Transcript: 78. The Day Santa Died in Arizona | USA


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We would like to wish our listeners a happy festive season – however or whatever it is you celebrate. Evidence Locker won’t be taking a broadcasting break over the holidays, but today and next week’s episodes will be somewhat shorter than our regular ones. 


Warning:

If you believe in Santa Claus, this episode contains information that could make you question his existence. Listener discretion is advised.  


>>Intro Music


When Wall Street collapsed in 1929, a period of financial difficulty followed – better known as the Great Depression. Even though the average person did not personally invest in the stock market, the ripple effect of the Depression meant that countless people were laid off work. Banks, building societies and businesses closed down and employees were forced to find alternative means of earning a living. By 1932, unemployment had reached 24%.


People needed entertainment to take their minds off of the dire situation. They watched sports and films and lapped up the distraction. Tarzan the Ape Man and Grand Hotel were two of the biggest films that year. It was also the year the world was introduced to a little girl called Shirley Temple. The New York Yankees won the World Series with Babe Ruth having a good season – making no less than 41 home runs. Bing Crosby’s velvety voice graced the airwaves with songs like ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ and ‘Love Me Tonight’.


But distraction only lasted so long – until reality kicked back in again. By 1932, things were so bad, the feeling was – it could only get better. Franklin D Roosevelt campaigned and promised a way out of the Depression. ‘The New Deal’ he called it, and people were quietly optimistic that the tides were about to turn.


The town of Mesa, Arizona – with its 4,000 residents – was not immune to the problems of the time. Back then it was a town in its own right, whereas today, it’s a suburb of its bigger neighbour, Phoenix. 


Mesa was the set for many Western films, most well-known perhaps being Henry Hathaway’s To The Last Man. Besides film production, the largest sources of income in the town were Arizona’s three C’s: copper, cotton and cattle. For the most part, the Depression did not completely derail the town. People carried on with their daily lives, positively believing that things would take a turn for the better. But towards the end of 1932, local businesses were flailing. 


This also meant that Christmas was not going to be a time of giving in a material sense. Families planned to spend as little money as possible during the festive season, opting for handmake trinkets or gifts. It was a time to be practical and anything else was considered a luxury and therefore unnecessary. 


At the beginning of December 1932, there was great uncertainty about the town’s annual Christmas parade. Before the financial turmoil of the time, Christmas was a jolly affair in the town of Mesa. Santa would be pulled into town on a horse-drawn cart, as the highlight of the Christmas parade. Families would gather around and children would sit on Santa’s lap, convincing him that they had been nice, not naughty.


That said, for the first time ever, households had easy access to electricity. More homes were decorated using strings of electric lights, whereas before, people used candles and lanterns. There was definitely a buzz around Christmas celebrations – as it would bring a brief distraction from the hardship of everyday life. 


John McPhee, editor of the Mesa Journal-Tribune was an energetic and positive person who had settled in the US from Ireland. He felt that the town of Mesa needed some Christmas magic to lift the holiday spirit… If he could come up with some other plan to draw crowds to the town, the shops would get a financial boost and Mesa would be on the map for good. And if nothing else, he would make the townsfolk smile – even if only for a day.


The biggest news stories of 1932 were circling in the space of Aviation. Charles Lindberg Jr. was kidnapped, just five years after his father became the first man to cross the Atlantic in a plane. Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic also made headlines. 


Civil aviation was in its infancy. Veterans from the Great War were able to operate flying machines and there were not too many regulations. Many amateur pilots took to the skies, hoping to become flying aces. It was the golden era of barnstormers. They were stunt pilots who performed tricks in the air to entertain crowds at festivals or flying circuses.  


Reading about these daring aviators, John McPhee of Mesa had a lightbulb moment. What if Santa Claus could jump out of a plane! Surely that had not been done before and McPhee knew that would make the scoop of the year. The previous year, the city of Phoenix had Santa arrive by plane, but he only disembarked after it had landed. This stunt would be so much better.


