Decades-long Devil’s Night ended this year with a handful of fires in Detroit

Archive fire photo.

Devil’s Night, the decades-long tradition of setting fire to houses, buildings, cars and dumpsters in Detroit on Halloween eve, was nothing more than an average night for firefighters this year.

Fewer than a dozen fires broke out on Tuesday (Oct. 30), compared to more than 800 in 1984, when it took firefighters up to seven hours to respond to some blazes. Only five of the fires this year involved a house or building, and some of those may have been accidental.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones.

“We’re working really hard to make the city safer and the department better,” Fire Commissioner Eric Jones told Motor City Muckraker. “That’s what we focus on, and we’re going to continue on that path.”

Fires have steadily declined since Jones became the commissioner in 2015.

Last year, after fires reached a record low, Mayor Duggan ended Angels’ Night, the mobilization of thousands of volunteers to patrol the streets so residents could focus on the positive festivities of Halloween.

The exact origins of Devil’s Night is unknown, but the phrase dates back to at least the early 20th century when pranksters rang doorbells, soaped windows and stole buggies.

Since the 1910s, fires have been a part of the Halloween tradition in Detroit. Students at the former Detroit College of Medicine used to set large bonfires in the streets and even handed cigars to arriving firefighters.

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In 1935, then-Detroit Police Commissioner Heinrich A. Pickert threatened pranksters with jail.

“The starting of bonfires is a dangerous thing; the pulling of fire alarm boxes is a serious thing; the rubbing of soap on show windows and doors or windows of automobiles or making scratches with sharp instruments on buildings are expensive tricks and those caught in such acts will be sent to the nearest station,” Pickert told the Free Press.

By the 1970s, fires turned more violent and broke out in cars, houses and buildings during a three-day period beginning Oct. 29. More than 100 fires broke out each year from 1979 to 2011.

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After 354 fires broke out in 1994, then-Mayor Dennis Archer created “Angels’ Night” with thousands of volunteer patrols, strict curfews and bans on portable gas containers. In 1995, the number of fires declined to 158.

That downward trend continued and never stopped.

It’s unclear what killed the notorious tradition. It could be attributed to fewer houses and buildings to burn, a strong presence of police, volunteers, arson investigators and ATF agents, and a disregard for the mischievous tradition.

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Whatever the case, Jones said he wanted to “thank the Firefighters, Arson Investigators, Police Officers and EMS. None of this would have happened without them.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.