Knoxville’s Halloween History

In Knoxville History by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Like most holidays, Halloween changes with each new generation. Before about 1945, the holiday was usually spelled with an apostrophe, as “Hallow E’en” or “Hallowe’en,” to indicate that it was a shortening of the word Even, or evening.

Although it’s derived from an ancient holiday, Halloween is one of the newer holidays to be celebrated in Knoxville. Halloween is rarely mentioned in Knoxville newspapers before the 1890s. For most of the century, it was considered a Catholic observance.

Father Abram Ryan (1838-1886), who was the resident priest at Knoxville’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church from 1865 to 1868, was an advocate for the celebration of Halloween in America. Ryan’s parents were immigrants from Ireland, and had celebrated the holiday there, but few native-born Americans in the mid-19th century knew what Halloween was. Associated with the Catholic holiday known as All Saints Day, or All Hallow’s, the night before was called All Hallow’s Even, or Halloween.

Halloween wasn’t always considered scary. A century ago, it was not a day associated with death, evil, and fear. However, it was indeed associated with the supernatural, and it was a rare holiday that was considered not to begin until sundown. An article in the Knoxville Tribune in 1893 remarks, “When old Sol planks his fiery head upon a pillow of gold in the west at sunset, this evening, Hallow-E’en will be ushered in with all its cranky notions, peculiar doings and absurd customs.”

Some of those were pranks played by boys, like stealing garden gates. A newspaper editor advised homeowners not get too upset about it. “It’s Hallow-e’en, and let it go at that.” Strangely, the same kinds of pranks were also associated with Christmas Eve, when they tended to be more destructive.

Halloween was often considered a romantic holiday. It was of special interest to young people, because it was believed that on Halloween night, if you went into your cellar with a mirror, you would see an image of your future spouse. Bobbing for apples was also considered a predictor of finding a mate.

It was a holiday, as an article in the Knoxville Tribune noted in 1893, “endowed with all the sweet nostalgia of love and romance.”

Halloween was considered irrelevant to married people. “No provision is made for the married folk. So if you are wedded, you can toast your toes before the fire and think of the ‘has been.’”

That year, one of the first years that Knoxville publicly made a big deal of Halloween, a Catholic social club then located at the corner of Gay and Vine known as the Young Men’s Institute hosted a Halloween masquerade dance, attended by 20 couples. The same night, another young man announced an uncommon party. “There is 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.” The time was announced as “At ye earlie candle light” or “7:00 by ye town clock.”

“The town clock” probably referred to the clock on the steeple of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which had been financed with city funding, because it was so high it was useful to the entire downtown area. It may have referred to the clock on the Knox County Courthouse tower. Remarkably, both are still there, and still keep the time.

“Each Maiden shall bring her favorite Ladde, but beware ye for all sparkinge will be repeated to ye parents.”

Master Sanforde was probably understood to be popular young attorney Edward Terry Sanford (1865-1930), who lived in a big house in Maplehurst with his wife, Lutie Mallory Woodruff, whose father started the hardware store whose building on Gay Street still bears their name. Sanford became, 30 years later, the only Knoxvillian ever to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was one of the nation’s highest judges from 1923 to 1930.

Trick or treating and jack-o-lanterns were not common here until the early 1900s. By the 1950s, Halloween vandalism was becoming so serious that the city and police department began hosting parties for teenagers, as many as five in different parts of town on the same night, to distract young people from getting in trouble.

Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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