Old time Halloween nights sometimes rowdy

Hooliganism and property damage at Halloween seem to rise and fall in cycles that are neither predictable nor explain­able.
The commonly heard com­plaint, that youth has no sense of decorum and responsibility, is probably as old as Halloween itself: it was voiced in Well­ington County as early as the 1850s.
Newspapers of the 19th cen­t­ury, particularly after 1870 or so, rarely reported Hallow­een incidents. Editors found the pranks pointless and mindless, and preferred not to encourage the perpetrators by giving them publicity.
Some of those pranks re­quir­­ed considerable advance plan­ning and initiative. In 1876, for example, the Elora Lightning Express reported that there were no “serious depreda­tions,” then went on to describe the work of an ambitious crew in lifting a small log house off the ground, putting it on a wagon, and shoving it onto the main street. That same column listed some of the other sense­less tricks, such as gates re­mov­ed from their hinges and fences pulled down.
From that column, and oth­er newspapers of the 1870s, it seems that most people stayed up late in order to watch their property, and more than a few property owners remained on guard all night. Those informal patrols undoubtedly kept a lid on undesirable activities, help­ing to minimize the fires and demolition of buildings that oc­casionally characterized the Hal­­loweens of a generation ear­­lier.
A popular stunt of younger boys was the throwing of ston­es at houses, particularly those occupied by the elderly and the infirm. Frequently that resulted in broken window panes and smashed shutters.
That is precisely what hap­pened to Mrs. Robert Chinneck in Elora, in 1876. A gang of boys, knowing that Chinneck was out of town on business, pel­ted the house with stones, and broke about a dozen panes of glass. The terrified Mrs. Chinneck fled to the refuge of neigh­bours.
But stone throwing could also be risky. Some residents, and particularly those in the north part of the county, often took stern measures to protect their houses and property. In Clifford in 1876, several had their shotguns loaded with pow­der, rock salt, and bird shot. When the stone-throwing miscreants showed up, the house­holders grabbed their fire­arms and offered the scat­tering boys a 12-gauge invi­ta­tion to leave the neigh­bour­hood. There is no reason to believe that Clifford was in any way unique.
But in 1876, it wasn’t young boys, but rather, big kids, who made things interesting in Clifford. A couple of miles southeast of town, lumberman George Fulton operated a saw­mill. It was an important in­dustry in the 1870s, and even rat­ed a stop on the railway, known as Fulton’s Mills. On Halloween night in 1876, the men worked late to complete some orders for lumber. The mill would be shutting down the next day for an indeter­minate period.
With the jobs completed, three of the men, named Wil­son, Bennett, and Harvey, set off for their homes in Clifford. On their way, they made a quiet visit to the henhouse of Jacob Gram. In addition to a flock of hens, Gram had a few geese, but his prize was a flock of turkeys. Working quickly and as quietly as possible, the men started wringing necks, and in a few minutes they were back on the road, walking toward Clif­ford, and carrying sacks con­taining 15 of the turkeys, two geese, and a few of the hens for good measure.
One of the men, John Wil­son, lived a little farther on. The grouped stopped there, and enjoyed a supper prepared by Mrs. Wilson. After pushing back their chairs they emptied the sacks of birds and divided the loot among themselves. With their shares under their arms, Bennett and Harvey left the Wilson home for their own residences, confident that they had pulled off a clever and pro­fit­able stunt.
Early the next morning, Jake Gram’s jaw dropped when he went out to feed his birds. He was particularly upset about the loss of his turkeys. Outside, he noticed feathers scattered on the ground, and leading to the road. He followed the trail of feathers down the road, and up to the door of the Wilson house.
Mrs. Wilson assured him she knew nothing about turkeys or any other fowl. Gram didn’t believe a word of it. Instead of raising a fuss, he went on into Clif­ford, and soon returned with the constable and a search warrant signed by a justice of the peace.
While Mrs. Wilson continu­ed to assure the men that there were no turkeys on the pre­mises, the men conducted a thor­ough search. They found nothing. As they were about to leave, Gram noticed that a bol­ster on one of the beds seemed a little lumpy. Inside he found a sack full of birds.
The constable at once arrested John Wilson and his wife, and escorted them to the lock-up in Clifford. By then, there were few in Clifford who were not aware of the turkey theft. Bennett and Harvey, who had been boarding in town, quickly packed their Gladstone bags, bid Clifford farewell, and hopped on the afternoon train to Palmerston and points south. The inept constable allowed them to slip through his fingers. The historical record does not in­dicate what became of their shares of the turkeys.
Later that day, the Wilsons appeared before the local mag­is­trate, trembling and ashen-faced with the realization that their Halloween prank was arous­ing little mirth. Jake Gram was willing to forget about the two accomplices, providing he received compensation for his missing birds. He calculated their value at $23.85, a sum accepted by the magistrate. The Wilsons could not pay fast enough.
A peculiar aspect of the latter part of the 19th century was Halloween and Thanks­giving usually fell very close together, and occasionally on the same day. That perhaps helped to minimize damage and vandalism – young people would be obliged to dress up in their good clothes, attend church, and spend time with visit­ing friends and relatives. In 1876 Thanksgiving was ob­serv­ed in most places on Nov. 2, a Thursday. The theft of the turkeys in Clifford was a rare instance in which the proximity of Halloween and Thanks­giving was the reason behind the prank.
Thanksgiving, though, was not a universal holiday, nor was it always declared everywhere for the same day. Local coun­cils and reeves proclaimed the day for their municipalities. In 1876, Clifford was not yet an incorporated village, and the Minto township council did not deal with the question. Conse­quently, the stores there all remained open. Nevertheless, Jake Gram’s missing turkeys very likely graced some of Clif­ford’s dining room tables that day.
By contrast, Elora and Fer­gus observed Thanksgiving as a full holiday, with all stores and factories closed, and ser­vices at all the local churches.
Mount Forest was a late addition to the Thanksgiving list that year, with the council declaration coming on Oct. 30. Most stores there closed, but only the Methodist, Baptist, and Anglican Churches sched­uled services.
A number of Mount Forest men used the day to go hunting, most with little suc­cess, and others took a drive in the country.
The squads of young gob­lins, witches, and other charac­ters who are now the central part of Halloween did not ap­pear in force until well into the 20th century. That activity, too, has probably helped diminish the vandalism and pranks of ear­lier years.

Stephen Thorning