In theory, Christmas should be a truce in the convulsive times in which we live. In practice, there is as much violence, mystery and tragedy at Christmas as at any other time of the year – if not more. The meteorological phenomena of deadly consequences abound: there is the earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam on 26 December 2003, and the tsunami in Southeast Asia on 26 December 2004.
For its part, the story of human-made destruction does not rest. It does not matter whether it is Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or nearby dates. Edifying episodes like that of the Christmas truce in 1914, during the first stage of the First World War, are very few. But examples of the opposite multiply. Christmas Eve 1865 – just after the Civil War – is the unfortunate date of the creation of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. The USSR invaded Afghanistan during Christmas 1979, stirring a bonfire of consequences that burns today; the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were executed on 25 December 1989; and the Congo massacres of 2008 also began at Christmas.
But few things are more striking than Christmas crimes – those murders, disappearances and accidental (or not) deaths that shock society and manage to take shape in the collective memory. The contrast between the image of supposed harmony and the reality of frictions that sometimes end in violence – seasoned by alcohol, obligatory encounters, and buried tensions that explode amid trees and carols – could not be more clear or, at the same time, more creepy. So much so that some of these tragedies have inspired movies, documentaries, novels and even hit songs.
A Christmas Eve crime that became a song with versions by the Clash, Duke Ellington, Ike & Tina Turner, Nick Cave…
The song Stagger Lee is a classic of American music that recounts a crime that happened on Christmas Eve of 1895. Its composer is unknown, and authorship is therefore attributed to the popular tradition. The story of the song is factual. Stagger Lee, an African American whose real name was Lee Shelton, and Billy Lyons – two pimps of ill repute – were drinking in a tavern in St Louis until late. At one point, they began to discuss politics – and perhaps trouble from their shady deals got in the way – until Billy Lyons took Lee’s hat off and refused to return it to him.
Next, Lee unleashed several shots to his Lyons’s abdomen, killing him almost immediately. So far, it was just another underworld crime. But, two years later – in time for the trial – the event was immortalised in the form of song. Stagger Lee is a timeless success that has been covered by many American folk and blues figures, from Woody Guthrie to Duke Ellington, but also by Ike & Tina Turner, the Clash, the Black Keys and the Grateful Dead. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released their own reimagining of the crime, also under the title Stagger Lee. A dark Christmas crime thus unexpectedly found its way into popular culture.
The Christmas Eve massacre that Woody Guthrie turned into a protest anthem
Woody Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre commemorates a tragedy that is one of the most iconic – and, at the same time, one of the most forgotten – episodes in the history of workers’ struggles in the United States. On Christmas Eve 1913, numerous families of Italian-American miners met at the Italian Salon in Calumet, a copper mining town in Michigan. The party was organised by the union to alleviate the rigours of the strike that the workers were holding. They were demanding reforms such as an eight-hour workday and salary increases. The event became instead a deadly trap. It all started when someone shouted “fire!” in the living room, which was filled to the brim with 400 people. In reality there was no fire, but the panic unleashed led to a stampede in which 73 people – including men, women and children – were killed.
Guthrie did not hesitate to blame characters paid by the managers of the mining company, which was also accused of blocking the doors of the room to increase the magnitude of the tragedy. This melodramatic extreme was never demonstrated, but it is true that the massacre was followed by struggles between the union and the pro-company alliance that included threats and kidnappings. Today, doubts continue among those who consider it an accident – although it has never been possible to prove who shouted “fire!”. There are those who see the massacre at the Italian Salon as the greatest unsolved crime in the history of the United States.
A family crime, an attraction for tourists… and a ghost?
Equally shocking was the 1929 murder of the Lawson family in Germanton, North Carolina. On the afternoon of 25 December, farmer Charlie Lawson shot dead his wife and six of his seven children, who were between four months and 17 years old. Only the second son, Arthur – who had left the farm to make an errand – survived. When he returned, he found that his entire family had been exterminated. His father had committed suicide in the nearby forest, using the same weapon. A motive for the crime was never found.
Charles’s sister, Marie, arranged tours of the scene of the murders, turning the house into a morbid tourist attraction. The Lawson case entered folklore as one of those stories of deep America that is transmitted through folk songs (as a theme of the Stanley Brothers). The house has since been demolished, but rumours that the area is haunted and that Charlie Lawson’s ghost haunts the area persist.
