Has Anyone Ever Actually Poisoned Or Put Razor Blades or Needles in Halloween Candy?

Lee asks: How many children have died from people poisoning Halloween candy?

halloween-candyRemember your mom sorting through your Halloween candy as a kid, looking for signs of ‘tainted’ candy laced with poison, needles or razor blades?  It turns out, unless she was just using it as an excuse to steal the good candy before you got it, she was wasting her time.  You are more likely to get attacked by a samurai sword wielding bear while trick or treating than be poisoned by a stranger.  Further, it’s more likely that your Halloween candy will be poisoned or otherwise tampered with by one of your parents or family members, than a stranger.  Think about that while your mom is “checking out” your candy before letting you eat it. 😉

So why all the worry? Because the news media needs something to talk about and there’s nothing better for ratings than saying something like “Is your child’s Halloween candy poisoned?  Find out the deadly truth at 11!”

Further, while many children die directly after Halloween from non-candy related things (after all, people die every day), if there isn’t an apparent cause the week following Halloween, many-a-sensationalized story gets widely publicized with poisoned Halloween candy generally being blamed. (There are numerous instances of this happening.) This isn’t all bad in theory.  I mean, if there is even a chance that some child’s death was poisoned-candy related, the police (rightly) encourage the news media to tell parents in the area to get rid of their children’s Halloween candy because it might be poisoned.

When it turns out the death had nothing to do with Halloween candy, most media outlets tend to have moved on from Halloween stories, so either don’t report a retraction or don’t make it the headline like when they claimed the death was from candy.  Thus, the perception that poisoned Halloween candy is a rampant problem embeds itself in the popular psyche, going all the way back to at least 1970 when the New York Times reported “Halloween goodies that children collect this weekend… may bring them more horror than happiness,” which proceeded to tell parents all about how the candy could potentially be tampered with, even though there had never been an instance of this actually happening at the time.

So what about more recently?  According to the author of Halloween Sadism: The Evidence,  professor of sociology Joel Best from the University of Delaware who’s been studying this since 1985, he hasn’t yet been able to find one single instance of a child dying as a result of candy given them by a stranger on Halloween.

Certainly, such reports pop up every now and again (since 1958, he’s found about 78 such instances, including being connected to 5 deaths), but they were all debunked once the matter was investigated by police in each case, and most of them were simple hoaxes.  For instance, one child, Best says, “brought a half-eaten candy bar to his parents and said, ‘I think there’s ant poison on this.’ They had it checked and, sure enough, there was ant poison on it. Of course, the youngster had applied the poison himself.”

If you were paying close attention, you perhaps notice we said “dying as a result of candy given them by a stranger”.  It has happened once before that someone poisoned candy and gave it out to children with one child dying.

In 1974, eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan of Texas died after eating a Pixy Stix laced with cyanide after trick-or-treating. Clearly trick or treating is unsafe now, right?  I mean, he trick or treated, then died from candy someone gave him. Case closed.

Except, it wasn’t candy a stranger gave him.  O’Bryan’s dad, Ronald, was trying to kill his kids, so put the cyanide laced candy in their bags.

The senior O’Bryan was about $100K in debt and close to having his car repoed.  His solution?  Suddenly take out about $60,000 worth of life insurance policies on his two children, then given them both the poison candy to try to collect on the policies. What could go wrong?  I mean, there’s nothing at all suspicious there.

Needless to say, the police had him as prime suspect number one as soon as they learned these details. After the investigation and trial, the dad was convicted of murdering his son.  His daughter survived the ordeal thanks to the fact that she simply didn’t eat hers.  Timothy wasn’t so lucky as Ronald had made sure he ate the tainted candy just before tucking him into bed.

Now, this wasn’t quite the end of it.  In order to divert suspicion from himself, O’Bryan had also slipped the poisoned candy in a few other children’s Halloween bags without them knowing. (It’s thought four others received the poisoned Pixie Stix), presumably hoping that if several children died, it wouldn’t look nearly as fishy.

Like his daughter, the other children also didn’t eat their Pixy Stix.  Upon investigation, none of the kids could remember any place they went giving out Pixie Stix, but did have contact with O’Bryan, so the evidence further pointed to him being the poisoner.

Needless to say, being a resident of Texas, where the state policy for any extreme crime is essentially, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out”, despite the fact that all the evidence against him was circumstantial- though very compelling- O’Bryan was executed a decade later via lethal injection: the poisoner was poisoned.

