Harlan County Halloween

It’s that time of year again. Halloween! All the kiddies will dress up and go door-to-door trick or treating. Some of us adults will dress up, too. There are Halloween parties for young and old. I suppose there are even Satan worshipers who use this time for their high holy days.

It was only when I moved to Lexington did I hear a lot about Halloween as a Satanic rite. Maybe there were kids I knew growing up who couldn’t trick or treat because of its Hellish undercurrents. The only kids I knew who couldn’t trick or treat were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they weren’t allowed to do anything.

Despite the many urban legends, Halloween is generally safe for young and old. People don’t put razor blades in apples or needles in candy bars. In fact, my cursory research reveals that there has never been a reported case of such maleficence. The only case of someone poisoning candy was some demented freak in Texas who poisoned his own kids. By the way, if you do think it’s safer for your kids to trick or treat at the mall, I suggest you go the mall and take a look at the human flotsam and jetsam loitering about. I don’t know what your neighborhood is like, but mine doesn’t look like a casting call for Jersey Shore II . Nevertheless, at 50 years old, Halloween takes me back to my youth, to the nostalgia of a simpler time.

I grew up in a Loyall, Kentucky, a small town in Harlan County. Halloween was a big deal in Loyall. Churches had Halloween parties. Our school had a Halloween Carnival. I even escorted the Halloween Princess one year. Alas, I was never either Prince or King of the Carnival, although my younger brother managed to salvage some of our family’s good name by become Prince. To become Prince or King, one had to raise the most money. After my humiliating defeat, my parents made sure my brother faced no such shame.

Your author’s enthusiastic appearance as the 2nd Grade escort for the Halloween Princess.

We enjoyed trick or treating. I lived in a small neighborhood with the exotic name of Rio Vista. It was, in fact, aptly named as we had a view of the Cumberland River, especially when it flooded. Rio Vista consisted of five small blocks of houses and was a trick or treat Nirvana.

We would run around the neighborhood collecting our candy and having a generally good time. Other than the occasional soaped window, we didn’t have much “tricking.” One year, a friend of my brother wrote “WALLACE FOR PRESIDENT” on our front door with a crayon. That wasn’t vandalism, as much as it was a political statement. In fact, the trickster told my Dad he did it. He didn’t want anyone else taking credit.

I don’t remember ever being afraid to trick or treat. We knew most of the people around us. There was one lady who handed out political literature instead of candy. We just skipped her house. There was also one lady I thought was a witch. I never walked by her house anyway, and I damn sure wasn’t taking a chance on Halloween.

As I got older, I realized that the rest of the county was different from my little world. Tree-cutting, for example, was very popular. You would cut a tree and drop it in the road to screw up traffic. Another more daring version involved cutting the tree almost in two and then pushing it down in front of an on-coming vehicle. Oh, how one would laugh at the ensuing carnage. The final–and most deadly version–was to drop the tree ON a passing vehicle. I don’t know of that actually happening, but I’m sure it did. Watts Creek and Jones Creek were two popular areas for this version of “tricking.”

My first personal experience with this difference was in my teen years when a friend and I–being past trick or treat age–decided to walk through Loyall on Halloween night. Without warning, we were caught in an egg-throwing crossfire which left us dazed and eggy.

For reasons long since forgotten–at least by me–someone once threatened to kill me on Halloween. Why did he choose Halloween? Maybe he quite reasonably–though mistakenly–assumed it was legal on Halloween. Suffice to say it didn’t happen.

In October of 1978, shortly before Halloween, I took my driving test for my license. The officer giving the test was an affable fellow, well-known around the county. He wasn’t so affable that day. When my Dad asked him how he was, he responded: “I’m getting ready for this damn Halloween. If I had my way, they’d outlaw that damn night. Declare martial law and arrest anyone out of after dark. As far as I’m concerned, shoot everyone out after dark.” He went on the explain that it was the most difficult night of the year for the police in our county. 75 additional state troopers had to be brought in to handle the lawlessness. As example, he cited a relative of his (it might even have been his brother) who lost an eye for an errant egg throw. I’m not sure I agreed with his Judge Dredd system of justice, but he had a point.

