Santa Claus Nearly Died in Arizona in 1932

Gather 'round, kids, it's time for the annual telling of our favorite Christmas tale -- how Santa Claus nearly died in Arizona 82 years ago.

In 1932, Santa jumped out of an airplane over Mesa, but his parachute didn't deploy, and scores of people watched Santa fall helplessly to the ground.

The local newspaper, the Mesa Journal-Tribune, had been promoting this event, saying that Santa would jump from the plane and deliver presents to children.

Thanks to the archives at the Mesa library, we have the article from the December 9, 1932, edition of the Tribune, under the front-page headline, "Santa Claus Coming in Airplane":

Santa is coming to Mesa in an airplane!

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 . . .

That's not quite how it happened. All of the kids watched Santa fall out of the plane, and that parachute never deployed.

Here's how it was explained in next week's copy of the Tribune:

Santa's Sagacity Saves Skin

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 article even mentions a farmer who ripped his trousers while trying to hop a fence and tend to Santa after he'd fallen to the earth.

So what really happened? That wasn't revealed by the Tribune until years later, when the newspaper's former editor John McPhee died.

McPhee's obituary explained:

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. When the manikin was pushed out of the plane, 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.

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley