The night of mischief surrounding Halloween seemed to often get out of hand when I was a child. While we were out collecting candy and anticipating the pleasures to follow, fire trucks and police vehicles were constantly on the run. It forever warped for me the definition of mischief. I could only guess that for children it meant rascally behavior like soaping windows, and for young adults it meant burning barns and vacant houses.
I didn’t know at the time that it was nothing new. The region’s old newspapers are filled with articles about Halloween arson, often referred to as mischief, dating back more than a hundred years.
Pranks to me were supposed to be funny, at least to someone. Like the Ticonderoga farmer back in 1918, up early for the morning feeding, only to find a red-and-white pig in his pen. For some reason, Ticonderoga seemed to have a high number of pranksters. It’s hard not to laugh at the Ti cop who in 1949 sat on a ripe tomato placed on his car’s seat while he was handling a Halloween call. Another favorite there was tying strings of tin cans to cars. Any car would do, but a cop car was best.
Before cars came along, common tricks were sneaking away with a horse, cow, or any other beast and tying it up at some prominent location in the village. I remember goats and cows used that way in my hometown, and some of the other pranks pulled by grown men – suspending a heavy wooden rowboat over Main Street, and somehow placing a farm wagon atop a roof. The wagon-on-the-roof prank was common across the region wherever tricksters had the ambition and the know-how, although I’m still not sure about the know-how… how they got it up there, and how it eventually came down. Taking it apart seems like too much trouble for a laugh.
For much of the 20th century, favored pranks in populated areas involved the removal of business or street signs and placing them in other locations. Anything else that was movable was fair game. People from Plattsburgh to Watertown sometimes awakened to find lawn and porch furniture suspended from trees, or atop roofs. Front gates were another favorite target for removal.
When cars replaced horses, a whole new range of pranks became available. Letting air out of the tires was the most common, a trick that even youngsters could handle. A favorite of men from their late teens to 50-year-olds was relocation – pushing a car down the street and leaving it there – or better yet, after pushing it beyond hearing distance, starting it up and driving it to a more distant location.
For me, the best car story came out of Watertown in 1921 from an article that named Officer Joseph Wright as the victim. While on patrol, he spied a group of youths and took preemptive action, stopping to give them a lecture about behaving, especially on Halloween night.
After a job well done, he hopped back into the car to drive away, only to discover that during his speech, the boys had tied the car to a tree. By the time he freed it, the kids were long gone.
You have to wonder – did the folks behind American Graffiti read the same article?
Photo: from Joseph Guretzki autobiography