Poison Halloween Candy Killed One Kid, But The Story Wasn't What It Seemed
It’s Halloween, the time of the year when terrified parents and terrifying media warn you that strangers are going to kill your kids via trick-or-treat candy. They are warning about something that has never happened. Never. Not even once.
There was a kid who died in 1974 from eating poisoned Halloween candy. But a stranger didn’t poison it. His father did.
At First, It Did Seem Like A Stranger Poisoned Trick-Or-Treaters' Candy
On Halloween night, 1974, Texas police received word of a boy dead in the hospital. Officers showed up and saw what even an untrained eye would identify as a poisoning victim. The kid, eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan, was foaming at the mouth while dead in the stretcher.
The culprit, said his father Ronald, was one of the Pixy Stix that he’d picked up trick-or-treating that night. Tim had eaten some of the powder within and complained that it tasted bitter. Ron, surely assuming the candy just tasted sour and the kid didn’t understand you’re supposed to enjoy that, fetched some sweet Kool-Aid to wash the stuff down. Then Tim starting vomiting and crying. Ron rushed him to the hospital, but not fast enough to save his life.
The stick didn’t just contain flavored sugar and citric acid, like Pixy Stix should. It contained cyanide. They smelled it on the boy’s mouth in the morgue, and tests later confirmed it. And these weren’t mere traces that somehow slipped in during some very unsafe manufacturing process. Someone had packed in pure cyanide at the top of the straw.
For the police, the first priority was now to grab any other sticks from that same batch to keep them from killing anyone else. They managed that, but it was close. Tim had gone trick-or-treating in a group of four, all of them had received Pixy Stix, and Ron gave one stick from their haul to a further kid they ran into. One kid almost dug into a stick that night but was unable to open the staple that sealed it shut. A second kid cut his stick open in the kitchen, but his father put him to bed before he could eat any. A third was all set to eat some, but he spilled it on the ground, annoying his mom.
Okay, that was Tim’s trick-or-treating party accounted for, with the fatalities at least limited to no more than one. The house who’d given out the sticks could have poisoned many more children as well, though. Police asked Ron’s help in identifying the house. Here’s where things got weird.
Soon Dad’s Story Started To Crumble
Ron couldn’t remember the house. Which would be reasonable enough if the kids went to a whole bunch of houses and the dad didn’t direct them. But the way the kids described it, the Pixy Stix house had been unusual. They’d all arrived at the house, no one had answered, then the kids walked away while Ron insisted on staying behind. Then, Ron caught up with them, saying a man had answered the door after all and gave out candy, and he produced the five sticks.
Ron couldn’t remember the house, and he didn’t seem terribly keen on even trying to. That surprised police. More normal would have been for a father like him to have marched to the home on his own, maybe multiple homes, and immediately killed the presumed poisoner himself, execution-style. It took some prodding, and Ron at last led the cops to the place. Based on Ron’s word, police arrested the man of the house.
That man of the house was C.E. Melvin, and police never charged him. Because Melvyn explained that he hadn’t even been home when trick-or-treaters were making the rounds that night. He’d been working ... at the airport. Meaning the international airport in Houston, where dozens of witnesses could back up his alibi. Ron said a man in the house had handed out candy, but there was no man in the house, just Melvin’s wife and daughter, who’d gone to bed early (which was consistent with the kids’ story, which said they’d rung that house and received no answer).
So, had Ron made a mistake, and he had actually got the sticks from elsewhere? He wasn’t able to point to any other house. In fact, his story—he said a man who hid his face handed the candy out—sounded less than credible. Luckily, no new reports came in of any more kids suffering from poison.
As the days went by, Ron started acting a little ... odd. At the funeral, his neighbor noticed that he walked right past his son's coffin, displaying little emotion. He marked his son’s death by writing a song about the boy meeting Jesus in heaven. He had a local TV station play the recording, and after Tim’s funeral, when the family wanted to go to sleep instead of staying up to watch the broadcast, he got angry. Still, people grieve in all kinds of ways. Think about the dad on Twin Peaks: Not long after his daughter’s death, he was singing and dancing, and police didn’t run and arrest him for that.
