“What Was Your Most Memorable Halloween?”On October 28, 2020 by Elyse
More than a century ago, an unnamed journalist was tasked with running around Washington, D.C. and asking notable politicians the burning questions of the day. No, not those about national politics, the burgeoning movement for women’s suffrage or even the war on the tango: Instead, this no-doubt future Pulitzer Prize winner asked U.S. cabinet secretaries and senators, “what was your most memorable Halloween?”
October 26, 1913 must’ve been a slow news day. Remember those?
My ears hurt just thinking about how today’s politicians would answer the question. Fortunately, 1913 was a simpler time, as well as an off year for both presidential elections and pandemics.
In those days, if the newspapers are to be believed, “trick-or-treat” came with the very real possibility of a trick instead of a fun-size candy bar, as some senators learned the hard way.
Senator Atlee Pomerene of Ohio. . . during his later years has rather looked down on Halloween and yet he frankly admitted that on one Halloween occasion his hair rose like the quills of the more or less well known fretful porcupine.
Ladies and gentleman, I have a new favorite metaphor. Hereafter, everything will move like the quills of a fretful porcupine.
“It was like this,” said [Senator Pomerene]. “When I was a boy it was a more or less traditional exercise to go forth into the highways and byways and remove gates. . . with certain of the boys in our community it was a sacred ritual to remove a certain number of gates, take them to an open lot and have a glorious bonfire.”
Don’t judge him too harshly, dear readers. Remember, this was before children could plop themselves down in front of screens for hours on end.
“. . . One Halloween, many, many years ago. . . I discerned a gate that appeared to have been left for the very purpose I had in mind. . . The matter of removing it and carrying it away occupied but a moment. Then, with my proud burden beneath my arm, I started to where the rest of the gang had gone. . .
“Walking to the open field where the bonfire was to be arranged, I heard footsteps behind me. No matter how fast or slow I walked, the footsteps continued behind me. . . At first I suspected that a policeman was following me; but when I glanced around I could see no one. . .
“When I reached the field. . . I started in to wait until somebody should show up. I presume that I waited about an hour. . .
Why didn’t he just text—oh, right.
“Finally I got tired of waiting. The rest of the crowd had not yet returned, and I began to fear that perhaps they had deserted me and gone home. It was nearly midnight, and a hollow, moaning wind had arisen.
“Stooping to the pile of gates, I struck a match and lit the pile. In an instant it blazed skyward. There was a flash of flame, and satisfied, I stepped back and prepared to watch the performance.
“Then, to my horror, the gate which I had plucked began slowly to crawl out of the fire!
It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s ALIVE!
“There was something savoring so of the supernatural in the movements of that gate that I could not budge. I was chilled with terror—absolutely petrified like a person in a dream who wants to awaken, but cannot. It became terrible, the suspense of waiting.
“Slowly but surely the blazing gate began to crawl along the ground away from the fire. I watched it for a moment as it sneaked along, leaving a trail of cinders behind it. . . I gazed again, and again saw the haunted gate crawling away toward the brush fire yards away. . .
‘Tis the season for ghosts, ghouls, witches and now, haunted gates. Corporations, update your Halloween marketing accordingly.
“Sick with terror, I was about to leave, when I chanced to see a glint of metal wire, a copper cord. At that moment came a chuckle, a laugh that was human. . . Then I discovered the cause of its strange crawlings.
“It was fastened to a copper wire which was run through the shrubs into the hands of my companions. They had followed me, after directing me to the old gate, which they had intended all the time that I should take.
“When I removed it I did not notice that one of the confederates had already attached the wire to it. They followed me back to the bonfire ground, knowing full well that I would not wait a while for them, and then start the business of the night—lighting the fire.
“Never in my life have I had such a lesson in the value of private property. . . Incidentally I might remark that that was my last Halloween celebration of a destructive nature! Afterward I contented myself with parties of a milder and more lawful nature.”– Senator Atlee Pomerene, quoted in the Evening Star, October 26, 1913
What have we learned? Property damage is bad, sure, but more importantly: If your friends abandon you in a creepy field at midnight, you should probably just go home and make some new friends.
Senator Pomerene wasn’t the only one with a horrifying Halloween haunting:
After this story the investigator into the ways of witches with public men went to the office of Senator [John] Shafroth of Colorado, who enjoys the reputation of being a singularly solid and non-believing man who takes care of the facts and leaves the fancies to themselves.
“What was your greatest Halloween experience?” the investigator inquired.
“That is a question,” replied the senator, “that is fraught with sorrow in my memory.” There was a pause. “I think,” he said, reflectively, “that Halloween should be abolished. It is a dangerous thing to stir up the witches and the sprites. One can never tell where it will end. . .”
Oh yes, one can: bonfires, haunted gates and character-building experiences, obviously.
“By the way,” continued the senator, “did I ever tell you that I hold a world’s record for running the half-mile distance? . . . this is how it came about:
“Some years ago, a great many, in fact, when I was a boy, I attended a Halloween party near our house and after remaining there until about 11 o’clock I started on my way homeward. It was a rather dark walk in those days, for the electric and gas lights were not then small town luxuries.
“Coming along the blackened road on a cloudy Halloween night. . . I got as far as the long lane which led to our house when I beheld something flickering in the trees. At first I paid no attention to it.
Cue the creepy music.
“Then, as I got nearer, I gazed up and there, apparently sitting on a branch of a tree, was a hideous yellow glaring face, fixed in a deadly grin. The body was of white. Even as I watched it, I could see it sway from side to side like some great bird.
“I was so terrified that I could not move. I looked again at the creature, which seemed to be bending down toward me. Its eyes were a glowing red, like the fires of the inferno. Its nose was a glowing blue. The cavernous mouth was simply a ghastly slit without shape.
“Even as I was taking my last look the thing lurched toward me and fell almost into my arms. It was then that I broke the world’s record for the half mile. I say half mile; it may have been more. I never attempted to calculate exactly the distance which I put between myself and the creature.
Good enough for me. The world’s worst gym teacher might disagree, but I’d give him the gold medal.
“The next morning I returned to the spot, still trembling, and examined the eerie thing. It was a cleverly devised pumpkin head with colored glass for the eyes and nose. Four candles were so arranged in it as to give an almost human expression to the eyes. A long sheet was the body.”
The senator paused. “I have always regretted,” he concluded, “that it was not possible for me to have had a stop-watch on the half mile which I ran. I believe this to be the most wonderful part of the whole adventure.”– Senator John Shafroth, quoted in the Evening Star, October 26, 1913
If you’re venturing out in search of candy this year, take a page from Senator Shafroth and bring along a stopwatch. You might not be able to outrun coronavirus, but you can definitely beat a disembodied pumpkin—and might as well break a world record while you’re at it.
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.