Monday, October 30, 2023


 By Rachel Dworkin

As a kid, I loved trick-or-treating. Who doesn’t love costumes and free candy? Most Americans agree with me. In 2022, there were 40.9 million trick-or-treaters between the ages of 5 and 14. Americans spent $3.1 billion on candy for them. I know I certainly spent my share. The tradition loomed so large in my childhood, it’s hard to believe it’s barely 100 years old.

In Europe, people have been dressing up in costume and visiting homes for food around Halloween since at least the 15th century. Despite the tradition being wide-spread across the British Isles, it wasn’t until the 1910s that it caught on in the Americas. Prior to that, Halloween, if it was celebrated at all, was marked by private parties, public dances, and petty acts of vandalism. The first record of costumed children going door-to-door in North America is from a newspaper account in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1910. It was described in a Boston suburb in 1919 and Chicago in 1920. The phrase “Trick-or-treat” also originates from Canada and appeared in the 1920s. The phrase wasn’t used in the United States until 1932 and wasn’t widespread until around 1940. The practice as a whole didn’t really catch on across the country until the 1950s. 

Halloween postcard, ca. 1910s

It’s hard to say when trick-or-treating came to Elmira and Chemung County. None of the diaries we have from the 1910s or 1920s mention it, nor do the newspapers. Halloween parties and dances were common, as was trouble-making. Throughout the 1930s, Police Officer James Hennessey describes combating roving Halloween gangs of teenage boys who smashed windows and set fires throughout the last weeks of October. In 1934, the Elmira Heights Police Department issued a warning in the newspaper promising to crack down on holiday mischief-makers. Hendy Avenue School began holding an annual costume party and bonfire to keep kids off the streets. 

Halloween postcard, ca. 1910s

The first mention of kids asking for treats in Elmira appears on October 28, 1939 when columnist Matt Richardson railed against kids these days saying:

  “The youth of today doesn’t wait until October 31, the eve of All Saints' Day or Halloween, to celebrate. It lays aside a week for it, but not with tick-tack, jack-o’-lantern, and purse-tied-to-a-string capers. Instead the boys of today walk right up to neighbors’ homes boldly, ringing the doorbell and inquire: “Have you got a hand-out for us?”

1942 was the first time I found the practice of trick-or-treating mentioned in a local diary, although not by name. Jennie L. Hall of Elmira, wrote “Had nineteen here for Halloween handouts. Glad to do it.” She wrote about it again in 1945, 1946, and 1947, mentioning children coming to her door and her own grandchildren going around to the neighbors.

It had certainly caught on here by 1948. That was the first year the phrase trick-or-treat appeared in an Elmira paper. It was also the first year Ira Heyward ever participated. In an oral history in 2013, he described his first Halloween in Elmira after moving here from rural South Carolina:

“I remember the Charrons who lived kitty-corner from us on Washington Street.  They took me one time, my very first year here, Halloween-ing and I had never done that before.  So, what happened was, I got back home and I had all this candy and stuff.  My mom thought I had robbed somebody or went down to Cary’s and ripped them off.  It was a little candy store about two blocks from our house where they sold penny candy.  And my mother was very upset about that because she thought I had stolen it.  But it wasn’t.  We had gone house to house, pretty much what the kids do today.  So, she took me across the street to Mrs. Charron and she explained to mom that no, we kids do this every year.  And the kids go out and collect candies and come back and eat it.”

Over time, Halloween trick-or-treating has changed. While fruits, nuts, and homemade cookies were once common treats, people these days prefer prepackaged candies. In the late 1960s, there were widespread reports of people inserting razors, pins, or drugs into homemade treats. In 1969, an unnamed Elmira woman reported finding one in a cookie. The newspapers advised parents to check over their children’s hauls. Mine certainly did when I was growing up. According to surveys, 88% of parents do. Since 1950, children have also been collecting money for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). What started as a one-time fundraiser in Bridesburg, Pennsylvania quickly became a movement. In 1953, trick-or-treaters from the Westminster Fellowship of Horseheads Presbyterian Church raise $77.75. By 1960, 3 million American kids across 11,000 communities raised $1.75 million.

Robot costume, 1966. Image courtesy of Elmira Star-Gazette.

The Elmira Heights Police Department first began setting trick-or-treating hours in 1962. The City of Elmira followed suit in 1971, although not without some push-back. This year, trick-or-treating is scheduled to run from 5-8pm in the Town of Catlin, 5:30-8pm to in the City of Elmira, and 6-8pm in the Village of Elmira Heights. Make sure to have plenty of candy ready to go.


