Where Did the Fear of Poisoned Halloween Candy Come From? | Smithsonian
Worried about your kid's Halloween candy being poisoned? Don't be. (Kevin Krejci)

Where Did the Fear of Poisoned Halloween Candy Come From?

The answer, as always, is to blame the media

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On October 31, 1983, advice columnist Abigail Van Buren—better known as “Dear Abby”—published a Halloween-themed column titled “A Night of Treats, not Tricks.” In that column, she wanted to “remind [readers] that,” among other things, “[s]omebody’s child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade.” Twelve years later, advice columnist Ann Landers (who, by the way, was Dear Abby’s sister) also wrote a Halloween article—“Twisted minds make Halloween a dangerous time”—echoing that concern. “In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy,” Landers wrote. “It is no longer safe to let your child eat treats that come from strangers.”

Although there have been reports of razor blades and other foreign objects embedded in Halloween candy (or apples—although anyone giving out an apple on Halloween is already suspect), these dangers are almost always obvious with the most cursory glance.

What about poison, which, being invisible and generally hard to detect, is the more nefarious way to taint candy? You have little reason to be concerned there either. Landers stated, “many reports” of such terrible acts have occurred, however, they are almost entirely the stuff of myth.

Almost entirely.

For nearly 30 years, University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best has been investigating allegations of strangers poisoning kids’ Halloween candy. As of this writing, he hasn’t identified a single confirmed example of a stranger murdering a child in this fashion.

He found other examples of people accidentally passing out tainted candy or, in one case, passing out ant poison as a gag gift to teenagers (no one was hurt), but the bogeyman of terrible people making trick-or-treating unsafe is a canard. One example of a person trying, explicitly, to poison children via Halloween candy was confirmed. However, the child who died wasn’t a stranger—it was the man’s son.

On Halloween, 1974, an 8-year-old boy named Timothy O’Bryan died. His candy had, indeed, been poisoned. A few days prior, his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, took out a $40,000 life insurance policy on Timothy and Timothy’s sister, Elizabeth (then age 5), as an unimaginable way to get out of debt. The only way to collect required that at least one of his children die, so the elder O’Bryan laced some Pixy Stix with cyanide and cajoled his son into eating one before bed.

As murder would negate the insurance policy, the father had to cover his tracks. Already showing a wanton disregard for the lives of others—children, at that—he decided to potentially kill a few. He distributed some of the tainted candy to at least four other children (including his daughter), according to the Houston Chronicle, setting up the story that a neighborhood madman or demented factory worker had caused the tragic death of his son. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful. None of the other children ended up eating the poison, in part due to a quick reaction from authorities and in part due to dumb luck—an 11-year-old tried to eat the sugar in the Pixy Stix he received, but could not undo the staples that O’Bryan had used to reseal the package.

As tragic as this story is, it is the only known example of a person intentionally poisoning Halloween candy and providing it to neighborhood trick-or-treaters. And Ronald Clark O’Bryan won’t be poisoning any more candy—the state of Texas executed him in 1984.

Bonus Fact

You probably have some cyanide in your kitchen, and no, it’s not in the Pixy Stix or other candy. It’s in your fruit bin. The seeds of apples, mangos, and peaches contain trace elements of the poison. (But don’t worry—your body can handle small doses of cyanide. You would have to eat a dozen or two apple cores in a single meal in order to feel any meaningful effects.)

Excerpted from Now I Know: The Revealing Stories Behind the World's Most Interesting Facts Copyright © 2013 by Dan Lewis and published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

About the Author:

Dan Lewis is a father, husband, Mets fan, lawyer, and trivia buff. He writes a daily e-mail called "Now I Know," which began in June of 2010 with twenty subscribers and now boasts nearly 100,000. A proud graduate of Tufts University and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, he's currently a digital strategist for a well-known children's company. You can sign up for his newsletter at www.NowIKnow.com.

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