The fire, the missing children and the great mystery of Virginia
Another unfortunate family was at the centre of its own Christmas tragedy: the disappearance of the Sodder children. A fire broke out at the home of the Sodder family in Fayetteville, West Virginia, on Christmas Eve 1945. The parents managed to escape and save four of their nine children, but five children were imprisoned inside the house. When the flames were extinguished, their corpses could not be found. It did not seem possible that the fire had reached such a high temperature that the bodies could have been fully cremated, although the deaths were certified in that way.
The official explanation was that the fire had been due to an electrical failure. However, the survivors declared that the Christmas illumination had remained lit until the end. Thus began one of the most intriguing mysteries of the 20th century. The Sodder parents immediately thought that their children had been kidnapped and that the fire had been ignited as a cover; They hired several detectives to investigate the case, but there was never any conclusive finding – despite persistent rumours about a political enemy or mafia revenge, theories linked to the Italian origin of the family.
Time passed without news until, more than two decades later, in 1967, the Sodders received a letter with a Kentucky postmark. The letter contained a photograph of a dark-haired young man whose age could match that of one of the children. It included the following message: “Louis Sodder. I want Brother Frankie. The ilil boys. A90132 “.
The family hired another detective to investigate the letter, but he also disappeared without news. Today, the balance of opinion leans towards the theory that the five children actually died in the fire and the parents, unable to accept it, created the theory of the kidnapping as a subterfuge to survive their guilt. Whatever happened, the fate of the children who disappeared in the smoke of that Christmas night remains an intriguing Christmas mystery.
The most notorious crime of the 1990s
And then there was the murder of JonBenét Ramsay. The death of the child beauty queen is one of the most famous and mysterious crimes of our time. The six-year-old girl disappeared from her home in Boulder, Colorado, on 26 December 1996. Her mother found a ransom letter asking for just over $150,000, an amount that corresponded with a bonus that JonBenét’s father had recently received.
The parents reported JonBenét disappearance to the police. Eight hours later, the child’s body was found in the basement of her house. The media circus began. Few horror stories could be more compelling than the crime of a blonde-headed girl killed at Christmas. All kinds of theories were considered, but nothing concrete could ever be proved.
Suspicions soon turned to the family, with JonBenét’s mother accused of having written the ransom note herself. There were also rumours of child abuse and pedophilia, as well as theories that the girl had been murdered by her jealous brother Burke, then nine years old. Again, nothing was proven. In 2006, a pederast named John Mark Karr confessed to the crime. It was soon determined that it was a false confession and that Karr he could not possibly have committed the crime.
The death of JonBenét remains unsolved, although the family members have struggled to solve the mystery and clear their names. The case has inspired novels such as My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates and documentaries such as Casting JonBenét , which delves into the social impact of the crime.
And the image that definitively tarnishes Christmas: assassins who act while dressed as Santa Claus
The most grotesque and shocking image of Christmas crimes may be that of a murderous Santa Claus. The good-natured portrayal of kindness and goodwill turned into a bloodthirsty criminal is a classic motif in horror films such as Night of Peace, Night of Death – but, chillingly, such crimes have happened in real life.
The dubious honour of earning the epithet of “Santa Claus murderer” goes to Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, who was responsible for the Covina massacre in Los Angeles County. On Christmas Eve 2008, Pardo showed up – dressed as Santa Claus – at the home of the parents of his ex-wife, Silvia. He had a homemade flamethrower, four other weapons, and a fixed idea that he had been ruminating on for months: kill everyone present.
At that time, there were 25 people in the house. Silvia’s eight-year-old niece ran to the door when she saw Santa Claus approaching. Pardo shot her in the face. Nine people – among them Silvia, her parents and several other members of her family, although the eight-year-old girl survived – were victims of shootings or the fire that engulfed the house. After the massacre, Pardo fled by car to his brother’s house and committed suicide by shooting himself. Evidently, he had been planning his crime since the summer, having plunged into a spiral of psychosis in the wake of his job dismissal, economic problems and the breakdown of his marriage. It was also reported that Pardo had bought the Santa Claus costume – at a cost of $390 – months in advance. It was oversized, due to his obesity.
Perhaps the worst thing about the story of this murderous Santa Claus is that he was not the only one. Just three years later, in 2011, Aziz Yazdanpanah – a Texan of Iranian origin – killed his estranged wife, his two children and three other relatives during Christmas. He was dressed as Santa Claus at the time. The circumstances were very similar to those in the Pardo case: an apparently ordinary man who, after a financial ruin and marital crisis, shot dead half of his family and then committed suicide. The gesture of wearing a Santa Claus suit can be considered the icing on the cake of extra perversity in a society obsessed with cinematic-looking psychopaths, or perhaps it is a nod to the darkest and sinister side of Christmas. In any case, these are details that already inhabit our nightmares.