A sordid story: New book explores the dark, forgotten history of Tucson

A doctor murdered outside of his office. Tucson’s very own “Pied Piper.” The man who killed Santa Claus. These are some of the dark and strange stories in the annals of the Sonoran Desert’s history that can be found in the new book, Murder & Mayhem in Tucson.

The History Press publishing company has multiple installations in their Murder & Mayhem series, but now the grim and fascinating collection comes to the Old Pueblo. 

The new book was compiled and written by Tucson resident Patrick Whitehurst, who has published multiple fiction and nonfiction books about crime and fascinating, if little-known, community tales. Murder & Mayhem in Tucson includes dozens of dark stories, beginning with the battles between Apaches and Spaniards, through the Wild West, the gangster era, and into the 2000s. While the book covers more famous stories such as John Dillinger in Hotel Congress and the 2011 Gabby Giffords shooting, it also shines light on forgotten cold cases and stories that are simply too strange to be lost to time. 

“I’ve always been drawn to dark stories. I’ve been a fan of horror movies my whole life, and I also used to be a newspaper reporter in Sedona, Flagstaff and Prescott,” said Whitehurst, who has also written compendiums about paranormal stories in Monterey and about the history of Tusayan near the Grand Canyon.

Whitehurst says he spent six months researching Tucson’s seedy history for the book, gathering information and archival photos from libraries, historical societies, police departments and more. However, he also gathered information simply by speaking with locals to gather lesser-known stories. In total, the book took a year to make: six months of research and six months of writing. 

“I gathered a ton of stories and looked at which would make a good fit for the book. Basically, I looked at mostly historical stories, but I felt like I had to add a few more recent stories as well,” Whitehurst said. “I don’t intend for the stories to paint a bad picture of the community, just an interesting picture, because of how unique so many of the stories are.” 

Whitehurst’s history writing fiction noir helps bring life to the historical stories, such as when he describes serial killer Charles Schmid, also known as the “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” In the mid-’60s, Schmid killed three or four people and buried them in the desert outside of Tucson. As Whitehurst writes: “In 1964, Schmid stood at five feet, three inches in height. He’d hang out on Speedway Boulevard dressed in jeans with the cuffs rolled up and wearing face makeup he believed added to his tough charisma. That charisma and threatening demeanor worked, too, as the silence that surrounds the murders would prove.”

However, the book covers more than murders. It also documents the impact of the 1918 pandemic on Tucson, the 1983 flooding from Tropical Storm Octave, and an Air Force jet that crashed into a grocery store in 1967.

Perhaps the most humorous story in the book follows a newspaper editor who, in 1930, became known as the “Man who killed Santa Claus.” So the story goes, John McPhee was planned to jump out of an airplane dressed as Santa and parachute down into a holiday parade. However, McPhee was too drunk to maneuver the stunt, so he substituted himself with a department store mannequin dressed as Santa. He threw the mannequin out from the plane, but the parachute failed to open. And to onlookers’ horror, Santa Claus plummeted to the ground below. 

While many of the stories in the book are self-contained and over with, others involve cold cases from the Tucson area that are yet to be solved. 

“A lot of the cold cases are kind of forgotten. I’m sure there are people who remember them and are hoping they get solved, but to me, they always need more attention because these people lost their lives and there’s no resolution to their story,” Whitehurst said. “I came across quite a few of these cold cases and tried to pick out the most interesting. Especially the ones that were never solved. A lot of the stories really are stranger than fiction. You can’t make some of these things up.” 

Murder & Mayhem in Tucson is currently available from The History Press, and can be purchased at Barnes & Noble among other retailers.