T H E C A N D Y M A N
There are many variations of this Urban Legend, from the razor blades in the apple stories that swept the nation of the US to the syringes that had been pushed into sweets, or even the Cyanide or rat poison that the Halloween treats had been laced with. These stories leave parents checking through their children’s sweets before giving them back for them to enjoy, some are stopped from going out trick or treating entirely; concluding that it not worth the risk but we must ask ourselves whether these accounts ever actually happened.
As is the case with most Urban Legends, the truth is a mixture of both yes and no, lost amongst the grey, hidden between the black and white tales that spread across the globe. There is a slight egg and chicken conundrum with this, with the legend itself predating some occurrences, bringing forward the notion that they were in fact inspired by the story rather than the other way round which we normally expect to see.
The fears of sharp objects hidden inside the sweets of our children’s treats have haunted the USA for decades, now even venturing out into the UK as the holiday grows here but despite this, the first case as it is known in some iterations of the legends was as recent as the year 2000. This case, although uncomfortable to hear, and a situation that I would never wish to be upon, was relatively small in comparison to what the legends suggest. James Joseph Smith in Minneapolis, USA allegedly stuck small needles into snickers bars that he later handed out to trick-or-treaters. Although this is enough to make us squirm and cringe at the idea of the few children that did bite into it, ultimately only one teenager was pricked by a needle and that prick was so small that it required no medical attention. Even so, James Joseph Smith was rightly charged with one count of adulterating a substance with intent to cause death, harm, or illness.
On the exact same night, Halloween of the year 2000 in California, USA, several parents found snicker wrappers that were stuffed full of marijuana. This would of course be horrifying for parents to imagine - someone purposely handing out drugs to children without their knowledge but once again, the truth was nowhere near as twisted as it first seemed.
Once the police arrived at the home of the man who had handed out the drug-filled wrappers, he was even more confused than the parents. It was eventually concluded that the man worked in a dead letter office at a local postal facility. Whilst there he found a bag of Snickers in an abandoned package and brought them home to give out as treats. What he hadn’t realised was that somebody, somewhere, was trying to smuggle marijuana through the mail and it had got lost along the way. This story was widely accepted and no charges were brought forward to the man in question.
As recent as 2018, a 5-year-old boy in Ohio, USA was tested positive for methamphetamine after a night of trick-or-treating. It was widely considered that a sweet he had obtained on his travels had been laced with the highly addictive drug and a sudden uproar swept the nation. It only took a couple of days for the truth to come out when the police arrested his father, charging him with possession of meth and evidence tampering with Police Chief Brian Saterfield stating ‘While we cannot definitely say how the little boy ingested methamphetamine, we are extremely confident that he did not ingest any candy from trick or treat that was tainted’.
A consistent theme has played in the history of the true cases of his Urban Legend, those that edge so close to the dark stories we hear through the grapevine that happened to a little boy in the next town over - but they never quite prove themselves to fit. This is not to be mistaken for disappointment, the idea that somebody is trying to murder children in today's world by tricking them into ingesting poison through the enticements of holiday spirits is horrifying - but if we go back to the latter half of the 20th century, will what we find be as simple? Or is the dark tale based on more truth than our current stories suggest?
Let us go back to the Halloween night of 1959; the children were strolling up the streets of Glenmoor Gardens residential neighbourhood in California, dressed up in their spookiest outfits as they wandered door to door in the hopes of finding some sugar-filled treats they could take and demolish. It was only when they got home that things got strange, some of the kids parents found cause for alarm when they discovered heart-shaped, sugar-coated, pills at the bottom of their children’s bags. This resulted in the police checking 250 homes and eventually recovering 450 laxatives. The average dosage for an adult was two and yet some of the children had as many as thirty placed into their bags. At least 16 children received pills, with four suffering stomach cramps and vomiting. It was lucky for all of them that the bitter taste that resided inside the aloe pills was so much that they ended up spitting them right out, resulting in none requiring hospitalisation.
Dr William Shyne had been charged with outraging the public decency and endangering the health of children whilst the woman who stood alongside him, giving out the candy to unsuspecting children, Hazel Engelby was charged the same. Eventually though, after months of denial, twists and turns in the court cases and legal loopholes, Ms Engelby was set free with no charges. Dr Shyne was given a 4 month suspended jail sentence, 2-year probation and a fine of $525.
