Devil’s Night at Southern Illinois University

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities by Michael Kleen is now available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com! Just in time for the fall, you can own a copy of the first book exclusively devoted to Illinois college folklore and ghost stories. Published by Crossroad Press, Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities is 166 pages and retails for $12.99. Please enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 1: Folklore, Legends, and Ghost Stories.

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges & UniversitiesOctober 30th, the night before Halloween, has been variously referred to as Mischief Night, Cabbage Night, or Hell Night. In most places, teens celebrate this unofficial holiday with pranks, mild vandalism, petty crime, parties, and fireworks. In Detroit, Michigan, it became known as “Devil’s Night.” From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, arsonists started hundreds of fires throughout the city. In Carbondale, Illinois, students from Southern Illinois University celebrated the weekend before Halloween with riotous parties along the downtown strip.

According to author H.B. Koplowitz, this tradition began in 1974, after political demonstrations on the strip gave way to fun and revelry. “Nobody realized it at the time, but Thursday, Oct. 31, 1974, the bizarre Halloween street party tradition was born,” he wrote. “At about 9:30 [pm] that night, about 1,000 young people, many of them in outrageous home-made costumes that ranged from the abstract to the obscene, took over the street between Merlin’s and P.K.’s.”

The crowd soon swelled to over 5,000, and Carbondale’s mayor ordered the bars to close. Rather than diffuse the situation, this action inflamed the crowd and led to confrontations with the police. By 1977, word of the carnival-like Halloween party had spread and attracted partygoers from elsewhere in the state. “The weekend before Halloween, about 6,000 people, many of them in costumes and from out of town, closed South Illinois Avenue from College to Walnut,” Koplowitz explained. “The city had not granted an extension of the 2a.m. drinking hour, but Saturday night the bars stayed open an hour later because of a time change from Daylight Saving Time. When the bars emptied, a bonfire was lit in the street, rocks and bottles were thrown, and a few people took off their clothes.”

By the following year, this event was attracting between 10,000 and 15,000 people. Carbondale’s government tried to contain the party, and in 1980 passed what became known as the “Halloween ordinance.” The ordinance ended the practice of extending bar hours and closing streets for special events, and prohibited new bars on the strip or the reopening of existing bars that had gone out of business. It also prohibited the sale of beer, wine, and hard liquor in bottles the week of Halloween. Fifteen thousand revelers came anyway, and a crew from NBC News even showed up to cover the event. For the next several decades, this annual Halloween party defined the strip.

Daily Egyptian Photo

Daily Egyptian Photo

Then, in 1996, things turned particularly ugly. The weekend before Halloween saw widespread property damage, looting, bottle-throwing, and clashes with the police. Police responded with tear gas and made 27 arrests. In response, the Carbondale City Council passed ordinances that effectively shut down the Strip on Halloween weekend. These remained in effect until 2000, when they were repealed. After the vote, Carbondale Mayor Neil Dillard prophetically remarked, “There will be members of this City Council and administration that will regret that vote.” The Daily Egyptian editorial staff pleaded with students to act responsibly. “This weekend is a test,” they said. If so, it was a spectacular failure.

As the bars let out that weekend, thousands of partygoers took to the street and began to set off fireworks, light clothes on fire, and damage businesses. Signs at La Bamba and Jimmy John’s were torn down and rocks rained through their windows. The riots raged every morning from Saturday to Wednesday, until police took to the streets in force and sprayed tear gas and Mace into the crowd. The crowd responded by throwing rocks, bottles, and debris.

According to the Daily Egyptian, “Trails of sparks and loud pops filled the air as the police pursued the retreating crowd with dozens of tear gas canisters. A cloud hung on the windless Strip, sending some rioters to their knees and others covered their faces and attempted to flee.” Over 120 people were arrested. In the wake of the worst riot in Carbondale’s history, the city and university effectively shut down Halloween. SIU reinstated its “fall break,” in which students were sent home over Halloween weekend, and Carbondale imposed a 15-year ban on alcohol sales at bars on the Strip on Halloween and the following weekend.

In 2013, after twelve years without any major incidences, the ban was lifted for a one year trial period. This time, the City Council’s faith was rewarded and the holiday celebration proceeded without incident. Still, ghosts of the past remain, and only time will tell whether this tradition has been laid to rest. [Read more in Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities by Michael Kleen]

About Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and freelance columnist. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He lives in Rockford, Illinois, where he was the 2013 Republican candidate for mayor.

Posted on September 29, 2015, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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