Hauntingly PENNSYLVANIA, Where History and Hauntings Meet

A Brief History of Halloween in Pennsylvania

© 2013, updated 2019, Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved. Permission Required for Re-Use or Distribution.

W hat we today regard as stereotypical Halloween customs - trick-or-treating, carved pumpkins, store shelves brimming with costumes in July - are fairly recent developments. Pennsylvanians did not commonly acknowledge Halloween until the 1850's, and subsequent decades were marred by mayhem.

Early on, boys celebrated All Hallow's Eve with destructive tricks such as erecting fences across main streets, removing steps from staircases, pelting window panes with dried corn kernels and slamming heads of cabbage against doors. Indeed, so prevalent was the use of cabbage in Halloween rampages that newspapers took to reminding Pennsylvania farmers to harvest their crops in advance of October 31st.

In 1875, one cabbage-throwing assault in Scranton ended tragically. Fourteen-year-old Henry Kelly's incessant pelting of the home of 17-year-old Anthony Scanlon Jr. was, for the family inside, unbearable. Scanlon stepped outside to upbraid Kelly and the fight turned physical. While exchanging punches, a knife hidden in Kelly's sleeve caught Scanlon in the neck. The doctor was called, but Scanlon died before he arrived on the scene.

As young men went to greater extremes to outdo one another, reports of injuries and property damage increased. In Pittsburgh in 1890, a hardware store owner arrived at his shop the day after Halloween to find that three of his stoves had been broken. Philip Doyle's fully loaded wagon of coal was rolled down a steep hill and lay smashed and scattered. Amos Roberts, an apparently unwilling attendee of the new Franklin neighborhood schoolhouse, was enthusiastically dismantling its stone wall when an officer found him and took him to the Eleventh Street station.

The number of lawsuits and arrests rose annually as Halloween tricks turned more deadly. In one case, a Lawrence County boy by the name of Richard McElevy, while helping his cohorts tip over a privy, fell and drowned in the cesspool behind the outhouse. In another sad incident in Oxford, Chester County, six boys erected a "dead-tall" - the full-sized, dead trunk of a tree - in the middle of the street. While meant to cause only a minor inconvenience, the prank resulted in the death of a four-year-old child whose body was crushed when the tree fell.

In an attempt to regain control, parents and town fathers set out to create a safe environment for Halloween celebrations. In the early 1880's it became acceptable for children to dress in scary masks and bedevil street pedestrians in a far more gentle fashion than did the pranksters before them. Halloween parties were the rage among the wealthy, and superstitions now took center stage in the holiday's festivities. Most children bob for apples, for instance - although few know this originated as a means to determine which girl would marry the most handsome boy in town.

The commercialization of Halloween started when shop owners realized that the word itself served as an effective attention-grabber in newspaper ads. Though nineteenth century merchants were not yet hawking Halloween candy, mention of the holiday reminded men and women of the fast-approaching need for fall clothing and other cold-weather wares.

Pumpkins are today synonomous with Halloween, but one of the earliest incidents involving these modern mainstays occurred in 1888. Several boys irreverently hoisted an oversized orange gourd atop the Prohibition Pole at Dempseytown, Venango County - one prank that undoubtedly more than a few adults enjoyed immensely.

By the late 1890's confectioners were advertising almonds, walnuts, pecans, and peanut taffy as "must haves" for the family's Halloween "Feast of Fun" - but it is not until the 1920's that we find mention of trick-or-treat nights and news of parades.

Perhaps as a means of counterbalancing the fear and loss created by World War II, it was during the 1940's that Halloween - with its playfulness and encouraged overindulgence - finally achieved the universal popularity it enjoys today. 💀

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