Oakland Tribune headlines from the 1930s and 1940s recount a Halloween holiday filled with pranks and violence. Credit: Oakland Tribune/Newspapers.com

Fifteen-year-old Elgin Peacock and his teenage buddies John and Donald were having a wicked good time. The roguish boys were sneaking along Miles Avenue in North Oakland ringing doorbells and scurrying into the darkness to chuckle quietly from hiding places while annoyed homeowners answered their doors only to be greeted by nothing.

It was Halloween in 1930 and children across Oakland, the Bay Area, and all of the United States were reveling in a night of devilish disobedience. Although it’s known today as a spooky holiday of trick-or-treating and costume parties, until the 1970s Halloween’s reputation was more about children defying authority. Dressed as ghouls and ghosts, kids pranked adults through acts of deception and vandalism.

Things got out of hand all too frequently. Pranks crossed the line, leading to excessive property damage and injuries. And frustrated adults lashed out.

Peacock found this out the hard way. After a spree of doorbell ditching and other gags a gunshot pierced the night. Blood seeped from his thigh. He limped home and was taken to the hospital by his mother. Police “advanced the theory that the boy might have been shot by an irate householder,” a report in the next day’s Oakland Tribune explained.

Credit: Oakland Tribune/Newspapers.com

The casualties that night were plenty. Another boy was stabbed in San Francisco, four girls were badly burned when their costumes caught fire, including an Oakland 9-year-old who was in critical condition in Highland Hospital, and a 10-year-old from Berkeley.

“Until late at night Oakland police were kept busy by pranksters in the Grand Avenue and Lakeshore districts,” the Tribune reported. “Hoodlums threw overripe fruit at pedestrians and motorists and greased so many street car rails that the traction company had to send out a special crew to get the skidding cars out of trouble.”

It went on like this for decades in the early 20th century. Youngsters took to the night each year to taunt and tease adults. Some grownups struck back to punish the little devils. Authorities instituted curfews, conducted mass arrests, and even floated the idea of banning Halloween. It was truly chaos.

Pranks rooted in ancient traditions

The theft of UC Berkeley professor Armin Leuschner’s rear garden gate was described cheekily in the press as an “affair cloaked in deep secrecy.” Someone pulled the six-foot-tall oak slab off its hinges late at night on Oct. 31, 1936. Berkeley police officer Charles Penning investigated and found the missing entry piece in the backyard of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. Frat brothers claimed innocence but volunteered to return and reinstall the gate.

It might seem strange to us today, but gate stealing was one of the most popular Halloween pranks pulled by children (and college students) about 100 years ago. The tradition of removing and hiding gates, like so many other Halloween pranks, is thought to harken back to ancient rituals of rascality from Ireland and the British Isles.

Halloween, according to Lisa Morton, a historian of the holiday, is rooted in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain and Gaelic harvest festivals. These traditions mixed with Catholic spirituality and then morphed in America to become a mysterious day when darkness and trickery were embraced, particularly by children.

In addition to gate stealing—which in its original rural context allowed livestock to wander off, the real goal of the prank—fence smashing was another favorite offense. But from the early 1900s to 1960s in Oakland and Berkeley, the most common pranks were throwing tomatoes and other vegetables at people, using soap and grease to scrawl offensive messages on cars and windows, and cutting the power to people’s homes at their fusebox, leaving them fumbling in the dark.

In 1944, 200 children massed at Lakeshore Avenue and Mandana Boulevard to shower passing automobiles and street cars with eggs and fruit. When traffic subsided, the revelers gleefully pelted one another. In North Oakland, a tiny mob of boys shattered the windows of a couple houses with rocks, and in Alameda another group of boys threw clods of dirt and tomatoes into a living room where a girls’ Halloween party was underway. When the girls’ mother rushed in, the boys sprayed a garden hose through the window, drenching her, the carpet, and furniture.

A mysterious explosion woke Berkeley residents near Alcatraz and Adeline in 1927. Many thought the massive explosion was a bank “robbed by safecrackers,” the Oakland Tribune reported. In fact, it was just Halloween fun.

In 1938, rain may have dampened some of the typical fiery Halloween fun, but someone managed to steal a car in Alameda and then elaborately dangle it with ropes over a seawall.

Credit: Oakland Tribune/Newspapers.com

The next year, someone left a cryptic and silly note on the doorstep of a Francisco Street home in Berkeley. It read: “Murder is my motive,” but was signed “The Bat Man.”

Another favorite prank was setting off fire alarms or calling the police through their boxes, telephone-like devices that used to be set up on street corners throughout Oakland and Berkeley. Authorities said these false alarms had officers and firefighters scrambling across the city until dawn on many a Halloween.

Pranks occasionally caused more than just property damage. In 1943 an elderly woman broke her arm after tripping over a wire a few boys had strung across the sidewalk on Grove Street (Martin Luther King Jr. Way).

Another year, custodian Fred Davis entered a beauty parlor at 11 p.m. to clean. When he turned on the light he saw a “murder victim,” a young woman stabbed in the heart and laying in a pool of blood on the floor. He immediately fainted and collapsed. Upon awakening he ran for help. The victim, it turned out, was a wax and paper dummy made out to look like one of the girls who worked in the salon, according to newspaper reports.

Adults lash out at children

Tired of the shenanigans, some grownups felt the need to punish youthful pranksters and protect their property from bars of soap and rotten fruit.

Every few years or so there were reports of some East Bay homeowner blasting children with birdshot from a shotgun, or pummeling a teen after catching them in the act—or thinking they had.

