Death For Christmas
The best gift of all
Published December 21, 1999 in Whoa!

It's easy to hate Christmas: the endless forced good cheer, the media-driven consumer frenzy, the It's a Wonderful Life fantasy dissolving into a Married... with Children reality. But no matter how bad your holiday is, rest assured that it could have been far worse.

See also...
... by John Marr
... in the Whoa! section
... from December 21, 1999

Family discord. Home was definitely not the place to be for the family of R. Gene Simmons of Dover, Arkansas in 1987. The clan was rapidly becoming estranged from the family patriarch. Even his favorite daughter, who had borne him a son, had run off and gotten married. It was time for revenge. As each contingent showed up at the dilapidated family mobile home to try to put a happy face on for the holiday, Simmons shot the adults and strangled the children. By Christmas Day, he'd wiped out almost three generations of Simmons, 14 all told. It was the worst family slaughter in American history.

But wait -- he wasn't done yet! For an encore a few days later, he went on a shooting rampage through a few former places of employment. He killed two people and injured four more before surrendering to police. He later became the first man executed by lethal injection in Arkansas.

The season of not giving. The holiday-fueled impulse to eradicate one's family isn't limited to the dysfunctional trailer park crowd. H. Sanford Williams was eminently respectable, having been an Army Chaplin, a Methodist Pastor, and finally the head of a charity, the National Retirement Foundation. Alas, the season of sharing had been a bust donation-wise and his foundation was in serious trouble. On Christmas Eve in 1957, the St. Petersburg, Florida man shot and killed his wife and two sons before turning the gun on himself.

Xmas pageant inferno. It was the climax of the 1924 Christmas Eve pageant at the Babb's Switch, Oklahoma one-room schoolhouse. The last recitation had ended, the last carol faded. Now Santa himself was handing out bags of candy to all the children. But oh no! Santa brushed against the candle-lit tree. Within minutes, the room was a seething inferno, with 200 men, women, and children trying to force their way out the only exit: a door that opened inward. Thirty-four people died. But thanks to the heroic efforts of Santa and the schoolteacher (both of whom were themselves incinerated), only five children were among the dead.

The deadly Christmas tree. The substitution of incandescent lights for candles didn't eliminate the tendency of Christmas trees to turn into pyrotechnic yule logs. One of the deadliest of these modern-day holiday firebombs was Niles Street Hospital's 1945 tree. When a nurse unplugged the tree lights on Christmas Eve in the Hartford, Connecticut convalescent hospital, a spark ignited the dry needles. She grabbed a fire extinguisher, but panicked at the sight of the roaring flames and fled. Not only did she not even bother to call the fire department (neighbors, woken by the crackling flames, summoned them several minutes later), she left the front door open to properly ventilate the blaze. The building was completely gutted, and 15 patients and two staff died.

The lethal midnight mass. Christmas Eve midnight mass in Temoaya, Mexico in 1953 had just finished. 3,000 worshippers were peacefully filing out when someone tripped over the wrong wire. There was a bright blue flash, and then total darkness. All sense of peace and goodwill toward men vanished as the crowd transformed into a panic-stricken mob stampeding from the sanctuary. By the time the lights came on a few minutes later, 23 people were dead and over 200 injured.

John Marr is a freelance writer and the editor of Murder Can Be Fun.