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How Santa Claus Escaped Death in Arizona 81 Years Ago

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In 1932, scores of people in Mesa watched Santa Claus jump out of an airplane over the East Valley.

Children and adults watched Santa as he fell, and fell, and fell some more. Although the local weekly newspaper at the time, the Mesa Journal-Tribune, had hyped up a stunt in which Santa would parachute to safety and deliver presents to children, that parachute never deployed.

Everyone watched Santa crash into the earth. Yet, two minutes later, Santa rode into town, alive, sitting on the hood of a Mesa police car.

The article the next week in the Journal-Tribune only told half the story, under the headline, "Santa's Sagacity Saves Skin: Daring Leap From Airplane Thrills Mesa Crowds As Unprecedented Action Results."

The story, which we pulled from the archives at the Mesa library, acknowledges that the parachute didn't open, but it doesn't explain what actually happened with Santa's jump from the plane (other than a farmer who saw Santa plummet into his land ripped his pants beyond repair while trying to jump over a fence and tend to the jolly old man).

Thirty-six years later, when former Journal-Tribune publisher John McPhee died, the paper finally came clean about what happened that day in his obituary:

It was while working on a Mesa Chamber of Commerce project that he became known as "The man who killed Santa Claus." The chamber had hired a man to parachute in a Santa suit but on the appointed day he was drunk and unable to perform his duties.

McPhee hit upon the idea of releasing a store manikin in a Santa suit from an airplane, with another man to take over on the ground and greet the children, however, the parachute failed to open, and horrified children and adults watched the supposed Santa plunge to the ground.

So, "Santa" was just fine, but a mannequin, the minds of children, the reputation of John McPhee, and a farmer's pants, were not.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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