How to describe Halloween in Chicago during the 1920s? Two words: property damage!
“‘Police 1313’ and ‘Fire 1313’ were shouted at telephone operators hundreds of times by citizens with reports of depredations small or large,” said an anonymous Chicago Tribune reporter in a 1921 article.1 That year, “rougher celebrants indulged in promiscuous pistol firing…burning wagons, cutting automobile tires and even stealing cars.”2 Halloween night in 1922 saw 115 fire alarms “turned in, about ninety percent of them being real fires,” with “the number of fires…greatly exceed[ing] the record of previous years.”3 A real estate office, two train cars, a multitude of wagons and vans were all set on fire that year–as well as “a 500 gallon tank of gasoline,” which “caus[ed] the firemen, hampered by the danger of an explosion, much trouble.”4 Two years later, Chicago’s 1924 Halloween featured “property thefts, bonfires that set fires to buildings…smearing [shop] windows with soap,” as well as fire and property damage: “sparks from a bonfire at 3264 South Morgan street set a shed ablaze and resulted in $200 damage”…and then set another nearby shed on fire.5 A “feed conveyor” owned by a local grain company “was set on fire…Firemen put [it] out…after $200 damage had been done.”6 In the nearby suburb of Evanston, “porches were torn away from frame dwellings or wrecked. An iron fence…was uprooted and taken away. Windows were smashed and small trees and shrubbery uprooted.”7And in 1923 in Chicago, a pile of debris left in the middle of the road “nearly resulted in the death of four men when an auto in which they were riding crashed into a refuse box placed in the middle of the street…[the] driver…was the most seriously injured. The others were cut and bruised.”8 Others lost their lives: an unidentified 60-year-old man was found dead of asphyxiation in a junk shop at 1154 Hastings St., thanks to smoke from a fire set inside the building by Halloween revelers, which caused $600 in property damage on top of killing someone.9
Who was responsible for all the fire, damage, and near-death experiences?
Halloween has gone through a number of transformations since it originally came across the pond with English, Irish and Scottish immigrants to America. In the early days of the United States, it had started off as something similar to its English cousin: a harvest celebration aimed at adults, with an emphasis on fortune-telling, superstitions, burning harvest refuse in giant bonfires, and drinking alcohol. Later on, Middle-class Victorians turned the holiday into a more benign event, with an emphasis on amusing parties for young and old. By the early 1900s, however, things were changing yet again. While the emphasis on children remained, another, earlier tradition had been reinstated by the day’s youth: pranking.
While early Halloween traditions always involved some degree of “tricks,” most were harmless pranks. In The Boy Craftsman: Practical and Profitable Ideas for a Boy’s Leisure Hours (1905), Halloween is described largely as an event aimed at mischievous young boys. For them, Halloween was “…the only evening on which a boy can feel free to play pranks outdoors without danger of being ‘pinched,’ and it is his delight to scare passing pedestrians, ring door-bells, and carry off the neighbors’ gates (after seeing that his own is unhinged and safely placed in the barn)…the [eventual] punishment is nothing compared with the sports the pranks have furnished him.”10 Children might throw flour at men in black coats, coat shop windows with a film of soap, or place tick-tacks—small winding toys that make lots of noise when activated—up against house windows to scare the inhabitants. One 1923 Chicago Tribune article described groups of boys “parad[ing] down State street…their heads shrouded in blankets, annoying pedestrians and frightening unescorted women.”11
Noisemakers called “tick-tacks” were a popular Halloween item for over 50 years. “Tick-tacks” were notched wooden spools on sticks with winding string around them, with a nail “serving as an axle,” and were often left against house windows. “When the string was pulled, [the notched spool] made a loud and rapid ‘tick-tack’ noise” against the glass.12 It was a harmless way of frightening the occupants.
