Detroit's Halloween past: Spirits, demons and pranks

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

Halloween has become a major retail holiday, second only to Christmas in consumer spending, according to the National Retail Federation. But it didn’t start out that way. Early celebrations in Detroit had more to do with soothsaying than trick-or-treating.

The first mention of Halloween in the Detroit newspapers was in 1860, when Irish and Scottish immigrants, who celebrated All Hallows’ Eve overseas, began to arrive in Detroit and elsewhere in the U.S. They were accustomed to a rural celebration in which ghost stories were told around a blazing hearth and young adults played games to foretell the future. In some parts of Scotland children dressed in costume went door to door and sang songs or told jokes to get treats like cakes, apples and nuts.

For those Detroiters who had immigrated in the 1830s and ‘40s from New York and New England with strong Protestant values, dressing up like a witch or the devil for the fun of it was not considered a good idea.

The Detroit Free Press described the holiday in 1866: “It is still believed that on ‘Halloween,’ the evening of the 31st of October, the living have power not only over the spirits of the dead but over their fellow mortals, that by the practice of certain prescribed rites, they can summon, at will, the spirits of the departed, and that they can then obtain insight into their own future.”

Witches, ghosts and soothsaying played a big part in Halloween in the early days in Detroit. Many of the activities involved young people divining who they would marry. One process called “saucer luck” involved a blindfolded woman dipping her hand into a bowl or saucer of clean water (good husband), dirty water or just dry dirt (loser husband), or no water or dirt (no husband).

Sometimes Halloween was referred to as “Nut Crack Night,” in which two chestnuts were placed in a hot roasting pan; one nut named for the lady, the other for her true love. As the nuts roasted one might crack and pop out of the pan (that’s bad – no love for you), or both chestnuts might stay in the pan side by side but only one catches fire (good – your love is true); however, if both burn together, the newspaper declared “…then in holy matrimony the twain shall become one flesh.”

Apples also played their part. At midnight a young man or woman would eat an apple standing in front of a mirror, alone with only the light of a single candle. In the mirror, he or she could supposedly see their future partner for life staring back at them over their shoulder.

In 1895 a popular game at Halloween was picking raisins from the fire. Raisins were placed in a saucer where lit alcohol provided the fire. If you could snag a raisin without scorching your fingers you would be lucky for the rest of the year.

 The herring test

On the night of Halloween a raw herring had to be eaten in three mouthfuls, bones and all, according to an 1890 report. That night the herring eater was supposed to see her future lover in her dreams bearing a glass of water. (The reason for this is unclear, but wouldn’t you want a glass of water after eating raw herring?)

Bobbing or as it was called sometimes “Dookin’” [ducking] for apples in a tub of water or suspended by a string was part of the fireside merriment. A more dangerous version was described in an 1866 article:

“Place on one end of a stick suspended horizontally a lighted candle, on the other end an apple, and then giving it a rapid rotary motion attempt to catch the apple as it passes without being struck or burned by the candle.”

Jack-o-lanterns were carved but other vegetables were also used, such as turnips, gourds, cucumbers and cabbages. A popular autumn party decoration was to hollow out a cabbage and fill it with roses; party tables were also decorated with nuts, apples and bunches of grapes.

The spooky legends of Detroit

Before Halloween was widely celebrated, Detroit had its own homegrown ghosts, goblins and mischief makers, such as the Nain Rouge (Red Dwarf), Loup Garou (werewolves), and haunted spinning wheels. The spooky tales of French Detroit that date back to the founding of the city were recorded by Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin in her book Legends of Le Detroit, first published in 1880.

The legends take place in Detroit, downriver, Windsor, and Grosse Pointe when this area was mostly farms, swamps and very dark woods. Many of the stories Hamlin recorded were from area storytellers in the 19th century and contain references to local Indian lore of ghosts, demons and spells. The stories are chilling to this day, featuring murder, witchery, monsters and the mysterious swamp lights of Grosse Isle, “Le Feu Follet,” that lured the innocent to their deaths.

Her most well-known tale is that of le Nain Rouge or Red Dwarf, whose mere presence has brought bad luck, tragedy and hardship to the city from its very founding, the story goes. In recent years the story has been revived in a festival held in March to drive the dreaded Nain Rouge from the city with a raucous parade. He’s a frightening, goblin-like creature with a red face, sharp teeth and glowing eyes. It is claimed the dwarf is still seen when you least expect it.

“If there is any such thing as a ghost with blood-red eyes, long teeth, and rattling hoofs, then Jane Dacy of Elizabeth Street east saw one on Wednesday night,” the Detroit Free Press reported on Oct. 11, 1872. “She went into a dark room on an errand, saw the fearful specter, and fell in a lump, fainting so faraway that camphor had no effect. She was ill in bed yesterday with effect of the fright.”