There are many reasons these two foolish individuals could have played such a dangerous game - it was either with the malice and ill intent many suggested was the case - or a prank that they truly believed would be funny. Perhaps they disliked Halloween and wanted to teach those who celebrated it a lesson, there are after all, a lot of people who hate the holiday, completely misunderstanding the beauty and true meanings behind its purpose. Either way, this story came close to a true example of this Urban Legend but, as they usually do, falls short of the tales of the Candyman we hear.
Five years later to the very day, something equally as dark and stupid occurred on the night where the wall between the spirit world and our world is apparently at its thinnest. Elise Drucker, her sister Irene, and a friend were out in New York, USA to gather the sweets they could during their trick or treating session of the year. They were teenagers by this point but were still enjoying the spooky events and excitement that came from Halloween night and it didn’t bother them.
That was until they knocked on the door of Helen Pfeil, who answered and questioned their age, suggesting they were a little too old to still be trick or treating. Helen, who had teenagers of her own, dropped some sweets into their bags and set them on their way. It wasn’t until they got home that the sinister truth revealed itself as Elise and Irene’s mother checked over the sweets they had gathered. Here they found a bottle-cap-shaped ant trap with a warning sign that read ‘poison’.
According to sources, Helen was growing frustrated that so many of the trick or treaters that had gone by were what she deemed to be too old to be out asking for free sweets and so she made up packages of inedible treats to give to teenagers. These packages contained dog biscuits, steel wool pads, and the ant buttons that were clearly marked as ‘poison’. Although foolish and twisted in its macabre humour, it is said that Helen did tell the teenagers as she handed them out that they were intended as jokes and luckily, nobody was harmed by her idiotic prank. Even still, she pleaded guilty to endangering children and served a suspended sentence.
With the events of two pranks that were arguably more ill-judged and idiotic than evil, the fears and rumours of tampered Halloween sweets had begun to sweep the nation. In 1971, state legislature of Michigan put in place 10 years prison sentences and fines for those caught tampering with Halloween - most likely due to the most commonly told Urban Legend inspired by these events, despite most reports proving occurrences to be hoaxes. Even the ones that had been found to be true in their telling were done so as foolish pranks between friends and siblings - tricks where the repercussions and dangers were ill-thought out and foolish rather than filled with devilish intent.
That was until Halloween night, 1974, where the real Candyman came to life.
It was October 31st and 8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan was out trick or treating with his sister Elizabeth, Chaperoned by their father Ronald in Texas, USA. Even though it was raining, they were making good progress through the night as the excitedly ran from door to door, Ronald struggling to keep up with their little feet. They stopped at a house that did not seem to be participating in the festivities of Halloween but they waited never the less but after a moment or two, the children swiftly gave up, heading off to the next house to get their treats. Once there father had caught up with them, he handed them both two Pixy Stix out of the five he held in his hand, if they had waited a moment longer they would have been able to take the Stix themselves as they just missed them. The kids took them with joy whilst Ronald gave one each to two neighbouring children and the fifth to a child he recognised from his church.
Before bed, as children often do after the excitement of Halloween, knowing their grand haul of a night's hard work is sitting so close to their reach, little Timothy asked if he could eat some of the sweets he had collected. Ronald agreed and Timothy dove straight for the Pixy Stix but struggled to get the sherbet out of the straw. His dad happily obliged to help his son loosen the powder and he began to chug it back in childish glee. Although Timothy did mention that the sherbert tasted bitter, he finished it all down with the help of some Kool-Aid, also supplied by his ever doting father.
Within minutes Timothy was in agony as his body began to convulse whilst vomiting violently and within an hour, on the way to the hospital, 8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan was dead.
News spread fast of the Halloween sweets laced with poison, spreading fear and horror amongst the community of Deer Park with several parents handing their sweets into the police in fear that they too had been tampered with. The autopsy of Timothy O’Bryan revealed that he was filled with a fatal dose of potassium cyanide and Robert confirmed that this must have been in the Pixy Stix he had received from the mysterious homeowner on Halloween night. The rest of the Stix that had been handed out to the children on the street were successfully retrieved without any more injury to the innocents.
