The Twelve Deaths of Christmas
It’s that hap-hapless-est time of the year! which means that it is time for another compendium of vintage fatalities peculiar to the holidays. I’ve previously written of rogue Santas, killer Christmas trees, Christmas in the graveyard, and morbid gifts. Today, let’s sing of the Twelve Deaths of Christmas.
You better watch out;
you better not cry;
I’m making a list
Of how people die…
- Death by Pre-holiday Excitement
Remember those days when you simply couldn’t wait for Santa? You didn’t suffer the fate of these children or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Curiosity is Fatal
Chicago, Ill., Dec. 24. Unable to wait until tonight little Tony Fragino, 5 years old, lifted the lid in the kitchen stove to see if Santy was starting down the chimney. A spark fell on his clothes. He burned to death.
Omaha [NE] World Herald 25 December 1912: p. 7
The eight-year-old daughter of a laborer named Garth, in Blackburn, Lancashire, died from severe burns received at Christmas. The mother found her daughter in flames in a bedroom, and on questioning her, the little one replied, “Oh, mamma, I’ve been putting my hand up the chimney for Father Christmas.”
Poverty Bay Herald, 14 February 1896: p. 2
2. Death by Fear of Father Christmas
Last year a photo went the rounds of social media showing a distressed-looking young child signing “HELP ME” as he sat on Santa’s lap. This lad was sadly unable to articulate his Santa-phobia.
CHILD’S STRANGE FEAR
FLEES FROM SANTA CLAUS
KILLED BY MOTOR-CAR.
The strange fear of a child of Father Christmas was described at the Melbourne morgue on the last day of the sad Old Year, when the city Coroner, Mr. D. Grant; held an inquest into the death of Jack Plummer, aged four years, of Raleigh street, Northcote, Melbourne. Robert Leslie Alexander Blower, tanner, of Raleigh street, Northcote, said that about half-past 8 o’clock on the evening of 24th December he was driving his motor-car behind another car along High street, Northcote, near its intersection with Martin street. Suddenly a child ran from the footpath in front of his car and was struck by the front mudguard. Witness took the child to a doctor and then to the Children’s Hospital, where he died soon after. Stanley R. R. Plummer, father of the dead boy, said that he was present when the accident happened. A man dressed as Father Christmas was near by, and a child took Jack Plummer by the hand and tried to lead him to Father Christmas. Jack was always afraid of Father Christmas, and broke away from his friend and ran madly across the road. Witness could not say why the child feared Father Christmas, but he was of a nervous temperament.
Evening Post, 9 January 1931: p. 9
3. Death by Tree
As mentioned above, I wrote a post on deadly Christmas trees. This is a favorite killer conifer.
Killed by a Christmas Tree.
New York, Feb. 22. William W. Babbington, a bookkeeper, decorated a tree Christmas eve, assisted by his wife. Both were slightly pricked by pine needles. Both developed felons and later blood poisoning. Babbington died in St. John’s hospital, Long Island City, on Monday.
Mrs. Babbington, who is to undergo two operations, one for blood poisoning and another for tumor, is awaiting her husband’s funeral before going to the hospital.
The Salina [KS] Evening Journal 22 February 1909: p. 5
To be Relentlessly Informative, a felon is a painful abscess of the deep tissues of the palmar surface of the fingertip that is typically caused by infection of a bacterium. This seems an odd sort of injury from a tree and it is possible that something else caused the blood-poisoning. Or perhaps the trees were sprayed with some arsenical green solution to keep them fresh-looking?
Tragically, a more typical report from the era of clip-on candles was this one:
BURNING CHRISTMAS TREE IS BABE’S PYRE
Trying to Light Candles Child Sets Itself Ablaze
New York, Dec. 29. Three-year-old Percival Dolan was burned to death this afternoon, his clothes having been set afire by a blazing Christmas tree at his home. The child’s mother left him locked alone in her rooms. A tenant heard the child scream and saw smoke coming from the rooms.
She forced the door and found the boy enveloped in flames and rolling in agony on the floor. The mother by this time had been attracted by the screams. The women threw a blanket over the child, extinguishing the flames. The boy was carried to a hospital, where he died within two hours. The boy had set the tree afire while trying to light the candles.
Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1900: p. 16
4. Death by Christmas Ornament
Victorian holiday décor was often made from toxic materials like lead and asbestos, but this Christmas bauble was designed to kill.
Christmas Tree Bobble [sic]
A Deadly Booby Trap.
Pittsburgh, Dec. 23 What looked like a little copper tube with wires attached when 14-year-old Ronald Berich hung it on his Christmas tree, turned out to be a detonator which exploded with savage force critically injuring the youth.
The blast blew off thumbs and forefingers on both hands and inflicted serious internal injuries. The boy’s father, Clarence, was only slightly injured. The elder Berich said the device had been knocking about the house for years and that no one knew what it was.
Atchison [KS] Daily Globe 23 December 1946: p. 1
5. Death by Holiday Shopping
Every year we hear reports of fisticuffs over sale goods, stampedes, and sometimes even deaths during the Christmas shopping rush. It was ever thus.
CHRISTMAS RUSH WAS FATAL
Floorwalker in Crowded Store Accidentally Killed in Scuffle With Shopper
Omaha, Nebraska. David Stettsy, floorwalker at the store of J.G. McCrorey & Co., was almost instantly killed in the presence of a throng of Christmas shoppers at 6 o’clock. The killing was done in a scuffle with a shopper and is believed by the police to have been the result of an accident.
Two young men, Ed McGrath and F.J. Riley, were shopping in the store, and McGrath accidentally knocked some goods from the counter. Stettsy seized him by the arm. A brief scuffle ensued, and Stettsy was thrown to the floor. He failed to rise, and bystanders who rushed to his assistance found that he was dead. His neck was broken. McGrath was taken into custody.
Morgan County Republican [Versailles MO] 28 December 1911: p. 7
6. Death by Inadequate Gifts
Then there is the despondency that comes from disappointing a loved one at the holidays.
NOTHING FOR HIS SWEETHEART
Therefore This Young Man Deliberately Hanged Himself.
Charles Schellenberg, thirty-seven years old, a cabinet-maker, committed suicide in his lodging room, No. 641 East Fifth street, yesterday. He had been out of work and was despondent; besides, he was engaged to be married and had promised to buy his sweetheart a Christmas present. He got work two or three days ago but found he would not get paid in time to purchase the present.
Yesterday morning his boarding-mistress called him in time to go to his work, but he said he would not go out. She was arranging bedclothes in the adjoining room during the afternoon, and, glancing through the door cracks, she saw the figure of a man in Schellenberg’s room. She though he had gone out, and imagined the figure to be that of a burglar. She ran downstairs and told two boarders that there was a burglar in the house. They ran upstairs, burst open the door and found Schellenberg hanging to a rope which was thrown over a poker laid on two shelves. The ceiling of the room was so low that the suicide had to draw up his legs so as to hang himself. He had been dead two hours.
The Evening World [New York NY] 25 December 1889: p. 4
7. Death by Too Much Holiday Company
For some unfortunates, the thought of entertaining at the holidays was simply unbearable.
HERE’S A WARNING
Denver, Col. Dec. 23 Wives who would not be Christmas widows, heed the warning in the act of Kenneth K. Kane, a railway mail clerk. Do not invite all your relatives for Christmas dinner.
“I want to get along with everybody, and I want everybody to like me. But it makes me mighty sore when I think of the big crowd my wife has invited to our house for Christmas dinner,” wailed Kane.
He then arranged all the Christmas gifts he had received in the shape of a coffin, lay down inside the casket of gifts and put a bullet through his brain. He died instantly.
The Day Book [Chicago IL] 23 December 1912: p 21
Other accounts say that Mr. Kane was found gripping a letter from his mother-in-law, announcing her intention of visiting and that the packages next to his body were the gifts he had purchased for the family. A neighbor had heard him complain, “I don’t see why we can’t have this Christmas to ourselves.”
8. Death by Fruitcake
Yes, I know—if you are not a fruitcake aficionado, even eating the stuff is a kind of a death, but that is not the issue. The roster of persons poisoned by holiday fruitcake would fill a whole series of posts—that is because (and don’t try this at home) arsenical insecticides look so very much like flour.
Poisoned Christmas Cake Fatal For Five
Newport, Ark., Dec. 26
Whether poison was used accidentally in a Christmas cake that brought death to five persons was being investigated today by authorities.
