The Saga of the Christmas Coconut
The Story in a Nutshell
For nearly half a century, the month of December promised another installment of an ongoing mystery. Each passing year brought renewed hope that the mystery would finally be solved. You may remember hearing of it, and if so, you have probably found yourself wondering, “Whatever happened to that guy who received a Christmas coconut every year, and did he ever find out who sent them?” Well, I wondered about that too, and I set out in search of some answers.
That guy at the center of the story was Ed Clinch of Peoria, Illinois. The whole thing started in December 1948, when a coconut and a note from an anonymous source arrived at his doorstep. A World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps who had served in the South Pacific, Ed naturally assumed the instigators of the prank to be one or more of his military buddies. Apparently he had been known to assert that he was too smart to fall for a practical joke, and somebody, somewhere, was determined to have the last laugh.
The Plot Thickens
By 1958, with coconuts continuing to arrive each year, word of the unusual gift had gone public and the news media became aware of it. The story grew beyond Peoria when it was picked up by wire services and began to appear regularly in newspapers across the country. Each year's coconut invited speculation that this would the last. But they kept showing up, and the years turned into decades.
Often, reporters would contact Clinch in mid-December to check on the potential arrival of the coconut. He was interviewed numerous times over the years, maintaining good humor, although confessing he would prefer to be a part of the planning of something like this rather than the recipient. As time went by, Ed shared various theories about who he thought was behind the prank, starting, of course, with his military acquaintances. After some of the suspects had passed away, though, he decided that maybe those guys had started it, but that others must have decided to keep it up in order to continue the tradition.
He said that not knowing had bothered him at first, but that after a while it no longer mattered, because so many people enjoyed it and it was entertaining to his grandchildren. Part of the fun, Ed said, was never knowing exactly when to expect the delivery. He said he heard from people everywhere who just wanted to know if he had received his coconut yet.
“I’m the kind of guy who wants to be doing this to someone else.”— Ed Clinch
Notable Coconut Bearers
Throughout the years, the coconut was delivered by various means, including by parachute, horseback, torch runners, skydivers, a basketball team, a marching band, the sheriff, and the mayor. It was generally decked out in a disguise consisting of a blond wig, doll eyes, and a lipsticked mouth.
Growing up in Central Illinois, I was aware of the coconut saga and read many of the annual updates in newspapers over the years, but I didn’t recall hearing of the final outcome. Combing through newspaper archives recently for more history and an ending to the story, I found some of the documented delivery methods, which are listed below:
- 1964 - The coconut was dropped by Peoria Journal Star news helicopter.
- 1969 - A Peoria zoo attendant riding a donkey delivered the coconut.
- 1973 - James Spurgeon of Princeville was enlisted to deliver the coconut on horseback, after having it passed to him by another mysterious rider.
- 1975 - Robyn Weaver, a Peoria disc jockey, delivered the coconut to Mr. Clinch. He said he received an early-morning phone call and subsequently met a man in a ski mask at a designated location in order to pick up the coconut.
- 1977 - The coconut was delivered by Santa Claus, who claimed that it was given to him by one of his elves. Mr. Clinch wasn’t buying it, since coconuts would be hard to find at the North Pole. He entertained an interviewer that year by explaining that he was running out of closet space to store the coconuts. He said that he used to throw them away, but his daughter wanted to keep them and even gave them names. The 1977 coconut wore its usual costume, as well as a Smokey the Bear hat. By that time, Ed said he had decided that the perpetrator must be local, but that some people tried to tell him otherwise.
- 1979 -The coconut arrived by ambulance, strapped onto a stretcher and topped with a nurse’s hat.
Delivery candidates spoke of being approached anonymously and sworn to secrecy. They were often asked to meet at a designated place to pick up the coconut, or it was delivered to them.
- 1980 - Carol LeBeau of WMBD TV was chosen to make the delivery. Following a phone call requesting her assistance, she said a man delivered the coconut to her office in a sack with her name on it and left it at the reception desk. This coconut was accompanied by a note stating it was “the last.” However, the coconuts continued to arrive each December.
- 1991 - The coconut was handed off by Olympic-style runners before its eventual delivery.
- 1992 - According to an AP story from December 20, 1992, the package was delivered by three singing cowboys who arrived on a mule-drawn hay wagon filled with caroling children. The singing cowboys were employees of the Peoria Parks District, where Ed had been a foreman. Upon questioning, the men told a story about being contacted by anonymous phone callers and a veiled woman. Ed seemed to doubt their veracity, however, remarking, “Oh, they lie like hell.”
- 1994 - The coconut was delivered by a pink gorilla and clowns from the local Bloomin’ Balloons store.
- 1996 - Marc Truelove, a Peoria radio show host, and a Marine Corps color guard delivered the annual coconut.
The End of an Era
1997 - Ed Clinch died at age 82 in September 1997. The Peoria Journal Star was notified that the final coconut was delivered to Ed’s gravesite that year.
The Truth Comes Out
December 1998 - Ed’s niece, Theresa Schaub, revealed to WIRL radio host Marc Truelove that the family had been behind the hoax all along. Theresa said it was initiated by her parents, Ed's sister and brother-in-law, and that she had continued the tradition. Although she said that Ed never learned who was responsible for the Christmas coconuts, I’d like to think he had a pretty good idea. At any rate, I know he had a good time.
So, rest in peace, Ed. Thanks for a great story. And thank you for your service!
2. UPI Archives. (Dec 19, 1980). Mysterious Coconut Appears for 33rd Straight Year.
3. AP (Dec 20, 1992). Annual Christmas Coconut Delivered to Peoria Man.
4. McQueary, Karen; Sofradzija, Omar. “Coconut Caper is Finally Solved; Culprit is Revealed Following 50 Years of Holiday Deliveries.” Peoria Journal Star. December 24, 1998.