Note: In the course of writing this blog, I realized that we don’t have any trick-or-treating photos. If you have some you’d like to share, please consider donating.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Part of the Heller Family Story

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

For two dark nights, and one late afternoon, Woodlawn Cemetery was visited by hundreds of visitors who strolled the paths and listened to the stories of four of the cemetery’s permanent residents. It was the 17th annual Ghost Walk, offering a unique glimpse into our area’s past and some of its most interesting inhabitants.

Guided by Friends of Woodlawn volunteers, visitors explored the cemetery, pausing to hear the four ghosts tell their tales. The stories, based on fact and researched by our staff, were brought to life by actors from Elmira Little Theatre. Over the years we’ve been able to share stories of 69 different people buried at Woodlawn.

One story not widely known is that of the Heller family, previous owners of the land that would become Woodlawn Cemetery.

In the early 19th century, Michael and Nancy Ann Heller arrived in the county to settle and raise a family. They were German immigrants who had first moved to Pennsylvania to pursue farming. Looking further, they were attracted to the Chemung Valley’s rich agricultural opportunities, and they relocated and purchased land on the outskirts of Elmira. Like many farmers of the day, they had a large family. Charles, the youngest of their eight children, followed his father into farming. In 1851, Charles married Mary Neish of Elmira and they raised two girls, named Frances and Harriet, and twin boys, named David and Michael.

L to R: Michael, Frances, David, and Harriet Heller
Not long after Charles had set up his farm, the City of Elmira was looking for land to build a new cemetery. For that purpose, Charles and Mary Heller sold the city a piece of their land for $10,000. The cemetery was chartered in 1858 and designed by architect Howard Daniels, who was active in the rural cemetery and garden cemetery movements, which emphasized natural elements. Today, Woodlawn encompasses 184 acres, and its natural elements include winding pathways and green space to inspire visitors and promote reflection.

Charles and Mary Heller valued education and had the means to pay for it. They sent daughters Frances and Harriet to study at the newly opened Elmira College, while sons David and Michael attended nearby Cornell University.

During his studies at Cornell, David was active in sports and also became editor of the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Both boys graduated in 1888, and David stayed an additional year to study law before returning to Elmira. In 1890, he was admitted to the bar. He was elected County Clerk a few years later, serving in this position for four years. In 1898, he was elected to the State Assembly, to represent Chemung County as the youngest Assembly member at the time. Elected City Judge in 1907, he served for close to twenty years, lasting through five four-year terms. In 1911, David married Julie Weyer; the couple had no children.

In 1925, David Heller was elected mayor. He resigned his judgeship, but he remained active in the community. He served as president of the City Club and held memberships in the Elmira Country Club, the Union Lodge, the F. & A.M. (Free and Accepted Masons), Knights of Pythias, the BPO of Elks, and the Park Church. He was president of the Chemung County Bar Association and a member of the NY State and American Bar Associations. The high point of his career came in 1929, when NY Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to fill the unexpired term of State Supreme Court Justice George McCann, who also happened to be Heller’s cousin. He hoped to remain as Supreme Court Justice after his appointed term expired, but ran an unsuccessful campaign. He then returned to private practice.

In 1932, at the age of 66, Judge David Heller suffered an appendicitis attack, and died a few days later. The Star-Gazette called his death a shock to the community. David Heller had been in public service for over 40 years.

His twin was equally dedicated. In 1888, when Michael graduated from Cornell, he returned straightaway to Elmira. He first found work at Gridley Hardware Store, located at 119 East Water Street. Soon after, he left and formed his own hardware store. The Gridley Company bought him out and Michael left business to become City Court clerk. In 1926, he was appointed assistant superintendent of Woodlawn Cemetery, and six months later, he became superintendent. It was a position that Michael Heller served for 14 years.

Not long after he returned to Elmira, Michael married Charlotte Stone and the couple had four sons. Sadly, Charlotte died in 1915.

Like David, Michael was active in public service. He was a member of the Board of Supervisors, secretary of the Chemung County Agricultural Society, alumni secretary of his Cornell class for more than 50 years, and secretary of the Central New York Fairs Association. He was also a member of F. & A.M., of Park Church and a master of Union Lodge. He outlived his brother David by nine years, dying at the age of 75 after an extended illness.