Mr. and Mrs. Walter Ballew and three of their sons, ranging in age from 15 to 23, died of poisoning as the result of eating the cake. Mrs. Ballew baked the cake early last week for her Christmas dinner. After one of the smaller cakes was served for dinner Thursday, members of the family became ill, and died later.
Sheriff A.C. Albright said he learned Ballew, a farmer, used arsenic last summer for poisoning of insects on cotton. Eight pounds of the poison were found in a barrel in the Ballew attic. The officer is investigating to determine whether Mrs. Ballew used some of the arsenic in the cake mixture by mistake or if someone had placed the poison in the flour intentionally.
Bellingham [WA] Herald 26 1932: p. 10
I can’t resist adding this incident, which sounds like something written by Edward Gorey, even though technically there were no fatalities.
Ate Poisoned Fruit Cake
Terrell, Tex., May 7. Eighteen patients and two attendants of the North Texas Insane Asylum were poisoned yesterday by eating fruit cake. The victims were attacked with vomiting and violent passages from the bowels, accompanied by deathly sickness. All the physicians were brought into service and the victims purged. The latter are now thought to be out of danger. The cake was distributed by Miss Bertie White, a kleptomaniac, but no suspicion rests upon her. The poison is thought to have been contained in the ingredients.
St Louis [MO] Republic 8 May 1892: p. 24
9. Death in a Santa Suit
Those jolly old elves of the past took their lives in their hands. Scores, if not hundreds of Santa-impersonators went up in flames in their cotton beards and suits. You will note the casual use of “another” in the sub-head.
SANTA BURNED ALIVE
Another of Him Reported Fatally Burned
Coshocton, O., Dec. 26. Having impersonated Santa Claus for the benefit of a number of children near his home at Tunnell Hill, George Reed, aged 22, was burned so badly he cannot recover. After the celebration Reed went to his room and in lighting a lamp ignited the long cotton whiskers he wore for the disguise.
Rockford [IL] Republic 27 December 1905: p. 2
Another hazard was the anonymity of the Santa Claus suit.
SANTA CLAUS KILLED
Mistaken for a Burglar at Jackson, Miss.
Jackson, Miss., December 25. Charles R. Young tonight shot and killed his uncle, Prof. Lawrence Saunders, mistaking him for a burglar. Prof. Saunders, who for many years has been teacher in the State Deaf and Dumb Institute, was disguised as Santa Claus, and visiting his sister’s home, knocked for admittance. Young asked who was at the door, and receiving no reply, he fired the ball passing through the door and killing Saunders instantly. Prof. Saunders is a brother of World’s Fair Commissioner Saunders, from Mississippi, and is well known throughout the entire country.
Arkansas Gazette [Little Rock, AR] 26 December 1895: p .6
10. Death by Christmas Card
Peril even lurked in the holiday post….
DEADLY CHRISTMAS CARD.
(Special to Herald.)
DUNEDIN. this day The Health Officer states that a case of diphtheria in Dunedin has been tracked almost with certainty to infection carried by a Christmas card sent from a locality in Invercargill where the disease is prevailing. There are at present a considerable number of cases of diphtheria reported from a comparatively small area in that town.
Poverty Bay Herald, 4 January 1905: p. 2
11. Death by Holiday Fun
So many holiday amusements of the past sound like introductions for the winners of the Darwin Awards…
Which Proved a Very Serious Matter to John McClelland’s Family.
Jeffersonville, Ind., Dec. 26. Last night John McClelland, an employe of the car works, went to his home, and, in order to amuse his wife and children, fired off a lot of shooting crackers. Not satisfied with this he procured a pound of powder and put it into three ale bottles and fastened the bottles up tightly, after he had inserted a fuse to each bottle.
He attempted to fire them off in his yard, but, being unsuccessful, took them into the house and set them upon a table where his wife and baby and a little girl named Berry were sitting, and Mrs. McClelland desired to fire off a shooting cracker, and in order to get a light removed the chimney from a coal oil lamp on the table.
The firecracker went off suddenly and the lamp exploded. The burning oil was communicated to the infernal machines in the three bottles and all three went off with a terrible effect, scattering glass all over the room. The oil set fire to the house and the clothing of the three unfortunate people, Mr. and Mrs. McClelland and Miss Berry.
