By Jack Neely – October 2019
Some holidays haven’t changed much. Beginning in the 1790s, Fourth of July was always noisy, public, and hot. Easter was always centered around church. Thanksgiving has always involved a family meal. Christmas has changed extremely, and no longer has any trace of the fireworks and public mayhem it was in the 1890s–but it always had, at its kernel, family meals, carols, church services, and gifts.
Halloween, by stark contrast, is the shape-shifting monster of holidays. In duration it’s about 100 times longer than it was when it first emerged from the cultural ooze, and like the Blob, it keeps getting bigger. It commands entire aisles at the supermarket, prompts blockbuster slasher movies, and receives homages from every television sitcom and breakfast cereal.
It is now, if we were obliged to explain it to an alien, our annual month-long celebration of evil, horror, death and dismemberment–and mainly for the kids.
It arrived in Knoxville so innocently, as a modest and quaint diversion of a single evening, mentioned only occasionally and usually in the Society pages. Hallow-e’en, as it was often spelled, was an occasion for all-girl parties. The focus of Halloween was to divine prospects for future matrimony.
It’s arguably an ancient holiday, of course, and it seems to evoke primal, pre-scientific fears. But in America it’s a latecomer. It’s hard to find references to Halloween before the era of the light bulb and the telephone.
Halloween came our way, hitching a ride with Catholic immigrants, and especially through the Catholics who were Irish who came over in large numbers as a result of a potato fungus. In the 1840s and ’50s, potatoes wasted away, and the Irish people wasted away. Those who were strong enough got on ships to America. Hundreds of them, mostly young men, came to East Tennessee, where we happened to be building a major railroad and hiring desperate young men for some very hard work.
It didn’t get a lot of attention for a while. During the first three-quarters of the 19th century, you have to look hard to find any mention of Halloween.
It’s not that Knoxvillians didn’t have any spooky fun. Masquerade parties started showing up pretty early, but were held all year. Ghost stories were told all year. Nocturnal pranks focused on certain special occasions, including Christmas Eve. Strangest of all, pre-Halloween Knoxvillians knew what jack-o-lanterns were, and sometimes carved them to light up parties, not necessarily in October. The term jack-o-lantern was often used as a metaphor in political essays, to refer to a distraction, or something that’s not what it seems to be.
When Halloween started popping up more often, sometime after the Civil War, at first just as a definition of a remote curiosity, it appeared in five or six different spellings, more if you count all the shifting placements of apostrophes and hyphens–suggesting it was a new word editors weren’t sure how to deal with.
It’s clear that most of the first references to Halloween in the 1860s and 1870s were addressed to readers unfamiliar with the concept. In 1868, Knoxville’s Daily Press & Herald, describing Halloween as part of “one of the most sacred rites of Catholicity,” remarked on a Scottish tradition that “fairies and witches held their carnival and festivities, and fortunetelling often characterized the celebration of this event in the olden time.”
In 1871, the same paper described Halloween as a custom “observed in some parts of Great Britain,” known for bonfires associated with elaborate rituals in induce prescient dreams–and “characterized by the practice of eating nuts and apples.”
They made Halloween sound long ago and far away. Two years later, the same paper remarked, “Tonight, the 31st of October, is the eve of All Saints Day. In olden times the night was very generally celebrated by social reunions, and the pleasant custom is still kept up in some countries and portions of our own land.”
So, by 1873, folks were aware it was creeping in. Two years, later still, in 1875, Halloween was apparently becoming popular enough to critique. “Its sentiment has too much of Arcadian simplicity and rustic ingenuousness to suit the rattling locomotive age,” assessed one intellectual who predicted that it would soon fade “into airy nothing” to be “lost in the blue mist of time.”
By the 1880s, though, both Knoxville’s Catholics and Protestants were starting to have some fun with it.
It became a society holiday centered around parties involving fresh apples and nuts and fortune-telling. And Halloween was mainly for young women. The “little maidens” would have all-female parties based around festive decorations. The focus of the party—in fact, the overt purpose of Halloween–was to try to figure out who they were going to marry.