Four years ago, gardens were constructed at Woodlawn to honor the Heller family. Woodlawn Cemetery now offers the Heller Memorial Gardens as an option for those wanting a cremation garden (also called a columbarium). The gardens are located just inside Woodlawn’s Walnut Street entrance.

Consider this an extra cemetery story, and if you want to hear 2023 ghost scripts again, or for the first time, join us at 12:05 pm on Wednesday October 25, 2023. Staff will read scripts, share images, and answer questions. The event is free and open to the public. 

Monday, October 2, 2023

Lethal Leaves: Arsenic Greens

 By Monica Groth, Curator 

Green Bonnet, c. 1880
This bonnet may be colored with arsenic green pigments

In 1775, the young chemist Wilhelm Scheele discovered that copper arsenate (a copper and arsenic compound) made a gorgeously vivid green color. By mixing sodium carbonate, arsenious oxide, and copper sulfate, he produced a vibrant pigment. Immediately desired by customers and cheap to make from mining wastes readily available as the Industrial Revolution took off, Scheele’s Green was adopted by many manufacturers. The compound was used to color wallpaper, book covers, playing cards, and candy wrappers. As the 19th century began, other green pigments with slightly different chemical compositions including Schweinfurt Green and Paris Green also appeared. The beautiful green was attractive –and deadly.  

Arsenic is very poisonous to humans. Early in the Victorian period (1837-1900) it gained a reputation as the poison of choice for murderers and the poison to avoid if you wished to commit suicide (it caused that agonizing of a death). But many arsenic victims weren’t poisoned by another person. Instead, they were unsuspecting consumers – victims of fashion.

Perhaps the most famous case of arsenical green pigments involves Paris Green wallpaper. Glue, damp, and mold would react with the wallpaper, which in addition to flaking off arsenic paint, would off-gas hydrogen cyanide into homes. Multiple people, Napoleon Bonaparte likely among them, died from such poisoning, and Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s popular book The Yellow Wallpaper (arsenical greens were often a lime-ish yellow/green color) was likely inspired by these facts.

However, before doing further research on the topic I was unfamiliar with the knowledge that clothing was also colored with arsenical green pigments and gave off substantial clouds of the lethal stuff. In particular, women’s gowns, hats, and leafy headdresses were dangerous to make and wear. Investigating doctors concluded that a ball gown fashioned from 20 yrds of green fabric might contain 900 grains of arsenic, and that in an evening of dancing, 60 grains might slough off as the wearer spun. With 5 grains enough to kill a person, such a woman, deemed a “killing creature” by the British Medical Journal (this was slang for an attractive woman at that time), could take out a dozen people in one night!

Green Silk Bodice, c. 1832
 Possibly colored with Scheele's Green arsenic pigment

It wasn't often that a beauty left 12 dead in her wake because the full lethal dose of 5 grains would rarely reach a person after one encounter. However, prolonged exposure to the chemical was a death sentence. Workers in factories and shops were very susceptible, developing physical and neurological maladies from constant contact with arsenical dust. The death of artificial flower maker Matilda Scheurer was much publicized in London in 1861. Scheurer, who was only 19 yrs old at the time of her death, dusted artificial flowers with arsenical green powder, daily breathing in the toxic dust and often returning home with it on her hands and clothing. One of the things which makes the pigment so perilous is how loosely its bound to its substrate - it was dusted on and could easily dust off. In addition to painful convulsions, tremors, and vomiting, the whites of Matilda’s eyes turned the verdant shade of Scheele's Green before her death. She reportedly told doctors that everything she saw looked green! Fellow flower workers developed scabs and lesions on their hands and faces, and workers in many different industries using arsenic sickened and died in the 19th century.

Orange Blossom Leafy Wreath, c. 1880:
Headdresses like this one often had leaves dusted with arsenic green pigments 

Word certainly spread that arsenic was present in green pigments and that it could kill. But the color remained fashionable through the decade. Artificial flowers or taxidermized birds (preserved with arsenic pesticide soaps) on hats and accessories were particularly in vogue. Today, I handle these items with caution to ensure no arsenic is inhaled or absorbed through the skin. 

By the 1880s, doctors, women’s groups, and reporters were lobbying for alternatives to arsenical greens. The use of the poisonous pigment slowly decreased, but arsenic was seen in a wide range of consumer products well into the 20th century. As you’ll learn if you visit our upcoming exhibition, Your Victorian House is Killing You, there were plenty of other dangers lurking in the 19th century home.