Historian Diane Euston, middle, surrounded by creepy Halloween ghouls, otherwise known as (l-r) Danny Pruit, Joe Euston and David Wood. Photo circa 1982, courtesy Diane Euston.

Halloween Traditions Developed Over Time in Kansas City

As some Kansas Citians experimented with adult and children’s parties focused on some harmless fun, there were still those out to cause mischief within the community. 

By Diane Euston

  Once upon a time, the Halloween holiday was celebrated much differently than it is today. Many people, admittedly including myself, have Halloween fever. Today, over $6 billion is spent annually on Halloween, making it the second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

  Before there were children donned in costumes trick-or-treating and “haunted houses” in the West Bottoms, there were various ways in which Kansas Citians and the country celebrated All Hollow’s Eve. Stemming from traditions and customs of the Celts, the origins of how the holiday looks today didn’t develop until quite recently.

1909 Halloween postcard showing a little girl pointing at a witch. The message reads: Strange sights as seen on Halloween. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

The Ancient Origins of Halloween

  The celebration originates in one of the oldest mysteries of the human experience – the relationship between the living and the dead.

  Starting with the Celtic people in Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, a festival called Samhain included lighting a large bonfire while people wore costumes, usually of animal heads and skins, in order to ward off evil spirits. Samhain, meaning “summer’s end,” honored the time in which daylight waned and darkness ensued. They believed that this specific period of time gave the dead a chance to walk the earth yet again.

  In the Eighth Century, the spread of Catholicism created a problem as it pertained to these pagan customs. Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as All Saint’s Day, moving its original date from May 13. The hope was to help stomp out these ancient rituals and Christianize the people who celebrated them. But, as time would tell, these traditions weren’t easy to cancel. Thus, the Christians incorporated some of the customs of the Celts and the evening became known as All Hollow’s Eve and later Halloween.

  On Nov. 5, 1605, another event helped to aid in the “spreading” of traditions of Halloween. A group of Catholics tried to assassinate the Protestant king of Britain and failed. One member of the group named Guy Fawkes was caught and his name forever became attached to this failed plot.

  Guy Fawkes Day on Nov. 5 was celebrated annually by Protestants; bonfires were lit as people burned Catholic imagery as they drank and celebrated. The poorest children would go house-to-house, sometimes in masks, asking for treats. They threatened vandalism if those inside the house didn’t comply.

  An ancient folktale oftentimes referred to as “Stingy Jack” derives from the Irish. After a bunch of tricks against God and the devil, Stingy Jack wasn’t allowed to go to heaven or hell upon his death. So, the devil made him into a burning coal. Jack then put himself inside a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since.

  The Irish didn’t have pumpkins, so the tradition began with lit gourds and turnips that became known first as “Jack of the Lantern” and later Jack O’Lantern.

A postcard stating “A Merry Halloween” from 1908 features children bobbing for apples. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

Bringing All Hollow’s Eve to America

  Just as so many of America’s pastimes, they derive from a melting pot of different traditions and customs. The customs of Native American tribes melded with European beliefs and slowly morphed into what is now a modern-day Halloween. 

  In America, Puritan beliefs definitely delayed any true celebration of what we know as Halloween today, but during the Colonial era, there were parties where people would tell ghost stories.

  By the mid 19th century, festivities began to emerge as immigrants, especially from Ireland, flooded into America. In the late 1800s, the holiday became more community-based where parties for children and adults were common. 

  It was always a suspicion that witches, fairies and devils were running amuck on Halloween. The New York Recorder claimed in 1894 that any party should refrain from using modern gas or electricity for lights, and in turn, a bonfire was most appropriate.  When decorating, use “candles and the gaudy pumpkin jack o’ lanterns, set grinning from mantles and in all sorts of unexpected places.”

   Chestnuts and apples were needed for festivities, and people suspended them from strings on the ceilings and in doorways. Partygoers would enjoy other seasonal favorites such as cider, gingerbread and pumpkin pie.

  Early, safe fun included hosting parties where music, fortune telling and games such as ducking for apples were played. 

  Performing “spells” at parties was also quite popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This included using popcorn. “Two kernels are placed on a skillet having been named for two friends,” the Kansas City Times reported. “If they pop decorously, they will be friends forever, but if one pops outside the skillet, the one toward whom it flies will be the breaker of the friendship.” 

  Burned hazelnut shells were also passed out to attendees, and once placed under their pillow, “will ensure dreams that will surely come true.” 