Before that, in 1970, there was a case of a family that tampered with candy after a child died, to cover for a family member. The 5-year-old in question was a Detroit boy who ate a large amount of heroin his uncle had hidden. The boy died four days later.  The media at the time, of course, reported it was a case of Halloween candy poisoning.  In the media’s defense, in an attempt to divert attention away from the uncle, the family had sprinkled some heroin on some of the child’s Halloween candy and claimed that’s how the boy wound up ingesting the drug.  Upon investigation, the truth came out.

As far as other illegal substances go, in 2000, kids in a San Francisco neighborhood got a trick mixed in with their treats when they found Snickers candy bar wrappers stuffed with marijuana. Needless to say, depending on their age, I’m guessing some of the kids weren’t upset about this. 😉

But was this intentional?  Police traced the pot to a homeowner who was confounded by the accusations. It turns out the man worked in the “dead letter office” at a local postal facility, and when he found a bag of Snickers in a lost package, he brought them home to give out as treats. He hadn’t realized that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to put pot in the packages and reseal them in an attempt at smuggling pot through the mail.

So as far as the actual non-hoax instances of poisoned candy given out on Halloween, that mostly sums it up. We have one instance of someone actually doing this, though mostly just trying to kill his own kids;  one accidental giveaway of some pot; and one kid who simply ate a stash of his uncle’s heroin.

So that’s poisoning.  What about razors and needles? There are verified reports of sharp objects being placed in random trick-or-treaters’ candy, although these incidents are exceptionally rare (under 100, even including the hoaxes and pranks).

In nearly all of these cases, the sharp objects were found to have been placed in the food item by a relative or friend, usually as a prank.  From the poisoning and this, it would appear kids should be fearing what their families and friends are doing to their candy more than strangers on Halloween. 😉

In fact, despite the fact that this has been reported as a widespread problem since the late 1960s, the first known confirmed case of a person intentionally giving out candy with sharp objects embedded to random children didn’t happen until the year 2000.

49 year old James Joseph Smith did stick needles into Snickers candy bars as a prank and give them out to kids. While several children bit into the candy, the only injury was to a teenager who was pricked by one of the needles, but did not require any medical attention. Smith was charged with “adulterating a substance with intent to cause death, harm or illness”.

In another non-family related poking- in 2008, candy from a Florida dollar store was found to have metal shavings and metal blades embedded in it. An investigation revealed that the candy (Pokémon Valentine’s Day lollipops) was manufactured in China and the foreign objects believed to have gotten into the candy at the factory accidentally.

So while the instances of both the poisoning and embedded needles are not zero, they are virtually zero when you consider the many millions of kids that have trick or treated since the early 20th century.  And if you want to include guising and souling, we can go back several hundred more years without a confirmed case of poisoning or stranger-related embedding of sharp objects in the given food item. So- faith in humanity restored.

In the end, there has only been one death as a result of either of these things and a stranger wasn’t involved.  On the flip-side, statistically- and not surprisingly- children are four times more likely to be struck by a car on Halloween than any other day of the year.  Yet another instance where we humans tend to obsessively worry about extremely unlikely things, while conveniently ignoring the fact that for most of us the most dangerous thing we do in our lives, we do just about every day without worrying about it at all- ride in automobiles or on bikes and cross or walk along streets on foot.  The human brain is a funny thing. 🙂

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Bonus Facts:

  • While your children’s Halloween candy probably doesn’t contain poison, the apples you likely have in your kitchen do.  You see, apple seeds contain cyanide.
  • The first known instance of someone giving out inedible and possibly dangerous items to trick or treaters happened in 1964. A Long Island woman, Helen Pfeil, gave out steel wool, dog biscuits and ant traps to children she believed were too old to be trick-or-treating. Nobody was injured and Pfeil had specifically told the kids not to eat the items and labeled them all with “poison”.  Nevertheless, she was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to endangering children.
  • In September and October of 1982, seven Chicago residents died after taking randomly poisoned Tylenol, which helped fuel people’s fear about Halloween candy poisoning that year, particularly as the poisoner was never found.
  • Another widely publicized “Halloween poisoning” occurred on October 8, 1988.  None other than the New York Times reported that strychnine was found on Sunkist Fun Fruits Dinosaurs in New Jersey.  Upon investigation, it turned out the “strychnine” was corn starch.
  • The “Halloween candy is dangerous” media blitz  was so effective that by 1985, according to a poll done by the Washington Post, 60% of parents stated they were afraid their children would be killed or injured due to someone giving away poisoned or otherwise tampered with candy.
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  • wally

    Until now, no one had thought of it. I guess it is a next item from those crazies reading this.

