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Peculiar Doings

The shadowy origins of the Knoxville Halloween

by Jack Neely

One cool evening around 1980, I was sitting with a friend at the old Sam and Andy's, back when Victor was manning the bar. I remember saying, "Hey, you know what? I think it's Halloween."

My friend looked at the date on a beer-stained Knoxville Journal.

"I guess you're right," he said. That was the end of the conversation. It was just one of those how-about-that trivia things you say when you've been sitting around with the same guy for several hours and have run out of things to talk about.

On the Cumberland Avenue sidewalk there were always plenty of people dressed strangely, but no more on that particular night than any other. There was no sign of Halloween outside, not that we expected there to be any. Halloween was just a kid's holiday, of course, and I'd heard trick-or-treating was past its prime. Alone at midnight, I walked through Fort Sanders melancholy not to see litter, no eggshells, no candy wrappers, no trace of an old holiday that seemed to have died.

Maybe Halloween was just molting. Three or four years later, I was invited to a Halloween costume party at a photographer's studio in South Knoxville. It seemed like a droll, retro sort of thing, sort of on a par with throwing an Arbor Day party or a Washington's Birthday party. I didn't guess it would catch on.

In years since, Halloween seems to have shifted from a kids' candy night to a week-long adult festival of risqué costume parties. The shift has gotten me wondering about Halloween's true nature, which I still haven't sorted out.

The origins of Halloween in Knoxville are murky. I've done some spot-checking of Halloween weeks in the 19th century, and haven't yet found a reference to Halloween in Knoxville before 1892, when the Knoxville Tribune ran a short poem about Halloween. Earlier Knoxville dailies often included lots of cultural trivia about strange customs, but not about All Hallow Even. October 31 was usually a few days before an election, which dominated most folks' gossip and social life.

It wasn't that Victorian Knoxvillians didn't like to be scared. Seances were as common as cocktail parties. Satan, celebrated in plays and in food advertisements, had never been more popular. Costume parties were much more frequent and elaborate than they are today. There just wasn't any special abundance of them around October 31.

When Halloween did come around, the Knoxville Tribune seemed uncertain about how to spell it. The headline of the first Halloween-related news story I found goes "IT'S HALLOW-E'N: Joy Will Be Unconfined After the Sun Goes To Rest." They tried so many spellings of this word, you'd think it was a new one to the copy editors.

Halloween in the 1890s was indeed joyous, romantic, odd, maybe a little mysterious, but not particularly evil. Halloween was, as one poet said, "endowed with all the sweet nostalgia of love and romance."

The Tribune promised, "When Old Sol planks his fiery head upon a pillow of gold in the west at sunset this evening, Hallowe'en will be ushered in with all its cranky notions, peculiar doings and absurd customs."

Among those absurd customs, of course, was some well-intended, softcore vandalism—stealing gates, dismantling carriages, hoisting mules up in the air on a winch. As a night for neighborly mayhem, though, Halloween couldn't touch Christmas Eve, which was, for nervous East Tennessee homeowners in the 1890s, the most dreaded night of the year.

Several Halloween articles from 1893 to 1903 mention nothing about trick-or-treating or evil spirits. The most-repeated Halloween tradition then was a fortune-telling tactic. Under a variety of carefully described circumstances—like walking down cellar steps backwards, by the light of one candle—a young man or woman could look into a cracked mirror at midnight and see the face of a future spouse. It only worked on Halloween night.

The first reference to a Halloween party I found was this tongue-in-cheek invitation published in the Tribune:

To be holden at ye Mansion of Master Sanforde, a gaie Gathering of ye merrie men and maidens to pleye ye ancient Games of Hallow E'en, on ye Tuesday ye 31st of October, 1893, at ye earlie candlelight...7:00 by ye Town Clock.

The host was Edward Terry Sanford, a 28-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who lived on the western end of Hill Avenue, in what's now Maplehurst. You may know that, about 30 years later, "Master Sanforde" would be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. You wonder if he shared the secret of his "ancient Games" with Holmes and Brandeis.

A few days later, the Tribune published an interesting essay by the well-known Broadway actress Lillian Russell. It was a plea to rejuvenate this "neglected" holiday.

"The South seems to honor Halloween more than any other section of our country," wrote the Iowa-born actress, who lived in New York. "The custom of dressing entirely in white on Halloween seems to prevail more generally south of Mason and Dixon's line than anywhere else."

That particular custom's a new one to this Southerner. It may have to do with old Irish Catholic legends that souls walk the earth on Halloween, even the souls of the living.

The actress also mentioned a famous Southern Catholic. "Father Ryan wrote some exquisite verses on the day shortly before his death," observed Russell. That this New Yorker's essay lamenting America's dim observance of Halloween should evoke Father Ryan as a pro-Halloween exception is a little startling. In the 1860s, Father Abram Ryan, the "poet priest," had lived in Knoxville; he was rector of Immaculate Conception, the Catholic church on the hill downtown. He was a frequent visitor to town up until his death in 1886. Did he introduce Knoxville to Halloween?

"At all events," Russell wrote in a final pro-Halloween plea, "the world is prosaic enough without destroying such illusions too rudely."