Halloween in Harlan County in the 1970’s and ’80’s went well beyond handing out candy and soaping windows. Our people took it as a night to abandon all semblance of order, to engage in random acts of vandalism and violence not seen during the rest of the year. It was an anarchist’s holiday.

One of my high school teachers was equally adamant about maintaining order on All Hallows Eve. One day, he addressed our class about his concerns. Below is an approximation of what we were told:

Some of you boys know where I live. Last year on Halloween, we had a house burned near us. I’m warning you that I’m not putting up with anything from now on. Anyone sets foot on my property, and I’ll be waiting with a shotgun. I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to unload a twelve gauge shell full of rock salt on you. I’ve done it before. It blows out of the barrel like burning sand. It won’t kill you, but you won’t soon forget it.

That was one house to be avoided at all costs. He lived near an area called Pathfork where the tales of Halloween excess were legendary. His precautions were understandable. Did I mention that he was also a preacher?

My favorite story is a somewhat apocryphal tale right out of Loyall. One of our denizens was well-known for his lawless behavior. For example, he was notorious for huffing lighter fluid, so much so that the local stores wouldn’t sell it to him. He would tie his shirt over his face and soak it with lighter fluid. As you might expect, he was prone to erratic behavior.

In any event, one Halloween, he dropped a toilet from the top of the bridge in Loyall. A toilet. Here is the Loyall bridge (long since torn down) as it looked at the time:

The “x” marks the spot from where a toilet was dropped off this bridge in Loyall. The approximate direction of its path is shown by the red arrow.  

As this photo shows, getting to the top of this bridge was no simple task. Now, I know that this young man could do that, because I had seen him walking on top of the bridge on many occasions. He would climb (or crawl) up the angled supports at the front of the bridge. But, to climb to the top carrying a toilet seemed to defy human capabilities. You might be impressed with that guy who parachuted from space, but I’m still more fascinated by this.

Oh, I should clarify that it was only the bowl part of the toilet. He did not drop the tank, too. This does not make the story any less fantastic. In fact, that is the kind of detail that gives the story the ring of truth.

Why did he do this? Where did he get a toilet? How on Earth did he climb with it to the top of the bridge? Did he intend to drop it on someone? If so, did he realize that it would likely instantly kill that person? I still hope that this story is true. It may well not be, but I hope so..

Then, there were the burnings. I’m not talking about mundane things like bags of excrement or pumpkins, although we had our share of that. I’m talking about houses. Every Halloween, I heard tales of house burnings–real and threatened. I don’t understand how going door-to-door in costumes morphed into felonious acts of violence, but that’s what I heard. Like a lot of stories in Harlan County, they may have been exaggerated.

You may wonder if anyone got killed on Halloween. Not so far as I know. If they did, it probably wasn’t Halloween-related. Nowadays, many people get their image of Harlan County from the television show Justified. I’m sorry to report that, at least in my day, we weren’t stacking up corpses like cord wood. Regardless, I don’t think the kill rate increased on Halloween.

One time in study hall in high school, a guy told me he was going to hang a guy on Halloween, thinking that he could get away with it. I don’t think he did it. He did, however, pull a dog’s teeth one time. You read that right. Nothing funny about that. That’s not too far from a lynching. I’m sure an FBI profiler would agree that it shows a certain willingness.

Even when I was in college, I took precautions. Halloween was on a Friday one year. I made sure NOT to go home that weekend, lest I be driving through the county after dark.

So, if you’re annoyed by trick or treaters, just think: Someone could be burning your house or cutting down your trees or dropping a toilet on you. Happy Halloween!

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012


  1. This certainly brings back memories. I did my trick or treating in Rio Vista. I lived across the tracks on Emerling Road, next to Cook Monument Company. I heard a lot of stories about Halloween, and was so naive I believed them every one. Who knows, maybe they were true. But then, we come from major storytelling stock.

  2. If you lived in Cawood, Cranks, Smith, you never left home if there was a chance you’d be out after dark. Starting the first of October til after Halloween, miscreants would pile old tires in the road and set them on fire. And yes, cut down trees across the road. I always wondered who these horrible people were that would do this thinking it was a “prank”??

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