one else saw the homeowners, O’Bryan claimed that the residents of the house had cracked the door open and given him giant Pixie Styx to distribute to the children.

Later that night, O’Bryan dialed 911, stating that his son had apparently eaten poisoned candy. In spite of the paramedics’ best efforts, 8-year-old Timothy O’Brien died later that night. An investigation revealed that the cause of death was cyanide-laced candy. The murderer? Timothy’s father, who decided to sacrifice his son in exchange for a $40,000 life insurance payoff. O'Bryan also passed the poisoned Pixie Stixx to at least four other children, including his 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in an attempt to make the urban legend come to life. Miraculously the remaining tampered candy was confiscated before any other children ingested it.

The Bottom Line

The legend of poisoned Halloween candy has been circulating for decades, but in all that time, there has never been a single documented case of a deranged individual randomly poisoning children’s Halloween candy. And, while there have been a few instances of candy and fruit laced with sharp objects, 75% of them have resulted in no injuries and no one has been severely harmed.

Of course, it’s still a good idea to inspect and remove unwrapped items from your child’s Halloween stash—for sanitary reasons much more than safety.