Norman Strong, a 61-year-old salesman for a Petaluma egg farm who lived in Hayward was seething on Halloween in 1937. He was at home around 9 p.m. when he heard footsteps outside his house. Someone earlier in the evening had stolen signs from his front yard advertising eggs, and littered the yard with empty tin cans. Strong rushed outside and fired birdshot into a group of children, according to newspaper reports.

Robert Cromie, 15, was hit in the face, and Jo Ann Waldkoetter, 9, was struck by four pellets in her back. The children denied playing pranks on Strong, who was arrested.

Credit: Oakland Tribune/Newspapers.com

San Leandro teens Elma Whitcomb and Viola Stephenson thought they were pulling a naughty prank when they deflated the tires of a car on Morton Avenue in Alameda, but they were intercepted by a furious man who spotted them in the act. The man punched Whitcomb, 19, in the eye, knocking her down, and then threw Stephenson to the pavement where he “choked her severely,” according to a 1933 story in the Oakland Tribune.

The man wasn’t arrested, according to the newspaper. But that same night, officers rounded up 40 kids in Piedmont, 24 in Berkeley, and 15 in Alameda, reprimanding them at police stations.

Police declare war on Halloween

Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s East Bay police chiefs issued yearly warnings each October to youngsters that they would be arrested if caught engaging in vandalism. Following especially rowdy years, some police leaders floated the idea of canceling Halloween entirely.

Bodie Wallman, Oakland’s police chief from 1934 to 1943 shared his list of taboo behavior with the press to try to dissuade youngsters from running wild. Forbidden pranks included removing gates and park benches, stealing garbage cans, greasing the streetcar tracks, doorbell ditching, and of course egg and fruit throwing. For several years in a row, Wallman ordered his officers to swarm the Lakeshore district, which back then was a cauldron of childish scheming.

Berkeley’s chief John Greening ordered his officers in 1933 to stop and search all cars carrying young people to ensure they weren’t armed with eggs and tomatoes. Berkeley had also instituted a curfew that year and Greening directed his force to give no warnings: Anyone under age 16 found outside after 8 p.m. would be driven straight to jail.

In the 1940s, Albany had a similar youth curfew applying to anyone under age 18. The city’s police chief also banned the wearing of masks on streets.

Police departments across the Bay Area typically ordered all their officers to work on Halloween in order to respond to real and crank calls and round up children out after dark. Some departments even relied on regular citizens to restrain pranksters. In 1940, “Piedmont police deputized 10 citizens to aid them in breaking up a gang of 300 boys engaged in a tomato and egg war at the Highland Avenue entrance to Piedmont Park,” an Oakland Tribune reporter wrote.

In 1960, California Attorney General Stanley Mosk thought it necessary to broadcast a statewide warning, not to kids but to their parents. Adults could be held financially responsible for any property damage caused by their children. “It is hoped that forewarned parents may request their minor Halloween celebrants to stick to trick or treat,” the state’s top law enforcement official said. 

With candy and parties, adults tamed Halloween

Credit: Oakland Tribune/Newspapers.com

Trick-or-treating was ultimately one of the strategies adults employed to mellow Halloween celebrations. Nationwide, authorities and parents organized events to channel the energy of children away from the streets. And corporations commercialized Halloween, selling it as a holiday for boozy parties and gory entertainment. The powerful advertising industry urged adults and children alike to view Oct. 31 as less about causing chaos and more about collecting candy.

Starting in the 1930s, parent teacher associations in Oakland began organizing Halloween programs with the explicit message of promoting good citizenship. Led by committees of doctors, reverends, and other upstanding members of the community, they invited children to arts and crafts fairs, plays, and costume contests where apple cider and hot dogs were free for the taking. For example, the Allendale School PTA in East Oakland organized a yearly “feast of Halloween” in the ‘30s, featuring a march, costume contest, and “haywire orchestra” for wacky dancing.

Similarly, the Laurel and Maxwell Park school dads’ clubs organized carnival games at neighborhood rec centers. At their peak in the 1930s and early 1940s these kinds of events could draw over 2000 children from across the city.

In the early 1940s, West Berkeley merchants invited children to gather at San Pablo and University avenues for a soap-drawing competition. Shop owners at this intersection allowed youngsters to sketch evil creatures, witches, and goblins on their storefront glass.

Over 5,000 children marched in a Temescal Halloween parade sponsored by the Telegraph Avenue Merchants Association in 1933 that included drum corps and marching bands and was lead by 10-year-old Barbara Warren, dressed as a witch, and 8-year-old Richard McDonnell wearing a boogeyman costume called a “yama-yama.”

In 1940, Oakland Tribune columnist Elsie Robinson, who used the pen-name “Geraldine,” received a letter from a local who’d grown tired of overturned garbage cans and soap-smeared windshields. “I am openly advocating the abolition of this senseless practice of celebrating Halloween,” the man wrote.

Of course, Halloween wasn’t abolished. It only became more popular over time. But while pranks are still a part of the holiday, the tenor of the night has changed incredibly over the past 100 years. Since the 1970s, according to historians like Morton, candy and costume parties have largely won out over pranks and chaos.

Mischievous traditions and violence were already receding thanks to a strategy the Tribune columnist could see unfolding in the East Bay.

“The only cure I know, friend, is that of substitution,” Geraldine replied to the Halloween hater. “Let these worrying mothers get together and see that the young folk have their fun at home,” where they could “be ghosts and witches, black cats, devils, or any wild thing that suits their eerie fancy.”

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.