Digging Into the History of Beggar’s Night

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DES MOINES, Iowa– It starts with a little knock on the door and then a joke.

“How do you make a handkerchief dance,” says Sue Woody, as she smiles waiting to deliver the punch line. “You put a little boogie into it!”

Woody laughs for a few seconds then reminisces about hearing that joke a couple years ago.

“You had to be there, it was coming from a five-year-old girl,” says Woody. “It was so cute and funny.”

It’s a story that most would associate with Halloween night but that tale comes for October 30th, not the 31st.

Beggar’s Night is a tradition that runs deep with the people of the metro.

How and why did Des Moines separate itself from a holiday that is so popular across the nation?

We set out to find the answers so we went down to the Iowa Historical Museum to learn how it all started.

Our expert on the matter is Leo Landis. Landis is the museum curator and was born and raised in the metro, so he knows quite a bit about the topic. We asked him to clear up some of the questions we had about Beggar’s Night.

Why did Des Moines move its Halloween events to the day before?

A: “Children and young adults engaged in a lot of mischief on Halloween night. In 1938, there were over 550 calls to the Des Moines Police Department. People were angry about damage to their properties. They were concerned that it was getting out of control. They wanted and needed to nip in it the bud. Many neighborhoods tried to solve the problem by instituting a Beggar’s Night. Kathryn Krieg with Des Moines Playground Association was successful in making Des Moines’ event truly about children.”

When Beggar’s Night started, how did city officials get kids to buy in?

A: “The city was able to promote it through the media and police department. The tradition of handing out candy was always around but they really put an emphasis on it. They also encouraged the kids to tell riddles. It made the night more fun. It highlighted the playful nature of Beggar’s Night, instead of pulling pranks. It really brought the community together.”

Have other cities in Iowa tried to adopt Beggar’s Night traditions?

A: “Yes, at the same time Des Moines starting its Beggar’s Night tradition, Ft. Madison, Mason City and Boone tried as well. In many cases, the vandalism or mischievous aspects continued. Des Moines kids were still doing the pranks but it wasn’t as intense. Those other communities would get 200 calls where Des Moines would get a couple dozen.”

Why does it the tradition still work?

A: “I think the collaboration in the ’40s between the city, media and families created a positive experience for everyone. Des Moines’ kids really have bought into the propaganda and positive aspects of how fun the night can be. I think it a tradition that really makes Des Moines unique.”

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