How a Person Who Poisoned Bottles of Tylenol Almost Killed Halloween

 
Two days before Halloween in 1982, a 28-year-old Long Island resident named Frank Comunale reportedly sunk his teeth into a Cadbury Carmello candy bar and immediately felt a pinch. Pulling the candy out, he noticed that a straight pin had been inserted into it, cutting his cheek.

That same day, a group of schoolchildren in Somerdale, New Jersey were hospitalized after ingesting phencyclidine, also known as PCP or angel dust. It had been sprinkled over the Tootsie Rolls that were available at a school party.

In Nashua, New Hampshire, a man was arrested over suspicion that he had been trying to insert broken glass into an apple. In Ottawa, lye dust was reported in chewing gum. Local and national media blazed with reports over cities and communities in hysterics over what appeared to be an epidemic of product tampering.

In light of these threats—some real, many more imagined—parents and officials took drastic action. All across the country, trick-or-treating was being banned or severely restricted. Candy and costume sales plummeted. Conservative religious pundits seized the opportunity to rally against the holiday.

As some very disappointed children looked on, the adults were in the process of canceling Halloween.

There had long been fear on the part of parents and guardians over product tampering for trick-or-treating. Tradition called for them to trust strangers who deposited candy or apples into their child’s bag. Outside their immediate circle of trusted neighbors, there was suspicion that the odd or eccentric homeowner three blocks away might use Halloween as an opportunity to sicken solicitors.

In truth, there had been only a very few confirmed cases of Halloween candy poisoning, with the most infamous coming in 1974. That was the year a man named Ronald O’Bryan slipped poison into his own son’s candy, hoping to collect on an insurance payout by blaming some sinister stranger. To bolster his case, he even tried to poison the Pixy Stix of his daughter and their friends. They wound up not eating them; his son, Timothy, did. He died later that night.

O’Bryan was caught, tried, convicted, and eventually executed for the crime, lending credence to the idea that candy could be a source of victimization. But it wasn’t until seven people died in Chicago in late September 1982 that Halloween hysteria reached new heights.

In Chicago, packages of Tylenol found on store shelves had been opened and laced with cyanide. The tampering killed seven people and led to a national concern over whether the perpetrator would strike again or whether copycats would begin an effort to create even more panic.

The Tylenol tragedy’s proximity to Halloween proved to be devastating. Stores across the country reported sales of Halloween candy were dropping by 20 to 50 percent. Sales of cheap plastic costumes by manufacturers like Ben Cooper experienced similar crashes. The economy of spooky was taking a hit.

Although several incidents appeared to be true poisoning attempts, others were fueled by the paranoia started by the Tylenol incident. In Illinois, a 9-year-old boy bit into a candy and grew fearful when he noticed a metal shard embedded in it. Closer examination revealed it was one of the boy's fillings. In Los Angeles, a stadium of high school football attendees seemed to fall ill at almost precisely the same time, with 126 shuttled to an area hospital. Only three were physically sick, leading authorities to call it a case of mass hysteria.

City officials in Vineland, New Jersey weren’t taking chances. Mayor Patrick Fiorilli canceled Halloween outright, prohibiting anyone from soliciting candy door-to-door on October 31. Suburban areas in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Massachusetts followed suit. Those that didn’t encouraged hospitals to provide X-ray equipment so parents could screen candy for metal objects. In Chicago, the epicenter of the panic, a million leaflets were distributed with a list of Halloween safety tips.

As one 9-year-old boy told his father, as reported by the United Press International: “I'm not going trick-or-treating this year because they're putting cyanide in the candy.”

thepeachmartini via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

No one was ever charged with the 1982 murders. And as the Tylenol story began to fade from view, outright prohibitions on celebrating Halloween disappeared. But through the 1980s, the holiday had never quite regained its sense of fun or popularity. Costume makers specializing in cheap goods went out of business, putting an end to the kind of sharp plastic masks and baggy coveralls that once dotted city streets.