McPhee went to work and hired a barnstormer to dress up in a Santa suit, walk out on the wing of a light aircraft and make the jump in one of the Alfalfa fields just outside of town. Santa was to hit the ground somewhere in the vicinity of Main and Dobson from where a procession of police vehicles would transport him into town for the parade. He would sit on the hood of Sheriff Merrill’s police car, from where he would hand out presents. 


When McPhee discussed his idea with local business owners and politicians, they loved it. Most people in the local area lived on farms and were pretty naïve when it came to world news and events. Some did not even own a radio. When news about the parachuting Santa was announced, adults were as excited as their children. An article announcing the once-in-a-lifetime event was published in the Mesa Journal-Tribune. It read:


ST. NICK WILL DROP FROM PLANE IN PARACHUTE


“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 centre 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...”


It was going to be a two-day event, with the jump on the Friday afternoon, followed by the parade and then a meet and greet at 10am the next morning. Followed by festivities all day long.


Shopkeepers all signed up to take part in a two-day sale. They stocked their shelves in preparation for the big event and chatted to anyone who would listen. McPhee made sure the news of Mesa’s Christmas parade spread to the farthest corners of Arizona. This was all done in the true Depression-era marketing style of ‘boosterism’ – a way of over-inflating the truth. Something wasn’t good, it was marvellous or wonderful. In the 1930s, advertisements promised things that made people remember the good old days before the Depression. And if there was a freebie in the mix, the crowds were sure to show up. A poster promoting the event read:


“Mesa Merchants to celebrate coming of Generous Old Gentleman with two great sales days, December 16 and 17, gifts to be provided for all.”


McPhee’s idea was exactly what the doctor had ordered! The town of Mesa desperately needed something positive to work towards. A warming feeling of hope and good cheer spread around town and McPhee became somewhat of a local hero. 


However, despite meticulous planning and preparation, everything did not quite go according to plan. When the big day came around, the skydiver who was going to be Santa Claus, did not show up. It didn’t take John McPhee long to find him. He was self-medicating, calming his nerves at a local bar. McPhee later said that the man was… 


“…so full of Christmas cheer, he couldn’t jump”


It was a crisis. People were streaming into town from all over the state. Locals had gone through so much effort to set everything up and it was a carnival-like atmosphere in the streets. People were grazing on hot dogs and potatoes; kids stuffed their mouths with candy buttons and popcorn…


McPhee realised there was no way the skydiver could make the jump. It was up to the chipper newspaper editor to come up with a solution – and pronto! He simply could not disappoint the whole town. There was so much pressure – the event had been built up to a scale never experienced in the town of Mesa before.  


This was not quite the scenario where a Plan B was already in place. There was no one else in town that could sky dive and there was no way they could drop the drunk Santa out of the plane. McPhee wished he could make the jump himself. Then he realised… There was a way after all…


McPhee went into a local clothing store and asked to borrow a mannequin. Together, they dressed the mannequin in a Santa suit and after the storekeeper was sworn to secrecy – he left. McPhee personally took the Santa-quin to the flying field, where he convinced the pilot to throw it from the plane. The mannequin had an automatic parachute, like the ones used by the military during cargo drops. At a certain altitude the chute deploys automatically. So the plan was, that when the fake Santa landed in the Alfalfa field, McPhee would switch places and assume the role of Old Saint Nick for the rest of the parade.


The plane took off and the crowd took to the streets to watch the spectacle. People came from all over the county and all eyes were fixed on the plane in the sky. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents… Bigger kids climbed telephone poles to get the best view


Everyone as waiting for the moment when Santa would parachute into Mesa to come and spread the joy of the Season. McPhee later recounted that the turnout was ‘the largest crowd in the town’s history’.


The plane carried on as planned, coming in low over downtown Mesa. It circled the town three times, doing impressive aerial acrobatics. The crowd cheered with ooh’s and ahh’s. At 3000ft, the plane straightened up. Anticipation was palpable. Then the Man in Red came into sight, and the crowd roared in approval. Without much ceremony, he flopped out of the plane for his daring jump. 


