Late last month in Central California, an alleged burglar died a grisly, torturous death when he got stuck in a chimney. It was far from the first such case, but the horrific twist in this situation was that the homeowner lit a fire while the would-be burglar was in there. When he heard screaming, the homeowner called the authorities, but the torrent of heat and smoke had already killed the poor guy.
In a rarity for these kinds of stories, there weren't any Santa Claus jokes in most of the news coverage. It's morbid, but it's only natural to think of one of the most famous cultural figures in the world when a story like this comes along.
There's something tantalizingly physical about the image of Santa exiting a fireplace, having just used the chimney as a doorway. Most of the Santa legend is Christmas Magic. Sure, he can shift time, and pilot a flying-reindeer aircraft, and carry 7 billion people's gifts in one bag, and live forever. But he does not teleport into your house, kids. For that Santa uses the filthy old chimney.
But chimneys are death traps. They have been for hundreds of years. This was particularly true in 18th and 19th Century Britain, when it was in fashion to hire a chimney sweep whose "climbing boys" or "apprentices" did most of the actual work. Henry Mayhew's account of the short, horrible lives of pre-Victorian chimney sweeps, Of The Sweepers of Old, and The Climbing Boys, is a compendium of torture and death. In one story from 1813, a boy gets wedged in a chimney, and his master hears him say "I cannot come up, master; I must die here." The ensuing rescue attempt is unsuccessful.
According to Mayhew, "among these hapless lads were indeed many deaths from accidents, cruelty, privation, and exhaustion, but it does not appear that the number was ever ascertained."
"Sometimes these accidents were the [result of] being jammed or fixed, or, as it was called in the trade, 'stuck,'" Mayhew wrote. It might seem weird that "stuck" was a trade term, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this use of the past participle adjective of the word "stick" didn't technically mean "unable to go any further" until 1885. So it's possible that getting jammed in a chimney is where we got the word "stuck" to begin with.
Remember inHow the Grinch Stole Christmas when the Grinch was climbing down that Whoville chimney and his feet started moving slower than his body, and he got bunched up? That's a real way to get "stuck," and it can kill you.
It's hard to see in the diagram above, but while Figure C is a kid in the proper chimney-sweeping posture, Figure E is a kid who is fucked. His knees are up around his abdomen, and he can't move, which makes him vulnerable to what's called "positional asphyxia," a condition in which the contortion of your body prevents the normal in-and-out motions of your diaphragm. In other words: if you don't get out of that position, you're going to die from lack of oxygen. And, in a chimney, there's not enough room to get out of that position.
But the good news is that chimney sweeps seem to be getting better at not dying in chimneys. Until the early 20th century, there were still cases of maintenance people getting stuck, and occasionally dying in chimneys, but there are few reports of that sort of thing more recently.
Designers have been turning chimneys into better conveyances for smoke, if not people, for hundreds of years. That means, if nothing else, they require fewer children to be directly sacrificed in the name of maintenance. Also, typical designs have at least one bend or elbow, and as many as three. This can slow down, or completely halt a person's descent. Secondly, the flue—the hatch right above the part where you put logs—needs to be a little narrow to ensure that smoke moves quickly. Any given flue will be about a tenth the width of the actual fireplace opening. That means unless you're climbing into a castle, you're generally not going to make it through the opening at the bottom, which makes the whole sneak-into-the-house-like-Santa plan a nonstarter.
But people still get stuck, and they still die.
In 1977 in Los Angeles (a seemingly disproportional number of these cases seem to occur in California) a mentally challenged 14-year-old kid named Robert Thompson got lodged in the chimney of a halfway house under circumstances no one will likely ever know. A medical examiner said the cause of death was probably either starvation, or our old friend positional asphyxia.
It's still a mystery what Robert was doing in there. As with many victims of chimneys, Robert Thompson's misadventure, or possible murder, will probably never have all the details filled in. However, last year a guy named Leo Wan wrote about his experience getting stuck in a London chimney. In his case, he was just being a goofball, sitting with his legs dangling into the chimney as if it was a jacuzzi, and he accidentally fell in. His fall was slowed down by a well-placed bend, but he kept slipping and got stuck. He was saved when he managed to call an ambulance on his cell phone.
It's good to have proof that being stupid around a chimney really can be your undoing, because history is full of bizarre missing persons cases in which people go missing, and then much later, bodies turn up in a chimney, and since they're dead, they're unable to explain how they got there. For instance, in 1928, a six-year-old girl and a 19-year-old man in Australia somehow disappeared together, and wound up dead and in a chimney. The story doesn't say why.
Like with any other weird cause of death, people will grasp at straws trying to explain away the mystery. In 1978, a guy in Los Angeles found a dead body in a chimney, and police speculated that "the guy was high on angel dust or something." In 1998 a 12-year-old boy in Sacramento, California wound up dead in a chimney, and the report mentioned "Tourette's syndrome and attention deficit disorder," as if the poor kid twitched his way into that chimney.
But of course, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of thieves, and maybe that's why burglars seem to get into more chimney trouble than anyone else.
In Florida in 1986, a burglar tried to get into an empty house via the chimney and got stuck. The neighbors heard screaming on the night of the attempted break-in, but they couldn't tell where it was coming from, and went back to bed. Two days later, workers heard a tapping sound, but just went about their business. Finally two days after that, the owner got home to a house that smelled like rotting flesh.
In 1989 in New York, a burglar tried to break into a Middle Eastern restaurant, and actually almost succeeded. However, he got hung up on some unexpected plumbing inside the chimney. He wound up having his chest constricted by the tight squeeze, and was found dead of asphyxiation the next day, his legs dangling in full view of the morning crew when they came to work. The following year, also in New York, two burglars wound up stuck at the bottom of a chimney in a grocery store. It's not clear whether they were trying to get in or out when they got stuck, but their bodies were found a week later. Yep, someone noticed the smell.
Of course the majority of newspaper reports about burglars in chimneys have happy endings. Burglars get stuck, and then freed, and then they go to jail. If we're lucky, they even repent, promising never to steal again, or they're weird liars who claim they were just looking for their glasses. Occasionally reporters can resist writing hilarious Santa Claus jokes, and occasionally, they can't.
However, the most tragic chimney-intruders are the ones who do it not for money, but for love. Weird, fucked-up love. Earlier this year, a woman in my home town of Riverside, California was trying to get into her ex-boyfriend's house, possibly to steal her kids back, when she got stuck. "I don't like the way she's acting or what she's doing. That's not good for my kids," her ex-boyfriend told the cops right after part of his wall was removed to dislodge his ex from his chimney. She lived, and was only stuck for a short time. She was lucky.
In 2010, in Bakersfield, California, a doctor named Jacquelyn Kotarac tried to get into her on-again-off-again boyfriend's house while he was home. While the boyfriend was slipping out a backdoor "to avoid confrontation," Kotarac made the fateful decision to try the chimney. Three days later, a house-sitter noticed the telltale smell of another chimney victim.
It should be obvious that using a chimney generally won't get anyone into a house, so it's weird—and obviously tragic—that people try anyway. The Santa myth might be blameless, but it doesn't seem like a stretch to connect those dots. It's a little like if we taught our kids that a magical elf delivers gifts by running across a busy freeway. It's not like every kid would immediately rush off and throw themselves in front of traffic, but one day, maybe after they've grown up, made some mistakes, and found themselves desperate for an escape route, they just might look at the other side of an interstate and think, well, it works for the elf, doesn't it? and then get splattered by a passing motorist.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.