In 1895, the News Tribune wrote an overview of “Hallowe’en” and included tales from “middle-age” men of “tic-tac” pranks they pulled as boys on “All Saints’ Eve.”
Indeed, the holiday in Duluth has been around since the first people settled here, namely, the Scots. The first mention of Halloween in Duluth in News Tribune files is from 1881. It’s a report on the Halloween festivities in Scotland at Balmoral Castle. A decade later, the newspaper previewed the Clan Stewart’s Halloween party at the Hunter Block building at 31 W. Superior St.
The paper credited Robert Burns with making the holiday famous with his poems “The Tam o’ Shanter” and “Halloween,” retelling stories of ghosts and witches on the Scottish harvest day that honored the end of the growing season and those who had died in the past year. It was considered a pagan day of rituals for the Druids, which included the burning of bones in a fire - bonfires.
By 1891 in Duluth, the celebration had gone from the mystical to the Scot’s night of “lighter sports, frolicksome in the extreme. The jolliest sport is to set apples afloat in a tub of water into which youths and maidens by turn duck their heads.”
There were lingering superstitions surrounding the holiday. Women used candles and mirrors or looked down wells for signs of their future husbands. They would also skin apples, letting the peel fall to the floor to reveal the initials of their future mate.
“Impish pranks” also were practiced, a mimicking of the hobgoblins that go bump in the night.
Across America, the pranks grew in elaboration each year, often to the level of costly vandalism. It forced Duluth leaders to organize outdoor parties in its many parks in the 1910s to keep juveniles occupied. That led to more parties by school and community groups.
But spates of vandalism by gangs of boys continued into the next few decades, ebbing only when trick-or-treating gained a foothold after World War II.
The following is a walk through time as Duluth dealt with the prank problem each Halloween since the late 1800s. The accounts come from the October pages of the News Tribune and Evening Herald, and general police reports kept at the Duluth Public Library. Other sources are mentioned within the timeline.
Halloween wasn’t always a universally known event. The News Tribune often explained Halloween in its columns in the 1880s and 1890s.
The stories described parties where “diving for apples” or harpooning them with forks took place.
They also described superstitions, the most popular being the placing of a nut on a fire grate, with its popping telling you if a lover has been faithful or what your future holds. Ads in the paper highlighted specials on Halloween nuts.
Other odd superstitions, mostly for women longing for information on future mates, included holding lemon peels or a mix of spices in your pocket.
Streetcars that ran along electrical lines, introduced in 1890, were becoming the prime target for gangs of boys. The newspaper reported a motorman pelted with peas and glass broken in car windows.
Aaron Isaacs, in his recently released history book, “Twin Ports by Trolley,” has a section on the trouble the streetcars had each Halloween season.
“Streetcars were always the target of pranks, the most common being to run up behind the car, grab the trolley rope and pull the pole off the overhead wire, thereby cutting off the power,” Isaacs wrote. “Greasing the rails was another favorite.
The high point of the year for pranks was Halloween and the company dreaded it. Boys and young men in groups targeted the cars.”
Police also reported several gates taken from yards and a group of at least 150 boys running rampant in the “east end.” A wagon was moved and placed on the steps of Central High School. Running rope or string across walkways to trip the unsuspecting was also popular.
In yet another story on Halloween customs, the News Tribune told readers of the Scot-Irish origins of Halloween. It included the American boys’ nickname for Halloween - Cabbage Night. Aside from knocking on doors and running away or taking a fence gate, rotting cabbages from gardens were tossed at or hung from front doors.
In explaining the spread of Halloween observances in America, the story said it had become a popular prankfest at boarding schools. The paper surmised that the youngsters from rich families probably had no problem destroying property because they didn’t think of replacement or repair costs. Indeed, most of the pranking in Duluth into the 1940s took place on the tonier east side of downtown.
The growing problem of bigger pranks on Halloween could be summed up in this phrase from a story warning residents about the coming horde of boys.
“He could tear up the universe, throw down and destroy whole municipalities without incurring serious consequences in the way of a whipping the next day.”
The same issue of the paper hinted at why the actions were accepted back then in a story with the headline “They will make life miserable for older Duluthians tonight.”
“It has been established beyond question that all policemen once were boys. That is probably the reason that on Halloween a well regulated copper would rather step aside into a dark shadow and watch mysterious proceedings with a smile of amusement than interference and spoil the fun. But duty is duty, and if things look at all serious he emerges from the gloom and causes a decided scattering among the Brownies.”
Buildings would be moved off their foundations, woodsheds overturned and windows streaked from bars of soap.
Business signs are switched. A dummy is laid along train tracks to scare conductors and passengers.
Several lamps are broken along Fourth Street. Girls are witnessed looking down wells seeking the face of their husband-to-be.
