Unveiling the Mysterious History of Halloween in Albany: 1904-1905

Halloween has a rich history, but have you ever wondered about the origins of Halloween festivities in Albany?  In 1904 and 1905, Halloween in Albany, was a time like no other, with the city undergoing a transformation thanks to a man named Wilbur Judd, the Pressman from the Knickerbocker Express. Hear the fascinating story of how Halloween celebrations in Albany those two years as told by Maeve McEneny of Discover Albany  via HEAR about HERE audio

Halloween’s Humble Beginnings in Albany:

At the dawn of the 20th century, Halloween wasn’t the widely celebrated holiday we know today. While it had some roots in Irish culture, it had yet to become a fully Americanized tradition. Wilbur Judd saw an opportunity to change that. He pitched the idea to the Albany Chamber of Commerce, who enthusiastically embraced it. Thus, the journey to make Albany a tourist destination began.

The Birth of an Extravaganza:

In 1904, Albany pulled out all the stops. Downtown businesses joined forces for a competitive decorating contest, emphasizing electric lights. Giant gates adorned the city, and parades were organized, showcasing creativity and spectacle. The Halloween Queen, a central figure in the celebration, took the keys of the city from the mayor, making it a grand spectacle.

Image of coronation of Albany Halloween queen.  1904.

Postcard from Queen coronation halloween carnival albany ny 1904 via Albany Group Flickr photo archive

A Tourist Magnet:

Marketing efforts extended beyond Albany, targeting outside visitors. Train packages were designed to bring people into the city. In the first year alone, 50,000 people flocked to Albany, with 20,000 of them arriving from Troy, leading to Troy’s temporary empty streets. Newspapers celebrated the unity and love for the event within the community.

The 1905 Spectacle:

With the remarkable success of 1904, Albany aimed to top itself in 1905. More aggressive marketing, increasingly elaborate parades, and stunning illuminated streets became the norm. The winning illuminated lights contest entry boasted over 900 lights, an incredible feat for the time.

Postcards of City ‘gates’ from 1905 Festival Albany NY via Albany Group Flickr photo archive

The Downfall of Albany’s Halloween Festivities:

As the event grew in popularity, it faced challenges. The influx of outsiders seemed to change the atmosphere. Mischievous pranks, often malicious in nature, began to trouble the festivities. The police found themselves overwhelmed, leading to unruly behavior. The religious community voiced concerns, leading to a debate within the city.

The Mystery:

A peculiar and somewhat macabre incident occurred during this period. The first Halloween Queen, Elsie Smith, and her prince charming, Clayton McKinley, drew attention and envy. Clayton received a threatening letter, suggesting harm to Elsie. Later, Elsie received chocolates with a suspicious note. Luckily, they were broken, revealing a potentially deadly plot. The chocolates contained enough Paris Green Poison to harm an entire family.

The End of an Era:

The mystery of the poisoned chocolates was never fully resolved. Some speculated that it might have been a publicity stunt. However, in the end, the Albany Halloween festival was dissolved.

Conclusion:

The Halloween celebrations in Albany during 1904 and 1905 were a unique and fascinating chapter in the city’s history. It started as a humble idea to boost tourism but quickly transformed into a grand spectacle that drew people from far and wide. However, its own success led to its downfall. The mystery of the poisoned chocolates remains an unsolved enigma, adding an intriguing twist to this historical tale. Albany’s Halloween festivities may have ended, but the memories of those two extraordinary years live on in its history.

For more details, Hear Maeve McEneny tell the Tale via HEAR about HERE audio.  More details about the early festival at Albany Friends of History, Discover Albany and the Times Union. Find out about the resurrection of the Albany Halloween festival at the Times Union, Discover Albany.   

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