Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Halloween Myth

     With Halloween fast approaching, today I’d like to talk about a popular media topic about the holiday—tampered candy.  We’ve probably all heard the stories, either from newspaper/online stories, television segments, or accounts from relatives or the cliché “friend of a friend.”  The tales show an impressively detailed (and brutal) array of weapons—candy infused with poison or drugs, or candy (but most commonly apples) which have razor blades, needles, broken glass, etc. embedded in them.  The second “Halloween” movie featured this, with the poor kid who still has the razor-bladed apple stuck in his mouth.  It’s quite a serious matter.  Many folks don’t let their kids trick-r-treat (or at least severely limit it), and countless police hours have been spent investigating these alleged crimes.
     But here’s the thing—it’s almost completely overblown.  There have been a few incidents, but they are much less numerous, and serious, that what’s been presented.  To date, there’s never been a proven case where a child has been killed or even seriously injured from a tampered treat gotten during normal trick-r-treating.
     But let’s get into the history of this.  This type of mass hysteria reportedly started during the Industrial Revolution, which was the first time mass food production moved out of a person’s home (or at least a close, known person in your neighborhood, etc.).  Helping this out was that many food items were actually dangerous to eat during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s—reading Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle” (based on observing real meat packing (and general labor) conditions) is disturbing and horrific, and led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in the same year.*
     However, the fear didn’t become specific to Halloween until about 50 years later.  In 1959, Fremont, CA dentist Dr. William Shyne gave trick-r-treaters candy-coated laxatives.  At least 16 received them, and there were several incidents of nausea and diarrhea resulting.  Dr. Shyne was charged with outrage of public decency and unlawful dispensing of drugs.  Then, in 1964, Greenlawn, NY housewife Helen Pfeil was supposedly put off by trick-r-treaters she thought were too old.  So, her “treats” passed out were dog biscuits, steel wool, and (clearly marked and packaged) ant poison buttons.  No one was hurt.  Pfeil said it was a joke, and received a suspended sentence.
     A later case was more serious.  In 1970 five year old Kevin Toston of Detroit died from eating allegedly poisoned Halloween candy.  This appeared to be a legitimate case of a treat poisoning initially.  Then, however, the truth emerged.  Kevin had come upon his uncle’s hidden stash of heroin, and ingested the fatal amount.  His family then tried to cover this up by sprinkling heroin on his candy.
     A 1974 incident was even grislier.  Eight year old Timothy O’Bryan of Deer Park, TX died after eating his Halloween candy.  Lab tests showed some Pixie Stix had been laced with deadly cyanide.  Preliminary investigations suggested a local neighbor, Courtney Melvin, was the source.  However, the neighbor had an airtight alibi—Melvin was an air traffic controller, and dozens of coworkers confirmed he was at work during Halloween night.  Suspicion grew when a salesman recalled selling cyanide to Timothy’s father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, and even remembered Ronald inquiring about fatal doses for humans.  Plus, Ronald had also very recently taken out life insurance policies on his children, and was having serious money woes.  It turns out that Ronald had actually slipped poisoned candy in his daughter’s and three other children’s bags, but luckily they didn’t eat them.  Mr. O’Bryan was convicted of one capital murder charge and four attempted murders, and was executed in 1984 by lethal injection.  A crowd of 300 pro-execution people demonstrated outside the prison as he died, and showered anti-execution protesters with candy.  O’Bryan was dubbed “The Candy Man,” and “The Man Who Killed Halloween.”
     Several other children died or were seriously ill over the years, and this was initially thought to be from Halloween treat tampering.  But, lab tests and autopsies revealed other causes.  In 1978 two year old Patrick Wiederhold of Flint, MI died after eating candy, but lab tests proved there was no poison in the treats.  Ariel Katz (7) of Santa Monica, CA died while trick-r-treating.  The autopsy showed an enlarged heart was actually the reason for her tragic death.  In 1996 Ferdinan Siquig of San Jose was taken to a hospital after eating Halloween candy, and initial lab tests showed cocaine in his urine.  Subsequent re-tests indicated that the first test was in error.  Four year old Tiffany Troung of Vancouver, British Columbia died in 2001 after eating candy, but tests once again showed no poison, and that a streptococcus infection was actually the culprit.
     A couple of events were tragicomic.  In late September of 1988 in Emerson, NJ, a NY Times story reported that Sunkist Fun Fruit Dinosaurs had strychnine powder in them.  9400 cases of this candy were destroyed.  Tests indicated that this powder was actually harmless corn starch.  In 2000, in Hercules, CA, a Snickers bars were found that contained marijuana.  Police were able to track it to a single residence.  The investigation eventually indicated a convoluted, but innocent mistake.  A person had tried to mail pot to a friend disguising it as candy bars.  However, they used insufficient postage, so it was undelivered, and went to the dead letter department at the post office.  After the allotted time had passed a postal employee took possession, and thinking they were regular candy bars, handed them out to trick-r-treaters.  No injuries were reported.
     Here’s one final, legitimate tampering incident.  In 2000 in Minneapolis, MN, James Joseph Smith passed out Snickers Bars (again) with needles stuck in them.  A fourteen year old boy was cut slightly, but didn’t need medical attention.  Smith was charged with adulterating a substance to cause death, harm, or illness.
     And so on.  Joel Best, of the University of Delaware, has been studying this phenomenon for decades.  He checked out every alleged case he could find, and came to the conclusion I noted earlier—no one’s been confirmed to have been seriously hurt, much less killed, by treats handed out to trick-r-treaters.  The only deaths were by natural causes, or by accidental ingestion of illegal drugs found in the home (the Toston case), or a poisoning murder by the child’s own father (the O’Bryan case).  Best did find dozens of examples of minor tampering, but these were nearly all hoaxes, or pranks done to siblings or friends by people they knew.  Often, in response to hearing about the phenomenon from earlier media reports.  And as with other sensational reportings, many people read the initial, incorrect story, but fewer see the follow up or retraction where the mundane truth is revealed.
     There are real dangers about Halloween.  The day is fourth in the U.S. in number of injuries to children, after Labor Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July.  Mostly due to car accidents—children are out, sometimes after dark, sometimes in costumes that impede their mobility or vision, or are difficult for motorists to pick out.  Here is another example of how people view dangers to themselves.  Folks tend to obsess over dangers that are infinitesimally rare (terrorist attack, or SARS, or shark attacks) while pooh-poohing much more realistic dangers (car accidents, obesity, smoking, etc).
     To sum up, I’m not advocating that parents or children should blindly trust everyone, of course.  Just because no one has actually done this fatal crime yet doesn’t mean someone won’t potentially do so.  It’s probably a good idea for parents to quickly check over candy/treats their children have collected, and discard anything that seems opened or weird.  I’m just pointing out that people should keep the real details about Halloween candy tampering in perspective, and not be panicked about it.

*  I read “The Jungle” fairly recently, and heartily recommend it.  Its accounts of the meat packing conditions, and the conditions for poor immigrants laborers in the U.S. in the late 1800’s—early 1900’s are indeed harrowing.  It does suffer a bit at the end, when the pro-socialist message gets a little unrealistic, naïve, and even sappy, but still, overall a worthy read in my opinion.  Interestingly, author Upton Sinclair was quite annoyed that the uproar over his book was almost solely about the disgusting meat packing conditions, and not the overall plight of the poor laborers.  He was quoted as saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”