While such activities might be annoying to adults, they weren’t necessarily dangerous—until they moved into major urban areas, that is. A prank that would have been relatively harmless in a small New England town could become downright dangerous in a large urban area. A great example of this was the common “traditional” activity of gate stealing on Halloween. Author Lisa Morton, in her book Trick or Treat: a History of Halloween, explains how such a simple activity could become a hazard in an urban environment: “Simply dissembling a gate—in fact, the name ‘Gate Night’ replaced Halloween in many areas—was one thing, but dissembling the gate and moving it to the centre of town where it might be piled in the middle of Main Street with dozens of other gates was more troublesome. In the 1920s, Halloween pranking spread into the rapidly expanding major urban areas, and became out-and-out vandalism. Although the simple pranks of the past—switching shop signs, or flinging a sock filled with flour at a man’s black coat—were still practiced, so were far more destructive activities, including breaking windows, tripping pedestrians, and setting fires.”13 Activities similar to gating killed two police in Chicago in 1924 as well: seven teenage boys were arrested—though not convicted—for “placing an obstruction” in the middle of a dark road on Halloween night—a structure which managed to kill two policemen when they smashed into it with their motorcycle in the dark.14 Another group of boys even managed to cut power to an entire neighborhood: in Riverside, some pranksters cut “the electric light line which supplies most of [the town]” with electricity; repairmen had to examine six miles’ worth of cable before finding the break in the line and restoring power.15
Virtually all of these fires, property damage, and deaths could be attributed directly to the activities of “unruly youth”—and many ended up arrested for their troubles. On Halloween 1923, even “staid Evanston” got in on the action: “…the police station was packed with boys arrested and held until their parents came to take them home. More than 200 boys were taken into custody in Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, and other north shore suburbs.”16 In Chicago that same year, “more than a dozen boys were arrested…for breaking street lamps…firemen and police were kept busy turning off fire hydrants and pursuing gangs of boys who went around letting the wind out of automobile tires.”17 Sometimes, though, those they vandalized fought back: a sixteen year old boy named Ray Nelson ended up with a fractured skull and in critical condition thanks to an old man named James Dragon. Nelson was busy “tearing down Dragon’s picket fence” with some other boys when Dragon came out and “struck [Nelson] down with one of the pickets.”18 Ultimately, however, the possibility of being caught, “taught a lesson” by angry adults or getting arrested didn’t deter too many kids from their fun, and the vandalism continued.
Things finally came to a head in Chicago on Halloween 1925 when a riot broke out at the Ogden field house, when “twenty-five youths, most of them under the influence of liquor, charged into the field house in Ogden park…and attempted to drive out 200 men, women and children attending a Halloween party and dance…[two policemen] arrived while the disorder was in progress. They arrested six of the youths and dispersed the others.”19 One cop left to get reinforcements while the other stayed at the field house to watch the crowd. While his partner was gone, “companions of the youths in custody arrived and attacked him. He defended himself with his club, but was knocked down and was being kicked by the attackers when O’Day returned and fired on the group. [The other cop] also fired, and they believe two of the youths were struck.”20 While one 20 year old youth was eventually found lying at home “with a bullet wound in his right leg,” none of the rest were caught.21
By October 1926, Chicago’s adult population had had enough. While many adults felt that small pranks were fine, the rising tide of vandalism and violence within the city was unacceptable. So, they decided to put a stop to it—by appealing directly to the children responsible. Using a combination of bribery, lectures, and other entertainments—plus an emphasis on, of all things, civic pride—adults attempted to persuade kids to stop the violence on their own. Reasoning that he could appeal to “the children’s pride in being useful members of the community,” William McAndrews, the superintendent of Chicago schools in 1926, issued a bulletin that asked children to refrain from destructive pranking.22 While he admitted that “there is much of…Halloween that is prankish, good humored, provocative of fun, and sanctified by tradition,” activities like “window smashing, smearing whitewash, throwing soot bags, tearing down fences, and the like are a different matter. They should be stamped out.”23 To encourage this, McAndrews and others put together a massive city-wide event. If a kid filled out a pledge card “vowing most solemnly that he won’t do any of the things…that have given the cops such a runaround every Halloween,” he’d get to see free movies!24Thanks to an agreement among a large group of movie theater owners, “ninety-six neighborhood movie houses, with seats for 100,000 students…agreed to open their doors early” on Halloween.25 While the kids who went were also forced to listen to at least one lecture on better behavior (bummer), those who stayed were also allowed to see “special pictures” for free, such as Douglas Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” or Richard Dix in “The Quarter Back.”26 Other organizations got in on the act, too, with Boy Scout groups and the YMCA offering alternatives to roaming the streets unsupervised. Schools did their bit as well, creating large events that featured parties, parades, costumes, carnivals and contests to keep children busy.
Parents got involved in other ways. Not only did the city encourage them to “extract a pledge from them that they will attend one of the parties arranged by the board of education or the park boards, and that they will refrain from vandalism,” but they provided their own fun, too.27 Many parents offered house parties for children in the neighborhood to discourage vandalism. They often used new holiday booklets, like the Bogie Books of the 1920s and 30s (you can read one from 1920 here), to organize festive parties. According to Morton, “These books were popular from about 1915 until 1950…and included poetry recitations, one-act plays, pageant suggestions and other theatrical performances that would presumably occupy young minds…and…keep them from contemplating pranking.”28 A typical children’s party might feature apple-bobbing, fortune-telling games, spooky stories, bonfires, parades, an old Irish game called snap-apple (kind of like bobbing for apples, but without the water), and special foods like donuts, fortune cakes and cider. Some party tables might even feature bowls of candy corn, a festive Halloween treat that was first mass-produced in the 1920s.29 Early Halloween costumes were “simple homemade affairs” which “often utilized the image of the outsider: costumes for gypsies, hobos, bandits and pirates were all easy to produce, requiring little more than old castoff clothing and a few accessories.”30 Kids could show up to a house party, have some good, clean fun, and not wreck anything.
