When Halloween In Dallas Was Mostly “Trick” and Very Little “Treat”

by Paula Bosse


by Paula Bosse

Dallas used to have some pretty bad Halloweens. Way more “trick” than “treat.” The word “riot” was used frequently to describe the typical Halloween night goings-on, when thousands of people clustered downtown and did unsavory things (such as drinking, fighting, pick-pocketing, mugging, and being generally obnoxious), while out in the “suburbs” (meaning far-flung locales such as East Dallas and Oak Lawn), marauding bands of young “pranksters” were keeping themselves busy breaking things and setting things on fire. Like kids do. Each Halloween, every policeman was called in for duty — only those in their sickbeds were exempt.

The worst of these Halloweens seemed to happen in the 1930s. Elm, Main, and Commerce, between Lamar and Harwood, were cordoned off from traffic. This is where upwards of 25,000 revelers would slowly cruise up and down the streets, causing mayhem and inflicting occasional bodily injury (much like the notorious Texas-OU weekends of later years). Even though the area was off-limits to automobile traffic, the streetcars still ran, and the poor drivers must have dreaded that night each year and steeled themselves for the worst, as if heading into battle.

Apparently Dallas revelers had a signature tradition, and it was to carry large wooden paddles — sometimes as large as canoe oars — and to swat people in the crowd on their backsides, usually women. At some point women also began to carry paddles, and they did their fair share of swatting, too. It was a paddling free-for-all.

1935 was a particularly noteworthy year, as it was the first Halloween after the state of Texas had voted to repeal Prohibition. Yes, people were drinking. And paddling. Sounds like a bad combination.

Below is a list of just a few of the reported instances of vandalism and “high-spiritedness” which routinely plagued the city every Halloween:

  • Broken streetlights
  • Broken windshields
  • Broken everything
  • Flooded streets from opened fire hydrants
  • The throwing of rocks
  • The throwing of eggs and rotting fruit
  • The throwing of stink-bombs
  • The throwing of WASHTUBS (!)
  • The setting of fires, both large and small
  • The malicious uprooting of shrubbery
  • The driving of cars on sidewalks
  • The reporting of false alarms to fire stations
  • Random gunfire
  • Occasional mysterious explosions
  • Extremely loud noise
  • Smoke
  • The overturning of outhouses
  • The soaping of windows
  • The breaking of windows
  • The breaking of soaped windows
  • The soaping of streetcar tracks
  • And the unsuccessful attempt one year by a small band of aspiring shake-down artists to “extort” money (rather than candy) from their eye-rolling neighbors by foregoing the chant of “Trick or Treat!” and demanding “Dime or Damage!”

In 1939, an intoxicated man who was “playfully threatening people with a knife” was playfully arrested.

In 1935, there was a huge mud-fight in Oak Lawn at Newton and Throckmorton which involved over 100 boys. Like greased pigs, an adrenaline-fueled, mud-encased 10-year old running from beleaguered and hopelessly out-numbered policemen — who, quite frankly, had bigger fish to fry that night — were almost impossible to catch. Spectators and passersby did not escape unscathed. Except for the dry cleaners the next day, Oak Lawn was not amused.

And in 1936, during the Texas Centennial, a policeman was suspended and demoted after an incident of “horseplay” at Parry and Exposition in which he had been shocking passing pedestrians by poking them with the end of a walking stick that had been hooked up to the battery of a police motorcycle. He got into trouble because one of his victims was a young woman who had been standing on wet pavement when the electrified stick touched her, resulting in a more-powerful-than-expected shock. She lost consciousness, fell to the ground, and hit her head on the sidewalk. Luckily, she recovered quickly and even requested that the officer not be punished, but the police chief was not so forgiving. He was understandably livid, especially when he discovered that a number of motorcycle cops had been doing the same thing. One imagines there were several new orifices opened up amongst the force in the days that followed.

But the pièce de résistance was in 1920 when several boys “anchored a block and tackle around a two-story house in Cockrell Hill and hoisted a wagon and a team of terrified mules up in the air” (DMN, Oct. 27, 1963). That right there required impressive organizational planning and a certain amount of entry-level engineering skill.

Eventually things settled down. By 1949 officials had finally put an end to the swarming, surging masses downtown. People began to celebrate Halloween with candy and costumes and haunted houses and parties. In 1966, a policeman was asked if things had improved from those earlier dark days:

There’s been an extensive change for the better in recent years. Police almost never get a call to let a cow out of a school house anymore. (DMN, Oct. 27, 1966)

And Halloween became more “treat” than “trick.” Good news for the City of Dallas. And for its mules. Bad news for the makers of Ivory soap and thick wooden paddles.


Sources & Notes

Selected tidbits gleaned from the frenzied coverage in The Dallas Morning News archives:

  • 1935: “Much Damage Done By Hoodlums During Halloween Rioting” (DMN, Nov. 1, 1935)
  • 1936: “Young Woman Victim of Police Prank Asks Jones Pardon Men” (DMN, Nov. 3, 1936)
  • 1939: “Witches Stage Costly Carnival For Halloween; Roughness Breaks Out In Downtown Crowd; Police, Firemen Busy” (DMN, Nov. 1, 1939)

Other Flashback Dallas posts on Halloween can be found here and here.

Happy Halloween!


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.