‘Trick Or Treat’ Was Life Or Death In Old Cincinnati

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It is astounding that our ancestors survived Halloween.

Every October, we hear rumors about poisoned, drugged, or booby-trapped candy. Area hospitals offer to X-ray the loot-filled bags of trick-or-treaters and the local constabulary provides tips for detecting tampered sweets.

Back in the 1800s, Cincinnatians were less concerned with malicious contamination by the neighborhood crank than with legally sanctioned poisoning by the companies that manufactured candy. Confectioners openly sold adulterated product, lethal impurities were widely recognized and the only legal protection was “buyer beware.”

As far back as 1858, when Harper’s magazine published this cartoon, it was common knowledge that candy-makers mixed poisons into their confections, but it was only in the 1920s that efforts to regulate purity became common.

Cartoon of skeleton confectioner From Harper’s Weekly, 11 December 1858 Page 800 Digitized by Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/harpersweekl00bonn Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

The most common adulterants were disgusting but relatively harmless in small quantities. Pulverized gypsum, marketed as terra alba, was popular. With cane sugar wholesaling at more than 17 cents per pound in 1869, terra alba, at 2½ cents, afforded a tempting adulterant. According to the Enquirer [12 October 1869]:

“It contains no active poison, but is entirely indigestible. It greatly injures the coatings of the stomach, and often produces, as when taken in large quantities, vomiting and aching.”

Terra alba was so cheap, transport ships filled their hulls with it as ballast, then sold it to candy makers once the freighters docked in Boston. The Enquirer [31 March 1870] offered tips on how to detect candies cut with terra alba:

“Any person may analyze lozenges, opaque candy, or sugar plums, by simply dissolving in water. If the water remains transparent, the candy is pure; but if milky or depositing a sediment, terra alba, or some equally harmful adulteration, has been used.”

The newspaper admitted that such homebrew chemistry was unnecessary. Candy makers readily quoted prices for adulterated versus pure products because there was nothing illegal about adding terra alba to their recipes. For some manufacturers, even terra alba was too pricey – they cut their candies with Plaster of Paris.

Other products were far more insidious. Customers have always been attracted to brightly colored candies and today’s manufacturers invest a lot of money in the quest for brilliant and harmless dyes. In the 1800s, manufacturers had no such scruples. The chemicals employed to color candies constituted a hair-raising formulary of toxic pigments. The Enquirer [17 December 1882] itemized the loathsome tinctures adopted by Cincinnati’s confectioners:

“The highly colored candies are dangerous and should be avoided. Red is produced with vermillion, sulphide of mercury and red lead, or oxide of lead – very poisonous. Many of the blues are very poisonous, particularly that made by cobalt blue. Yellow colored candies should never be eaten. The color is produced by chromate of lead, and when once taken into the stomach is never eliminated from the system.”

Chocolates, also, were ripe for tampering. The Enquirer [5 May 1868] itemized a stomach-turning stew of decidedly non-chocolate additives, indicating that some ingredients corrected the effects of other contaminants to everyday chocolate:

“In the preparation of this condiment, cocoa nibs, sugar, fat, flour, sago meal, starch, arrow root, honey and molasses are used; of course, this conglomeration does not retain the desired chocolate color, to obtain which venetian red, umber, and the deadly poisonous metallic salts, cinnabar and red lead are employed; after all this the fatty unctuous of the original chocolate is lost, and must be obtained by mixing in tallow and hog’s lard.”

For some manufacturers, even hog’s lard was too pricey. The Enquirer [5 February 1869] reported the ingredients of a common form of chewing gum:

“The gum is made of certain parts of gum-arabic, gum-tragacanth, a small quantity of resin and fat. The fat used is not lard (that being too expensive) but is a substance expressed from the bodies of hogs, cats, dogs, and other animals found dead in the streets of cities.”

It is no wonder that news reports of victims, most often children, becoming violently ill from eating candy are so common. The Enquirer [27 June 1896] reported one such case:

“Three children of Jos. Weis, a butcher, who lives at 1331 Vine street, were poisoned yesterday by chewing gum purchased at a confectionery in the neighborhood. After the children returned home they were all seized with a vomiting spell and taken violently ill. Dr. Herrman was sent for and administered an emetic, which had the effect of causing the children to vomit a greenish substance. The doctor is of the opinion that the chewing gum contained butyric acid.”

Even when the manufacturers stuck to normally accepted ingredients, the quality of those ingredients was often less than appetizing. The Enquirer [1 August 1913] reported the outcome of an inspection by Cincinnati health authorities:

“Sugar, chocolate and cocoanut valued at $30,000 were condemned yesterday at a large local candy factory, having been found ‘mouldy and wormy’ by Mrs. Sarah Ruhl, Food Inspector of the Health Department.”

As early as 1882, Cincinnati candy makers banded together in a Confectioners Union to agree on reasonable standards of purity in the production of candy, but it was only the intervention of city, state and federal inspections after 1920 that allowed a level of confidence in the safety of the Halloween haul.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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