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 Enchanting Places That Align with the Vernal Equinox

A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Thursday, March 19, the vernal equinox heralded the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient civilizations built calendars and observatories to track the movements of the stars and mark this monumental time. Now, people still partake in a variety of traditions and rituals to honor the day when light and dark become equal. To take your celestial celebrations to the next level, here are 10 places that align with the spring equinox.

1. On the vernal equinox, a massive snake appears on the temple at Chichen Itza.

Legend says that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the Maya city of Chichen Itza receives an otherworldly visitor: Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity. On these days, a shadowy snake slithers down the side of the god's namesake pyramid. As the temple darkens, a single strip of light stretches from the top of the northern staircase to the snake head resting at the bottom, creating the illusion of a wriggling reptile.

2. A beam of light illuminates a petroglyph within Arizona’s Boulder House each vernal equinox.

The Boulder House in Scottsdale, Arizona, looks like a strange home wedged amid a jumble of rocks. But it’s actually a modern house built around a sacred Native American site. The Empie family, who bought the parcel of desert land in the 1980s, commissioned architect Charles Johnson to transform the cluster of 1.6-billion-year-old boulders into a functional house. Johnson crafted a unique structure, incorporating the rocks into the house’s foundation and preserving the prehistoric carvings. On the equinox, sunlight pierces between two boulders in the unusual abode, striking a spiral petroglyph on the wall to create a dazzling piece of home decor.

3. On the vernal equinox, a group of Moai on Easter Island stare directly at the sunset.

Seven Moai gaze face toward the horizon
On the equinox, these Moai stare directly at the setting sun.
abriendomundo/iStock via Getty Images

People aren’t the only ones who pause to watch the sun slip beneath the horizon on the first day of spring. On Easter Island, at a sacred site called Ahu Akivi, a line of seven Moai—the island’s giant, mysterious heads—gaze directly at the point at which the sun sets in the sky on the equinox.

4. Each vernal equinox, light drenches a petroglyph-filled cairn at Loughcrew.

The hills of Loughcrew, one of Ireland’s four main passage tomb sites, are crowned by 5000-year-old megalithic structures. At dawn on the equinox, sunlight fills Cairn T, a passage tomb carved with astoundingly well-preserved examples of Neolithic art. As the light dissolves the darkness, the cup marks that dimple its walls and the symbols adorning its back stones blaze into view. The illumination lasts for about 50 minutes, giving observers ample time to take turns squeezing into the cairn.

5. On the vernal equinox, light streams through one of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples.

The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples on Malta’s southern coast are archaeological wonders. They were built between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are believed to be among the world’s oldest freestanding stone buildings. Not much is known about the people who created these megalithic masterpieces, though it’s clear they constructed one of the temples with an eye to the heavens. On the equinox, the sun streams through the South Temple’s main doorway, flooding the structure’s major axis with light.

6. On the vernal equinox, the sun sits directly atop the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat would be a magical experience any day. Crowds hush as colorful hues paint the world’s largest religious structure with a gilded glow. Dawn at Angkor Wat is even more special on the equinoxes. Then, the sun rises behind the main temple before briefly seeming to balance on its tip like a fiery halo.

7. On the spring equinox, the sun rises through the entrance to Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Stonehenge has inspired replicas around the globe—including as far away as New Zealand. Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened in 2005, was built by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. The structure is an astronomical tool for observing the local skies, and blends modern astronomy with ancient starlore. If you stand in the center of the circle on the Southern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, you can watch the sun rise directly through the Sun Gate, two carved pillars that flank the entrance to the henge.

8. The shadow of the intihuatana at Machu Picchu disappears at noon on the equinox.

A curious stone structure stands atop a temple at Machu Picchu. It’s one of the rare surviving intihuatanas that wasn’t demolished by the Spanish conquistadors. This “hitching post of the sun” is believed to have been an astronomical tool. At noon on the equinox, the granite pillar’s shadow briefly vanishes. Unfortunately, the invaluable object now looks a bit battered. In 2000, a crane toppled into the intihuatana during the filming of a beer commercial, smashing part of it.

9. At sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun bursts through the door of a temple at Dzibilchaltún.

Sunrise at Dzibilchaltún
Each equinox, the sun appears within the door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
renatamsousa/iStock via Getty Images

Though now reduced to a medley of ruins dotting the jungle, Dzibilchaltún was once the longest continually inhabited Maya administrative and ceremonial city. The star attraction here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a building named for the mysterious human-like figures discovered inside. At dawn on the equinox, the sun shines through the temple’s main door. It’s believed the sacred structure was aligned with the equinoxes to mark the beginning of the planting season and the end of the harvesting season.

10. The 'Woodhenge' at the Cahokia Mounds aligns with the sunrise on the equinox.

During the Mississippian cultural period, Cahokia's population exceeded that of London. In addition to giant pyramids, the North American city also featured circles of wooden posts, since dubbed “Woodhenge.” The wooden markers were likely used to track the sun’s movements. One of the posts aligns with the equinoxes, as well as with the front of Monks Mound. On sunrise on the equinox, it looks as though the sun is emerging from the enigmatic earthwork.

Goat Your Own Way: In North Wales, a Herd of Goats Is Taking Advantage of the Empty Streets

"We gon' run this town tonight!" —These goats, probably.
"We gon' run this town tonight!" —These goats, probably.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

While residents stay indoors to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the deserted streets and flower gardens of Llandudno, Wales, have become a playground for a people-shy herd of wild Kashmir goats.

The animals live on the Great Orme, a nearby stretch of rocky limestone land that juts out over the Irish Sea, and they’re known to sojourn in Llandudno around this time when rainy or windy weather makes their high-ground home more treacherous than usual. This year, however, the goats are being especially adventurous.

“They are curious, goats are, and I think they are wondering what's going on like everybody else,” town councilor Carol Marubbi told BBC News. “There isn't anyone else around, so they probably decided they may as well take over.”

The goats have spent their jaunt balancing atop stone walls, trotting through the town center, and munching on flowers and hedges in people’s yards. But nobody seems to mind—Marubbi told BBC News that the locals are proud of the animals and happy to watch them gallivant through the streets from their windows.

While the herd has been living on the Great Orme for more than a century, the goats aren’t native to the region. According to Llandudno’s website, Squire Christopher Tower bought two goats from a large herd in France that had been imported from Kashmir, India. He then used them to breed his own herd in England. Sometime during the 18th century, he gifted two of them to King George IV, who developed another herd at Windsor. The goats’ wool was used to produce cashmere shawls, which became particularly popular during Queen Victoria’s reign in the mid-19th century. She then gave two goats to Major General Sir Savage Mostyn, who took them to his family estate, Gloddaeth Hall, in Llandudno.

It’s unclear why or how they were eventually let loose on the Great Orme, but they managed to acclimate to their new environment and thrive in the northern wilderness.

Today, there are more than 120 goats in the herd, and it certainly looks like they’re enjoying their all-inclusive vacation.

[h/t BBC News]

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