A Criminally Bad Joke

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.” It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy — the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic to rid a house of insects and other pests. Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police. The authorities notified the community and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to a house where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children. At her arraignment, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity. So, Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke and that she hadn’t planned to cause harm. In the end, Pfeil was ordered to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital, followed by another hearing to determine if she would spend two years in prison. In the end, Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience. As for little Elsie Drucker, she never went trick-or-treating again.