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Tainted Halloween candy: What's behind the urban legend?

Rumors of evil-doers handing out tainted candy to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters have been around for decades. Parents around the country warn their children and comb through their Halloween hauls looking out for treats containing poison, razors or drugs.

However, tales of tainted Halloween candy seem to be nothing more than urban legend.

  • Jason Carr will host a live discussion at 11:30 a.m.

Here are the key points:

Origins

  • In 1964 , a Long Island woman was accused of handing out poison to trick-or-treaters in what she thought to be a joke.
    • Helen Pfeil , 47, allegedly handed out ant buttons containing arsenic, steel wool pads and dog biscuits.
    • Pfeil’s husband told reporters that his wife had given the items to children who she deemed too old to be trick-or-treating. She thought of it as a joke, and had told the children it was a joke, her husband said.
    • No one was harmed by Mrs. Pfeil’s “joke.” She said she had no malicious intent.
  • In 1974 , an 8-year-old in Houston died after reportedly consuming arsenic-containing Pixie Stix . An investigation determined that he was given the candy by his own father.
    • 8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan returned from trick-or-treating and was allowed one treat before bed. He chose a Pixie Stix tube given to him by his father, Ronald O’Bryan . Less than an hour later, the boy was dead.
    • An autopsy revealed the cause of death as cyanide poisoning. Tests later found that the top two inches of the Pixie Stix tube had been packed with the poison.
    • As the investigation continued, evidence began to mount against Ronald O’Bryan . It was soon discovered that he had taken out life insurance policies on both his children earlier in the year.
    • Ronald O’Bryan was found guilty on charge of capital murder and four counts of attempted murder.

The Chicago Tylenol Poisonings

  • In 1982, seven people were killed after someone laced Tylenol capsules with potassium cyanide.
    • The perpetrator was never caught.
    • Tamper-proof packaging for medications became a standard after the incident.
  • The story broke on October 1, and parents quickly began having concerns about sending their children out to collect treats from strangers later that month.
  • At least one community banned trick-or-treating that year. Other communities urged residents to hand out small toys or money instead of candy or food.
  • Read more: How the Chicago Tylenol Poisonings Almost Destroyed Halloween

Urban legend

  • Parents have long expressed concerns over tales of poisoned candy or treats stuck with razor blades being handed out to children at random on Halloween.
  • Although there have been reports of candy tampering over the years, nearly all of them have been debunked as hoaxes, or attempts at “pranks” by friends or relatives.
    • In 1968 , the state legislature in New Jersey passed a law mandating prison terms for anyone caught tempering apples.
    • On Halloween of that year, thirteen apples with razor blades inside were found in five counties.
    • Upon investigating the reported cases, officials found that they were hoaxes devised by kids or parents.
  • The only incident of a child being injured by tainted candy handed out at random occurred in 2000 .
    • James Joseph Smith of Minneapolis was charged with one count of adulterating a substance with intent to cause death, harm or illness after he put needles into candy bars and handed them out.
    • One child was pricked by a needle when he bit into a candy bar. He was not seriously injured.
    • No other injuries were reported in connection to the incident.

Drugs in candy

  • In 2000 , marijuana disguised as Snickers bars was unwittingly given out to several trick-or-treaters in Hercules, California, according to police.
    • The drugs were handed out by a postal worker who obtained them from an undeliverable package. He found what appeared to be Snickers bars, but did not realize that there was marijuana inside the wrappers.
    • Investigators determined it was a failed attempt to ship 5 ounces of marijuana through the mail.
    • Police were convinced that the worker had made an honest mistake, and he was not charged.
  • Last year , a 5-year-old in Ohio had a seizure after returning home from trick-or-treating and was rushed to the hospital where he tested positive for meth.
    • The boy’s father, Cambray Carwell , suggested that tainted Halloween candy was to blame.
    • Authorities searched Carwell’s apartment and found methamphetamine. He was charged with tampering with evidence and drug possession.
  • There have been no reported cases of someone intentionally handing out drugs to random children as Halloween candy.
  • Despite this, police departments across the country continue to warn parents about the dangers of drug laced edibles.
    • Earlier this month , the Johnstown Police Department in Johnstown, Pennsylvania urged parents to be “ever vigilant” about their children’s Halloween candy after they found THC-containing edibles during a drug bust.
    • Officers seized 60 pounds of marijuana along with nearly 400 Nerds Ropes containing THC.
    • The department said they wanted to “draw extra attention to the Nerds Rope edibles,” apparently concerned that they may have been intended for trick-or-treaters.
    • Asked by Rolling Stone whether there was any evidence that the candy was intended to be distributed to children, Captain Chad Miller said there was “absolutely no evidence.”

About the Author:

Brian Newlin

Brian is an Associate Producer for ClickOnDetroit. He graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn with a degree in Journalism and Screen Studies.