Business owners had become so fed up with soaped windows and other vandalism that several of them offered a $25 reward (more than $500 today) for information that “will lead to the conviction of any persons destroying, mutilating or disfiguring fences, buildings, signs or signboards, or any property.”
It was a wet Halloween, and damage was minimal.
Twenty “special officers” were sworn in to deal with the “mischievous small boy tonight,” the News Tribune reported.
Police got an early start on some pranks, catching 13-year-old boy the night before Halloween greasing streetcar tracks on a hill at 18th Avenue East. He was “alone in his little celebration,” the paper reported.
A “nervous” resident of the “east end” pleaded with police to curb the vandalism. “I hope the police department will follow the lead of the Twin Cities in instructing officers to send home or arrest all boys caught out after 9 o’clock. Harmless mischief is all right, but this idea of carting off gates, carriages and other property and daubing buildings and windows is all wrong and there is nothing funny about it. … There’s plenty of ways to have fun without that. Other cities are shutting down on it and so should Duluth.”
The paper reported that the “Youngsters are held in check” and there were “no serious depredations,” probably because it was an unseasonably cold night. Police said it was one of the quietest Halloween nights in years.
The obstruction of streetcar tracks at 23rd Avenue West and Third Street led to the warning that it could be considered an “interference with the United States mails” and prosecution would be sought.
An editorial in the News Tribune calls on young people to celebrate Halloween in their homes, and, if they need to, practice the minor pranks of ringing doorbells or blowing horns. It said there was “no shadow of excuse” for the vandalism taking over cities and it should be “punished by the courts.”
“Aside from the almost total demoralization of the streetcar system, little damage of any account was done by small boys last evening,” the Evening Herald reported.
Gangs of “hoodlums” blocked the Lakeside line until six cars had backed up. Another car was derailed. “The tracks on nearly every hill in the city were soaped,” the report read.
“Windows were probably never more thoroughly soaped than they were last evening. Almost every pane of glass in the city that was within reach bore its share of marks this morning.”
Soaping of windows took time away from shopkeepers for cleanup and some years it stayed on all winter because it had already become too cold to clean them.
The Herald called most of the markings harmless but in some parts of the city, “gangs of young toughs covered the windows with obscenity and filth.”
Kids put on pranks in preparation for Halloween, and one of them proved deadly a few days before that night.
According to newspaper reports, a group of boys strung a stray wire from an electric light bulb wire at A.L Stevenson’s saloon at 5604 Raleigh St., where the North Pole Bar sits today. There was a boarding house above the bar holding a group of immigrants from Austria. Teenagers later admitted they wanted to “make the Austrians jump” by placing the stray wire.
Yova Mehis was walking along a narrow hall in the back of the saloon to go to his room when he was “instantly killed” when coming in contact with the wire. Several men who came to his aid also were shocked but survived.
The Austrians reported that they had seen several boys in the back of the saloon earlier in the day and detectives eventually found those responsible. A search through newspapers for further information on the case proved futile, although several of the boys named show up in society columns a few years later.
Mehis had arrived in Duluth just two days earlier and was on his way to Washington state. He was 24.
A puffy wordsmith took to the News Tribune pages to report on the Halloween goings-on this year:
“Every little devil in Duluth was on hoof from sundown to midnight, and things moved by magic, and otherwise, all over the burg. The Midnight Rangers, the Terrors of Tischer’s Creek, the Pirates of Lester Cove, the Night Hawks of Lincoln Green, and the Avengers of Fairmont Gulch roamed the hillsides.”
Later in the piece, the air of resignation about stopping the annual rites rung through.
“Maybe it is just as well. This spirit is in each of these kid bottles, and, if the cork were never pulled, it would be apt in maturity to burst the bottle beyond repair. Maybe it is just as well to have one night of ‘hell-met’ as the old fellow called it, as to have it sprinkled through the whole 365.”
Chief Troyer called it the “quietest Halloween we ever had” despite an officer being shot at and several other high-end pranks, such as tearing up blocks of sidewalk and placing the pieces on streetcar tracks. In the light of retrospect three years later, after two successful Duluth Halloween celebrations in the parks, Troyer called 1911 one of the worst years for hijinks.
Indeed, compared to the year before, the News Tribune called this year “sane” and urged parents to rein their children in.
The Minnesota city of Anoka declares itself the “Halloween Capital of the World” because, as the city’s website explains, it is “widely credited as the first city to host activities when Anoka Halloween was founded by community leaders.”
But Duluth had its own communitywide celebration in 1913, organized by Mayor William Prince and parks director Henry Cleveland. Parties took place in parks across the city to divert young people from roaming the city causing mayhem.
In 1914, the Evening Herald reported that the past two parties proved to be “unqualified successes” with other cities emulating what Duluth had established.