McClelland succeeded in extinguishing the fire, but not, however, until he was severely burned. His wife was also dangerously burned about the head and face. Mrs. McClelland’s clothing was burned from her body. The powder and glass from the bottles did terrible work. Miss Berry was probably fatally injured by a piece striking her in the side. She was also cut and burned in several places. The explosion tore out window panes, and pieces of bottles were found fastened in nearly every part of the house.
Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 27 December 1881: p. 2
12. Death by Christmas Presents
By far the most common category of Christmas gift casualties arose from “toy” guns–either via gunshot wounds or something like tetanus caused by wadding shot into the skin. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” was no idle threat.
DEATH FROM LOCKJAW
Walter Bejano Dies from Effects of Toy Pistol Shot
Walter Bejano, the 9-year-old son of J. J. Bejano, 234 South Ervay street, died at the home of his parents yesterday morning as the result of a wound from a toy pistol. On Christmas night the little fellow shot himself in the hand with the dangerous toy, the wad almost piercing the left hand, its results causing his death.
Dallas [TX] Morning News 2 January 1904: p. 3
The second tragedy was the loss of an eye to a 5 year old boy who paid an unexpected visit to the decorated Christmas tree and found an air rifle intended for him on the morrow. It is hard to imagine the carelessness that would allow a child of that age to have such a dangerous toy, to say nothing of loading it beforehand.
Springfield [MA] Union 12 January 1914: p. 17
‘SHOOT ME JUST FOR FUN, BRUDDER’
Seven-Year-Old Lad Kills His Younger Brother With Christmas Rifle.
Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec. 26. “Shoot me, brudder, just for fun,” said 5-year-old Henry Johnson, as he lay on a sick bed at his home here yesterday afternoon, to his 7-year-old brother, Clarence, who had been given a 22-caliber target rifle for a Christmas present. Henry had been too ill to be out of bed to celebrate the day, but he watched his brother playing with the new and dangerous toy with all a boy’s deep interest he could summon.
Clarence playfully pointed the weapon at Henry’s breast and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered the sick boy’s body and the lad died an hour later. Clarence is heartbroken and his parents are prostrated at the sad and tragic ending of a day that began with so much joy, happiness and hope in the little home. Christian Johnson, the father of the boys, is a Colorado Midland section foreman.
Denver [CO] Post 26 December 1907: p. 4
But even innocent-looking presents could be lethal:
New York. Very proud of a football he had won in a Christmas raffle, Richard Batterby, ten years old, of Jersey City, was made captain of a football team and was killed in the first rush with the new ball.
A crowd of enthusiastic boys met in a vacant lot at Sixteenth and Grove streets. Richard was the liveliest of them all.
“All together, now! Show them what we can do!” he shouted, when the team was lined up.
There was a rush, and Richard went down under the great pile of struggling boys. Then all except Richard got up for the next play. He lay still, clinging tightly to the ball. His playmates rolled him over and began to scream when they saw his pale face.
A doctor hurried to the scene. He made a short examination, and then said the boy was dead.
Albuquerque [NM] Evening Citizen 1 January 1907: p. 2
There are other reports of children with new skates or sleds who slid under trams, and a very sad story of an infant with a new Christmas doll. The doll fell into a bucket of water; the child drowned trying to reach it.
I’ve written before about poisoned stockings. Mordants and dyes often contained dangerous poisons like picric acid and arsenic. Most of the time the wearer merely sickened; this is one of the few reported fatalities.
YULE STOCKINGS FATAL
Christmas Gift Causes Blood Infection, Killing Woman
Dell Rapids, Jan. 9 A new pair of highly colored “Christmas stockings” worn by Mrs. O. Caldwell of Dell Rapids caused blood infection which resulted in her death.
Aberdeen [SD] American 9 January 1917: p. 7
And, finally, be careful what you wish for.
DIED OF JOY
A Lad Overcome on Receiving His Christmas Present
South Bend, Ind., Dec. 27 Paul Gearhart, 14, was so delighted at receiving a pair of skates that he uttered a cry of joy and fell to the floor dead from heart failure.
Cincinnati [OH] Post 27 December 1892: p. 4
Death sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows your home floor plan.
He knows when you’ve been bad or good
So evade him if you can….
Other deaths of Christmas? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.