Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay woke up the day after Halloween last year to find that the pumpkins his family had “painstakingly” carved had been destroyed overnight.

“Who would smash my pumpkins?” he remembers thinking. Set out to begin a full-on investigation, he learned very quickly that justice would never be served.

Related content: Duluth's Halloween history

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Deer scat and obvious hoof prints on the pumpkin pieces showed that the Ramsay family was not the victim of a prank, but of a “hungry deer,” Ramsay said with a chuckle. This year, they will take their pumpkins in at night.

And that pretty much sums up the level of pranking that occurs on Halloween night these days in Duluth.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

In the early 1900s, the level of vandalism and traditional pranks reached levels that forced police for the first time to arrest juveniles and shed the “boys will be boys” attitude. It led to citywide Halloween parties with bonfires in parks and galas at halls.

They were efforts to keep children occupied instead of roving in packs that once numbered into the hundreds in neighborhoods across the city. What started as innocent pranks in the late 1800s - ringing doorbells, rattling doorknobs or tossing corn kernels at windows - developed into an outright assault each year on public and private property. Outbuildings, notably outhouses, were tipped or moved. Gates were taken from fences. Sidewalks, whether made of wood or concrete, were torn up and tossed into the path of streetcars. Great piles of wood were gathered and bound with barbed wire and placed on thoroughfares.

Streetcars were the biggest target. Tracks along Duluth’s hills were greased. Cars were yanked from their overhead wires. Motormen were pelted with peas as early as 1893.

Author Aaron Isaacs described an incident in 1928 in his book released this month called “Twin Ports by Trolley.” The streetcar company sent a memo to its employees Nov. 1:

“We had serious trouble with a bunch of hoodlums at the end of the Woodland line about 9:45 last night,” the memo read. “C. W. Pearson and Vernon Anderson were looking after trouble on this line and Pearson started to chase a bunch of boys and young men who were pulling trolleys and they bombarded him with eggs. Pearson’s clothing was considerably damaged and he was struck in the face also. He also tore his trousers.”

Who’s to blame?

As early as 1904, the News Tribune opined about the “modern Halloween.”

“Halloween vandalism that has developed in the cities in recent years can have no shadow of excuse,” the paper wrote. “Gangs that go about wantonly destroying property - breaking in doors, smashing doorsteps and fences -with no reason save that it is Halloween sport, should be gathered in by the police and punished by the courts.”

But juveniles generally were not arrested in those days. It wasn’t until the 1930s and beyond when juvenile courts were set up to deal with offenses. Before then, most children caught doing something that drew a policeman’s response were simply taken home to their parents. A few were sent to police stations or forced to sit in front a judge only to get a good scare and maybe a minimal fine.

In 1914, a year when city leaders made a big push for Halloween parties in the parks, Police Chief Chauncy Troyer sighed a bit of relief from the regular volume of trouble.

“Conditions became so bad that three years ago we were forced to make arrests,” he said. “But now, even the rowdy element seems to behave and join in the wholesome spirit of the municipal celebration.”

Troyer did his best to spin the positive when dealing with the Halloween problem. He declared the events that year of arrests, 1911, as “the quietest Halloween we ever had.” That was despite 55 resident complaint calls, an officer being shot at by a 17-year-old with a .22 revolver, “acres of window glass marked with soap,” several blocks of sidewalk torn up with the pieces placed on the streetcar tracks, barrels placed on tracks and several gas lamps broken with rocks.

In 1912, the opinion of the News Tribune had turned from the vandals to the parents who let their children out on Halloween.

“It has not been the boys who have been to blame on Halloween so much as their parents,” the paper wrote. “Boys can hardly be expected to have trained judgment in their acts … Without previous training in self-restraint, they may be expected to overstep the bounds, and their parents, not they, should be the ones to answer in the courts.”

Persistent problem

The vandalism ebbed and flowed through two world wars.

In 1920, Halloween was declared “sane” in the News Tribune without one disturbance reported to police.

But by 1935, schools in Duluth printed a “Halloween Pledge” coupon in the newspaper, asking children to sign it and turn it in with the promise to “refrain from taking part in” pranks and vandalism and to “use my influence with my friends and associates to prevent such acts.”

In 1946, the Police Department revealed that it had completed a six-year study of “Halloween hotbeds” by tracking every police call made each Halloween night. The study was begun in 1939, when there were an “astronomical” number of vandalism complaints.

The residential areas on both sides of downtown, the “east end” and “west end,” had the majority of the calls. In the report on the study, the trouble was pinned on a “lack of discipline by parents.”

By 1954, the News Tribune asked a group of older men about Halloween days of yore in a story titled “Halloween no fun now.”

“The modern celebration of Halloween is nothing like it was in the old days,” the article stated.

Police Chief Oscar Brewer admitted that he played pranks as a child in Wisconsin, including dismantling a hay wagon and reassembling it on a roof.

Capt. Ed Bird said he once greased streetcar tracks, “usually on a hill.”

Chief Brewer called those pranks harmless, since no one got hurt. “Inconvenience was about the only serious consequence,” he said.

Brewer said that the Halloween pranking of the 1950s was of a “more malicious type” because property was being destroyed.

There was more talk of the “juvenile delinquency” problem and harsher penalties in the courts. That, coupled with more adults out celebrating Halloween and the growing tradition of trick-or-treating, eventually led to calmer nights.

Minor irritants

In 1961, the newspaper reported “more numerous” calls about vandalism than in several years and included everything from egg-throwing to paint-pouring. In 1965, the News Tribune reported, most vandalism “fell into the nuisance classification with four or five fire hydrants opened, rotten eggs thrown at houses and spraying of automobiles with black paint.”

By 1974, the Halloween warnings dealt only with safety in trick-or-treating, something that Ramsay says remains.

“We worry about kids in dark costumes,” he said.

In 1998, a Little League storage shed destroyed by arson was found Nov. 1 in the East Hillside neighborhood. Many cities, notably Detroit, still deal with fire on Halloween.

Duluth was an exception, Assistant Fire Chief Bryan Bushey said at the time.

“We haven’t had a history of that here in Duluth,” Bushey said. “You always expect something on Halloween, but we don’t have an unusual history of fires.”

Halloween in America today is all about candy and costumes, according to a study of 2014 trends done for the National Retail Federation, the largest retail trade association in the world.

The average person spends about $80 on Halloween, with total spending in the U.S. at $7.4 billion. Nearly $3 billion is expected to be spent on costumes, $2.2 billion on candy and $2 billion on decorations.

Jim Heffernan, a former writer and editor for the News Tribune and memoirist on life in Duluth, said not much has changed from his days of trick-or-treating after World War II.

“When they were young, I took my own two kids trick-or-treating in the 1970s, pretty much following the patterns I experienced in the 1940s and ’50s,” Heffernan said. “In my day there were more makeshift costumes - thrown together sheet ghosts, cowboys, pirates - than today, with store-bought outfits being so popular.”

Indeed, the level of mischief these days is minimal, Ramsay said. Halloweens that fall on the weekends see a bit of an uptick in minor nuisances and “people partying too much,” he said.

It’s nothing like those roving packs of boys in the early part of the last century.

“It’s always been quiet,” Ramsay said of his 19 years on the force.