Brow Beat

“A Very Sorry Kind of Festival”: Read the Los Angeles Times’ Case Against Halloween From 1901

A horrible looking pumpkin headed man embraces a young woman in a Halloween card from 1912.
John Winsch / Wikimedia Commons

As holidays go, Halloween is relatively new to this country. There are threads you can follow all the way back to pagan festivals, but widespread celebration in the United States didn’t really catch on until the mid-nineteenth century. By 1901, the Los Angeles Times had had enough. Not on religious or moral grounds, mind you, but because the holiday had degenerated into “a very sorry kind of festival.” The root problem? People had lost sight of the true meaning of Halloween: young girls walking backwards down cellar stairs with mirrors to catch a glimpse of their future husbands. To prove their point, the Times followed their anti-Halloween screed with a round-up of the strange, turn-of-the-last-century pranks that paralyzed the city that year, ranging from false calls to the fire department—tiring out their horses—to “upsetting the swill barrel,” which, to be fair, sounds like a pretty bad thing to have happen. (There’s also a glimpse of the LAPD’s institutional racism circa 1901: the police arrested three boys, released the white one on his own recognizance, held the Italian while making fun of his little brother for seeking his release, and whatever they did to the black kid after his arrest didn’t make the papers—which provides a bonus glimpse of the Los Angeles Times’ institutional racism circa 1901.) It doesn’t sound like a very fun holiday, except for the part where ghosts ride the streetcars.

The editorial was so successful and convincing that no one has celebrated Halloween ever since. –Matthew Dessem

Halloween’s Charm Gone

Lots of Bother and No Real Fun

Police and Firemen Get Many Calls

Gang of Tough Boys Make Life Miserable For Some People

“All Halloween,” the way it was celebrated here last night, was a very sorry kind of festival.

Halloween is not a success in cities, and it has degenerated anyhow. About all there is left to it is a signal for a unanimous uprising of tough boys to annoy the police.

All the mystic charm of it has gone.

Girls don’t go down the cellar steps backwards anymore, for one reason because there are no cellars, and for another because girls have come to be too jaded or hopelessly practical to bother about future husbands. And they don’t walk through graveyards at night or throw apple peels over their heads. The only place they do this any more is at Halloween parties, and most everybody has come to agree that Halloween parties are a bore.

So, after all, the only person that is much concerned about Halloween is the man who has to answer the telephone at the Police Station. Last night he had troubles enough.

The old ’phone kept a steady jangle going all evening from indignant citizens, who wanted Halloween struck off the calendar.


Early in the evening, a screechy female voice, which said it came from Grand Avenue, on the hills, rose to announce that boys were bothering her house.

The clerk soothed her ruffled spirits and said he would notify the policeman on the watch.

Pretty soon she telephoned again. She said they were spattering crude oil over her front sidewalk.

“I don’t know why it is,” she wailed, “that I am the only one who has reported these boys around here, yet I am not the only one who has been troubled.”

The next time she confided to the police clerk, it was to announce that they were ringing her front door bell.

Her last message was delivered in a tone of perfect despair.

“Hello,” she said. “Is this the police station again?”

“Yes,” said the clerk.

“Well, they have upset the swill barrel now.”

The patrolman must have rescued her.

There were no complaints of a very serious character made. From all quarters of the city, however, trouble calls were sent.


A gang of about fifteen boys gathered on West Tenth street and made the night hideous with their howls. A gang of boys is like a band of coyotes; they sound as though there must be about four times as many, and the neighbors thought they were in the hands of a multitude of maniacs.

Mike Holleran, the Irishest policeman on the force, gallantly charged the whole gang with his little hatchet. One of them saw him coming and yelled to look out for the cop, and the whole gang scattered. Mike came out of the fracas holding four boys all at once, and took them to the Police Station. They gave the names of Diminick Vantalor, Daniel Berg, and Willie Brown. Willie Brown was black.

Young Berg was allowed to go on his own recognizance, and after he had been out a little while, an Italian boy went to the station and wept copious tears in the interests of his brother, Diminick, whose liberty he desired.

His grief, although interesting, availed him not. They wouldn’t let his brother go. Furthermore, they told him if he didn’t get scarce himself, they would arrest him too. He got scarce.


When it came to calling out the fire department on false alarms, it was rather overdoing the joke.

Time after time the gongs would ring and the engines would come ripping down the street with the fog thick in front so they could not see a dozen lengths ahead as they rushed over the slippery pavements.

The department was called to First and Wilmington streets just after 9 o’clock. Inquiry failed to develop the identity of the person who turned in the alarm. A false alarm was also turned in from the same box the night before, and the engines and truck companies raced a mile or more on a useless errand.

The horses had hardly been put up before the engines were called out to answer an alarm at Third and San Pedro, and later a false alarm was turned in from Fifth and Wall streets. At 11:30, the tired teams were dragged out again and sent galloping down to Second and Los Angeles streets to answer a call for a fire which did not exist.

All the alarms were turned in in the same way. Each time when the department arrived the glass on the box was found broken, but no one was in sight.


After 11 o’clock, Officer Zeigler arrested six boys on Fourth and Hill streets on suspicion of having turned in the false alarm from Fifth and Wall streets.

Earlier in the evening, he saw them on Hill street and told them to clear out and go home and they started off in a gang in the direction of Wall street. When Zeigler met them on Hill street again after the false alarm he questioned them closely and they admitted having torn down signs and committed other depredations.

They were released on their own recognizance, one at a time, so as to break up the gang.


Although Saturday is the regular day, the ghost walked last night.

There were two of them. Whether they were lady ghosts or he ghosts is not known. They got on a Ninth street car and the conductor did not dare to put them off for fear they might turn out to be women.

They were dressed in sheets and masks and high peaked caps, and it was impossible to tell the sex. They did not say a word, but sat solemnly on the outside of the car all the way through town to the terminus of the road.