One of the mysteries of the internet is that people really enjoy reading and sharing “heartwarming” content about horribly sad things, a genre previously shorthanded as grief porn. The latest entry is a part-time Santa in Tennessee, who claimed to a local newspaper columnist that a very sick little boy recently died in his arms. The story “cannot be verified,” the paper said Wednesday.
Eric Schmitt-Matzen is a mechanical engineer and Santa portrayer, complete with a long and lustrous full-time Santa beard. He told Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Sam Venable that he was called by a nurse to “a local hospital” several weeks ago to pay a special visit to a terminally ill child. Schmitt-Matzen says he handed the little boy a gift, and that they had a gut-wrenching conversation, just before the boy passed:
“They say I’m gonna die,’ he told me. ‘How can I tell when I get to where I’m going?’
“I said, ‘Can you do me a big favor?’
“He said, ‘Sure!’
“When you get there, you tell ’em you’re Santa’s Number One elf, and I know they’ll let you in.
“He said, ‘They will?’
“I said, ‘Sure!’
“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’
“I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.
As with any godawful thing that appears superficially moving to the people who didn’t have to witness it, Schmitt-Matzen’s story took off. It was re-told as verifiably true on USA Today, CNN, People, the BBC, the Daily Mail, and the Washington Post, among many, many others.
But on Wednesday, three days after it was published, the News-Sentinel published an update, saying their attempts to verify the story have been “unsuccessful:”
Since publication, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account. This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified. The News Sentinel cannot establish that Schmitt-Matzen’s account is inaccurate, but more importantly, ongoing reporting cannot establish that it is accurate.
Snopes has also investigated the story and says they’ve confirmed with two area hospitals that an incident matching that description didn’t happen at their facilities. The Post, whose re-telling of the story was particularly treacly, spoke to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, who also said it didn’t happen there.
The newspaper is indicating that they’re not done checking out the story yet. Schmitt-Matzen defended it as true to the Washington Post: “If some people want to call me a liar... I can handle that better than I can handle a child in my arms dying,” he said. “It’s sticks and stones.”
Whether it’s true or not, it’s certainly remarkable how many interviews he crammed into three days.