“‘Hollow Eve,’ or ‘Cabbage Night,’ was celebrated Wednesday night in a wondrous manner,” said the November 3, 1877 Ypsilanti Commercial. “Several citizens, Thursday morning, found their cabbages missing. They were strewn on many door-steps, and ornamented front doors. And silly lovers of mischief. . . piled all the barrels and boxes that could be found athwart and midway Congress street [Michigan Avenue, pictured].”
Though one of our most ancient holidays, Halloween wasn’t celebrated widely in America until the latter part of the 1800s. Ypsilanti likely didn’t celebrate Halloween for half a century after the city’s founding in 1823—the quote above is the first Halloween story to appear in old newspapers dating back to the 1840s.
Originally the Celtic New Year, celebrated with dressing up in animal heads and skins, making a bonfire, and telling fortunes, the holiday in America coincided with the end of harvest time. Not much more than a few rotting cabbages remained in the fields, which mischief-makers grabbed to throw on porches.
Cabbage-hurling was about the extent of Halloween mayhem then. The holiday was not yet popular. Only a few people celebrated it, with low-key house parties. “Halloween was remembered by Misses Claribel Champion, Leila Spencer, and Mollie Wise at the home of the former, a party of friends being invited to participate,” says the November 7, 1885 Commercial. The November 2, 1893 Ypsilantian notes, “One of the pleasantest of the Halloween parties. . . [was] at the residence of Miss Caroline Hay. The house was tastefully decorated, and illuminated with candles set in Jack lanterns. Bobbing for apples, a trip to the cellar for a cabbage, to see what good things were in store for the future, a hunting contest for apples, and carving the cake for a ring, were among the many incidents that went to make the gathering one long to be remembered.”
The association of apples with Halloween may date back to about 40 A.D., when Romans, conquering Celtic territory, combined the Celtic New Year with two festivals of their own, one for Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol was the apple.
Around the turn of the century, parties began to be celebrated in schools. The October 29, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press says, “The ghosts of the Tuttle School will be glad to see their friends at a shadow and box social. . . come and let Mother Witch reveal the mysteries of your future life.”
The next day the paper described a party at Cleary hall. “Prof. and Mrs. Cleary chaperoned the young people. Jack-lanterns and black cats were used to decorate.” The Beta Nu sorority also held a chaperoned party.
The ancient tradition of fortune-telling was a feature of many Ypsilanti Halloween parties well into the 20th century. At one 1913 house party, according to the November 6 Daily Ypsilantian-Press, “Guests were taken into a darkened room where a ghost was waiting to receive them. An auction sale was held, the various articles selling for not more than 10 cents. Peggy the Spirit Fortune Teller was very popular, also the Gypsy Queen.”
During the 20s and 30s, increasing vandalism led to more large community parties meant to distract kids from destructive behavior.
“Three hundred Ypsilanti boys enjoyed Halloween night in a different manner than customarily,” said the November 2, 1925 Daily Ypsilantian-Press, “when they gathered at Pease Auditorium Saturday night for an evening of fun. . . Two reels of movies were shown. . . Prof. Carl Pray told stories for an hour, after which the boys enjoyed a pie eating contest and an apple-eating contest.”
Trick-or-treating first shows up in the November 1, 1934 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Dressed in old clothes with faces blacked or covered with masks, groups of children stalked about in a threatening manner. They sneaked around to back porches and demanded of the lady of the house, ‘Give us apples, give us candy or else we’ll tear down your shanty.’”
Though three police cars were patrolling the city that night, things were quiet. The Press said, “There was so little doing that Officers Arthur Kramer and Cyril Ray wearied of their tasks of riding continuously and stopped with children on Wallace Blvd. for a ‘weiner’ roast.”
The paper continued, “The only serious damage reported was on Perrin Street where cabbages and tin cans were thrown on the porch of Mrs. Alexander’s residence breaking a stained window glass in the door. Street and stop signs were reported missing at several locations this morning and officers are pondering what to do with a 60-minute parking sign which came here from some other city.”
By wartime, community efforts to discourage destruction were expanding. “Halloween mischief was held to a minimum in Ypsilanti Saturday evening,” said the November 1, 1943 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “when children throughout the city were guests of the American Legion, Kiwanis, and Rotary Clubs at Halloween parties in city schools and at Gilbert House. Games and stories and the showing of motion pictures occupied a part of the evening’s entertainment. . . prizes of war stamps were awarded the best and most original costumes.”
By 1950, Halloween parties were held at every school in town, but the efforts only went so far. Destructive behavior climbed that year as police responded to 40 calls. One car was pushed into an apple tree and a convertible had its top slashed. Someone was shooting at cars on the expressway. Multiple leaf-piles were set on fire, as well as a Franklin Street outhouse.
But it wasn’t all bad. When Mr. and Mrs. Anderson were startled by an indoor bat, “Mr. Anderson put on a pair of heavy gloves and woke the bat from restful slumber,” said the October 30, 1950 Ypsilanti Daily Press. He temporarily put the bat in an empty canary cage. Mrs. Anderson planned to turn the tables on trick-or-treaters, said the paper, and show the bat (eek!) “to any interested ‘beggar’ who comes around to her house.”