  • Andrew

    That would be ‘poll’, not pole.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Andrew: Thanks for catching that. Fixed! 🙂

      • Jenna

        Hey I was watching the archies halloween and what happened to my sister was born around 9 years earlier than I was and I was born in 1995 and she stopped tricker treating earlier bc she was one of those genius children anyway she found a razor blade in her candy and this was before I was born soooo…. It was b4 the year 2000 in fort mitchell alabama thought I would mention it

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  • JeN

    While I’ve never been given laced candy to my knowledge, there was one year I do remember: My brother and I had finished our trick-or-treating and had spread our combined loot out on the floor, ready to begin bargaining with each other for candy trades. Of course, being a kid, you take good stock of your night’s earnings and we discovered that there were a few candies that had obviously been unwrapped and re-wrapped. Inside each wrapper was a little slip of paper with some bible quote on it. Yup, I trick-or-treated for jesus candy…
    From that year on, my mom went through ALL of our candy herself before we were allowed to touch it.

    • rphunter

      Doesn’t seem to harmful. Beats razor blades, or nasty pills!

  • jason

    I have to disagree, I’m 43 a law enforcement officer not. but in 1982 I was 11 years old. I just finished trick or treating and was going to share a candy bar with my uncle. when I broke it in half I found a needle embedded in the candy bar. My parents called the police and a report and investigation was conducted. No one could be found to have done it but I assure you it did happen.

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  • Kathy

    My little Brother came with in seconds of biting into a razor blade apple October 1970. Dad dug it out of the apple and the worse part we was only allowed to go to the peoples house we knew, My brother could not remember which house it was though. the blade was a shick injector blade.

    So dont say it dont happen.

    • Sceptical

      Proper English would probably make your story more believable.

      • Itstakei

        You tell him his story is dubious because he is not using proper English… on the internet. I’m just going to assume that Kathy is from the US. And that you are from Canada or somewhere out of the US where they speak English. If you are from the US, sceptical is technically not incorrect but we don’t spell it that way here. So you are the one not using proper English. By the way, language adapts.

      • TDR

        Proper grammar would be more pleasant, but poor grammar does not make one a liar. 🙂

      • Jessica

        Proper grammar doesn’t have anything to do with the truth you just don’t want to accept it.

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    Unfortunately, there are sick people in this world. I received a razor blade in a chocolate bar when I was a kid on Halloween. Still have a scar on the inside of my lip. The “man” – and I use the term loosely – killed himself before the police or my father could get to him. Turned out he’d just gotten divorced. However, this and others like this are EXTREMELY rare occurrences.

  • Katie

    In 1972 my Daughter bit into an apple, from her Trick or Treat bag, and cut her lip.
    I cut the apple open and found two pieces of a razor blade. I took her to the ER, and reported it to the police. Every year after that, the hospital did free xrays of kids Trick or Treat bags With the new drug tablets, all we can do is examine the candy, and, remove any unfamiliar looking candy.

  • Roy

    So the police just took all the statements and reports and threw them out?

  • Teri

    Back in 1971 I was 6 years old and I was one of 3 in our neighborhood in Diamond Bar, Ca who was poisoned it was a bite size snicker bar that was laced with liquid LSD My Parents walked in due to my screaming and saw blood all over my body I was scratching myself raw was blown up like a balloon they called the ambulance wrapped my arms together with an ace bandage so I wouldn’t gouge my eyes out apparently I was seeing spiders all over me.. I died on the way to the hospital brought back to life and remained in hospital for a month going through the after effects of the LSD..

    • Jessica

      First of all,whoever wrote this article is stupid wake up candy can be poisoned and have sharp objects in it I really hope this person doesn’t have kids

  • Bill Armitage

    There were more than a few razor blades (taken out of disposable razors) found in candies reported in The Hamilton Spectator (Canada) for October 2015. I don’t think anyone was hurt.

  • rphunter

    Maybe not dying, but there certainly have been injuries, and infections, and poisonings. As early as the 1950s, such things as needles (sewing type), and razor blades were found in candy in the town where my sister lived. It seriously curtailed our activities relative to trick or treating. Yes, we were angry!