The Man Who Killed Santa Claus

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images from iStock.
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images from iStock.

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.

A scan of a 1932 newspaper headline announcing Santa's appearance in Mesa, Arizona
Mesa Journal-Tribune

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.

Santa lying prone on the floor
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images from iStock.

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.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Newly Discovered Letter From Frederick Douglass Discusses the Need for Better Monuments

"What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man," Frederick Douglass wrote in response to this memorial in 1876.
"What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man," Frederick Douglass wrote in response to this memorial in 1876.
Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The removal of Confederate monuments across the country has prompted debates about other statues that misrepresent Civil War history. One of these is Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Memorial, or Freedman’s Memorial, which depicts a shirtless Black man in broken shackles crouching in front of Abraham Lincoln.

As historians Jonathan W. White and Scott Sandage report for Smithsonian.com, a formerly enslaved Virginian named Charlotte Scott came up with the idea for a monument dedicated to Lincoln after hearing of his assassination in April 1865. She started a memorial fund with $5 of her own, and the rest of the money was donated by other emancipated people.

Sculptor Thomas Ball based the kneeling “freedman” on a photograph of a real person: Archer Alexander, an enslaved Missourian who had been captured in 1863 under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Ball intended the sculpture to depict Alexander breaking his chains and rising from his knees, symbolizing the agency and strength of emancipated people.

But in a newly unearthed letter, Frederick Douglass acknowledged the shortcomings of the scene and even offered a suggestion for improving Lincoln Park, where the statue stands. According to The Guardian, Sandage came across the letter in a search on Newspapers.com that included the word couchant—an adjective that Douglass used often.

“The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man,” Douglass wrote to the editor of the National Republican in 1876. “There is room in Lincoln park [sic] for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”

In 1974, another monument did join the park: a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist and teacher who founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute (later Bethune-Cookman College) and the National Council of Negro Women. The Emancipation Memorial was even turned around so the monuments could face each other, though they’re located at opposite ends of the park.

mary mcleod bethune monument
Mary McLeod Bethune depicted with a couple young students in Lincoln Park.
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new addition might be a much better representation of Black agency and power than Ball’s was, but it doesn’t exactly solve the issue of promoting Lincoln as the one true emancipator—a point Douglass made both in the letter and in the address he gave at the Emancipation Memorial’s dedication ceremony in 1876.

“He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country,” Douglass said in his speech. In other words, while Lincoln definitely played a critical role in abolishing slavery, that goal also took a back seat to his priority of keeping the country united. Furthermore, it wasn't until after Lincoln's death that Black people were actually granted citizenship.

The rediscovered letter to the editor reinforces Douglass’s opinions on Lincoln’s legacy and the complexity of Civil War history, and it can also be read as a broader warning against accepting a monument as an accurate portrait of any person or event.

“Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park [sic], it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth, and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate,” Douglass wrote.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]