Halloween Poisonings and Razor Blades

Becks points to the emergence of something called “Trick or Trunk,” wherein parents stock the trunks of their cars with candy on Halloween and the neighborhood kids traipse by.

This, of course, all started because of parental hysteria about theoretical child murderers that could be lurking behind a bush somewhere that would snatch your child from your grips as you were walking through the neighborhood after dark.

What’s particularly baffling about this is that the danger is all but nonexistent. Snopes found numerous cases of Halloween poisonings going back to 1964 but all of them were cases of people trying to kill specific people and relying on the myth to cover up their crime.

By far the most famous case of Halloween candy poisoning was the murder of eight-year-old Timothy Mark O’Bryan at the hands of his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, in Houston, Texas. The child died at 10 p.m. on 31 October 1974, as a result of eating cyanide-laced Pixie Stix acquired while trick-or-treating.

To make his act appear more like the work of a random madman, O’Bryan also gave poisoned Pixie Stix to his daughter and three other children. By a kind stroke of fate, none of the other children ate the candy.

The prosecution proved the father had purchased cyanide and had (along with a neighbor) accompanied the group of children on their door-to-door mission. None of the places visited that night were giving out Pixie Stix. Young Mark’s life was insured for a large sum of money, and collecting on this policy has always been pointed to as the motive behind this murder.

Though the case was circumstantial (no one saw the father poison the candy or slip the Pixie Stix into the boy’s bag), Ronald O’Bryan was convicted of the murder in May 1975. He received the death sentence and was executed by lethal injection on 31 March 1984 (not on the poetically-just 31 October as is often recounted in off-the-cuff retellings of the case).

The O’Bryan murder was an attempt to use a well-known urban legend to cover up the premeditated murder of one particular child. (Note that for this explanation of the boy’s murder to have been believed, the legend had to have been in wide circulation by 1974.) Though cold-blooded and horrible to contemplate, this crime still does not qualify as a genuine Halloween poisoning because there was nothing random about Timothy O’Bryan’s death. (The spectre of the mad poisoner from the 1982 Tylenol murders was similarly employed by various murderers attempting to cover their tracks.)

It is true, however, that there have been cases of foreign objects placed in Halloween candy. Snopes again:

Professor Joel Best reported that he’s been able to track about eighty cases of sharp objects in food incidents since 1959, and almost all were hoaxes. Only about ten culminated in even minor injury, and in the worst case, a woman required a few stitches.

I suppose even an infinitesimal risk is something that parents understandably wish to mitigate. Still, kids are more likely to get hurt skateboarding — or doing just about anything, really — than trick-or-treating. Indeed, they’re far more likely to suffer health problems from eating all that candy than from any theoretical toxins or objects that someone might have hidden therein.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    The main risk with Halloween is that it is a pre-Christian, pagan holiday.

    Celebration of Halloween contributes to the loosening of morals and feeds into the Hollywood, gay-rights, Defeatocrat, evildoer, pro-abortion, weak on crime, mushroom-cloud-sympathizing liberal agenda.

    Halloween erodes our heritage as a Christian nation. Remember, as Mike Huckabee said, most of the signers of the Declaration were clergymen.

    As our culture continues to embrace the culture of satan, that will hurt our children more than any fictional razor blade.

  2. Michael says:

    yeah, but the couple that runs snopes.com also runs a network of spam servers that start most of these rumors in the first place, ensuring they’ll always have business.

  3. JKB says:

    Well, given that trick or treat didn’t become a tradition in the US until the 1950s, probably as an adaptation of suburbanization, perhaps an evolution is over due. Now that few families are home even in the evenings anymore, a scheduled event is more appropriate and easier to accommodate since they usually have a limited timeframe. Not to mention, the increase in single parent households makes it impossible to both man the candy bowl at home and to take the kid around the neighborhood for their own collection. While the “safety” issue might be the excuse, the convenience might be the real reason. Now if they’ll only bring back bobbing for apples, nothing like having wet hair on a crisp autumn evening although eating the apple may keep you out of the doctor’s office.

  4. just me says:

    When we lived down south scheduled events were about the only way to do trick or treat. People in most of those communities just didn’t do door to door trick or treating.

    In NH while our neighborhood is not a trick or treat friendly one, we have a lot of really good neighborhoods to do it in.

    I admit that when I was a kid my parents never let me eat anything until we got home and checked it first. Now I pretty much don’t care-I honestly think the chances are pretty much nil that somebody has tampered with the candy.

  5. ’round here it is called “trunk or treat” (which strikes me a flowing better than “trick or trunk”–but who am I to judge?)

  6. MJS says:

    “The main risk with Halloween is that it is a pre-Christian, pagan holiday.

    Celebration of Halloween contributes to the loosening of morals and feeds into the Hollywood, gay-rights, Defeatocrat, evildoer, pro-abortion, weak on crime, mushroom-cloud-sympathizing liberal agenda.

    Halloween erodes our heritage as a Christian nation. Remember, as Mike Huckabee said, most of the signers of the Declaration were clergymen.

    As our culture continues to embrace the culture of satan, that will hurt our children more than any fictional razor blade.”

    Total BS.

  7. Michael says:

    Total BS.

    Hi, you’re new here so I’ll explain:

    Triumph is an irony troll, his posts take the opposite of his actual position, and extrapolate that position to a comical extreme. But it’s generally well put together, and sometimes funny (He has his own award category in the caption contests now), so we don’t mind.