  Another early game included blindfolding patrons that would then stand in front of three tubs- one with clean water, one with soapy water, and one empty. The blindfolded person would dip into one of the tubs. “If the clean water is touched he will marry a maid, the dirty water, a widow; and the empty dish will predict incurable bachelorhood.”

  A party at a home on the east side of Kansas City in 1889 featured a spell where the brave few would reluctantly creep down to the basement cellar with an apple and mirror, with the hopes “of discovering the inquirers future husband or wife, who it is believed will be seen peeping over his or her shoulder.” Most children weren’t successful at even making it down the dark staircase.

  In 1907, it was suggested that party-goers should have a “ghost walk” where everyone wore a sheet and guessed who was who – an early precursor to the costumes which were about to dominate the day.

Kansas City Times, October 5, 1939.

Tricksters on Halloween

  As some Kansas Citians experimented with adult and children’s parties focused on some harmless fun, there were still those out to cause mischief within the community. 

  Halloween Pranks were always the center of mischief on the day, and kids would get to work weeks ahead of Halloween to test out their tricks. In 1883, several students at the University of Kansas got into some serious trouble for arson, and one student was shot in his hip during a prank gone wrong.

 In the 1890s, pranks were the most prevalent part of Halloween. A “displaced board on a sidewalk” by some creative teens in 1892 at 11th and McGee caused a man to fall and break his arm and leg. 

  The man sued for $20,000 damages stating “the sidewalk was alright until the mischievous elves of all Hallowe’en tampered with it.”

  Common pranks for several decades included greasing or waxing streetcar line tracks, dumping over planters, soaping windows, throwing eggs at homes, throwing open tin cans on porches and “tick-tacking.” Tick-tacking was when pranksters would throw or flick corn kernels at someone’s windows.

  In 1909, Alfred Hancock, 14, was struck and dragged several feet by the Swope Park streetcar at 62nd and Swope Parkway after a Halloween prank went awry. 

  Interestingly, his mother had helped him with the prank that got him into trouble. “The boy’s mother, Mrs. Anna Hancock, had made a dummy representing a man, for her son to use.” 

  Young Alfred had stopped several cars by hurling the dummy onto the tracks. On his last throw, he lost his balance and fell onto the track and was struck.

  In 1915, some mischievous children stole the clothes off of all the hangers in a Turkish bath and then set off the fire alarm, forcing naked bathers to run into the street.

  On the Central Avenue Line on Halloween 1918, a steep incline at 26th and Reynolds Ave. was the site of a common trick. After a group of boys went to the tracks and “waxed them with candles,” the car, full of passengers, slid backwards and hit two others on the line.

  In 1931 on Halloween, seven boys were charged $5 each plus court costs “for a joy ride on the Belton fire truck.” Three kids from Grandview and four from Belton broke into the station and took the truck out for a spin. Also in Grandview, “it was reported livestock is being liberated from fields to roam on the highways at night.”

  Pranks by the 1930s became serious issues for the city. Even though most weren’t serious in nature, some pranksters were lighting “bonfires on porches.” 

  It was hard to contain the minor violence. The police tried to increase the amount of force on the streets in order to curb the behavior. Some suburban neighborhoods went as far as hiring their own patrolmen to walk the dark streets on the night of Halloween. 

  In Kansas, the police chief even made parents financially responsible for the pranks their children executed that caused property damage. In Kansas City, Mo., the police director asked in 1932 for the PTA to help with getting the vandalism under control by “educating the children in the seriousness of the matter.” 

  The Boy Scouts also tried to help eliminate some of the mischief. The Boy Scouts would sometimes host events for youngsters to attend and were also hired by neighborhoods as young “watchmen.”

Advertisement for Jones Store from October 23, 1925 shows how the costume options have changed over time.

The Beginning of Trick-or-Treating

  The first mention of “trick-or-treating” in the Kansas City Star didn’t occur until 1935. “Perhaps you might ring a neighboring doorbell and insist on ‘trick or treat!’” the Kansas City Star wrote. “That’s the Halloween holdup and you had best abide by it. Either you give these ghostly little figures a treat (apple, candy, chewing gum, cake or cookies) or they will play a trick on you! Better be a treater than a trickee!” 

  According to the newspaper, a few nights before Halloween, youngsters started on the rounds, ringing bells and knocking doors. But, instead of running and hiding, they “wait boldly for you to open the door. When you do, the leader says tersely, ‘Trick or treat.’” 

  Homeowners could either pay off with candy, apples, or cookies or suffer the consequences. And, at this period of time, they really meant the “trick” part. 

  The tricks that would occur in neighborhoods were becoming more and more expensive. In 1934, a fountain was overturned and faces of two stone figures were damaged in the Armour Hills subdivision. 