Halloween survived by evolving. Candy makers that once used tiny air holes in packaging began making sealed bags. As parents fretted over strangers, they began to host private parties in greater numbers. With costumes seen up close, demand grew for more durable and elaborate outfits. Adults who got a disguise in order to host kid parties began to have a desire to host one for adults, too. In the early part of the decade, adult costumes made up only 10 percent of the market. By 1989, the number was up to approximately 50 percent. Costume makers who had nearly gone out of business were now enjoying record profits by catering to a brand-new demographic. While the tampering had nearly destroyed Halloween, it was also indirectly responsible for reviving it.

Banner image courtesy of iStock.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
Triple7Deals

This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

Buy it: $20 for four (50 percent off)

2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
BetaFresh

You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

Buy it: $50 for 10 (50 percent off)

3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
XtremeTime

These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

Buy it: $13 for 10 (50 percent off)

4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

A batch of disposable masks.
Odash, Inc.

If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

Polyester protective masks.
Triple7Deals

These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

Buy it: $22 for five (56 percent off)

6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

Protective mask case.
Triple7Deals

You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

Buy it: $15 for three (50 percent off)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There's more than one Independence Day in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced enslaved people were now free. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth across the nation. Here's what you should know about the historic event and celebration.

1. Enslaved people had already been emancipated—they just didn’t know it.

The June 19 announcement came more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. So technically, from the Union's perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it, and no one was in a rush to inform them.

2. There are many theories as to why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t enforced in Texas.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

News traveled slowly back in those days—it took Confederate soldiers in western Texas more than two months to hear that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Still, some have struggled to explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the enslaved people’s freedom, leading to speculation that some Texans suppressed the announcement. Other theories include that the original messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being relayed or that the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to Texas to get one more cotton harvest out of the enslaved workers. But the real reason is probably that Lincoln's proclamation simply wasn't enforceable in the rebel states before the end of the war.

3. The announcement actually urged freedmen and freedwomen to stay with their former owners.

General Order No. 3, as read by General Granger, said:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

4. What followed was known as “the scatter.”


Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Most freedpeople weren't terribly interested in staying with the people who had enslaved them, even if pay was involved. In fact, some were leaving before Granger had finished making the announcement. What followed became known as "the scatter,," when droves of former enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.

5. Not all enslaved people were freed instantly.

Texas is a large state, and General Granger's order (and the troops needed to enforce it) were slow to spread. According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers deliberately suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867 there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one report of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.

6. Freedom created other problems.

Despite the announcement, Texas slave owners weren't too eager to part with what they felt was their property. When freedpeople tried to leave, many of them were beaten, lynched, or murdered. "They would catch [freed slaves] swimming across [the] Sabine River and shoot them," a former enslaved person named Susan Merritt recalled.

7. There were limited options for celebrating.

A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
2C2KPhotography, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When freedpeople tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement a year later, they were faced with a problem: Segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and there were no public places or parks they were permitted to use. So, in the 1870s, former enslaved people pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed "Emancipation Park." It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.

8. Juneteenth celebrations waned for several decades.

It wasn't because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom—but, as Slate so eloquently put it, "it's difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides." Juneteenth celebrations waned during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the Poor People's March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was purposely scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.

9. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

Texas deemed the holiday worthy of statewide recognition in 1980, becoming the first state to do so.

10. Juneteeth is still not a federal holiday.

Though most states now officially recognize Juneteenth, it's still not a national holiday. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, though it didn't pass then or while he was president. One supporter of the idea is 93-year-old Opal Lee—in 2016, when she was 90, Lee began walking from state to state to draw attention to the cause.

11. The Juneteenth flag is full of symbolism.

a mock-up of the Juneteenth flag
iStock

Juneteenth flag designer L.J. Graf packed lots of meaning into her design. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag to symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas, while the bursting "new star" on the "horizon" of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people.

12. Juneteenth traditions vary across the U.S.

As the tradition of Juneteenth spread across the U.S., different localities put different spins on celebrations. In southern states, the holiday is traditionally celebrated with oral histories and readings, "red soda water" or strawberry soda, and barbecues. Some states serve up Marcus Garvey salad with red, green, and black beans, in honor of the black nationalist. Rodeos have become part of the tradition in the southwest, while contests, concerts, and parades are a common theme across the country.