Trick or Treat: Is There Poison in Your Pixy Stix?

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iStock

Halloween has to be one of the best days on a kid’s calendar. Not only do you get to put on a snappy new costume and pretend to be a monster, superhero, or princess, but you also get free candy just for ringing doorbells. Seriously, what could be better than that?

Of course, when kids start wolfing down their treats, there’s always one grim specter lurking in the back of parents' minds: what if some madman had filled their candy with poison, razor blades, needles, or some other decidedly terrifying foreign substance? But has this actually ever happened? Let’s take a look at how realistic these fears are.

Has anyone ever really handed out poisoned Halloween candy?

To random children? Not that we know of. In 1974, an eight-year-old Houston boy named Timothy O’Bryan died after eating cyanide-laced Pixy Stix while trick-or-treating. Although the poisoning initially looked like it might have been the work of a deranged homeowner, the investigation into O’Bryan’s murder soon centered on his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan.

A bit of digging revealed that Ronald O’Bryan had recently taken out hefty life insurance policies on both of his children, and police quickly built a case, albeit a circumstantial one, that O’Bryan had given both Timothy and his daughter, Elizabeth, the poison candy to try to collect on the policies. To help cover his tracks, O’Bryan also gave two other children cyanide Pixy Stix. Luckily, his daughter and the other two children had passed up the poisoned powders in favor of other treats.

O’Bryan was eventually convicted and executed for murdering his son. While his crime was certainly a horrific one, it was hardly the sort of random poisoning that parents fear.

So nobody’s ever died from poisoned Halloween candy?

By all indications, no. Snopes has collected an impressive array of stories where randomly poisoned Halloween candy was blamed for deaths, though. In 1970, a five-year-old in Detroit died after ingesting a massive amount of heroin. Tests on his Halloween candy showed that some had been sprinkled with the drug, but the police actually learned the tragic truth behind the boy’s death. He had stumbled across his uncle’s heroin stash and mistakenly eaten it. His family then sprinkled the drug on the boy’s Halloween candy to throw off investigators.

Why so many scares, then?

It’s easy to see how these urban legends have taken hold because they’re so terrifying. After all, parents spend 364 days of every year telling their kids not to take candy from strangers precisely because it might be poisoned, then give the thumbs-up to taking snacks from every house in the neighborhood on Halloween. It’s only natural that parents would get a little nervous. Plus, after the terrifyingly random Tylenol murders of 1982 where seven Chicagoland people died after taking randomly poisoned pain medication, many people have been more than a little nervous about crazed poisoners.

Of course, the scares get a real boost every few years when someone, often a parent, dies while eating Halloween candy or immediately afterwards. Statistically, you’d expect just as many people to randomly drop dead on Halloween as any other day of the year, but any time a parent has a fatal heart attack after eating a miniature Butterfinger, the poison candy scourge gets the blame until the autopsy results come back. Everything from heart failure to fatal bacterial infections have been initially blamed on poisoned candy.

Okay, so there’s probably no poison in my kids’ Halloween candy. What about razor blades and needles?

Now here’s what you should really be worried about. Actually, “really be worried about” is too strong of a wording; let’s say this is what should mildly concern you. Unlike randomly poisoned candy, there are verified reports of sharp objects being placed in random trick-or-treaters’ candy. Fortunately, though, these incidents hardly qualify as an epidemic. In fact, they’re really, really rare.

According to Snopes, since 1959 there have been around 80 reports of sharp objects adulterating food. The great bulk of those reports turned out to be hoaxes, and even when the stories turned out to be true, the needles or blades were usually placed in the food by a relative or friend who had a really boneheaded idea of what constitutes a good prank. Hardly the sort of crazed loners who should be keeping us awake at night.

Moreover, compared to cyanide poisonings, the potential downside of biting into a sharp object is fairly low. The worst of these verified reports resulted in someone needing to get a few stitches to close a cut in the mouth. While that would certainly be enough to ruin your day, and you should obviously still inspect your child's bag of Halloween loot, it’s not quite as terrifying as keeling over with a Jolly Rancher in your mouth.

Has anyone been caught for one of these needle attacks?

Despite decades of parental worry, the first organized attempt to spoil Halloween with sharp objects didn’t happen until 2000. That year James Joseph Smith of Minneapolis allegedly stuck needles in the Snickers bars he handed out to trick-or-treaters. While several of the children bit into Smith’s nefarious bars, he could hardly claim a huge victim toll. The only injury was to a teenager who was pricked by one of the needles, and even he didn’t need to go see a doctor for his relatively small wound. Police charged Smith with one count of adulterating a substance with intent to cause death, harm or illness.

Anything else weird turn up in Halloween candy?

How about pot? In 2000, parents began finding an odd trick mixed into their children’s treats: Snickers wrappers stuffed with marijuana. Police jumped on the case and quickly traced the wacky chocolates back to a homeowner who seemed truly confused about the whole hullabaloo.

Eventually, the police and the homeowner pieced together what had happened. The man worked in the dead letter office at a local postal facility, and when he found a bag of Snickers in a lost package, he brought them home to give out as treats. He hadn’t realized, though, that the candy bars were actually someone’s attempt at smuggling pot through the mail.

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The Arlington National Cemetery Just Opened Its Time Capsule from 1915—See What’s Inside

That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
Arlington National Cemetery, YouTube

In the decades following the Civil War, thousands of people assembled in Arlington National Cemetery’s James R. Tanner Amphitheater to honor the fallen soldiers each May on Decoration Day (which we now call Memorial Day). By the early 20th century, the event had grown so popular that Congress agreed to build a new, larger arena in its place: the Memorial Amphitheater.

When President Woodrow Wilson laid the cornerstone on October 13, 1915, it contained a copper box with documents and mementos that captured the spirit of the era. Though the contents weren’t kept a secret, you can now actually see them for yourself—on May 15, 2020, Arlington National Cemetery celebrated the centennial of the amphitheater’s dedication ceremony by opening the time capsule and displaying them in a virtual exhibit.

Inside the box was one of each coin used in 1915; uncirculated stamps bearing images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; an autographed photo of Wilson; a Bible signed by amphitheater architect Thomas Hastings; the dedication ceremony program; directories of both Congress and Washington D.C. residents; Civil War veterans’ pamphlets; four issues of local newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Washington Times; copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; an American flag; and a map of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s blueprints for building the city.

As Smithsonian.com reports, a few of those documents became outdated soon after being sealed in the box. The 1915 version of the Constitution had 17 amendments, but two new ones had been passed by the end of 1920: the 18th, prohibiting alcohol, and the 19th, giving women the right to vote. The American flag, on the other hand, was already inaccurate when it went into the time capsule. Though Arizona and New Mexico had both been annexed in 1912, bringing the state total to 48, the flag only included 46 stars.

Some of the items were wrapped in red tape, a seemingly insignificant detail that Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero found especially exciting.

“All of the records in the National Archives, when they were moved into that building, were carefully protected with wrappings that were held together with this red tape,” he said in a statement. “This is where the saying comes (from) about cutting through the red tape. It is actually—literally—the red tape.”

For the last few decades, the copper box shared its hollow cornerstone abode with another, less official time capsule: A Peter Pan-brand peanut butter jar, stuffed with business cards and other notes. The box had been relocated to the National Archives while the amphitheater underwent repairs in 1974, and the workers snuck the jar into the hollow when replacing it during the 1990s.

“It was sort of a rush job,” conservator Caitlin Smith told The Washington Post. “But you can understand the impulse to add your name to history.”

You can learn more about the history of the Memorial Amphitheater and discover more about the exhibit here.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]