The Nain Rouge

At the modern Marche du Nain Rouge in Detroit, the “Red Dwarf” taunts the gathering before being symbolically driven from the city. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

An age of spirits

Detroiters of the 19th century up to the 1920s were much more open to the idea of spirits and ghosts than we are today. Christian-based “Spiritualism” – in which people believed they could communicate with the dead through “mediums” and various methods – was considered a mainstream Christian denomination. According to contemporary historians, such as Barbara Goldmsith in her book “Other Powers,” as many as 10 million Americans identified themselves as followers of Spiritualism, with strong appeal to educated middle and upper classes.

Among the most famous was novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, who quit writing about Sherlock Holmes to devote all his time to communicating with spirits and promoting Spiritism, a variant of Spiritualism that believes in reincarnation. Mary Todd Lincoln famously held séances in the White House to communicate with her dead son Todd.

Despite the popularity of Spiritualism, many from the start saw it as a dangerous fraud: “Spiritualism or intelligence from the graveyard is through ghosts or crack-brained Charlatans!” the Detroit Free Press declared on Aug. 25, 1853.

Spiritualism was considered a progressive form of religion in that it offered evidence that the world of spirits existed; it was frequently referred to as a science because it produced “irrefutable truth” of life after death. Many women were involved as “mediums” who led séances, and their audience was heavily female, as talking to the dead had strong appeal to women at time when infant mortality was high.

Spiritualism surged during and after the Civil War when so many families lost their sons, husbands, and fathers and also flourished after World War I. It was linked with other progressive ideas such as women’s rights and suffrage. Séances were held in people’s homes and it gave many women a place to talk about deeply personal issues normally forbidden in repressive Victorian society.

As Spiritualism flourished, nationally known figures toured the U.S., giving more and more outlandish demonstrations of the spirit world.

“Dr. C.M. Eddy, a noted medium, will give a spiritual séance at the New Detroit Opera House,” read a notice on Nov. 7, 1918. “He will attempt to demonstrate the possibility of spirit power being shown in the light instead of the usual darkened room. Among the manifestations to be given are open slate writing, supernatural visions, floating tables and chairs, materialization and dematerialization and other phenomena of the spirit world.”

However, by the 1920s mediums and psychics were generally considered fakes by the public and police. Magician Harry Houdini promoted a tour to expose fraudulent mediums, announcing: “Up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains.” (He co-authored a book on the subject with Dr. C.M. Eddy, mentioned above.)

In her 1999 book Other Powers, Barbara Goldsmith explains that mediums would visit cemeteries for fresh grave markers in cities before contacting potential séance participants. There was also a black market for the “Blue Book” that listed local people most likely to attend séances and give their family history. In 1921 a séance held on Temple Street in Detroit was raided by police, and the gray-haired psychic from Grand Rapids admitted he had been arrested more than 100 times for fraud.

The haunted blanket

Detroit had malevolent spirits everywhere – in haunted houses, haunted farms, deserted log cabins, even night-train sleeping cars. In 1893 passengers complained of “an unearthly laugh” in a sleeper car on a train that ran from Detroit to Chicago called the Lower 11. One poor victim reported a terrifying experience as he was dozing off to bed in a sleeping berth in 1893:

“The weather was pretty cold … I tucked the blanket in close around my neck to avoid the draft. I was just dozing off when I heard the most unearthly laugh and the blanket was suddenly pulled away…. It was only ten o’clock but nearly everybody was in bed … I tucked the blanket around my neck again … and was soon in another doze when off went the blanket once more and again I heard the shrieking laugh. I hastily readjusted the blanket but it was yanked away at once to the hyena like laugh accompaniment. … I looked to the foot of my bed and it seemed to me blue flames were dancing there…. My heart pounded like a Corliss Engine. As my fear grew I saw a white figure… blue flames seemed to play all over it and leap from mouth to eyes of the figure when the demon laugh was uttered.”

The train porter told the terrified passenger that the haunted blanket belonged to a passenger who died in his sleep under mysterious circumstances.

He got him a new blanket.

Halloween hits the streets

Halloween in Detroit in 1910 saw about 100 youngsters garbed as Indians invade Woodward Avenue downtown from the east side, while 300 teenagers danced the night away to “weird” music in darkened dance halls. At the Detroit College of Medicine (now Wayne State University’s Medical School) about 150 students stopped a truck on St. Antoine Street and stole bales of paper which they set on fire, surrounding the college building with a ring of bonfires that reached the roof. Later that night police dispersed a thousand revelers lighting bonfires at Trumbull and Selden Avenue.

