“There Will be ‘Something Doing’ Among the Young Folks of the Land Tonight”: Halloween Celebrations in Los Angeles in 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In my Chino Hills neighborhood of Sleepy Hollow, which was founded a century ago this month and which was named for the New York town which spawned the inspiration for Washington Irving’s famous short story about Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, celebrating Halloween is, naturally, a major community event. Elaborate decorations by some of the residents, a neighborhood party held last Saturday, and the little trick-or-treaters coming by for candy tonight are elements shared by many neighborhoods and communities for the holiday.

In greater Los Angeles, the celebration of Halloween began modestly in the mid-1880s with a few small parties at houses, the Caledonian Club of Scotch-American members, and others, but grew significantly by the end of the decade, including during the Boom of the Eighties. The holiday also meant a fair amount of “hooligans” running through the Angel City and nearby towns and playing pranks—we’ll look to share some of this early Halloween history next year at this time!

Los Angeles Record, 31 October 1900.

The focus for this post concerns holiday celebrations in 1900 as the 19th century came to a close, with respect to general events and happenings, as well as a rather elaborate Halloween party held at the Boyle Heights house of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and former mayor during the aforementioned boom in 1887-1888 and who took office in 1901 for three two-year terms as Los Angeles city treasurer.

On Halloween day, two Angel City newspapers devoted some space to discussing the growing observation and origins of the holiday. The Los Angeles Times commented that

There is perhaps no night in the year which the popular imagination has stamped with a more peculiar character than the evening of the 31st of October, for it is the time many believe, or used to believe, that witches and devils and mischief-making beings are abroad, and have more than their usual power over earthly mortals.

The piece went on to note that “Halloween originated in the days of the ancient Celts and their priests, the Druids, long before the Christian era” as a harvest celebration with massive bonfires at elevated locales to honor the sun, which was a principal object of worship. With the adoption of Christianity, however, the Roman Catholic Church repackaged the festival as “All-Hollow Eve” before All Saints’ Day.

Los Angeles Times, 31 October 1900.

As such, 31 October “remained the night of the year for wild, mysterious and superstitious rites” and, with the presence of fairies and other creatures, “it was considered the best evening for the practice of magic, and the customs observed on this night became mostly those of divination” and the foretelling of the future. In modern times, though, the account continued, there were “no fairies or imaginary beings” and some fortune-telling games remained as relics of “the weird ceremonies that once constituted the rites of ‘Halloween.'”

From the heathen holiday of days of yore, the day “is now considered only an occasion for fun and frolic, and nearly every home in civilized lands will have some sort of festivity tonight.” After discussing how Queen Victoria of England, who died just over three months later after a 64-year reign, celebrated Halloween, the Times stated

The boys think on “Halloween” they have the license to do just the thing they wouldn’t dare do on any other night. They may carry off gates, remove doorsteps, stretch ropes and wires across sidewalks to trip the feet of the unwary, tie door knobs of opposite houses and then ring the bells; also hoist light wagons and other vehicles on top of the barns, [and] attach “tick-tacks” to the windows to frighten timid folk, causing mysterious rappings to be heard about the hour of midnight.

Another important aspect was “masquerading,” as “the youths will appear arrayed in the apparel of the maidens and vice-versa” and, while there were ordinances against these activities, it was added that “the policeman who would make an arrest on ‘Halloween’ might find himself ‘fired’ from the force.” Yet, it was also recorded that “the policemen will have to work like beavers to keep Young America’s exuberant spirits within bounds.”

Los Angeles Express, 31 October 1900.

There were also “love tests,” such as one in which a young woman was to peel a red apple in such a way that the skin remained intact and then spin it three times overhead and toss it over the left shoulder. It was then observed that “the initial which the peeling forms on the floor will be the initial of the man she is to wed.” Another test was to place the left sleeve of a coat in water and hang it to dry before a fire so that, at around midnight, “an apparition having the figure of her ‘only man on earth’ will come and turn the sleeve, as if to dry the other side of it.”

Three other tests were indicated, including the scratching the initials on those young men liked best and, while roasting, the chestnut that moves first bears the mark of her future husband; the walking backwards down the cellar steps (safety first?) with a mirror held so that the likeness of her spouse-to-be will appear; the arrangement of dishes with clean water, muddy water and no water on the hearth with the young woman choosing one blindfolded and each representing marriage as a maid, as a widow for the first two, but spinsterhood for the latter; and, lastly, the placing of a well-used dish towel on a gravestone and, upon departing from the cemetery, the first man met to be her betrothed. It was added that “there are a whole lot of other weird things” in these love tests.

Times, 31 October 1900.

The Los Angeles Express offered other Halloween history insights, starting with the view that “the origin of the festival . . . is shrouded in the obscurity of ancient history,” though it added “it unquestionably started in Scotland” where it was more celebrated than elsewhere. Moreover, the Scotch beginnings “had much to do with Halloween bogies and various other wraiths, hence the modern small boy’s Halloween jack o’ lantern. Reference was made to prognosticating the future, especially future spouses, determined by divining through apple seeds and the buds of sprigs of heather.

More recently, though, Halloween became “a harmless occasion for joy” including “such amusing and harmless sports as ducking in a tub of water to catch an apple at its bottom” and roasting it when the game was done, as well as cracking nuts, devouring enormous cakes and other less superstitious observances. Notably, it was offered that the English celebration was more lighthearted, “except in the extreme northern counties,” including Cumberland, where the Workmans long resided—perhaps William Workman and his family partook in the more serious observances of the holiday?

