Back to previous post: Billy the Shake goes to the Demo Derby

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: A prescient note from Robert Frost

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

June 23, 2005

Local history
Posted by Teresa at 06:18 PM *

I was looking at the Arizona History and Archives Division’s online collection of historic photos, and put in a search for Mesa, the town where I grew up. It’s grown huge over the last few decades, but before that Mesa was a dusty little town whose only claim to fame was having killed Santa Claus.

I was shocked, therefore, when the archive’s collection of pictures of Mesa turned up multiple photos of a man lynched by a mob in 1917. It said his name was Starr Daley, sometimes known as Van Ashmore.

The only further info Google turned up on “Starr Daley” was a photograph of Sheriff William Henry Wilky, with a note that “…his best efforts could not prevent the lynching of Starr Daley, an event that precipitated the reinstatement of the death penalty in Arizona.”

Something like that happened in Mesa, and I never heard about it?

I kept digging. Eventually it occurred to me to search on “Star Daley,” and I got the story. It was simple and sordid. James and Florence Gibson were traveling on the Apache Trail, and decided to stop and camp for the night. Starr Daley turned up on a lathered horse and asked for water, which they gave him. Then he shot James Gibson three times in the back with a rifle and spent the night raping Florence Gibson.

In the morning he forced Mrs. Gibson to come with him in the car. When it ran out of gas, Daley left Mrs. Gibson there and set out to find a gas station. Mrs. Gibson flagged down the first person she saw, a man named Phelps—probably one of ours; my Granny was a Phelps—who went and told Marshall Petyon. The Marshall arrested Daley before he got back to the car.

Daley was a talker. He told all about what he’d done. When word got out, several hundred indignant Mesans turned up at the jail. Sheriff Wilky threw Daly into a car and headed for the prison at Florence, AZ, but some ways out of town he was headed off by three or four hundred citizens who’d jumped into their own cars roared off after him. They took Daley back to the scene of the crime, stood him on a car, rigged a noose from a telephone pole, and drove the car away.

It’s like a bad western movie, only with different props.

A coroner’s jury from Florence ruled Daley’s death was “justifiable homicide, by hanging, at the hands of unknown parties.” It was the last officially recorded lynching in Arizona history. None of the sources explain why it prompted the reinstatement of the death penalty.

Comments on Local history:
#1 ::: Slothrop ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 07:12 PM:

Fascinatin'. I'm out here in Utah and I asked a friend of mine in the news business if he'd ask Senator Bob Bennett why he didn't sponsor the lynching apology.

The newsguy said there wasn't much lynching going on out here in the West, especially in Utah where they just tended to go ahead and shoot, why wait for the lynch mob to show up.

But he also said a more interesting question would be about blood atonement. He says the LDS Church doesn't want to talk about it much, but that's the most neglected part of 19th and early 20th Century history in the West.

I imagine it's a good question for Arizona too.

#2 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 07:16 PM:

whose only claim to fame was having killed Santa Claus

I see Mesans like to concentrate their efforts when it comes to fame-gatherin'.

#3 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 07:20 PM:

That's quite an eye-opener...

My first guess on why it prompted reinstatement of the death penalty would be that the motive for the lycnhing was that if it was left to the law, Daley would spend the rest of his life in prison, rather than being executed. If the townspeople had known Daley would hang for the crime he'd confessed to, they probably wouldn't have been tempted to do the job themselves. So if you restore the death penalty, you remove a motive for people to take the law into their own hands. It's a reasoning I've heard in other debates about appropriate penalties for criminals, and one I can understand, whether or not I agree with it. I wouldn't be surprised if that was what happened in this case.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 09:15 PM:

How my home town killed Santa Claus:

This is from a transcript of a December 23, 2003 KAET public affairs program where the host, Michael Grant, interviewed Clay Thompson, author of Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona:

Michael Grant: Now, you wrote about the man who killed Santa Claus.

Clay Thompson: That's a great story. And it came from a book by Dan Dedera, who used to be the editor of Arizona Highways. Back in 1930, there was a man named John McPhee, editor of the paper out in Mesa. He was worried that sales weren't going well and the interest in the annual Christmas parade was lagging, so he hired a pilot and a parachutist -- this is when everything was still sort of new -- to fly over the town. And the parachutist was going to wear a Santa suit, jump out of the plane and lead the parade through downtown. And there were kids on their parents' shoulders, and he went to get the parachutist and the guy was too drunk to jump. So McPhee goes to a store, grabs a mannequin, puts the Santa Claus suit on him, sends him off with the pilot. The pilot flies around town a few times, pushes the mannequin with the Santa suit on out of the plane. The parachute doesn't open --

Michael Grant: And he's just plummeting?

