The first actual accounting of tainted candy happened in Long Island back in 1964. A 47 year old housewife named Helen Pfeil was sick and tired of older kids participating in what she believed to be a young kid activity, so she took it upon herself to remedy the situation. Helen purchased the customary sweets for the little kids who she adored; the older children, on the other hand, would receive steel wool, dog biscuits stuffed with razor blades, and something called “ant buttons”. This was a insecticide shaped like a bottlecap which contained cyanide. These cyanide “treats” were wrapped in napkins and dropped in the bags of more than a dozen older kids after they knocked on her door.
When Helen was arrested for handing out literal poison to children, she stated it was all in good fun – t’was just a joke! She had been handing out actual candy to little kids all day, she did not want to actually kill anyone. Now for the ironic part: Helen’s own teenaged boys, aged 14 and 15, had been out trick or treating throughout the neighborhood that night! Just a tad hypocritical, right?
Helen was charged with endangering children, a crime for which she faced only 2 years. Thankfully no child died due to Helen’s idiocy, but this was enough to spark the question of how safe Halloween really was. There had been rumors of tainted candy before Helen, but now that people could put a face and a name to an act such as this, the fears were suddenly real. Many surmised that it was only a matter of time until something horrible happened, and it did.
It was Halloween of 1974 in Deer Park, Texas, when Ronald O’Bryan took his children and a few of their friends out trick or treating.
That night Ronald permitted his children, 8 year old Timothy and 5 year old Elizabeth, to choose a piece of candy before bed. Tim decided to eat a large pixie stick; thankfully his sister didn’t want one of those and chose something else. The powder inside Tim’s pixie stick was sorta damp and sticky, so Ronald helped by pouring the candy into his young son’s mouth. Just a few moments later Timmy was complaining about his stomach; the child had doubled over in pain, vomited, and suddenly he had a difficult time breathing. The boy was soon dead, still wearing his Planet Of The Apes costume.
Timothy’s mother and father were all tore up over what had happened; during the funeral Ronald told the terrible story of his son passing away in his arms, and he cried as he sang a hymn for his lost child. This man seemed to be the grief stricken father, but Ronald O’Bryan was a good actor.
Police had frantically searched the neighborhood children’s loot to find that just 5 of those pixie sticks had been passed out that night, and the only children who had received them had all been walking around with Ronald and his children. Ronald claimed he’d personally given the 5 pixie sticks to the kids he was walking with after knocking on a particular door, and he was certain that the man who lived in a particular home had given them to him. It was quickly proven that this absolutely could not be true as the home had been completely empty on Halloween night, the owner had been working several miles away.
After doing some digging, investigators found insurance policies which Ronald had recently taken out in both of his children’s names. Come to find out, the O’Bryan family were heavily in debt and Ronald would make out like a bandit were his children to die. On top of this, there was proof that the father had been in the market for potassium cyanide just before Halloween; looks like Ronnie had found what he was looking for!
Mrs. O’Bryan was just as much a victim as her son, she’d had no idea at all that her husband was planning to murder their children. Can you imagine how she must’ve felt? How do you process that sort of betrayal, and death by cyanide is such a horrific way to go. Ronald was tried and found guilty of premeditated murder. He loudly proclaimed his innocence until the very day he was put to death by lethal injection on March 31st of 1984. Today he is often dubbed “The Candy Man”.
The case of Timothy O’Bryan is the one and only case of a child actually dying due to poisoned candy in the history of American Halloween. I’m not saying kids don’t die, they do; they have been hit by cars, kidnapped, shot, etc. Everything which happens on any other day also occurs on Halloween, of course, and you already know that this world is chock full of horrible things. That said, aside from Helen’s “joke”, strangers poisoning kids candy just isn’t a thing – not intentionally! There have been cases where kids have found their parents drug stash and died; in an act of self preservation the parent has blamed the candy – that type of thing. Due to panic many hospitals have taken to X-raying trick or treat candy, and in all of the years of doing this only in one instance has anything ever been found. In 1988 a Maryland hospital discovered a needle in a candy bar; no arrests were ever made, and it’s thought that this was likely a joke. As of now we can be certain that there has never been a case of a child dying due to hateful strangers handing out tainted candy; fingers crossed that I can continue to repost this as fact for many years to come!
*This was written a few years ago, long before the plague turned our lives upside down. Things may be a bit different for many of us this year, but I hope you still have a safe and fun night. I think I have one more Halloween article for you, I’ll look for it. Be well!