A Poisoner’s Tale of Halloween
I grew up on a dead-end street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where remnants of swampy forest surrounded the old wood-frame homes. Live oaks lined the streets. Spanish moss dripped from their branches. Snakes coiled under the ancient azaleas that edged the yards.
It was, in fact, the perfect setting for a haunted Halloween night. And there was this one house, you know, where the yard was so dense with bush and tree that it could barely be seen through its thicket of shadow. To trick-or-treat, you walked up the dark sidewalk toward a faint glow on the front porch, just the one lit window. The air hummed with passing insects and the porch creaked like Dracula’s coffin under your feet, the slow, dry eek of old wood.
Reader, you had to beware on Halloween night. Just a block over lived a maniacal dentist who liked to dress up like a werewolf on October 31 and fill his front hall with clouds of drifting fog created by dropping dry ice (super-chilled chunks of carbon dioxide) into water. Bwa-ha-ha, he would chortle as he opened the door, as the chilly wisps of fog drifted out around him.
But this silent house, dressed in darkness, was so much scarier. We children would gather in front of the gate, unable to walk alone through those prowling shadows. The crowd would form on the sidewalk: tiny pillowcase ghosts and jeweled princesses, small pirates and glittery fairies. When someone decided we’d achieved a safe number, we’d start edging toward the green door at the top of the porch steps. Whispering about what the old man who lived there would hand out – what dangerous treats might wait for us there.
This was the 1960s and even then, people told stories, warned their children, about the psychopaths out there who might drop poisoned candy into one’s hands. In the long history of the holiday, truthfully, this has almost never happened. But the very nature of Halloween – the witch at the door, the monster in the closet – lends itself to such ideas. Wasn’t there a crazy woman on Long Island in 1964, after all, who handed out arsenic to trick-or-treaters she thought too old for the candy hunt?
It hardly mattered that as Snopes points out, she didn’t kill anyone. And her deliberate poisoning attempt seems to be an odd exception to the general goodwill of the holiday. The psychopath at the door is an urban myth. Most of the poisonous Halloween stories turn out to be mistakes or far more personal tragedies. The worst is that of a Texas father who murdered his 8-year-old son in 1974 for insurance money.
He did so by putting cyanide into into the fruit-flavored sugar inside a Pixie Stick, one of the child’s favorites. In an attempt to make the death seem like a random poisoning, the father – Ronald Clark O’Bryan – also gave cyanide-laced candy to his daughter and three other children in his Deer Park neighborhood. These other lethal treats were collected by police as (fortunately) the children hadn’t touched them.
O’Bryan – nicknamed The Candyman by the Texas media – was executed by lethal injection 10 years after his son’s death. But people remembered. And they forgot that the worst outbreak of Halloween candy poisoning had nothing to do suspected killers. The biggest poison outbreak – linked to Halloween of 1950 – was simply caused by orange food coloring used by candy manufacturers.
Scores of children across the country fell ill with severe diarrhea and welting rashes after eating candy and popcorn balls tinted by the FDA-approved Orange Dye No. 1 (also known as FD&C Orange No. 1, Acid Orange 20, and Orange 1). The “FD&C” indicates that the dye is used in food, drugs and cosmetics. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Orange 1 was used primarily in candy, cookies, cakes, carbonated beverages, and meat products such as hot dogs.
As federal investigators would discover upon investigation, the dye was also a rash-inducing occupational health hazard. Orange 1 belonged to a group of seven dyes first approved by the federal government in the year 1906, the first year that this country began regulating food safety. All seven of these dyes were coal-tar dyes, derived originally from the hydrocarbon byproducts of processed coal. Orange 1, for instance, contained benzene, today one of our better-known toxic compounds.
But at that Halloween moment in 1950, no one had thought much about colored food. In fact, officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suddenly realized that no one had really taken a good look at these turn-of-the-century food dyes for almost 50 years. The FDA promptly launched an investigation that found that, yes, Orange 1 was definitely poisonous: An oral dose of one gram of the dye per one kilogram of food killed two out of five mice in a day. A 20-week-experiment mixing the dye into rat food killed three of eight test rats.
The researchers also found that manufacturers were tossing the dye into candy corn and sugary little pumpkins with surprising enthusiasm. According to a 1954 article in The New York Times, one piece of candy was 1,500 parts per million pure Orange 1. Two years later, in 1956, the FDA delisted Orange 1 as well as Orange 2 (used to deepen the color of oranges) and Red Dye No. 32. Twelve other food colorings have been delisted since that time. This doesn’t reassure everyone; consumer advocates still worry over the health effects of food coloring.
But – take at least this reassurance: It’s been a long time since we saw children falling ill across the country because they indulged in an extra handful of candy corn, not realizing that its cheerful orange was a signal for trouble. We’re mostly smart enough to realize that regulating food safety offers more protection than worrying about the crazy man behind the door.
Which brings me back to my friends and I hesitating at that shadowy gate on a Halloween night in Louisiana. Let me tell you what happened, Halloween after Halloween. Slowly, we inched down the sidewalk, creaked up the steps, quavered at the door. Slowly, the door pulled open and the slightly tottering elderly man opened the screen to drop glossy red apples into our bags.
Every year it added an extra thrill to the night. But, reader, you had to beware on Halloween night. I’m almost positive they were just bright fall apples. But I’ll never know because our parents wouldn’t let us eat them.
Image: Spanish Moss at Night/freestone/Flickr
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food.
Follow @deborahblum on Twitter.