Pomona Progress, 1 November 1900.

Some comparison was drawn between the Scotch traditions, such as the massive bonfire and the German Walpurgis, held around the 1st of May, with pagan rituals reconfigured with the rise of Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Noted, too, was the increase in the occurrence of “all sorts of nocturnal practical jokes, some of which are more malicious than humorous” and that this had “degenerated to a common exhibition of rowdyism by young America” comprising “less enjoyable and more dangerous pranks always visible on the morning of Nov. 1.”

As to local celebrations, Pomona, at the eastern end of Los Angeles County, reported, through its Progress newspaper, two parties. Mrs. Harriet Shutt opened her doors to ten guests with “cards and other games and Halloween customs,” as well as refreshments to what was adjudged “an enjoyable evening.” Three young women threw a Halloween party with the residence “prettily decorated for the occasion, chrysanthemums and smilax being used in the parlor and chrysanthemums and pepper in the dining room.” Invitations asked the guests, more than forty in all, to be ready for a description of their ideal future partner “and the reading of these furnished much amusement.” Two women guests served as fortune tellers, as well.

Record, 1 November 1900.

At the Los Angeles quarters, on 2nd Street between Spring and Broadway, of the Young Women’s Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.), 300 guests reveled for the holiday and the Los Angeles Express reported that “the approved Halloween decorations of pumpkins, corn stalks and gourds were used in abundance.” Also featured were “witches’ corners and fortune telling booths at every turn, the popular jack o’ lantern adding its wierd [sic] light to the scene.” A “kitchen band” utilizing utensils of that domain provided a sort of entertainment.

The Los Angeles Record also covered that event and added that there were large tents in a pair of rooms with one inhabited by witches and the other by gypsies, with the former embellished with “pictures of lizards, toads and other uncanny creeping things.” The gymnasium décor included ghosts and sprays of oranges along with the other elements mentioned by the Express, but also mentioned that “six dough-faced spooks appeared during the evening and made merry the scene.”

Express, 1 November 1900.

The paper also offered some general commentary about the fact that “the small boy will enjoy himself, the young girl will juggle with the looking glass and apple suspended by threads” and there would be parties with pranks and games galore. It very briefly summarized the history of Halloween from pagan to Christian-era celebrations, including the love tests mentioned above. Elsewhere it reported on parties held by the sisters Grace and Mamie Bradshaw with “ghost games” and decorations of pumpkins, skulls and crossbones along with plenty of chrysanthemums and by the Edwards family and their “ghost parade” on their street by the costumed children, followed by ghost stories told in front of a low fire in the parlor.

As to the hooliganism alluded to in some accounts, the Times provided a succinct summary, reporting that afternoon and evening shifts of police officers involved the observing of “the threatened depredations of Holloween [sic] revelers.” Officers were said to have been plenty busy mitigating issues such as the pulling of alarms and it added,

Considerable damage was done by ruffians who tore down fences, carried away benches from public grounds, took gates from their hinges and otherwise annoyed quiet citizens.

The Express printed correspondence that reported that “Young America in East Los Angeles [renamed Lincoln Heights not quite two decades later] was out in force,” including the placement of a straw figure on a streetcar track and it deemed so lifelike that it “caused the hair of several motorneers [?] to stand on end as cars approached it.

Times, 1 November 1900.

The banging of gongs, placement of kerosene cans on cars for consequent clamor, and the positioning of a cask on the track to force stoppage of service were also mentioned, as were incidences of girls stopping cars to pretend to board before scurrying off. Other pranks included for sale signs placed in front of houses, wagons hustled off and deposited on empty lots or the yards of nearby properties and others reported as “of an innocent nature” so that “very little real damage resulted.”

As for the Workman family party, the Record recorded that the theme on invitations, sent to 75 persons was “Goblins at Home,” while the Express asserted that “perhaps there will not be . . . a more noteworthy halloween [sic] gathering” as “the old Workman place is admirably situated for such an event.” This referred to the 1858 brick dwelling built by Maria Boyle Workman’s father, Andrew, and which was described as “a relic of the days when houses were not crowded so close together.” Moreover, the lot contained many trees so that “the sighing of the wind among the leaves and the startled cry of some night bird . . . are things that can add immeasurably to the delight of the Halloween party.”

Express, 1 November 1900.

The paper reported that 40 guests attended and noted that

The reception hall and parlors were decorated in corn husks and red apples, and the jack o’ lanterns through which red shaded electric lights gleamed, made the scene one wierd [sic] enough to send cold shivers chasing one another over the flesh of the mystery seeking crowd. The games were all in character with the keeping of the holiday, and witches and goblins were much in evidence.

Beyond the indoor activities, though, the Express judged that “the star diversion of the evening was a dance around a huge bonfire in the rear of the grounds.”

Express, 1 November 1900.

Much has changed in the celebration of Halloween in the last 123 years, with respect to pranks, bonfires, love tests and other rites and rituals common at the dawn of the 20th century. What was missing from the revels of that period was trick-or-treating and the handing out of candy and other goodies. Whatever you and yours are doing tonight for this year’s All Hallow’s Eve, enjoy and maybe reflect a bit on some of the history of the holiday imparted here, while we’ll look to share some 1880s Halloween observances next year!

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