Clay Thompson: Like a rock. And this great silence engulfed downtown Mesa, and you could hear people crying in their homes and some women went into labor prematurely, and McFee had to leave town for a while. But he was known for a long time afterwards in Mesa as the man who had killed Santa Claus.

Michael Grant: Were you a WKRP fan?

Clay Thompson: I remember -- I know the show you are talking about when the turkeys flew out of the helicopter?

Michael Grant: Now that you have related that, I wonder if somebody didn't know that and flipped it into Thanksgiving. The premise basically was we're shoving turkeys out of a helicopter, and they didn't realize that the turkeys didn't fly, and so they plummeted in front of the crowd, too.

So yeah, that was our bunch, a generation before my time. The paper edited by McPhee was the Mesa Tribune, where, many years later, small Teresa met her first Linotype, web press, and long proofs. If you kidnapped me in a time machine and brought me blindfolded into the old offices of the Trib, one long breath later I'd know exactly where I was.

#5 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 09:39 PM:

I used to help my aunt and uncle put together The Copper News on a kitchen table in Encanto Park after the paper was printed out on Grant Road in Phoenix. I don't think their paper ever had anything quite that bizarre to report; just the occasional cave-in in copper country around Prescott and Bagdad.

#6 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 09:58 PM:

Not much of an excuse for Utah to say that there weren't much in the way of lynchings. I suppose in terms of sheer volume, they weren't one of the more prolific states, but they had their share of lynchings as well as a massacre.

There was also rumoured to be a castration in a town called Manti, but I can't find any unbiased sources to corroborate or disavow that incident. It doesn't seem to have been the only castration of outsiders or "rebels" to have occured in Utah, but it was the first one I read about.

I never heard the thing about Mesa-killing-Santa-Claus. (I live in Glendale for about fourteen months as a small child, and that's as close as I got to Mesa.) Interesting history though.

#7 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 10:43 PM:

Michael Grant: Now that you have related that, I wonder if somebody didn't know that and flipped it into Thanksgiving. The premise basically was we're shoving turkeys out of a helicopter, and they didn't realize that the turkeys didn't fly, and so they plummeted in front of the crowd, too.

Plausible conjecture, but I believe the 1978 WKRP sitcom episode was, rather, based on a true turkey-dropping incident documented in the pages of CoEvolution Quarterly/Whole Earth Review.

After considerable wrestling with search engines and urban-legends sites, I can't confirm this from online sources. The best I can offer is this, which the author says comes from a newspaper clipping. To the best of my recollection, the unattributed clipping has the text of the magazine story I remember reading.

Maddeningly, author, town, and year are not specified.

I'm fairly sure the magazine story appeared before the TV show, but the mind plays tricks on the old.

This year as an added fillip they decreed a turkey drop.   This was a gimmick thought up in the late Forties where they took a hundred ping-pong balls, put special marks on six, and dropped them over a town. The finders of the specially marked balls got turkeys.  

The Junior Chamber of Commerce had heard about the turkey drop, but not about the ping-pong balls.

The advertising said "Catch Your Thanksgiving Turkey."  Alas, this was not to be.

Turkeys don't fly very well, and never more than a few feet off the ground.   So when the earnest young men pushed them out of a light plane 3,000 feet above Main Street, the birds knew they were doomed.   They accepted their fate with great dignity.   They folded their wings and dropped straight down onto the crowd below like six huge, black rocks.   One hit the roof of the bank where it will doubtless remain until the directors can see a way to profit by its removal.   The rest hit the pavement with enormous splats along the full length of the street.   Fortunately no one was hit because being hit by a forty-pound tom at terminal velocity would be fatal to man and bird.   As it was, it was abundantly fatal to bird.

#8 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 11:01 PM:

Arizona dropped the death penalty very soon after statehood (1912) by popular initiative - effective December 8, 1916. The death penalty was restored December 5, 1918. A quick look suggests Arizona was following more general social trends - from Frontline on PBS

The Second Great Reform era was 1895-1917. In 1897, U.S. Congress passed a bill reducing the number of federal death crimes. In 1907, Kansas took the "Maine Law" a step further and abolished all death penalties. Between 1911 and 1917, eight more states abolished capital punishment (Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Arizona, Missouri and Tennessee -- the latter in all cases but rape). Votes in other states came close to ending the death penalty.

