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.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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