The Day Halloween Died

How a series of unsolved killings in 1982 changed the holiday

“silhouette of trees during red moon” by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

I was at my office in the opening days of October, 1982 when the news spread like a conflagration: Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide had been sold in Chicago-area stores, and people were dying.

The first victim, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, had been rushed to the hospital and died on September 29th. Adam Janus of nearby Arlington Heights died later that same day. Adam’s brother Stanley and sister-in-law Theresa were soon dead as well. In all, seven people would die of cyanide poisoning. The connection? All had recently taken Tylenol. The bottles from which the pills had come were all found to contain sodium cyanide.

Law enforcement, the media, and Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson launched a nationwide blitz to pull Tylenol products from the shelves and warn people to stop taking the drug. In the end, five bottles of Tylenol were responsible for seven deaths, and three more tainted bottles were found lurking on store shelves.

How had the poison gotten into the bottles? It could only have been sabotage. Investigators moved quickly and determined that the bottles had come from different pharmaceutical companies, so it couldn’t have been a disgruntled employee. All the poisoned bottles appeared in the Chicago suburbs, which pointed to a local killer buying the product, tampering with it, and returning it to store shelves. As the investigation proceeded, a New York City resident named James William Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the poisonings. He was arrested and convicted of extortion, for which he served 13 years of a 20 year sentence. Police regarded him as the prime suspect, but they could never prove he had carried out the poisonings. The case remains unsolved to this day.

It’s difficult to comprehend in 2018 the terror that gripped the nation in the wake of the Tylenol murders. At the risk of being lambasted, I would wager that even the 9/11 terror attacks didn’t cause such fear. Think about it. Products you pick up from the grocery or drug store, products sitting in your medicine cabinet, products you regularly use, might contain cyanide. You have no idea what’s safe to use and what’s not. You don’t know who did it or why they did it. And they’re still out there.

Not only that, but the inevitable copycats are cropping up. Four years later, three deaths would occur from tampered gelatin capsules. A woman in Yonkers would die after ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol. Excedrin would be tampered with in Washington state, killing two people. (The killer was caught in that case.) Proctor and Gamble would pull its Encaprin product from the shelves following a tampering hoax. It would be the death of that brand.

Much of that was later, but in 1982 Halloween was just around the corner. Tens of millions of children were about to go out into the world to collect candy from strangers.

At the time, I had three young children, two of them old enough for trick-or-treating. My wife and I always tried to be sensible about risk. Wandering the neighborhood looking for handouts can’t be considered entirely safe, but in fact it usually is safe enough. Most people who give out treats on Halloween are good folks who enjoy making children happy. We remembered our own childhoods, when October 31st meant roaming door to door after dark among the costumed hoards and going through your haul at the end of the night. It was a fun time that we were thrilled to share with our children. We were always there, accompanying them on their rounds and helping them inspect the goodies before anything got eaten.

But for many people, everything changed that Halloween. Fear ruled the day. Nationwide, pre-Halloween candy sales dropped anywhere from twenty to fifty percent. Costume sales plummeted, too. In some cities, trick-or-treating was outlawed entirely, and in others hospitals were encouraged to make x-ray equipment available to parents who wanted to inspect their children’s candy. Paranoia, perhaps, but understandable. The Tylenol killer was still out there, as were an unknown number of copycats.

This wasn’t the first time Halloween provoked fears. A few lunatics are, alas, always lying in wait. In 1974, Ronald O’Bryan poisoned his own son’s candy in a plot to collect an insurance payout, and we’ve all heard stories about razor blades in apples, although they aren’t always true. In the wake of the Tylenol poisonings, reports of such terrors boiled over, some real, some attributable to hysteria. On October 29th, a group of school children in Somerdale, New Jersey, were hospitalized after ingesting PCP that had been sprinkled over Tootsie Rolls served at a school party. The same day, Frank Comunale bit into a Cadbury Carmello bar that harbored a straight pin, cutting his cheek.

On the other hand, the metal shard discovered in a candy bar by a nine-year-old boy in Illinois turned out, on closer inspection, to be his own filling which had fallen out. The group of 126 Los Angeles high school students who fell ill at a football game and were sent to an area hospital apparently made themselves sick with fear. Only three were found to be genuinely ill. And with the Tylenol murders still in the news, Chicago distributed over a million leaflets with Halloween safety tips.

So that Halloween, as we escorted our young children from door to door, we were literally the only ones out there. We did so in daylight, not after dark, and skipped many houses because they clearly were not participating. It was a sad, sad day. It felt, quite literally, like Halloween had died.

A lot changed by the time the dust settled. Measures were taken to prevent product tampering, which is why today your over the counter medications are sealed up like Ft. Knox, as are many other products. Candy, too, was repackaged to make any tampering apparent. Parents opted for Halloween parties instead of trick-or-treating. The holiday began to recreate itself, with more adults taking part, possibly because of the parties they threw for their children, possibly because of younger parents trying to capture some of what they had missed as children. Trick-or-treating did return eventually, at least in some areas, but for nearly a decade it wasn’t what it once had been.

In some places it still isn’t, although for different reasons. When we moved to our current home in the Baltimore suburbs, we were near a low-income housing area. Every Halloween, children flooded the street. We had a great time. It was as though the olden days had returned. But absentee landlords and slumlords made the place dangerous, so the county relocated the residents, tore down the buildings, and installed a park. Since that time, we’ve been lucky to have more than two children visit our door on October 31st, and some years we’ve had none but our own grandkids.

Tragedy always changes things, sometimes in little ways, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in sad ways. But there’s no point in bemoaning what’s been lost. However you celebrate Halloween today, be safe and enjoy it. And most of all, be rational. It may be the day we invite our fears out to play, but don’t let those fears rule you. If you do, the boogeyman wins.

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