However, between 1917 and 1955, the death penalty abolition movement again slowed. Washington, Arizona, and Oregon in 1919-20 reinstated the death penalty. ... Other concerns developed when less "civilized" methods of execution failed. In 1930, Mrs. Eva Dugan became the first female to be executed by Arizona. The execution was botched when the hangman misjudged the drop and Mrs. Dugan's head was ripped from her body. Frontline has assorted credits omitted here.

Sure sounds as though a particularly outrageous crime greased the ways for legislation reversing the initiative. Legislative history is left as an exercise for somebody with free Westlaw or Lexis or somebody at Arizona or Arizona State.

#9 ::: DonBoy ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 11:28 PM:

It's possible that the turkey story has multiple roots. Richard Neer, formerly of famed WNEW-FM, claims in his book FM that it was inspired by a radio station promo in, I think, San Francisco, where what was learned was that pigeons, when amusingly under the influence of second-hand pot smoke, do not so much fly as plummet.

#10 ::: fjm ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 12:17 AM:

Teresa, the report you linked to doesn't "sound right". Or rather, it does.

Like a lot of accounts of "lynchings" by witnesses it contains the classic "markers":
a sex crime
a confession
a heroic or traitrous attempt by a sheriff to take the accused to trial
a "simple" hanging
and the assertion that the witness was not a part of the act, and "wouldn't have been".

Research into lynching cases shows very different things. In a number of cases the actual crime didn't happen. If it did, the first stranger/non-white to hand was usually grabbed (Clive Webb has done some research on this one with regard to the lynching of Italians in the US). Confessions were often forced, you simply cannot assume that they are in any way meaningful. The whole business of the sheriff trying to take the person to prison is about local-versus outside interests, it has *nothing* to do with whether there is a death penalty as most lynchings were about sex crimes which don't *carry* the death penalty.

Then onto the lynching itself: lynching sometimes included hanging, but it usually also included torture. The report cited made it sound like clean (ish) death but it almost certainly involved repeated hanging as the death would have been by strangulation--I suspect the car was run away from the tree several times.

That picture you saw may not have been the end of the event, There were often photographers there who took the official "hunting trophy" photo you see, and then stayed on to provide souvenirs of the fun,

In many cases bodies were mutilated, there were incidents of people being burned to death. People kept bits of the bodies.

The account you've linked to is a fairly typical "lynching narrative" from the period but if you compare it to the Anti-lynching movements records, you'll find that such narratives come attached to lynchings that we *know* actually involved taking the person down and then burning them to death.

This also goes for the "I didn't do it, I only watched".

Lynching was a problem in the US right up through the 1930s. It's highest point was 1933. See and for more info.

#11 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 01:51 AM:

Research into lynching cases shows very different things. In a number of cases the actual crime didn't happen. If it did, the first stranger/non-white to hand was usually grabbed (Clive Webb has done some research on this one with regard to the lynching of Italians in the US).

But see Lynchings by State and Race (cited supra) from a source that would appear to be likely to feel a draft if there is one. By that source neither Arizona nor Idaho nor much of the west and some of the eastern states ever lynched a non-white. Just maybe there are meaningful differences between Western aims and methods - discourage horse thieves because that was a man's life and livelihood - see e.g. Oxbow Incident - and Southern efforts to intimidate.

Note though that under the restored death penalty Arizona did execute a high proportion of hispanics for at least the first few decades

Although I have been on the spartacus.schoolnet mailing list myself that site does live up to the Spartacus name as a source. That may be a sign of special virtue for some.

#12 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 03:44 AM:

One interesting project might be to check to see if there's an obituary for James Gibson in 1917, and what that has to say about the circumstances surrounding his death.

#13 ::: S. Dawson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 07:24 AM:

The whole business of the sheriff trying to take the person to prison is about local-versus outside interests, it has *nothing* to do with whether there is a death penalty as most lynchings were about sex crimes which don't *carry* the death penalty.

This has only been the case since 1977, when the Supreme Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional in rape cases. Before that, many states did have the death penalty for sex crimes, especially in the South.

