Today in History: October 31
…I heard a rustle in the hall. It sounded like the swish of a taffeta skirt. I looked up at the door and saw the figure of a woman go past. She had on a black taffeta dress and I didn't see any head. I called out, "Who's there?" Of course, nobody answered…. Just as the figure reached the door of the living room, it disappeared.
Interview with "Mrs. Laura M.,"
Dorothy West, interviewer,
November 18, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940
On the night of October 31, many Americans celebrate the traditions of Halloween by dressing in costumes and telling tales of witches and ghosts. Children go from house to house—to “trick or treat”—collecting candy along the way. Communities also hold parades and parties.
Halloween, also known as All Hallow’s Eve, originated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end.” The autumnal holiday, rooted in Christian and pagan festivals—with elements of magic and mystery, celebrated the link between seasonal and life cycles (winter was then a time associated with death).
Halloween is now celebrated worldwide and reflects the assimilation of various cultures. In the twenty-first century, it has become a secular, and hugely commercial holiday.
Visit American Memory collections for more information about Halloween.
- Writing about his nineteenth-century boyhood in Minnesota, Frank G. O'Brien recalls Halloween as a night when "the leaders of the fun took matters into their own hands and the whole town was at their mercy." In addition to switching signs between the town doctor and the local undertaker, pranksters thought nothing of causing major inconveniences.
- Frank G. O'Brien, "Old Time Halloween Doings," Minnesota Pioneer Sketches: From the Personal Recollections and Observations of a Pioneer Resident, 1904.Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910
- American folklore is rich with spirits, ghosts, and witches. Search on witch and ghost in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 to read tales of alleged witches and accounts of spirit sightings.
- Listen to fiddler Henry Reed play "Witch of the Wave Reel." A search on the term witch in Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier will surface a transcription of this tune as well as its audio playback.
- Sing a spooky song. Search the collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1830-1860 & 1870-1885 on the terms witch or ghost to find musical selections such as "Denny Malone's Ghost" by M. H. McChesney, 1871, and "Witches Flight" by H. M. Russell, 1878.
- Read “Grace Sherwood—The One Virginia Witch” in The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals.
- Search the collection American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 to find theatrical skits, such as Spooks (1912) by Bayone Whipple and Walter Huston.
- Watch movies of magic and madness. Search the online collections in the motion picture format to view early films with the themes of magic and ghosts. See, for example, Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel and Hooligan Assists the Magician from the collection Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies and Dud Leaves Home from Origins of American Animation.
- Search on Halloween or witch in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog to view a variety of photos and illustrations.