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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Ghost of
Halloween Past

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Everyone knows about Charles Dickens' classic Ghost of Christmas Past, but there's a much lesser-known haunt -- the Ghost of Halloween Past.

Ghosts and Halloween have gone together for a long time, of course, but the ghost in this case is the way Halloween used to be compared with the modern orgy of mass marketing, dressing up in store-bought costumes and indulging in caloric consumption of monstrous proportions.

In the good ole bad days, trick or treating had a higher emphasis on tricking than treating. Today, even draping toilet paper on the trees in someone's front yard seems like practically riotous behavior. Beyond that, until Halloween became a major commercial event, kids made their own costumes and collected mostly homemade goodies, from popcorn balls and candied apples to cookies and cupcakes.

Walter W. Merriman recalled a different sort of Halloween in the second volume of his privately published set of reminiscences, "Once Upon A Time in Throckmorton." One particularly common Halloween practice in an earlier day involved toppling outhouses.

"A group of boys were busy with their Halloween chores when they came to Carl Huff's privy," Merriman recalled. "They tipped it over...only to discover that Carl was inside. His profanity turned the air blue, along with his dire threats to dismember the perpetrators. It was a couple of minutes before Carl could get out of the privy, and by then the boys were far away."

Kerr County old-timer Merrill D. Doyle recalled in his 1975 memoir, "Reminiscences of My Youth and Other Catastrophes," that Halloween pranks in the early 1900s consisted of either overturning outhouses or relocating "gates, lawn swings, signs and other movable paraphernalia [and] indiscriminatingly placing them in plain view where the owner might come next day to grumpily retrieve his purloined possessions."

But it is almost as if federal law back then mandated that trick or treaters target outhouses. When a sheriff's deputy made it known that he would tolerate no Halloween mischief in Kerrville, Doyle and his fellow kids devised a plan to outfox the county officer.

As kids in sheets or cardboard masks they made themselves fanned out over town with the setting of the sun, Doyle and his fellows divided into two operational groups. His team waited in the shadows near the deputy's house until they heard the crash of a pushed-over outhouse in the distance. Moments later, the deputy ran from his porch, mounted the horse he had kept saddled that evening for just such an event and galloped to the scene of the crime in an unsuccessful effort to catch the Johnny jousters. As soon as the officer disappeared around the street corner, Doyle's group made quick work of the lawman's privy.

That privy-pushing is no longer a Halloween tradition is understandable enough, given that few kids today have ever heard of privies and even if they have, they've probably never seen a true one- or two-holer. The modern equivalent would be a fiberglass portable chemical toilet, but people don't keep them in their back yards.

Another trick Merriman recalled had to do with something else that once was very common but is gone today -- horse-drawn vehicles.

"On another occasion," he wrote, "on the morning after Halloween, when people went to town, they discovered a farm wagon perched on the roof of the First National Bank building."

Merriman said he never learned who perpetrated that trick, or how they managed to get a wagon atop the building. (He didn't say if the structure stood one or two stories.) However the feat had been accomplished, he said, "I'm sure that the adults had a much more difficult time removing the wagon than the boys had in putting it up there."

Hopefully, whoever masterminded that trick ended up pursuing a career in civil engineering.

Another bit of gaslight-era ghoulishness involved something Merriman's father told him about. It probably didn't happen on Halloween, but it certainly would have been appropriate if it did.

As Merriman explained, before the funeral home industry began, families handled the burying of their dead. The first step in the process was that the dearly departed would be "layed out" on planks between sawhorses. These were known as "cooling boards." In hot weather, the cooling board would be placed near an open window to expedite the process.

Family members or friends would "sit up" with the body over night. The next day, it would be placed in a coffin as soon as one had been built or purchased at the furniture store in town.

According to Merriman, a group of teenage boys planned a trick they doubtless considered hilariously funny. Procuring a long stick, they waited until dark and then slipped up beneath the window.

"They poked the stick under the sheet and slowly raised it a foot or two," he wrote. "The result was what they expected -- the people who were 'sitting up' made a quick exit, while the boys scattered in the darkness....I do not know how many whippings my father received when he was growing up, but I'm sure it was not enough."

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 27, 2016 column

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