The News Tribune in 1913 almost laughingly credited the ebb in Halloween vandalism on modernization in the city.
“The board sidewalks, the wooden front gates, the woodsheds and clothes lines are almost things of the past,” the paper opined.
Praise for the parties in the parks was effusive.
“The celebration of Halloween in Duluth Saturday night was the best which the city has ever had,” the Herald reported. “Less property was reported destroyed than ever before.”
“There were roaring bonfires about which everybody romped and danced. Great sacks of peanuts and numerous barrels of apples were scattered through the crowds, while at frequent intervals the brass bands cut loose with popular airs. Of din and noise there was an abundance, but it was of the hilariously joyful kind, unmarked by disorder.”
For the first time in a long time, no outbuildings were reported as tipped over.
“Five years ago tonight,” Police Chief Troyer said, “every man on the force was busy and almost helpless. Sidewalks and any other thing that could be torn loose and carried away were placed on the streetcar track for more than half a mile at Lakeside, and there was damage to property all over the city.”
Wars seemed to damper destruction through the years, and World War I was no exception. Few problems were reported from the time of the park parties until the 1920s.
“Tornado insurance adjusters are sitting back enjoying the change from the hurly-burly past,” the News Tribune reported.
The streetcars also got a breather as vandalism moved toward automobiles.
A report from the Herald, two weeks before Halloween, showed the danger of messing with streetcars.
“Boys playing at Woodland and Hardy Street threw two sticks, nailed together, over the trolley wire. The sticks caused the trolley pole on a street car to leave the wire. It did so with such force that it broke a span wire which caused other span wires for a distance of two blocks to fall. Lacking means to pump air, the brakes gradually began to slip, and the car started down the hill. Before the car could be brought to a stop the live wire became entangled and tore down a wire pole. Traffic was tied up for more than an hour, people endangered and a loss of $200 ($2,800 in 2014 dollars) must be stood by (Duluth Street Railway).”
Vandalism was picking up again, and a “Halloween Pledge” was printed in papers for kids to sign with the promise to not create mischief on Halloween. Now, more civic groups, like the Scouts, were hosting parties across the city. The Duluth Recreation Department created a list of games “popular a decade ago” to spice up indoor parties. They included diving for pennies in flour and games with apples, cakes and marshmallows.
An editorial in the Houston Chronicle called for a “national carnival” to curb the vandalism seen on Halloween.
The Duluth Police Department begins a six-year study on where the worst Halloween vandalism is taking place. It’s no surprise that the “east end” is the top hotspot.
Children were guilted into behaving during World War II. In 1942, the superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.Y., issued an admonition to the city’s students.
“Letting the air out of tires isn’t fun anymore. It’s sabotage. Soaping windshields isn’t fun this year. Your government needs soaps and greases for the war. Carting away property isn’t fun this year. You may be taking something intended for scrap, or something that can’t be replaced because of war shortages. Even ringing bells has lost its appeal because it may mean disturbing the sleep of a tired war worker who needs his rest.”
Parties in the parks return, including one at the Civic Center where weather forced kids to take shelter in City Hall. At Chester Bowl, about 2,500 children showed up and ate 3,000 hotdogs.
The worst offense by pranksters was binding up fencing with barbed wire and placing the 6-foot-tall mass on a line at Arrowhead Road and Kenwood Avenue. Hydrants were opened, windows soaped and garbage cans tipped.
The focus of Halloween is now firmly in dressing up and trick-or-treating. Ads for candy are sprinkled throughout the newspaper. The News Tribune talked to some “old timers” who proclaimed that Halloween was “no fun” now.
Rivalry football games between city schools often were scheduled for Halloween week, ramping up the likelihood of shenanigans. After a bus was trashed, the superintendent warned about moving games to the daylight hours.
Jim Heffernan, a former writer and editor for the News Tribune and memoirist on life in Duluth, recalled those football games and minor pranks and said not much has changed from this time to now.
“My own childhood of trick-or-treating was pretty normal, even by today’s standards,” he said. “Nobody in those days worried about razor blades or other hazards in the booty. A lot of people handed out apples in those days. And popcorn balls.”
The only mention of Halloween in the News Tribune is a tip list for safe trick-or-treating. Plastic masks burned easily and obstructed vision. And urban legends begin about foreign objects placed in treats. Study on actual incidents shows that tampering has been a rare occurrence across the past 50 years.
A curfew is also in place In Duluth and neighboring cities, meaning anyone 15 or younger had to be indoors by 11 p.m.
Toilet papering and pumpkin smashing are the pranks now, just faint leftovers from Duluth’s wildest days.
For a certain generation, thoughts about the impending holiday inevitably lead to the blizzard this year that dumped 37 inches of snow beginning Halloween night. For many, this was the biggest prank of all in Duluth’s Halloween history. And not one boy can be blamed.