Later on, these 1920s house parties turned into something we’d recognize today. Since many families could not afford large house parties to accommodate everyone, neighbors often pooled resources to “create the ‘house-to-house-party’ in which groups of children were led from one house to the next, each home offering a different themed activity.”31 Often such parties also featured small gifts for the children. Giving the children small gifts of food or candy or toys might encourage them to not destroy your house, either—an added bonus.32 Over time, this evolved into a beloved Halloween tradition: trick-or-treating! 🙂
Chicago’s experiment in controlling kid’s behavior turned out to be a resounding success. According to McAndrew, property damage dropped to four percent of what it had been previously–and the changes seemed to stick over time, too.33 By 1928, Halloween in Chicago “found more festivities than ever before in which young and old participated.”34 Though many of these activities were “held on Halloween in order to eliminate, as much as possible, destructive and dangerous pranks,” the reporter noted that “the kids of today, dressed in their weird costumes, happily munching wieners and singing around bonfires, did not seem to mind at all [that the pranking had stopped].”35
The children, it seemed, had been pacified. For now, anyway… 😉
So, when you hear your doorbell ring tonight and a bunch of little witches, goblins, and ghosts greet you, remember to give them all the candy they want—or Chicago’s tide of tiny terror may rise again! 😉
FUN OLD-TIMEY HALLOWEEN LINKS:
Liked that Saturday Evening Post cover? Check out more Halloween ones here.
Want to learn about the history of Halloween, vintage style? Back in 1919, a 26-year-old American librarian made history by writing the first real historical treatment of Halloween. Produced by a publishing company with a serious interest in folklore, it’s a classic. You can read the entire thing for free here at Project Gutenberg.
Want a bit more naughty kind of fun? 😉 Try these vintage 1930s Halloween pin-ups, which helped to cement Halloween imagery in popular culture.
- “BOY SCOUTS KEEP ALL-HALLOWS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Nov 01, 1921. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174887224?accountid=3688.
- “1 DEAD, SEVERAL HURT, BY PRANKS OF HALLOWEEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Nov 01, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175043807?accountid=3688.
- “‘TWAS A WILD NIGHT FOR COPS AND FIREMEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 01, 1924. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180569726?accountid=3688.
- “BANE HALLOWEEN SKIDS AS PRANKS PILE UP DAMAGE.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 01, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180525809?accountid=3688.
- “HALLOWEEN FIRES COST ONE LIFE, FRIGHTEN MANY.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 31, 1926. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180841524?accountid=3688.
- Excerpt is found in Lisa Morton’s Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (Reaktion Books Ltd, 2012). P 73.
- “BANE HALLOWEEN.”
- Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (Reaktion Books Ltd, 2012). P 75-76.
- “SEIZE 7 BOYS FOR HALLOWEEN DEATH OF 2 COPS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 02, 1924. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180611416?accountid=3688.
- “BANE HALLOWEEN.”
- “1 DEAD, SEVERAL HURT.”
- “BULLETS QUELL HALLOWEEN RIOT AT PARK DANCE.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 01, 1925. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180722689?accountid=3688.
- BOY POLICE PUT CURB ON PRANKS OF HALLOWEEN. (1925, Nov 02). Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/180720695?accountid=3688
- “FOR A WELL-MANNERED HALLOWEEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 11, 1925. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180678042?accountid=3688.
- “SAFE AND SANE HAILED AS MAGIC FOR HALLOWEEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 26, 1926. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180773035?accountid=3688.
- “CITY’S KIDS FACE SANE HALLOWEEN TEST TOMORROW.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 29, 1926. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180785336?accountid=3688
- Morton, p 76.
- Morton, p 84.
- Morton, p 83.
- Morton, p 77-78.
- http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween and http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-trick-or-treating
- “PLANS COMPLETE TO CUT PRANKS ON HALLOWEEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 21, 1926. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180753285?accountid=3688.
- “North Siders’ Parties Rout Spook Pranks.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 04, 1928. http://search.proquest.com/docview/181009046?accountid=3688.