It became clear that all five of the Pixy Stix had been tampered with, opened at the top and refilled with Cyanide, before being re-sealed with a simple staple. The results from the lab confirmed that little Timothy's powder contained enough cyanide to kill two fully grown adults, while the other four contained dosages that could easily kill three to four adults.
Ronald desperately tried to help the police find the killer of his darling son but claimed to have forgotten which house it was that had handed hem to him. He told them that he did see the homeowners face - that they had only opened the door a crack - and that a hairy arm had reached out and handed him the Pixy Stix. After walking with the police several times, Ronald finally confirmed the home that they had visited that night. This was the home man named Courtney Melvin, an air traffic controller who was not home until much later that night, as was confirmed by the hundreds of people who had seen him at the airport. This, admittedly already strange situation was growing stranger to the police as they began to throw their suspicious eyes at Ronald himself. It was strange that he would have forgotten what house it was, especially considering they had only visited two streets that night due to the rain.
Now that they had decided to look further into Ronald's life, they were surprised by a great many things. They learnt that he was over $100,000 in debt, the equivalent to over $500,000 today. He was a man that struggled to hold down a job, going through as many as 21 in the ten years leading up to that moment. Even then, he had been suspected of theft at his job at Texas State Optical and was expected to be fired shortly. His car was close to being repossessed, he had the family home foreclosed on, and he had multiple bank loans falling n default. Times were tough to say the least...
But then came the most damning part of the investigation so far; Ronald had taken out life insurance policies on both of his children in the months building up to Halloween night,
specifically taking out $30,000 more 5 days prior so that the policies totalled well over $60000, without his wife’s knowledge. It was also found that Ronald had even gone as far to call his insurance company to inquire about the process of collecting the policies he had taken out on his children on the morning of Halloween.
As damning as this all was, it only got worse for Ronald O’Bryan when the police learned that he had in fact visited a chemical supply store to buy cyanide not long before the events occurred. Once confronted Ronald remained persistent on his innocence. Even so, the police had already begun to piece together the evidence that he laced the sweets with poison in an effort to kill his children and claim on their life insurance policies. The consensus was that he gave the Pixy Stix to the other children close by in an effort to cover up his crime, to make it seem far more at random than it was. He was convicted of the crime with overwhelming evidence, including a chemist testifying that he had been called by Ronald regarding cyanide, specifically fatal doses. Ronald was sentenced to death.
Perhaps Ronald was given the idea by Dr Shyne. Perhaps Halloween was just too perfect of an opportunity to pass up. I imagine to him, it was a perfect crime and who knows? Maybe if he was smarter, he might have gotten away with it.
This was a time before Halloween had hit the shores of Britain, transferring over to America with the Irish that headed over generations ago and had been so happily celebrated for so long. After the death of little Timothy, Halloween was never the same again. Even though the people knew what had truly happened, the seed had been planted and now the anxiety was in their hearts whenever their children would come home with sweets from all sorts of dark corners of their neighbourhood.
Over time this story became a part of history, drifting away into the back of peoples minds but the anxiety stayed - this led to changes in the story, to additions and takeaways from the events that occurred and before long, it had become nothing more than an Urban Legend about drugs in your children’s sweets, or needles and syringes.
It took ten years before Ronald was finally executed by lethal injection; when Timothy would have still been only 18 years old. The father that the inmates had nicknamed ‘The Candyman’ was dead and whilst this was happening the crowds gathered outside chanting the words ‘trick or treat’.
S O U R C E S
(In order of mention)
St Cloud Times
The Winona Daily News
Burlington Free Press
San Fransisco Examiner
The Fresno Bee
The Daily Herald Utah
The Sacramento Bee
The Victorian Advocate
“Death Row Inmates Say Goodbye” p.48 1984 by Max Haines
The Free Lance Star
Park City Daily News
| 3rd November 2000
| 3rd November 2000
| 3rd November 2000
| 3rd October 2018
| 11th December 2019
| 3rd November 1959
| 4th November 1959
| 2nd November 1964
| 31st October 1971
| 6th November 1974
| 5th June 1975
| 27th May 1975
| 26th March 1984
| 22nd October 1982
| 12th November 1974
| 1st April 1984