Then police learned about the life insurance.
Then All The Evidence Came Together
Earlier that year, Ron had taken out life insurance policies on each of his children. Let’s talk now a little about insurance to explain what’s odd about this.
You do not insure the lives of your loved ones simply because you love them and they are precious to you. Instead, life insurance seeks to replace income that you will lose when they die. That’s why a breadwinner takes out insurance on their own life with their family as the beneficiary, that’s why companies take out life insurance on their employees. To a lesser extent, life insurance also pays for expenses that pop up when someone dies, including the funeral; this applies more when you are confident the holder will die soon, like if they’re really old.
Life insurance is different for children. You (usually) aren’t seeking to replace lost income because children (usually) do not work. Instead, child life insurance is actually a savings scheme. You expect your child won’t die anytime soon, but insurance transfers money into an account that they can access in the future. It’s not a very good savings scheme, but a savings scheme is all it is—you should not go for it unless you’re in a position to put some savings away.
Ronald Clark O’Bryan was not in such a position. He was in the opposite position: He was $100,000 in debt and looking for a way out. When he took those life insurance policies out, his wife had argued against the move, but he did it anyway.
Then, at the start of October, he took out additional insurance policies on his kids, bigger ones this time. The salesman had pushed him toward policies that were better for savings, but Ron insisted on one with the largest death benefits. Financially, this was a nonsense move, unless he had some reason to believe his kids would die soon.
The life insurance was the big piece of evidence against Ron. Then other stuff connected him with the poisoning. A Houston chemical company spoke of a customer who came to buy cyanide, a customer who might have been Ron. Though employed as an optician, Ron also attended community college, where a professor said he’d asked a strange question: “What is more lethal, cyanide or another type of poison?” Police also found a pair of scissors in his possession, with residue on them that matched the stuff found on the Pixy Stix.
The conclusion: Ron had tried to kill both his children for life insurance money, hoping to pin the murder on an unseen boogeyman. He had also hoped to kill two or three other children as well to camouflage the act.
Ron Clark O’Bryan went to trial, and a jury took just 46 minutes to find him guilty. Nine years later, Texas executed him. Demonstrators outside threw candy and yelled “Trick or treat,” because everyone sees their lives as a movie.
O’Bryan Did Not Start The Poison Candy Myth
Ron gained a nickname: The Man Who Killed Halloween. When we talked about him years ago, we described him as someone who screwed things up for everybody—this one man was why we ended up with widespread fear of tainted Halloween candy. But he wasn’t that. He didn’t start the myth of deadly candy, and we don’t know if he even popularized it.
The urban legend already existed at the time, and Ron O’Bryan’s plan piggybacked off it. In 1970, for example, the New York Times ran an article warning of razors in apples and candy containing sleeping pills. They cited various supposedly real cases without providing any names of victims. A review of these cases and more in 1984, analyzing 76 news articles, determined that not one of these murder attempts actually happened.
The only time razors and pins appeared in candy, it turned out, was when kids put them there themselves as a joke. One story the New York Times mentioned did happen, but it was a dentist who handed out candy-coated laxatives; we place this prank in a different category from what the paper was claiming parents should fear.
The poison candy myth did not exaggerate one case into many but instead fed on unrelated fears. Which fears? Crime in general was huge in the ’70s, true, but sociologists point to other factors that hurt people’s trust in one another in the ’60s and ’70s, everything from women entering the workforce to racial integration. Hey, we didn’t say any of these explanations would make clear sense—this is an irrational belief we’re talking about here.
