Old-time Halloween nights were sometimes rowdy

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

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 have 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 the 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 papers 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 happed 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 group 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 that 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 lockup 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 couldn’t pay fast enough.

A peculiar aspect of the latter part of the 19th century was that 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.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 26, 2007.

Thorning Revisited