Channel surfing a few nights ago, I came across a show on the History Channel that actually involved history.
Too often, it feeds viewers a steady stream of “Pawn Stars” reruns, “American Pickers” reruns, “The Legend of Shelby the Swamp Man” reruns. “Counting Cars” reruns and assorted other reruns from other shows – “Axe Men,” “Mountain Men,” “Swamp People,” “American Daredevil,” etc. You get the point. Real history appears to be a thing of the past on the History Channel.
But that night, it reran “The Real History of Halloween,” an intriguing look into the ghoulish annual event as it evolved in America. Halloween, it seems, was a night of trouble before “trick-or-treating,” candy giveaways and the whole costume thing took off. In many cities and towns across America, groups of boys would seize the night to break windows, set buildings aflame and commit other acts of vandalism that continued in some places well into the Great Depression era and beyond.
Certainly that kind of juvenile delinquency didn’t happen right here in Modesto, did it? After all, a century ago, Modesto was a “dusty little farm town” – a term that rankles the citizenry whenever an out-of-towner refers to the city that way today. Back then, though, everyone knew one another and therefore knew one another’s children.
Think again. This, from the Nov. 1, 1910, edition of the Modesto News Herald, under the headline of “HALLOWE’EN VANDALS DESTROY PROPERTY.”
“The youthful pranks of Hallowe’en evening last night provided an opportunity for more or less vandalism. One bunch of hopefuls hauls a truck belonging to a T.A. Pillman to the Griswold residence on 14th Street between I and J and ran the wagon into the fence, breaking it in several places. Another gang tore down part of the fence in front of the White residence on 13th Street near G.”
We’ll stop momentarily: You mean Modesto had a gang problem back then, too? OK, we can now return to regular programming:
“The worst incident reported, however, was the attempt of some small boys to haul a delivery wagon belonging to Charles Vogelman onto the (Southern Pacific) tracks with the evident intention of leaving it there. The wagon was in the yard at the Coffee & O’Leary stables and the boys had reached the track when they were caught by Deputy Sheriff Vogelman. Needless to say, they made themselves scarce.”
In virtually every decade through the 1980s, at least one year’s Nov. 1 edition detailed mischief reported on Halloween night.
Among the more telling headlines: “Two Dynamite Blasts Mark Hallowe’en” in 1947. And in 1957, days after Long’s Drugs advertised costumes – “Hundreds of ’em and priced low” at 98 cents to $2.97 – a story reported that teens threw rocks through windows in Modesto and stole car batteries in Empire, two 12-year-old girls lighted a gas-soaked tire on fire in Hickman, underage drinkers were caught in Turlock and some police officers and deputies were doused by water balloons.
In 1965, “Halloween Hits Hard In Two Communities” detailed damaging pranks that included hay fires, doors kicked in and a mob scene in downtown Patterson. Others turned on fire hydrants (hey, they simply were trying to recharge the groundwater supply).
Indeed, history tells us, trick-or-treaters here weren’t always little angels. Some, in fact, were quite the opposite. The destructive stuff has eased over the past couple of decades as Halloween morphed into an $8 billion annual event built on sales of candy, costumes, decorations and home lighting intended to be visible from the moon.
Consequently, I can’t wait to answer the doorbell tonight, to dispense future tooth decay to a 4-year-old dressed up like Shelby The Swamp Man or one of the lumberjacks from “Axe Men.” It would be fitting ending to a day that could otherwise have been spent watching 8½ consecutive hours of “Pawn Stars” on the What Does This Have To Do With History? Channel.