Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 31, 2009.
Halloween has long provided an excuse for Torontonians to relax and cut loose their stiffer qualities for at least one day. Whether it’s infants dressed as garden vegetables and insects or downtown revellers dressed in outfits that can’t be mentioned in family publications, Toronto has long loved assuming disguises and participating in all of the accompanying rituals that go along with today. A flip through old local newspapers shows that pranks played a large role in past Halloweens, from harmless showoffs to destructive blazes. For better or worse, tricks were as equally important as the treats.
Halloween 1929 was marked by the usual sorts of hijinks city officials had come to expect from naughty revellers. As the Star noted, “As long as there is a Halloween to celebrate, boys will pull fire alarm boxes and set vacant houses on fire with an utter disregard of property.” This meant a long night for Fire Chief William Russell who, according to the Globe, was “sitting at home with one eye cocked on the recorders on which all box alarms are relayed to his house.” Russell “said he spent a large part of the evening, when he wasn’t out at real fires, winding up his gong-box on the wall as false alarms poured in one after another.” His box had a healthy workout, as around fifty calls came in.
One of the few legitimate alarms came from Boulton Drive and Poplar Plains Road, where a group of small children were blamed for setting a blaze that destroyed one and damaged two luxury homes that were nearing completion. Firefighter James Bell suffered severe injuries to his legs and ribs, falling eight feet to the concrete basement of 12 Boulton Drive after the main floor gave way. Damage from the night’s most “expensive bit of fun” was estimated at twelve thousand dollars (almost $150,000 in today’s currency).
While the fire department was busy that night, police felt that they dealt with fewer incidents than an average Halloween. Newspapers received plenty of false crime tips—the Mail and Empire reported that “two naïve jokesters” phoned in “with frantic word of desperate and bloody holdups in widely separated parts of the city.” The paper couldn’t resist bragging about their ability to smell a phony or taking a jab at competitors, noting “what success their playfulness met with among the other papers could not be learned, but Mail and Empire reporters were not, of course, taken in.”
On the lighter side of trickery, the Mail and Empire also reported that “there was a crowd in a downtown one-arm lunch, when a masked woman entered, followed closely by a man in a silk castor. Finally they embraced each other in the screen manner of the moment. It got so that some people began to look the other way. Others laughed or ridiculed. But when the woman removed her domino, ‘she’ was a man.” We imagine such an incident now would cause half the restaurant to continue eating without batting an eyelash.
Four decades later, parents and community leaders were very concerned about some of the tricks children received in their pillowcases and plastic jack o’lanterns. The late 1960s saw a sharp increase in the number of apples and candies that had been tampered with. Metropolitan Toronto police received over 170 reports during the 1968 Halloween season from parents who found glass, razor blades, poisons, stick pins, and other hazardous items in their children’s treats. The following year saw an increase in neighbourhood patrols and a pitch to trick-or-treaters to approach any officer at the slightest hint of trouble. Parents came up with various methods of keeping their children safe and out of mischief. Among the oddest was one employed by Garr Hamilton of Blythehill Road, who placed an alarm clock in her children’s bags. “It’s set to the time I want them home,” she told the Telegram.
Despite the fears from kooks and other dangers, local columnists looked back fondly on past Halloweens, such as the Telegram’s Scott Young’s memories of how his son Neil handled his first Halloween in Omemee at the tender age of five:
He was full of enthusiasm until the instant he found himself outside. Then he refused to budge off the top step of the veranda as he listened to the cries in the night around him. In a minute or two, he abruptly bolted back in to safety, stating as an obvious afterthought “I have to go to the bathroom.” It was only when I found a crowd of children he knew, fellow perch-fishermen and turtle-hunters, and unmasked a few for his relieved inspection, that he went out again. Before long he was enjoying it as much as the others, and returned home an hour later with his pillowcase laden with the standard collection of peanuts, fudge, apples, Chiclets, cookies, dog hairs, dry leaves and gum drops, all cunningly stuck together with jellybeans.
Young struck an optimistic note at the end of that column that could easily be on the minds of parents taking their children out this Halloween:
That was Halloween, man, and there is a natural temptation to believe that it will never be the same again. But really, I know better. The little kids out tomorrow night will be just as scared, just as excited. And their parents, lurking watchfully in the background, will be storing up memories for the future, as all of us who went before have done.
Additional material from the November 1, 1929 editions of the Globe, the Mail and Empire, and the Toronto Star; and the October 30, 1969 and October 31, 1969 editions of the Telegram.