The belief did have a predecessor, a slightly more rational one: the fear of tainted food in general. This one dates all the way back to the industrial revolution, when parents feared that food they bought sometimes contained impurities. Food they bought often did contain impurities (in one famous case, arsenic slipped into a batch of peppermint candy, with fatal results). However, no one was maliciously trying to murder children, they were just making stuff as cheaply as they could. Interestingly, the prudent response back then was to eschew store-bought fare in favor of homemade stuff, while today, advice says you must avoid homemade candy at all costs and ensure the candy’s store-bought and sealed.
We doubt the O’Bryan murder helped the poison myth spread. By the time news of Tim’s death was out, Halloween 1974 was done, and by the time Halloween 1975 came around, Ronald had already been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. If anything, the story of the father who killed his son and pinned it on the myth should have countered the myth, not fostered it. It’s possible some people heard of Tim’s death but not the true story of what caused it, but few could have, because the trial was huge news.
Since no one has ever actually given deadly candy to trick-or-treaters, but Ron based his plan on the myth, we can say media fearmongering on the subject has saved zero lives. But it has indirectly ended one life: Tim’s.
Fears Of Poison Candy Never Made Sense
You really don’t need to worry about strangers poisoning your children. No one wants to murder your children. What they want is to have sex with your children.
Wait, sorry, that was unhelpful, and is just a different exaggerated fear. But at least some people somewhere do want to have sex with your children, and some people somewhere want to kidnap your children and stab them, and even those people, whether or not they use candy to lure in victims, have no desire to poison candy and then let these random children die unseen in your home. That method sates none of the mad murderer’s desires, you see. Killing children via poison candy brings no pleasure but does ensure the murderer gets caught (think how easily the police arrested C.E. Melvin). It’s the exact opposite of what a murderer would want to do.
via Wiki Commons
The closest real thing we’ve had to strangers poisoning candy is the famous 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders, in which someone added cyanide to bottles of medicine shortly before Halloween. It was a crazy crime, and we still don’t know who did it or why, but here’s what we do know: They poisoned bottles in drug stores, they didn’t hand poison out of their home. They wouldn’t have handed poison out of their home because that would have immediately led to their being caught.
Same goes for that related fear, the one that says people are slipping dangerous drugs into Halloween candy. This year, the latest spin on that is “rainbow fentanyl,” fentanyl baked into colored candy-like blocks. Media reports say that the term was invented by law enforcement, while law enforcement reports say the term was invented by the media. The idea sounded silly as soon as reports started circulating ...
... and it’s only gotten worse as news stations repeated the claim.
No one is deliberately giving fatal drug doses to get customers addicted. That would be a poor strategy and would eliminate repeat business (the reason traffickers add fentanyl to other drugs is because bulking them up saves money). No one is trying to give away drugs by disguising them as anything else. If traffickers are carrying disguised fentanyl, it’s to elude detection by law enforcement, not to fool children. No one is giving drugs from their suburban porch on Halloween night, and no one is giving away expensive drugs for free. No one is targeting elementary school kids to buy synthetic opioids, as elementary school kids don’t have much money.
Here too, we have a case from the ’70s that seemed to follow the urban legend but turned out to be something else. In 1970, a five-year-old kid in Detroit died from heroin after Halloween, and people suspected he’d got it from trick-or-treat candy. Turned out he’d broken into his uncle’s heroin stash, unrelated to any candy he’d eaten. In 2018, a five-year-old went to the hospital with meth in his system after trick-or-treating. The meth came from his father, and police tests on his candy turned up zero drug traces.
Your kid is not going to get any drugs trick-or-treating. Instead, in a few years, they’ll be at some party when a friend will ask them if they want to partake. At that point, you just have to hope that they’ll do the right thing and say yes.
So don’t worry about your kids’ candy. Worry about their costumes catching fire, their hay rides falling over, their getting stuck in a joke noose. Worry about a car hitting them, since three times as many kids die hit by cars on Halloween as on the average night. But don’t worry about candy. Candy isn’t poison. Candy is the source of all things good. The only people who disagree are dentists, and they’re out there handing out laxatives on Halloween, why would you trust them?
Top image: Texas Department of Criminal Justice