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Mythbusters: Halloween Edition

Do people really poison the Halloween candy that they give out?

“Sorry, honey, but you have to throw it away. It’s just not safe.”

I’ve certainly heard that line many a Halloween, and no doubt many other trick-or-treaters have, too. The premise: Someone diabolical has laced your Halloween candy with an illicit substance, and the only way for any loving parent to protect their child is to force them to throw all of their handmade goodies that they just brought home into the trash. An unfortunate reality, but one that has to happen . . . right? The American public sure thinks so, as handmade handouts on Halloween have been on the decline for decades in favor of prepackaged candy bars. But is there any truth to this myth? I’m sure that many of us have questioned whether the sweet, 90-year-old lady down the street is really out for your hide or not. Never fear, though; I aim to make this myth one that won’t come back from the grave every 31st of October.


The whole world of poisoned-candy panic can be traced all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. After all, candy that used to be made in the back of your local mom-and-pop was now manufactured miles away and shipped to your hometown in fairly unregulated conditions. Parents were understandably worried, so in the 1890s, the US Bureau of Chemistry went on a manhunt for any poison that could have possibly made its way into the fledgling candy industry and found . . . nothing. Sure, there was the occasional case of food poisoning, but these could all be chalked up to improper storage or untreated preparation vessels. No poison. No industrial waste. No garbage. Nothing. Their fears allayed, parents spent the next 60 years confident that their kids’ candy was safe.

The Resurgence

Then, in 1959, things started to take a turn for the worse when California’s William Shine started to give out candy-coated laxative pills, leftovers from his dentistry practice, for Halloween. He was promptly caught and arrested, but the damage to public confidence was done. When some disgruntled Long Islanders tried to dissuade trick-or-treaters by giving out steel wool and dog biscuits a few years later, the nation started panicking. Newspapers ravenously jumped onto the trend, “exposing” lye-filled bubble gum in Detroit and rat poison in Philadelphia with little (if any) actual evidence to go off of. Despite rational people consistently disproving the existence of any real poisons in the candy, panic prevailed for decades, so much so that the 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders, where poison was surreptitiously added to a batch of over-the-counter meds, were lumped in with the hysteria, despite the fact that their only relevance to the candy crisis was that they took place in October. Fear was now the norm, and with the chances of another government-backed investigation into every possible incident slim to none, there was no convincing the average person that their children were safe from potential predators. Every neighbor could be a serial killer in the making, and it’s been “better safe than sorry” ever since. A question arises, though: Just who was sorry in the first place? After all, if everyone’s pointing fingers in a fit of mass hysteria, what’s better to point at than a scapegoat? “Don’t do it, or you’ll end up just like them.” Let’s find out just who they are.

B-b-but what about…

I don’t know about you, but the old “Well, there might be poison/drugs/pins in there” explanation always felt a bit flimsy. When faced with this opinion, though, parents always manage to hit back with a four-year-old’s worst nightmare: a real-life example! While many may have their own version of the story, the heart of everyone’s cautionary tale always manages to boil down to one of five unfortunate souls who certainly seemed to be poisoned on an otherwise innocent day of tricks and treats. But is that what really happened?

. . . Kevin Toston?

In 1970, word got ’round that five-year-old Kevin Toston fell into a coma one November afternoon in Detroit when he ate a piece of his Halloween candy whose powdered sugar topping turned out to be a lethal dose of heroin in disguise. Four days later, he was dead, and though everyone believed it to be a random act of child endangerment at first, his bereaved parents left out one crucial detail in their story: Kevin’s uncle was a massive drug addict. When the heroin in the candy was determined to be from his uncle’s supply, everything suddenly made a lot more sense, although no one seemed to bother spreading the true account of events with nearly as much vigor as the first.

. . . Timothy O’Brian?

Ah, the story that I personally grew up on. Deer Park, Texas, 1974. Eight-year-old Timothy O’Brian sits down to have some of his favorite Halloween candy: Pixy Stix. One tube of cyanide-laced sugar later, Timothy is abruptly dead and people want answers. Before the police were able to properly investigate, however, the neighbors started crafting their own theories as to the identity of the culprit, and didn’t hesitate to set a wave of gossip in motion that never truly ceased. The obvious answer to the police was to find out who gave Timothy that Stik, but as they investigated, they soon figured out that only one person was handing out that kind of Pixy Stix that night: Timothy’s own father, Ronald. When other laced Stix from Ronald’s supply were found, it seemed that everyone had their answer–a psycho who unfortunately took out his own son in his murdering spree . . . until Ronald attempted to claim a life insurance policy on Timothy that was a little too convenient, in everyone’s opinion. A little further digging revealed that the other Stix were simply decoys for the premediated murder of Timothy, a crime for which Ronald was executed in 1984. Wholly depressing, but at least not the random act of violence it was made out to be.

. . . Patrick Wiederhold?

In 1978, Flint, Michigan erupted when two-year-old Patrick Wiederhold died after eating what anyone would consider to be a batch of perfectly normal Halloween candy. The police immediately suspected poison (because who doesn’t, in these stories?), but after extensive toxicology work, investigators were left scratching their heads over a pile of now-scientifically-proven-to-be-normal Halloween candy. The search for anything suspicious about the situation was extensive, until someone realized one obvious fact that everyone had missed: the volume of the evidence. There was a lot of candy there, and it wasn’t hard to find out that that was after Patrick had already eaten a decent amount. In the end, health experts agreed: Patrick had simply eaten too much candy for a two-year-old body to handle. Sugar was the only poison to be found in this case.

. . . Ariel Katz?

Ariel Katz was just seven years old when she collapsed in the middle of Santa Monica on Halloween, 1990. The press, being the press, quickly rushed to blame a phantom poisoner out to get the children of California. However, the truth was decidedly less interesting, and therefore less newsworthy: congestive heart failure caused by congenital enlargement. Considering the fact that she was born with the condition, police verification of her parents’ story was quick and easy, and although it was an open-and-shut case, word of the poisoner (that didn’t exist at all) somehow made its way into circulation. In the end, sensationalism won out, and an untraceable poison left by an unidentified killer became the version of events that people have remembered for the past four decades.

. . . Tiffaney Troung?

In 2001, Tiffaney Troung of Vancouver was feeling tired, and not without good reason: she and her sisters had just gotten back from trick-or-treating and had eaten enough candy to be sick. The problem came when the sisters quickly recovered from their temporary sugar craving, while Tiffaney, unfortunately, stayed sick. In fact, she quickly deteriorated and was hospitalized the next day, too late to prevent heart failure that afternoon. While poison was the police’s (and the media’s) first suspect, toxicology came up negative, and after further examination of the body, it turned out that a streptococcus infection led to rheumatic fever, though it remains a mystery whether she obtained the infection from her candy or from some other source that fateful night.

In the end . . .

Well, there you have it. Careful investigation: 5. Mass hysteria: 0. Sensationalism may have its swing, but there is simply no proof that children’s Halloween candy is laced with anything harmful on a regular basis. Even the odd incidents that happen about once per decade rarely result in poison, drugs, or razor blades being the true culprit. That being said, parents are fully within their rights to be worried for the safety of their child, and everyone should be careful eating something that you just got from a stranger down the street. But mass panic? Throwing candy away? Incredibly convoluted alternatives to trick-or-treating? I’ll pass, resting easy with the knowledge that in the grand scheme of things, people simply don’t poison the candy that they give out on Halloween.

This myth is: busted. Happy Halloween!

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