In 1919 “general pandemonium” reigned downtown as hotels like the Hotel Statler and Tuller Hotel held special Halloween dinners and costumed adults took control of Grand Circus Park by tooting tin horns, clanging bells and clattering rattles. Kids carried lanterns of small pumpkins and confetti sellers did a booming business on Halloween. Store windows were soaped and brass bands played.

At St. Mary’s Hospital (behind what is now Ford Field) it was a yearly tradition that after medical students decided to scare their patients, they then paraded down Gratiot wearing masks and night shirts bearing red skull and bones, led by a brass band. They marched past Grand Circus Park singing college songs. Four hundred students then ended up at the German Arbeiter Halle for beer and food and began a sausage fight, throwing it at each other and the police.

 Costume fads

A costume once popular at Halloween was the clown Pierrot, dressed in white with black touches. The female version was Pierrette.

A costume once popular at Halloween was the clown Pierrot, dressed in white with black touches. The female version was Pierrette.

Dressing up in costumes for Halloween was embraced by Detroiters in the Victorian era, although costumes at the turn of the 20th century were less scary and sexy than today: no zombies or French maids. Costumes were made, not purchased, as stores had not caught on to Halloween riches to come. For adults, there were gypsies, ghosts, witches, tramps and black cats. During World War I young women liked to dress up as American soldiers. Some of the popular costumes of the times have been forgotten, such as the all white clown Pierrette and her male counterpart Pierrot, who were popular in 19th century culture. Another costume for girls was the poor but pretty Mediterranean “orange seller,” hawking her basket of oranges on street corners.

One tradition was for young boys to dress as girls, complete with wigs and dresses, and girls as boys. Other costumes were frequently based on characters from children’s stories and fairy tales, such as Jack Rabbit, Mother Goose, fairies, goblins, a Little Dutch boy with wooden shoes, Humpty-Dumpty, Jack Sprat, and Cinderella.

In the early 1900s “poverty parties” were popular at Halloween. A room was decorated with candles, benches were used instead of chairs, and food was served on cracked and broken dishes. Food served in one party from 1910 was baked beans, brown bread, molasses candy, potato salad and coffee. Prizes were given for the “worst” costume and best hard luck story.

 All trick, no treat

Before the 1930s, Halloween was basically Devil’s Night. There was no placating with a treat for no trick, it was all trick. Many people, especially police and fire departments, dreaded the night.

“No Hallowe’en prank was left unplayed in Detroit last night. The small boy’s brain had been busy for long weeks past planning to make this a memorable night in the history of Hallowe’ens, and no sooner had he swallowed his hasty supper before he started out to make night hideous for all the neighbors and blissfully riotous for himself.” – Detroit Free Press, Nov. 1, 1905.

Some of the “didoes” (pranks) listed in the newspapers from 1901 through 1925 included boys who stole store signs, unhinged wooden gates, broke fences, stole a family’s laundry and hung it in trees; or strung laundry on lines from telegraph poles, rolled buggies into creeks, knocked over woodpiles and stacked logs on porch steps, switched wheels on wagons, tied boots on sheep or pigs, rang doorbells and asked “Is Happy Hooligan Home?” then ran off.

They rigged “tick-tacks,” a wooden spool notched with a nail and strung up so when pulled it made an annoying noise on a window pane. They threw pumpkins and vegetables at people who answered the door, dressed up as ghosts and pelted the windshields of passing cars with dried kernels of corn. They stole cabbages, muskmelons and pumpkins, blew horns and whistles, and threw fistfuls of confetti in people’s faces.

For the meaner spirits, one common trick was to stretch wire a few inches above the sidewalk and trip people as they walked by. One man broke his shoulder on such a fall.

By the 1930s city leaders got wise and began to hold Halloween parties to get kids off the streets. The New York Times reported in 1935 that the Detroit City Department of Recreation held 90 citywide parties for 45,000 children to promote a “Safe and Sane Halloween.”

Trick or treating can be traced to England and Ireland’s practice of “souling,” in which children went door to door and said prayers for the dead in exchange for treats and cake. It also originated in Scotland as “guising” when kids would dress in costume and sing songs or tell jokes to get a treat from the neighbors.

In the U.S., trick-or-treating didn’t really begin until the early 1950s but soon mushroomed into the huge commercial enterprise it is today. One hundred years ago an article on children’s love of Halloween could never imagine what the holiday has become today:

 “For Christmas there is endless shopping…. Not so on the Eve of All Saints. This is the one festival that has not been modernized, but how can it be? The spooks of one age are those of the next. It is the night when to [children] seem real the weird legends, superstitions, and the foolish antics invented long ago; when they half hope and half fear to see witches riding a broom, sulfur eyed cats sitting in front of a cold crescent moon, and gnomes and fairies dancing on the green.” – Detroit Free Press, Oct. 26, 1913.

Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, and the forthcoming book “Detroit Food” to be released in January of 2014.