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 08:22 AM:

Huh. Farah, you're right; that story isn't satisfactory. I was so busy trying to assimilate the idea of a lynching in Mesa that I missed the lapses in logic.

Just for starters, what became of the horse?

Daley's character is inconsistent. He starts out threatening to shoot Mrs. Gibson as well as Mr. Gibson, and leave them both in a desert grave. Next morning he's ordering Mrs. Gibson to pack up the car -- what did he care about the Gibsons' camping gear? -- but he's just going to leave the body lying there. The Apache Trail back then was mile after mile of nobody-comes-here. A hastily buried body might never be found. Why leave the evidence lying around for the buzzards to advertise?

Then, on Mrs. Gibson's insistence, they load the body into the car and start driving in to Mesa to take the body to a funeral home. This is, to put it mildly, unlikely behavior for a murderer. Even more unlikely, when the car runs out of gas, Daley walks off to get some. This is May. The weather is already uncomfortably hot. He's just killed a man. Why doesn't Daley take off and leave her there?

Mrs. Gibson tells her story to "a man named Phelps." He tells the town marshall. The town marshall immediately finds and arrests Daley, which is pretty fast work for twice-removed hearsay. Daley doesn't resist and he doesn't clam up.

I'd like to know how old Mrs. Gibson was.

There are more improbabilities, but I have to go to work. More anon.

#15 ::: Carlos ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 09:52 AM:

I will add this to my list of local history shock stories, like the Unexpectedly Black Ancestor and What Ever Happened to the Chinese-Mexicans?

There were lynchings in Duluth in 1920.

#16 ::: Avery ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 11:12 AM:

More "Turkey Drop" lore to be found here:

He puts a differnet spin on the story.

#17 ::: Jack V. ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 11:44 AM:

Teresa --

The details you point out do seem rather unlikely. And this is a lynching story: Just as history is written by the winners, the stories of lynchings are told mostly by the friends of the perpetrators. Any description of the supposed killer's actions should be taken with an enormous grain of salt.

But at the same time, if Daley was indeed a killer, there's no guarantee that he behaved with the utmost rationality after the deed. Remember Brian Nichols, the Atlanta courthouse killer who was in the news recently? He kills four people in a courthouse, and then takes a woman hostage. She reads him bits of "The Purpose-Driven Life," a pop-evangelical book, after which he lets her go to call 911. The story seems ludicrous -- that's not how hardened killers are supposed to behave -- yet it happened.

#18 ::: Ian Myles Slater ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 12:19 PM:

Tom Kollenborn's account leaves out a few things which strike me as crucial for judging the credibility of the story as reported.

For one example, who was driving the car when it ran out of gas?

And for that matter, was Daley / Ashmore able to drive? (Not a universal skill in 1917.)

If he was driving when the car ran out of gas, the story as told makes even less sense than at first glance.

If he couldn't drive, keeping a victim alive for a few more hours would have been the only way to steal (and later sell) the car and camping gear.

So he walks off to buy gas, figuring that the car isn't going any place, and he'll be back before anyone passes on the road and stops to help.

Stupid, but (as Jack V. has pointed out while I was re-reading the article) not without parallels.

The piece also doesn't explain whether Phelps took Mrs. Gibson with him, and rushed off to find the town marshall, or just left her by the side of the road, and hailed Petyon when he happened to see him, which was the first impression I had.

This may be due to the source material being defective or contradictory, rather than poor work by Kollenborn.

Oh yes, and the original inquest seems to have been held with impressive speed.... Is there a surviving record of its proceedings? Or those for the inquest into the subsequent lynching?

#19 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 12:25 PM:

One of the most famous lynchings in U.S. history occurred about 20 miles outside my hometown.

#20 ::: Jack V. ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 12:32 PM:

The commenter above was right: If this lynching truly involved a "simple hanging," then it was relatively humane (don't read that link if you have a queasy stomach)

#21 ::: dichroic ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 12:57 PM:

Heh. My town's contiguous with Mesa. (Incidentally, Mesa's almost the only town around here where if you drive down the main street, it still looks like a desert town. Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe, Scottsdale, not so much.)

I hadn't even gotten to thinking about lynchings; I'm still amazed that anyone ever lived out here before the advent of air-conditioning.

Or at least, anyone living in anything with less thermal mass and hence passive cooling than a hogan or pueblo.

