The secret anarchist history of Halloween (kind of)

Halloween, 1995. I stood before the Witch-finder General, tried as a sorceress, accused of poisoning a good, learned christian man with my evil potions. Well, not quite. I stood in the Deputy Headmaster’s office, accused of pissing in my history teacher’s milk bottles.

I didn’t do it, as it happens. I hadn’t even been with the kids who did. I had, however, childishly cocooned his car in silly string earlier in the night and had been recognised by one of his neighbours. The milk bottle pisser arrived some hours after us apparently (I’ll not mention his name, as I’m no grass), but I didn’t know this at the time, and instead I’d churlishly demanded the deputy headmaster tell me how he thought I, a fifteen year old girl, could have neatly peed in a milk bottle without a funnel of some kind.

But I digress, sort of. The point is, why were multiple groups of kids from a small village, making the trouble to go to a local teacher’s house to play inane pranks, seemingly unconnected, all on the same night (before you feel too sorry for him, the same teacher would years later end up on the sex offenders register after being caught with thousands of indecent images of children on his computer following an FBI sting. In hindsight, I wish I’d set his car on fire)?

The reason for it was, it was Mischief Night. Mischief night, Devil’s night, it is known by many names, with different variations on its origins. Depending on who you ask, it is typically the night before Halloween and for us, like many others, was a night to go out and cause multiple, but generally harmless havoc.

It’s an old practice, which has in the past left authorities running so scared that they’ve imposed heavy sanctions on participants and tried to erase it altogether. In the United States from the 19th century, particularly in deprived urban areas, it was seen to get so out of hand, with kids targeting property and adults by means of window smashing and defacing the homes of local authority figures, that police and governments took bizarre steps in order to try and dispel youth dissent. In 1923 Omah, Nebraska, police took the tactic of turning youth against each other by taking 500 of what were considered to be the worst of the boys and appointing them “special policemen” encouraged to inform on others. In Toronto 1945 there was a full scale children’s riot on Halloween as both young boys and girls set fires and attacked the mounted police who tried to disperse them, then arrived in their thousands to free the 13 kids who were arrested, resulting in the police using tear gas and water cannons on them. So bad was the problem that Chicago City Council voted to abolish Halloween in 1942 to little success and in 1950, President Truman tried to appropriate it into ‘Youth Honor Day’ in a bid to re-market it into something they hoped would restore ‘morality’ into adolescents.

The tactic of appropriating noted days of the people that were seen to be subversive or threatening to their control of the masses, and replaced with either religious or national days designed to acquire conformity is thousands of years old. Trick or treating as we know it today developed in America, but it’s origins go much further back, some believe even as far back as ancient Greece when children would dress as swallows and sing for food and threatening mischief if they were refused. The pagans believed that Samhain was the time of year the veil between this world and the next was thinnest, and that fairies and ghosts would walk the earth, which could only be appeased by offerings of food and drink, and it is thought that Halloween costumes could have evolved from this, where people would dress up as spirits to receive these offerings.Christianity changed these customs, though the idea was still the same. From the 15th century the poor would visit house to house asking for soul cakes. The practise of guising in Scotland was similar, where young people would visit houses with painted faces, reciting rhymes and asking for food, and promising misfortune if they were refused.

There are also several little talked about, yet significant events in anarchist history that happen to have occurred on Halloween.

On 31st October 1870, revolutionary groups and demonstrators, including anarchist Louise Michel demonstrated outside Hotel de Ville against General Trochu and the government, demanding his resignation and proclamation of the Paris Commune. Many of the protesters were armed and shots were fired, narrowly missing the General.

Then in 1894, The trial of the thirty finally ended in Paris, where the case of 30 French and international alleged anarchists was heard on a charge of association de malfaiteurs- criminal association, which followed months pf police raids, searches and arrests aimed at extinguishing the anarchist movement and restricting freedom of the press. The trial descended into farce as the prosecutors struggled to define what criminal association was actually meant to be. When Félix Fénéon, a Parisian art critic and ‘active anarchist’ according to the police was accused of “surrounding” himself with two other suspects, he replied;

“One can hardly be surrounded by two persons. You need at least three”

The prosecutor continued with his cross examination, inferring that he had been “seen conferring with them behind a lamppost.

Fénéon, unfazed, retorted; “A lamppost is round. Can your honour tell me where behind a lamppost is”, leading to such laughter from the courthouse that the Judge had to call for order.

All of the anarchist defendants were acquitted, with three others being convicted.

In 1922, Italy, fascist blackshirts attacked the offices of anarchist newspaper Umanità Nova, days after Mussolini came to power. Despite all of their premises and equipment being destroyed, its makers fought on, managing to get one more edition printed in secret on November 22nd before it closed completely, then later reborn in Brooklyn, USA.

Staying with Italy, again on Halloween 1926 a young anarchist named Anteo Zamboni was killed when he made an assassination attempt on Mussolini at a parade. He fired at the dictator and missed, where he was lynched by a group of fascists. He was just 15 years old.

There’s likely a book full of other stories, ones we don’t know about, little tales of rebellion both big and small that became ghosts in a land of forgotten things. But we can be sure, in these times, there will be many more to come and there is something about this season that brings it out of us more. Maybe it’s the mysterious masks. Maybe it’s the falling of the leaves that makes us crave changes and discard the things in our lives that are no longer good for us. Whatever the reason, it will remain my favourite time of year full of magic, transformation and mischief.

So be sure to mask up kids, lest you end up in the Deputy Headmaster’s office on false urination charges and remember:

Resistance is enchanting.

Have a bewitching rainy Sunday with one of my favourite bands:


Author: punkfoodbandita

Writer and moss enthusiast

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