BY DANIEL GAITAN | firstname.lastname@example.org
The heart-wrenching story of a terminally ill boy who died in Santa’s arms this Christmas season could be a hoax – or, at the very least, an extraordinarily embellished story.
Published by Tennessee’s Knoxville News-Sentinel on Dec. 12, freelance journalist Sam Venable recounts the experience of Eric Schmitt-Matzen, who told the newspaper he helped grant a boy’s final wish at a local hospital.
Schmitt-Matzen – whose burly build and white beard make him a popular part-time Santa in the Knoxville area – said he received a phone call after work last month from a nurse regarding a “very sick” 5-year-old who wanted to see Santa Claus.
Within 15 minutes of receiving that call, Schmitt-Matzen said he was at the boy’s bedside, requesting that anyone about to cry leave the hospital room. He described the experience to Venable in heavy detail.
“When I walked in, (the boy) was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas!’ ” Schmitt-Matzen told the News-Sentinel.
He said the boy knew he was dying, so Schmitt-Matzen instructed the child to tell Heaven he’s “Santa’s No. 1 elf, and I know they’ll let you in.”
Moments later, Schmitt-Matzen said the boy died in his arms, after receiving a PAW Patrol action figure from his mother.
“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. Everyone outside the room realized what happened. His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could,” Schmitt-Matzen said.
The story went viral – the newspaper’s link was shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter, and hundreds of times on LinkedIn. It was soon picked up by USA Today and then made the rounds on CNN, The Washington Post, and Buzzfeed, where it was seen by millions more.
Schmitt-Matzen repeated the exchange nearly word for word in teary-eyed TV interviews.
Then things got murky.
The day after publication, Venable told fact-checking website Snopes that Schmitt-Matzen refused to identify the family, the hospital or the nurse in follow-up interviews. Venable also said Schmitt-Matzen did “backtrack” from his initial claim that he reached the facility in 15 minutes, saying instead that it was in East Tennessee.
On Dec. 14, an editor’s note appeared on the original report.
“Since publication of this story, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen’s account,” the note reads. “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.”
The News-Sentinel could not be reached for comment. A search of recent obituaries by Life Matters Media in major Tennessee newspapers could not confirm the story.
After the editor’s note was published, dozens of news outlets offered retractions and clarifications.
Dr. Adam Rubinstein, medical director of Advocate Health Care’s behavioral health service line, said the story went viral because people wanted to believe in it.
“People are wired to want to hear things that are new and different from what we already know,” Rubinstein told LMM. “A story like this really separates it from all the other things we hear. One doesn’t imagine that a Santa Claus would be surprised by visiting a little boy dying.”
Rubinstein said people feel rewarded by reading stories that are “new and good” online, so they share “heartwarming” stories on social media so others can feel the same and maximize happiness.
“Then, all the news outlets carry it,” he said. “We all want to hear a good story. We’re wired to tell stories. We live our lives listening and sharing stories. We’re communal.”