Filed Under Events

Halloween in Cleveland

The Cremation on Scranton Avenue

As the clock neared midnight on Halloween in 1897, a band of boys armed with hatchets and axes descended on the intersection of Scranton and Clark Avenue. In the spirit of the holiday, the weapon-toting youths began their vicious attack on the neighborhood's most peculiar structure--a 23 foot-high fence. The eyesore had been constructed three weeks prior as part of a dispute between neighbors D. Z. Herr and M. Moon. Following Moon's raising of a barn, Herr stacked boards to build the absurdly tall wall in an effort to block the view. Herr, convinced that his neighbor was attempting to strong-arm him into purchasing his property, refused to remove the barrier until the barn was removed. Moon declared that the fence did not bother him. As the vandals chopped away at the "spite fence," Herr emerged from his home and tried to intervene. Quickly restrained by the hoodlums, Herr watched as the structure was torn down and transported to a nearby vacant lot. The noise generated by the disturbance had attracted a crowd of hundreds from surrounding blocks, who idly looked on as the boards were doused with coal oil and set on fire. By the time the police arrived, the neighborhood had joined the boys in singing and dancing wildly around the flames. The police sat by and watched, but strangely were unable to identify any of the boys despite their best efforts. No arrests were made. When the fire finally died down, a sign was erected on the site: "Here lies the remains of the fence that Herr built."

At the turn of the 20th century, Halloween in Cleveland offered a night of excess and structured chaos for the city's children and young adults. Similar throughout the United States, this ancient holiday that symbolically transgressed the boundary between life and death provided communities a moment of release from social norms. Mischievous acts that would generally be deemed as impermissible by community standards were overlooked, and even encouraged. Adults openly reminisced on their past exploits, and children were expected to aid fairies, witches and imps in a night of delinquency. Reflective of the festivities that occurred at the intersection of Scranton and Clark avenues, a perceived shift in communal roles underpinned the holiday tradition. Most often, though, Halloween night offered an outlet of revenge and sense of retribution for the city's powerless youth. It would have been no surprise to any adult that had crossed local children to experience the wrath of vengeful spirits come Halloween night.

Every November 1st, Cleveland newspapers provided a familiar list of pranks and acts of vandalism that had occurred during the prior evening. A description of a "quiet" Halloween by the Cleveland Police in 1905 recounts what was fairly standard fare for the night of celebration. Iron and wood gates were torn from their hinges, doors were tied to verandah posts, windows in grocery stores were broken for some light looting, a wagon was rolled down an embankment and set ablaze, an occupied chicken coop was relocated to the roof of a home, a six-foot tall barricade was placed in a major intersection, bonfires were set in residential streets, and Wade Park pond became a receptacle for stolen items of all sorts. Other Halloween traditions included chalking doors, ringing house-bells, pelting homes and policemen with produce, leading livestock into church steeples, and throwing dummies in front of automobiles and streetcars. Arrests were uncommon, and generally reserved for the most disruptive offenders.

While hooliganism would remain a public expectation through the mid century, a tradition of "handouts" became commonplace in Cleveland by the late 1930s. Masked children began to show up on doorsteps, chiming "we want a handout." While this tradition of blackmail can be traced to Old-World roots of the holiday, it first found favor in some Cleveland neighborhoods at about the time of the first World War. The costumed beggars were treated with cookies, popcorn balls, candy, doughnuts and cider. This precursor to "trick-or-treat," however, was just one aspect of a much larger change in how the holiday was celebrated. Largely due to the effects of Halloween's commercialization following the turn of the century, the holiday was gradually co-opted by adults; the popularity of costume parties and festive public events grew, and traditional festivities were increasingly sanitized. By the end of the 1950s, Halloween had ceased to be a night for hell-raising throughout the city. The holiday tradition of flipping social roles did not completely disappear, however, as the pranks and vandalism of yesteryear provided credence to the empty threats of masked marauders extorting payment from their community.