McPhee’s plan was perhaps the best solution to make under the circumstances, except for one small detail… The automatic parachute malfunctioned. Some sources say that it wasn’t an automatic chute after all and that the pilot neglected to pull the cord before pushing the mannequin out of the plane. Either way – you can probably see where this is going…


When the town of Mesa watched Santa jump from the plane, everyone waited for the parachute to blossom and their favourite North Poler to glide down to terra firma. Instead, what they witnessed was a body in red plummeting from the sky, end-over-end, falling to his inevitable death. 


Mothers covered their children’s eyes, people screamed, it was chaos as everyone thought they had just seen Santa’s brutal death. The mannequin had veered off course and smashed into a lettuce field, with workers jumping the fence in horror. Others ran to the unfortunate Santa’s aid. A farmer ripped his trousers as he hopped the barbed-wire fence to help.


McPhee kept his head in the game, rushed over to the mannequin and ripped off his Santa suit, donning it as quickly as he could. He rushed into town, hoping his miraculous appearance would make everything ok. Santa was not dead! Look, he made it! But by the time he reached town in Sheriff Merrill’s car, it was too late... In McPhee’s own words:


“…when we arrived, it was a ghost town. From behind closed doors you could hear the wails of heartbroken children.”


Instead of being the most elaborate Christmas parade in Mesa’s history, it became the parade that haunted the town forever. People cleared the streets before you could say Jingle Bells, trying to protect their children from the tragedy. There was a story about a pregnant woman who was so distraught, she went into premature labour. 


McPhee’s plan had backfired tremendously. The poor guy who only wanted to cheer the town up, managed to horrify its children. Parents were forced to come clean and admit to their children that it was never going to be ‘The Real Santa’. The spell was broken: Santa didn’t die, but also, he wasn’t real. Every kid’s worst nightmare.


After the event, McPhee became a social outcast. People could not forgive him for spoiling the magical myth that is Santa. He even received threats from angry parents and it was suggested that he left town till the dust settled. Or at the very least, until AFTER Christmas. McPhee had no choice and decided to leave town for a week, taking his family with him.


To add insult to injury, national wire services got a hold of the story and it became national news. They interviewed traumatised townspeople and everyone named John McPhee as the villain who stole Christmas.


The report in the Journal-Tribune took the stance that Santa survived, well, because he was The Magical Santa, of course. This quote, directly from the article:


Daring Leap From Airplane Thrills Mesa Crowds As Unprecedented Action Results


"Faith explains all things." Mesa children demonstrated Monday even Santa Claus' who miraculously leap from airplanes, alight astraddle the city police car and who rode through town waving cheerily to children, unhurt and unperturbed by the narrowness of recent escape from death.

“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 ...


The effect of the event had varying stories, some report that sales in Mesa actually did go up that day. Some people found refuge in local stores and bought toys to comfort their traumatised kids. Other reports say most people left and never returned to Mesa. It was probably a combination of the two. Some may have supported local stores in the immediate aftermath of the ‘accident’, but it is fair to assume that the second day of Christmas festivities was cancelled. No Santa, no sale.


McPhee returned to Mesa after Christmas, but things were never quite the same. Every year, in the lead-up to Christmas, people would recall the events of December 16th 1932. He could not stand being taunted by the traumatizing effects of his intended triumph. Many years after the event, he admitted that it still weighed on his conscience that he had killed Santa for a generation of Mesa children. He said: 


“Many Mesa mothers will never forget or forgive me.”


In the end he left town and settled in Colorado, where he continued his career in journalism, before becoming mayor of Telluride in 1968. Together with his wife, Betty, he founded the Telluride Times in December 1962.


When he passed away in 1968, his own newspaper ran the headline: Man Who Killed Santa, John McFee, Dies at 66. And that is how a man who once wanted to SAVE Christmas, became its mislead murderer.


If you’d like to read more about this case, have a look at the resources used for this episode in the show notes. 


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