Wednesday, September 29, 1982 was a school day, but 12-year-old Mary Kellerman woke up with a runny nose and a headache. So her parents told her to stay home, take some Tylenol and rest.
“I heard her come into the bathroom. I heard the door close. Then I heard something fall,” recalls Dennis Kellerman, Mary’s father. “I went to the bathroom door. I called, ‘Mary, are you okay?’ There was no response. I called back, ‘Mary, are you okay?’ There was still no response. So I opened the bathroom door, and my little girl was on the floor unconscious. She was still in her pajamas.
Mary was pronounced dead in hospital of unknown causes.
Hours later, in a nearby Chicago suburb, a 27-year-old postal worker named Adam Janus also took a sick day. After lunch he complained to his wife of a headache and took two extra strength Tylenol. Like Mary, Adam collapsed to the ground almost instantly and could not be revived. Paramedics said it was a massive heart attack.
Loved ones of Adam Janus rushed home to comfort his grieving wife. Overcome by Adam’s sudden passing, his younger brother and sister-in-law asked for Tylenol. They were the next to die.
A total of seven people from the Chicago area died suddenly and mysteriously on September 29 and 30, 1982. One was a mother of four children, including a one-week-old baby. Another, a healthy 31-year-old man, collapsed to the ground at work. The latest victim, a flight attendant, was found dead in her apartment three days later, an open bottle of Tylenol still on the bathroom counter.
Shocking deaths make headlines ahead of Halloween
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Investigators and toxicologists quickly identified the culprit: doctored capsules of extra-strength Tylenol. Someone had opened the capsules and replaced the painkiller with lethal doses of potassium cyanide. One of the most common over-the-counter painkillers had been turned into a murder weapon.
The Tylenol murders in 1982 shook the nation. The seven deaths grabbed all the major headlines on October 1, the official start of the Halloween season, and the “Tylenol terrorist”, as the media dubbed him, was still at large.
For decades, Americans have been told spooky tales of Halloween treats supposedly spiked with razor blades and rat poison, but the Tylenol murders have heightened anxiety around the treatment or treatment at new levels, prompting cities and towns across the country to cancel Halloween.
A massive recall and new tamper evident packaging
The official response to the Tylenol murders was swift.
The maker of Tylenol, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson called McNeil Consumer Products, has launched the largest consumer product recall in American history, ordering pharmacies and grocery stores to remove 31 million bottles of extra-strength Tylenol from their shelves. Several other bottles in the Chicago area contained cyanide, but fortunately no one else was injured.
The federal government has also taken action. Congress passed the federal Anti-Tampering Act, which promised up to 20 years in prison for anyone found tampering with drugs, food or other consumer goods. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed new regulations requiring drugmakers to package drugs like Tylenol in new tamper-evident bottles. (“Childproof” caps had been around since 1970.)
“[The 1982 Tylenol poisonings] was one of those pivotal moments,” says Dr. Alan Woolf, pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Forty years later, we take it for granted that over-the-counter medicine bottles are wrapped in plastic and you have to remove a piece of foil. These tragic murders changed the pharmaceutical industry and changed federal labeling laws.
WATCH VIDEO: This Day in History: Cyanide Poisoning Hits the Chicago Area
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Anxiety goes from poison medicine to poison candy
The public’s response to the Tylenol murders has been “abject fear”, says Woolf, whose book, History of modern toxicology, includes a chapter on the 1982 poisonings.
And since the murders happened so close to Halloween, people immediately transferred their anxiety about tainted over-the-counter drugs to long-held fears about tainted Halloween candy.
Joel Best is the leading expert on “Halloween sadism”, the alleged practice of giving tainted treats to children on Halloween. A professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, Best traced the emergence of this “contemporary legend” to the beginning of organized trickery in the 1950s.
“Almost immediately there are stories of people heating up coins in a pan and throwing the glowing coins into the outstretched hands of cheaters,” Best says.
Reports of Halloween sadism really took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when public concern ran deep about the Vietnam War, the counterculture movement, and new terms. as “child abuse”.
In 1970, The New York Times published an article warning against razor blades in apples, chocolate bars replaced by laxatives and candy packets containing sleeping pills. The article quoted the New York State Health Commissioner as saying pins, razor blades, broken glass and poison had all been found in Halloween candy.
When asked why someone would poison a child’s Halloween candy, a psychiatrist named Dr. Reginald Steen blamed “permissiveness in today’s society” which has led “people to getting away with more and more violence. People who give harmful treats to children see criminals and students in campus riots getting away with things, so they think they can get away with it too. draw.
Almost all reports of Halloween sadism are hoaxes
In 1985, Best published a research paper that investigated all known allegations of Halloween sadism since 1958 and came to a startling conclusion. In Best’s words, he was “unable to find a substantiated report of a child killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up during a sleight of hand”.
Every report of a razor blade, pin or ant poison being found in Halloween candy has turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by children or adults. And the few tragic cases where a child died on or around Halloween, and were widely attributed to tainted candy, have been confirmed by medical records to be the result of heart defects, infections and other explainable diseases.
The only confirmed report of a child being poisoned and killed by Halloween candy is the unfortunate case of Timothy O’Bryan, an 8-year-old child from Texas who died after eating Halloween candy containing cyanide. The murderer was not a creepy neighbor, but unfortunately Timothy’s own father, who killed the boy in order to cash in on an insurance policy. The father was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 1982, however, the fear was very real
“When the Tylenol story broke in early October, people almost instantly started associating the poisonings with the dangers of kids doing tricks and getting contaminated stuff,” says Best.
Halloween fears were strongest in Chicago, where the community was still reeling from the murders and no arrests had been made. Bob Greene, columnist for the Chicago Grandstandwrote: “If you’re a parent and have a bit of common sense, you forbid your child to take out trick or treating this Halloween…in this year of the Tylenol killer, it would be especially foolish to let a boy or a girl going door to door asking for food.”
The mayor of Chicago distributed 1 million flyers encouraging Chicagoans to hand out cash or small toys instead of candy on Halloween. In a suburban Chicago subdivision called Poplar Hills, the homeowners association asked residents to hand out coupons for candy that could be redeemed at nearby stores.
But also far from Chicago, communities like Vineland, New Jersey, have canceled faking or processing altogether, and other suburbs and small towns have followed suit in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
According to Best, who tracks reports of Halloween sadism dating back to 1958, 12 cases of Halloween candy contamination were reported in 1982, just after 1971, when there were 14 such reports. As Best is quick to point out, a “report” of Halloween sadism is not the same as an actual event.
Despite a 40-year ongoing investigation by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, the perpetrator of the Tylenol murders has never been found.