 Armour Hills, bounded on the west by Brookside Rd., on the north by 65th St., on the east by Oak St. and the south by Gregory Blvd., was developed in 1922 by J.C. Nichols. Houses continued to be built for more than a decade. In the mid 1930s, it included 1200 homes and was “a paradise for pranksters.” 

  The active homes association didn’t know what to do to curb the behavior. For years they hired guards to patrol the neighborhood, “but the presence of these watch dogs served only to bring out the best in juvenile vandalism.”

Hubbard Minor (1894-1972), president of the Armour Hills Homes Association, proposed “a radically different idea” than adding more security. He thought this would just make matters worse.

  He claimed the small children “like to drape themselves in sheets and with jack-o-lanterns go around to ‘scare’ their next-door neighbor” while medium-aged children were busy ringing bells. The oldest of the bunch were busy vandalizing properties.

Early Halloween decorations like this, taken in 1932 on Alameda Road at Central Street in the Plaza neighborhood were uncommon at the time. Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

  “My idea is to meet the revelers half way by putting on some sort of community celebration, say a huge bonfire and wiener roast that would last a couple of hours, and then the celebrators would be ready to go home,” Minor told the Kansas City Star.

  Minor went to area businesses and collected a fund to host a party. Businesses were hoping that this would be insurance of sorts to guarantee no vandalism. And, the plan worked.

  Starting in 1935, the party in the Armour Hills subdivision had over 800 people attend. Within three years, the party grew to over 1500 attendees. Tree trimmers cut limbs and used a vacant lot at Gregory and Rockhill Road for a big bonfire where 125 pounds of hot dogs and seven bushels of apples were given to partygoers. No destruction had been reported in the neighborhood. About one quarter of the children were dressed in costumes.

  To be fair, this wasn’t the origin of trick-or-treating in the city, but it was the first large event that gave a good alternative to unwelcomed pranks.

  The idea of trick-or-treating was still a foreign concept to most people in the late 1930s. In 1937, a man from Independence wrote that a child with two others hiding in the shadows came to his door on Halloween night and said, “Treat or tricks.” The man wrote, “When I asked if an apple was considered a treat he said it was. . . Then I told him if he wanted a treat, never threaten any tricks. Of all the things I despise it is to give something under the point of a threat that I would give gladly otherwise.”

  Within a few years, however, trick-or-treating became an accepted practice in Kansas City.

Kansas City Times advertisement for costumes at the Peck’s Dry Goods Store, Oct. 18, 1950

Early Costumes Were Less Than Politically Correct

  By around 1915, some basic Halloween costumes were being sold in stores, mostly consisting of skeletons, witches, and a “pumpkin man.” In general, these early costumes were fashioned by women and their sewing abilities rather than store-bought options.

  The stationary department at the Walnut St. Jones Store in 1925 was making “novelty Halloween crepe paper costumes in many different styles.”  Or, you could head to the sporting goods side of Jones and pick up a costume. It was common to pick up your costume at local dry goods stores as well, and most of these early renditions of costumes were worn at organized parties.

  The options of early costumes included the standard clowns, devils, witches, pirates and Little Red Riding Hood. But, many costumes sold in the early days were a bit controversial in today’s terms. Options advertised in the newspaper ads included a Russian dancer, a Mexican, Spanish Man, Irish Girl, a Mandarin and a Turkish princess.

  It certainly is a sign of the times and the stereotypes many had about people from different cultures. Dressing up in costumes based on popular culture, such as movie characters, politicians and cartoons didn’t emerge until there was more commercial production for the holiday.

Jones Store ad from the Kansas City Star, Oct. 15, 1930

Halloween Grows Every Year

  Despite its origins, All Hollow’s Eve has morphed into a holiday that children and adults look forward to every year. Yes, there may still be the occasional smashing of pumpkins and other unwanted pranks, but in general, Halloween is a day we welcomingly wait for our doorbell to ring. Unlike the other 364 days of the year, homes with their lights on are ready to open their doors and happily give candy to kids in costume.

  In some ways, Halloween is vastly different than it was 100 years ago. It’s a day of the year we get to meet our neighbors and socialize for just a few minutes. We have our own unique traditions of watching certain horror movies, going to certain neighborhoods to trick-or-treat, visiting haunted houses in the West Bottoms, dressing up for a party or decorating our houses. 

  Regardless of how you celebrate, the origins of Halloween lend a spooky superstition of the past that has changed over the years to include traditions we value today.

The author Diane Euston in a cheerleader costume much like her dad’s. Photo courtesy Diane Euston

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com 

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