Images

Hallowe'en in Cleveland, 1900
Hallowe'en in Cleveland, 1900 Newspaper accounts at the turn of the 20th century claimed that the institution of Hallowe'en, or All Hallow's Eve, was one of the best known days of the year. If one were to forget, they would surely be reminded by a missing fence or the sounds of cabbage and potatoes being thrown at their home. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: October 31, 1900
Spite Fence, 1897
Spite Fence, 1897 In a follow up interview with Herr published on November 2, the unhappy property owner would not comment if he planned to rebuild the fence. While he did not recognize any of the boys or policemen in attendance on Halloween night, he believed that the police had known the identity of the vandals. Creator: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: November 1, 1897
False Faces, 1904
False Faces, 1904 Dressing in costume to celebrate Halloween was probably a tradition initially brought to the United States by Irish immigrants. While false faces may have been worn by mischievous vandals, costumes were more commonly worn for Halloween masquerade parties. Creator: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: October 31, 1904
Halloween Novelties and Favors, 1905
Halloween Novelties and Favors, 1905 Halloween parties became increasingly en vogue during the late 1890s in Cleveland. Many of these events were held by colleges and institutions such as the Y.M.C.A. as a means of keeping young people occupied and out of trouble on the night of mischief. Date: 1905
A Romantic Halloween, 1910
A Romantic Halloween, 1910 Halloween was not just for rowdy young boys; the supernatural day held options for the more romantic at heart. With devils and fairies roaming the earth, and the boundaries of the spiritual and corporeal world blurred, a tradition emerged for young women and men to perform ceremonies in an effort to divine information about their love life. The most popular and longstanding Halloween mythology related to romance was a pre-bed ritual that induced dreams of one's future husband or wife. While details often differed, a variation included placing a sliver of wood in a glass of water next to one's bed. Once asleep, the youngster would dream of being rescued from a fall by their future spouse. Creator: MacDiarmid's Candy House Date: 1910
An American Institution, 1920
An American Institution, 1920 Coinciding with both the emergence of mass culture and the popularization of mass production in the United States during the 1920s, the holiday became increasingly commercialized and homogeneous. Candies, cider and novelty goods became intertwined with the traditions of Halloween as it evolved as an American institution. Creator: Schuster Company Date: 1920
The Joys of Halloween, 1911
The Joys of Halloween, 1911 While the pranks and disorder associated with Halloween were generally attributed to "boys" in public discourse, it would be safe to assume that quite a few adults also took part in the annual night of mayhem. In 1904, the operation of the Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula streetcar line was stopped cold when an old boiler was placed on the tracks and connected to overhead wires. This fairly elaborate and knowledgeable Halloween prank caused the rotaries in the substations to reverse, and led to an extensive search for the source of disruption. Creator: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: October 31, 1904
Handouts, 1949
Handouts, 1949 In 1949, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the customary "We Wanna Handout" had been replaced by "Trick-or-Treat." Regardless of what the masked beggars said, it was agreed upon that the new tradition was favored over the days of Halloween mayhem. The editor still strongly recommended that the public pick any remaining vegetables in their garden, bring in the trash cans, and relocate any movable garden ornament from the yard. Creator: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: October 27, 1949
Halloween Prank, 1955
Halloween Prank, 1955 Some traditions are hard to let go of; this photo reflects the endurance of certain Halloween pranks. Before the popularization of the automobile, wagons - as well as any other large object that could be disassembled - regularly found their way to the roofs of buildings on Halloween night. Source: Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections. Date: 1955
Halloween Party at University Heights Library, 1974
Halloween Party at University Heights Library, 1974 By the mid century, the traditions of Halloween had become more inclusive and safe. Cleveland suburbs were early adopters of promoting Halloween festivities for both the young and old. As early as 1940, parades, costume parties and bonfires were sponsored and promoted by suburban communities in an effort to supplant less desirable activities associated with the holiday. Source: Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections. Date: 1974

Location

Scranton Rd and Clark Ave, Cleveland, OH | Former location of the "spite fence" destroyed by vandals on Halloween night, 1897.

Metadata

Richard Raponi, “Halloween in Cleveland,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 24, 2024, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/622.