Christmas brings gifts, twinkling lights, eggnog, and according to a recent article in the Social Science & Medicine journal, death.
A study that analyzed more than 57 million U.S. death certificates dating from 1979 to 2004 found that the chance of dying during the holidays increased from between three to nine percent. The two weeks starting with Christmas had on average about 40,000 more natural deaths than the winter average. “It’s not trivial,” explained David Phillips, a sociology professor at the University of California. “We looked at all cause categories and, for nearly every one, we found an excess of deaths—particularly for people who are dying rapidly, like dead-on-arrival or dying in an emergency department.”
Overcrowded emergency rooms, dangerous winter driving conditions, extreme cold weather and substance abuse are all factors that contribute to the extraordinarily high number of holiday deaths. The psychological stress of seeing one’s family is also thought to play a role. This may have been the case with Sanford Williams, of St. Petersburg, Florida. Williams was a respectable Army chaplain and Methodist pastor. He later became the head of a local charity called the National Retirement Foundation. But 1957 was a bad year for gift giving and the foundation was on the verge of bankruptcy. On Christmas Eve, the downtrodden Williams shot his wife and his two sons then turned the gun on himself.
The largest Christmas family slaughter in history involved Ronald Simmons, a retired United States Air Force master sergeant from Dover, Arkansas. Days before Christmas in 1987 Simmons’ family began to arrive at the rundown mobile home where he lived. First to arrive were his son Gene and his wife, who Simmons shot with a .22 caliber pistol. He then strangled his three-year-old granddaughter. Next to arrive were another son and three daughters. Simmons said he had presents for each of them but wanted to hand them out one at a time. First to receive her “gift” was his 17 year-old daughter Loretta. Simmons strangled her by holding her head under water in a rain barrel. He then strangled his other three children. Seven more family members arrived the day after Christmas. Simmons killed them in the same manner, shooting the adults, strangling the kids. He lined the bodies up neatly in the den, covered the corpses with coats then went for a drink at a local bar.
Two days later Simmons drove around town stopping at places he used to work and firing at will, killing two more people and injuring three others. He waited calmly for the police while he chatted with a secretary. When they arrived he surrendered without any resistance. Simmons was charged with 16 counts of murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. He refused to appeal his death sentence, stating: “To those who oppose the death penalty in my particular case, anything short of death would be cruel and unusual punishment.”
A contributing factor for deadly holiday deaths not mentioned in the Social Science & Medicine article is fire. One particularly grisly Christmas fire occurred when a nurse at the Niles Street Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut unplugged the tree lights and a spark ignited the dry needles. She grabbed a fire extinguisher, but then panicked and fled. She also failed to call the fire department and she left the front door open, which helped usher in air to feed the blaze. The result: the building was destroyed and 15 patients and two staff died.
The worst holiday inferno in history occurred on Christmas Eve in 1924 at a holiday pageant in a one-room school house in Babb’s Switch, Oklahoma. The last act had performed and Santa was handing out bags of candy to all the children when the cotton trimming on his coat accidentally brushed a candle and the entire room exploded in flames. The windows were screened shut and more than 200 men, women, and children fought their way to the only exit. Thirty-four people died in the flames, some of them virtually cremated. Bodies were recognized by jewelry and dental remains. It was later revealed that the school had been freshly painted, with turpentine used for paint thinner.