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

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.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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iStock
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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
iStock
iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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