Cassidy Baldwin1 and William Rushton1,2
1. University of Alabama Birmingham School of Medicine
2. Alabama Poison Information Center, Children’s of Alabama
Fear of poisoned candy remains pervasive with many worried patient’s and guardians with presentation to health care facilities for concerned for tainted sweets during October. This phenomenon is known as Halloween sadism and refers to the concern of strangers passing out contaminated candy to innocent trick-or-treaters. In a survey from 2011, 24% of parents expressed concern about poisoned Halloween candy (which was higher than fears of abduction or falls).1 Yet, the historical literature reports only few isolated cases over the last 150 years which are summarized below.
Bradford Sweets Poisoning, 1858 2
In 1858, William Hardaker found himself in the middle of a massive candy poisoning incident. Hardaker, also colloquially known as “Humbug Billy,” operated a market stall in Bradford, Yorkshire, England where he sold various confectionaries. One such item was a popular licorice treat, humbugs, that he bought from local candymaker, Joseph Neal. In 19th century England, sugar was an expensive luxury item, prompting Neal to substitute sugar with “daff” – a white tasteless, odorless gypsum powder made from limestone sulphate mix. In October 1858, Neal bought his daft from the local druggist, Charles Hodgson. However, Hodgson made a fatal mistake and confused the gypsum powder with another white powder – arsenic. Twelve pounds of arsenic was thus incorporated into the 40 pounds of peppermint humbugs Neal made and sold to Hardaker. Although Hardaker noticed the candy had an unusual color, he still sold 5 pounds at market. Each humbug he sold contained an estimated 600 mg of arsenic (the lethal dose of arsenic is ~100-300 mg), resulting in 200 people falling ill and 21 ultimately dying. This tragic event inspired the passage of legislation preventing adulteration of food.
Trick or Treat Dentist, 1959 3,4
On Halloween night 1959, a California dentist had much more sinister intentions. For the unfortunate children that visited Dr. William Shyne’s house that evening, he passed out handfuls of white heart-shaped, sugar coated “candy.” Later that night local children experienced vomiting and diarrhea after consuming the treats. It was quickly discovered Dr. Shyne’s candies were actually laxatives. Approximately 30 children developed symptoms of GI upset, but none were seriously harmed. As a result of his actions, Dr. Shyne was charged with outrage of public decency and unlawful dispensing of drugs; his dental license was revoked for 2 years.
Housewife Haste, 1964 5
The next attempted poisoning occurred in 1964 from Helen Pfeil, a housewife in Long Island, New York. Pfeil gave unsuspecting trick-or-treaters packages wrapped in tin foil labelled “poison” with a skull and crossbones image. These packages contained dog biscuits, steel wool pads, and arsenic-filled ant traps. Ultimately no one consumed the items, and no one was harmed from the incident. When asked about her intentions, she reported that she targeted teenagers that were too old to be out trick-or-treating but denied having malicious intent. Pfeil plead guilty to a charge of children endangerment and was admitted to a state hospital for mental health observation.
The Candy Man, 1974 6
In 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan poisoned his own son with Halloween candy, appropriately dubbing him the “Man who Killed Halloween.” Timothy O’Bryan, an 8-year-old boy from Deer Park, Texas, went trick-or-treating with his father and 5 siblings. While out, Mr. O’Bryan presented all 5 children with 21-inch Pixy Stix claiming they came from one of the neighbors. While eating the candy that night, Timothy complained of a bitter taste and shortly after began vomiting and seizing. Within one hour, he was dead. Evidence showed the cause of death to be cyanide poisoning which was traced back to the Pixy Stix. O’Bryan had replaced 2 inches of each 21-inch Pixy Stix with the powerful toxin in hopes of collecting the $40,000 life insurance policy he had recently taken out on his children. O’Bryan was found guilty of capital murder and executed on March 31, 1984.
Despite decades of concern, poisoned Halloween candy is actually very rare. Leading expert on “Halloween sadism,” Dr. Joel Best, has been studying and tracking Halloween candy poisonings since the mid-1980s.7 Best has found no evidence of Halloween candy poisoning from a stranger resulting in serious harm or death. Instead, he believes most stories are unsubstantiated rumors. If there is a clinical concern, ancillary testing should be guided by symptoms such as weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, or hemodynamic instability. Any concern can be discussed with toxicologists available 24/7 at the Alabama Poison Information Center (1-800-222-1222).
- Mickalide AD, Rosenthal KM, Donahue MP. “Halloween Safety: A National Survery of Parents’ Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors.” Washington (DC): Safe Kids Worldwide, October 2011. Available at: https://www.safekids.org/sites/default/files/documents/ResearchReports/halloween-research-report.pdf
- Johnson, B. “Dying for a Humbug, The Bradford Sweets Poisoning 1858.” Historic UK The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Dying-for-Humbug-the-Bradford-Sweets-Poisoning-1858/
- Kawash, S. “Laxatives and the end of Trick of Treating.” CandyProfessor.com October 30, 2009. Available at: https://candyprofessor.com/2009/10/30/laxatives-and-the-end-of-trick-or-treating/
- Silverman, S. “The Trick-or-Treat Dentist – Podcast #98.” Useless Information – Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History. October 19, 2016. Available at: https://uselessinformation.org/william-shyne-dentist/
- Giove, C.M. “LI Woman Remembers Halloween She Got Poison With Candy.” New York Post. October 30, 2011. Available at: https://nypost.com/2011/10/30/li-woman-remembers-halloween-she-got-poison-with-candy/
- “Ronald Clark O’BRYAN.” Murderpedia. Available at: https://murderpedia.org/male.O/o1/obryan-ronald-clark.htm
- Best, J. “Halloween Sadism.” JoelBest.net. Available at: https://www.joelbest.net/halloween-sadism