There were several procedures. One involved peeling apples, and seeing what letters the scraps on the floor seemed to spell. One called for setting a candlelit table for the unknown beloved, who would eventually glimmer into view, but only if you could stare quietly for at least two hours.
The most consistent tradition involved looking into a cracked mirror in the dark, preferably after stepping backwards downstairs into a basement. When it worked right, you’d see your future husband’s face. If you saw something that looked like a skull, you were bound to die unmarried.
It was also a very short thing. Halloween was an evening, not a whole day. Like New Year’s Eve, it lasted for just a few hours. Unless you were planning a party for the “little maidens,” you didn’t necessarily think about it much before or after. It was all kind of a whimsical evening, and it’s clear few took it very seriously.
Halloween offered nothing much to fear, because it appears that people in the 19th century were ignorant about most monsters. Local cattlemen read with pity about Vampires–the bats, that is–airborne pest to herds in South America. Dracula was briefly a gymnast in Ringling Brothers’ Circus. A few East Tennesseans were actually named Frankenstein, and I can’t tell that anybody found that remarkable; Mary Shelley’s long-ago novel was all but forgotten. Werewolves appeared, but only rarely, in Ladies’ Home Journal fiction. I did find one 1895 claim of a werewolf sighting in Pennsylvania 70 years earlier. But I can’t tell that anybody in the 19th century knew what a zombie was. We had to wait for the movies to enlighten us.
They did have a lot more respect for fairies, and Halloween was said to be a night they had a big annual party.
Perhaps because they were excluded from most of these bachelorette parties, some boys and young men started roaming the neighborhood causing trouble. One early Halloween prank involved removing business signage and putting it in inappropriate places. Like putting a saloon shingle on a livery stable.
I once guessed that Knoxville’s first Halloween observance arrived by way of couple of yuppies, young attorney Edward Terry Sanford and his wife Lutie, who threw a droll Halloween party in Maplehurst in 1893. Thirty years later, Sanford was on the U.S. Supreme Court. But for years, the announcement of his soiree was the earliest reference I’d ever found to Halloween.
But enabled by new computerized scanning services, I’ve found a few earlier local parties. In fact, Lutie and her sisters were already celebrating Halloween even before her marriage to Mr. Sanford, in the 1880s. They grew up the daughters of William Wallace Woodruff, one of Knoxville’s wealthiest “merchant princes” of that pre-income-tax era, in the Woodruff mansion on Cumberland Avenue, when it was still called Kingston Pike. It was torn down nearly a century ago, and all that’s left of it today is the old carriage house, which still stands at the corner of James Agee and White Avenue.
Their faux-ancient invitation appeared in an October, 1889 issue of the Journal & Tribune, not that everybody was invited. Unlike some earlier Halloween parties, which were strictly maidens only, young men were invited to this one, with a stern caveat. “Ye Ladye of ye House will watch ye actions of ye younge menne and maidens, and all sparkings will be reported to ye parents at ye earliest opportunitie.”
It was to start “at ye eerie candle lighte, which is 71/2 by ye Towne Clock.” That Towne Clock, by the way, is still there, and still runs—whether they were referring to the one on the courthouse tower on Main Street or the one on the steeple of Immaculate Conception—which was installed and maintained by the city, for the public good. Both keep passably good time in 2019.
“Halloween is for the young people only,” noted the Journal that year, but I gather they meant adolescents and very young adults. Did actually children have anything to do on Halloween night? Maybe, but I can’t tell that much trick-or-treating went on in Knoxville before 1940 or so. It became much more popular after World War II, and I wonder whether the effect of a colorful scene in a very popular movie, Meet Me In St. Louis, played a role. It involved kids dressed up for Halloween and roaming the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, but doing more tricking than treating. For a postwar generation, trick-or-treating was a regular, expected thing.
So here in Knoxville, at least, Halloween started as a one-night high-society fortune-telling fete for girls, and a great time to eat some fresh apples. Now it’s a month-long, highly commercialized homage to darkness, evil, and death. What will it be like in a century?
It’s impossible to know. But just maybe, if you walk backwards down your basement stairs at midnight with a cracked mirror, you can see what the future holds for Halloween. Or maybe you’ll end up in the ER with spooky injuries you may find difficult to explain.