In 1932, a newspaper editor named John McPhee came up with what he thought was an ingenious way of promoting an upcoming pre-Christmas parade in Mesa, Arizona. That December 16, a small plane would take to the skies, buzzing the town’s 2500 residents and delighting onlookers with aerial acrobatics. At precisely 4:15 p.m., the plane’s cargo door would open to reveal Santa Claus—more precisely, a stuntman dressed in Santa’s familiar red suit and thick white beard. "Santa" would fling himself out of the plane, using a parachute to descend upon an alfalfa field on the outskirts of town. From there, he would be driven by police escort to the business district to hand out presents.
That was McPhee’s plan, one he trumpeted in the town’s paper of record, the Mesa Journal-Tribune. Soon, Santa's pending appearance from the skies was all anyone could talk about. For storekeepers struggling to stay afloat in the midst of the Great Depression, the stunt would be a beacon for shoppers in the city’s main drag. McPhee was being hailed as a hero.
But less than a week later, McPhee was being run out of town. For the remaining 36 years of his life, he would be known as the man who killed Santa Claus.
The grisly scene that eventually transpired was an unfortunate consequence of McPhee’s ambition. As a young newspaper editor, he was reportedly full of clever ideas and an abundance of energy. When interest in the parade seemed to falter, he seized upon a grand entrance for Santa as the way to go (it's not entirely clear whether civic boosters came to him asking for help with the parade, or whether he offered it). Aviation was still a relatively new phenomenon at the time, and so was the sight of someone donning a parachute and plummeting from altitude. The year prior, nearby Phoenix had arranged for St. Nick to arrive via plane. But all that Santa had done was disembark a grounded aircraft. To jump out of a plane would prove irresistible to a farming community that had never glimpsed anything like such a sight.
The Journal-Tribune played up the idea in a December 9 article:
The generous old gentleman isn't coming in the conventional style and he isn't going to wait until the airplane lands to get out. He is going to drop right down in the center of Mesa on a parachute. He'll be here at 4:15 o'clock next Friday afternoon, December 16, with a greeting and a present for every Mesa kiddie who is downtown to see him. Every kid in the Mesa district is invited to be in Mesa next Friday afternoon and help show Santa a good time. Santa's airplane will arrive over Mesa direct from the north pole at exactly 4:15 o'clock. His pilot will circle the airplane over Mesa rooftops and will put the plane through a few difficult stunts. Then Santa will step out on the wing and with his special parachute firmly attached to his body, he will step off to land in the arms of the awaiting children ...
McPhee enlisted the services of a pilot at a nearby airport. "Santa" would be played by an aerial stuntman—his name was never recorded for posterity—who would dress up in the familiar red-and-white garb and then jump out of the plane from approximately 3000 feet in the air into the cleared pasture. Once he arrived by police escort, the parade would commence and retailers would enjoy a profitable day of cheer.
That was the plan, anyway. McPhee's appointed Santa had other ideas.
The day of the scheduled take-off, McPhee found the performer at a bar, too inebriated to participate. Faced with the possibility of storekeepers and children being crushed with disappointment, McPhee immediately set another plan into motion. He convinced a clothing store to let him borrow a mannequin, which he dressed in the Santa suit. He then instructed the pilot to make his scheduled run. At the climax, a pilot would push the Santa-dressed dummy out of the plane and into the field. From a distance, the townspeople would be unable to discern the plastic body from a real one—they’d simply see a red-and-white payload drift gently to the ground below. McPhee would be posted to meet the dummy, disrobe it, don the beard, and drive into town as Santa.
As the minutes ticked by, residents of Mesa began to gather downtown, their necks craned to look for any sign of the airborne Santa en route. Children straddled telephone poles and their fathers’ shoulders; shopkeepers prepared their stores for the pending rush of business.
The plane started doing circles around the town. As advertised, a red-suited man soon appeared in the doorway. If he seemed less than animated, no one appeared to notice.
McPhee would later recall the town turnout was “the largest crowd in its history,” a rather unfortunate fact. On cue, Santa stepped off the plane and began rocketing through the air, where McPhee—watching from the pasture—expected to see a parachute deploy automatically like a military cargo drop. But nothing appeared to be slowing Santa’s descent. Like a dead weight he fell, leaden and tumbling through the air. His parachute did not open.
As Santa rocketed to his pending death, children began screaming. Some parents covered their eyes, their own mouths agape at the unfathomable tragedy occurring in front of them. Santa’s trajectory led him off-course; he landing unceremoniously in a lettuce field. Migrant workers tending the crops were so shocked they took off running, up and over a barbed wire fence.
Aghast, McPhee raced toward the dummy, stripping it of the suit and putting it on so he could begin consoling eyewitnesses. But he arrived to a veritable ghost town—children were behind doors, sobbing, and parents looked at McPhee with a mixture of astonishment and fury.
McPhee thought they would be placated by the sight of Santa, alive and well, but no one knew how to react. The parade went on as scheduled. It resembled a funeral procession.
As McPhee assuaged the town by explaining what happened—one woman was so horrified by the flying Santa she went into premature labor—he realized that being solely to blame for ruining Christmas might not bode well for his physical health. He left town for a week. When he returned, the Journal-Tribune ran a report that tried to create an explanation somehow consistent with Santa’s mythology of being a supernatural (and thus miraculous) entity. Beginning with "faith explains all things," the article explained:
Many hearts mentally removed the traditional stocking from the fireplace mantle Monday afternoon when the jolly old gentleman leaped from his plane high over Mesa, and his only apparent insurance against death failed, the parachute did not open. Two minutes later, Santa was seen riding through town on the hood of the city police car driven by Marshall Ray Merrill, bidding his thousands of friends return Tuesday and receive a gift bag of nuts and candy from him. One young Mesan suffered but one qualm of fear for the Christmas visitor, and then when he appeared remarked his recent feat as one of the many wonderful things accomplished by him each year ...
Despite his efforts, McPhee was destined to become infamous in Mesa. Telling the story of the "man who killed Santa Claus" and terrorized an entire generation became an annual tradition in and around town, with Arizona newspapers running retrospectives for the next 70-odd years. Although McPhee briefly returned to Mesa to run a radio station in the mid-1940s, his horrific mistake preceded him. He moved on, eventually editing a Colorado newspaper and working for the Navajo nation before his death in 1968.
If there was any bright side, it was that the entire point of the stunt—to drive business for local merchants—was actually successful. Parents were so concerned their children had been traumatized by seeing Santa meet his maker that the kids of Mesa were showered in gifts that year, briefly lifting the community from the dire atmosphere of the Depression. The man who killed Santa, it turned out, still wound up saving Christmas.