#22 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 01:06 PM:

Not quite a lynching -- I think it predates lynching as we usually think of it in American history -- but similar in intent, I suppose: there was an infamous massacre of Indians by whites just a few miles upriver from here, which actually started a war (scroll down) and got mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia, though TJ got a few of the details wrong, such as the name of the main perpetrator.

An even more infamous massacre a few years later was not too far away, either -- peaceful Indians who had been converted to Christianity by Moravian missionaries were slaughtered -- and some less pacified Indians got their revenge.

Local history can be really fun. In retrospect, at least.

#23 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 02:37 PM:

If you're looking into the history of this event, I would also check contemporary newspapers. Many classic Southern lynchings were stirred up by the press, which typically reported that "determined men" were converging on the local jail. How did these hundreds of motorists get wind of just where and when the perp was being transported?

Southern lynchings were often led by prominent politicians as well. The connection between this event and the reinstatement of the death penalty makes me wonder whether there was more to this event than meets the eye.

#24 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 07:50 PM:

And here in Seattle, we get everything backwards. Here, 3 black soldiers were convicted of lynching an Italian POW, although later investigation shows they were almost certainly innocent.

And the incident occurred just over the hill from me.

#25 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2005, 10:38 PM:

I wonder where the turkeys in the reported turkey drop came from, and how hard they were thrown out of the helicopter. I wouldn't expect the domesticated monster turkeys to fly well -- but they're usually white as adults, and at least one of the descriptions calls the ]victims[ black. I've seen wild turkeys; the N4 chair's house was home territory for a flock, and since town regulations prohibit harassing (let alone shooting) they've had no reason to move. They don't fly when they don't have to, and they'll take advantage of a slope, but they can fly level-to-upwards to roost in trees 30' high or more, and even move from treetop to treetop.

in re lynchings -- the Globe today noted (in the followup to Killen's conviction) that there are several senators who still haven't signed onto the resolution of apology, including both Mississippians.

#26 ::: aa ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2005, 04:56 AM:

None of the sources explain why it prompted the reinstatement of the death penalty.

Er... presumably because Daley was lynched because the townspeople knew that otherwise he'd be condemned but not executed?

#27 ::: Cryptic Ned ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2005, 11:15 PM:

Wait...turkeys can fly. Yes, turkeys can definitely fly. I've seen them do it.

#28 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2005, 12:30 AM:

Not far, high or for long, though. A turkey chucked from a plane at 3000 ft would be unable to manage its wings in the winds, and would have no experience in navigating from that height. And these were likely domestically raised turkeys, who may never have flown at all.

#29 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2005, 09:02 PM:

pericat -- were domestic turkeys non-albino at the time of the story? (Which also mentioned they were tossed from a helicopter -- an airplane would indeed have been a very different matter.)

#30 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2005, 09:35 PM:

If I recall correctly, some domestic breeds are still pretty much the same color as the wild turkeys. I'm sure there are some which are only partly white - there was some excitement among turkey hunters in Ohio when a partly white tom was shot this spring, until it was identified as a member of a domestic breed raised on a nearby farm. Its size as well as odd coloration had aroused suspicion that it was at least partially domestic; it was shot out in the woods.

Wild turkeys are not black. They are patterned in several shades of dull brown, overlaid in places with lovely iridescent colors. I have a wild turkey feather (picked up out on a state forest trail) stuck in the braid of my Greek fisherman's cap. Dull gray-brown with a dark band at the tip, but when the light hits part of it at the right angle there's a green-gold shine.With it I have a black feather, possibly from a grackle, that has a blue-green flash.

#31 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2005, 09:40 AM:

My first reaction to seeing a wild turkey was "Wow! Turbo-pheasant!"

It definitely had pheasant colouring.

#32 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2005, 10:58 AM:

The first time I saw a herd of wild turkeys crossing a road my instant thought was "Hadrosaurs!"

#33 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2005, 06:18 PM:

The first time I saw a batch of wild turkeys crossing a road (Blue Ridge Parkway), I thought "good thing I have good brakes!"

#34 ::: jennR ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2005, 06:47 PM:

I stomped on the brakes the last time I saw wild turkeys crossing the road. Four or five of them launched out of a thicket I was going past, and I really thought it was a branch coming down. I was very glad that it wasn't. Since then I've seen them wandering along the golf course (which has been there for 60 years or so) many times.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.