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Monday, 22 October 2012

I Don't Believe in Fairies, BUT . . .

     If a grown man believes in fairies, you would probably say that he has never outgrown his childish beliefs, but do children really believe in fairies? Well, I used to believe in the tooth fairy, but I gave up on her after I go my last threepence for my last baby tooth. (Santa Claus got a better run with me.) But, by and large, I viewed fairies the same as I did dragons (which used to give me the heebee-jeebies), witches, and talking animals: as "just stories", and I suspect that most children are the same.
     On the other hand, many people would be surprised to learn that belief in fairies, elves, dwarfs, and the like has a long and venerable tradition in Europe. Like belief in witchcraft, it is one of the last relics of paganism. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of studying genuine fairy folklore is that I can no longer tolerate the prettified, gossamer-winged monstrosities of children's books. The last stronghold of this tradition in Western Europe is Iceland, where even some politicians share the belief. There is even a government body dedicated to it. (This is not as stupid as it sounds. What do you do if citizens claim that problems with road construction are caused by the elves?)
     People may also be unaware that, when folklorists were researching fairy traditions in the British Isles during the 19th, and even 20th, century, they found people who not only believed in them, but also claimed to have seen them. Of course, they might have been making it up. Indeed, that is the only view you could take if you have already ruled out the existence of fairies. Now, I'm not saying that doesn't happen, but there is a certain fragility in any theory - such as the non-existence of something - which relies on the assumption that every piece of evidence to the contrary must be based on a lie.
     Of course, the term, "fairy" carries a lot of baggage - magic powers, underground dwellings, time dilation, changelings, to name just a few - and it would be unwise to assume the whole tradition if you did happen to observe what something small and humanoid. So, I don't believe in fairies, but ... there are still a lot of strange things being encountered. Like what happened in North Carolina in 1976.
     Then, as now, Dunn, North Carolina (35° 18½' N, 78° 36½' W) had a population of between 9,000 and 10,000. After school closed on Tuesday, 12 October 1976, eight-year-old Tonnlie Barefoot was picked up by his mother, and left to play among the dried cornstalks next to their home, while she picked peas in the garden. About 5 pm, he came running in, excitedly telling her to come and have a look, because he had just seen a little man "not much bigger than a Coke bottle".
     She was busy, so she told him to run along and play. But then he came back with the announcement that he had found the little man's footprints. When the rest of the family laughed at him, he started to cry. The next morning, the only way his mother could stop him from crying, and take him to school, was to promise that she would look for the footprints herself later on. So that after, she went out to look and - lo and behold! - there was a trail of tiny footprints. The following day, Thursday, another adult agreed to help him search for further signs of the little man, and discovered a second set 150 yards from the first.
     Now, Fred H. Bost, the managing director of the town newspaper, The Daily Record had paid no attention to the original tip-off, but now he learnt that the footprints had become a local curiosity. Arriving at the cornfield, he discovered half a dozen people examining the tracks. On the second, clearer set, Bost counted 14 footprints, each 2¼ inches by 1 inch, which is a similar proportion to human shoes, and is consistent with a person 15 inches high. They were also definitely boot prints, with definite cleat marks (see photo below). Bost immediately thought of doll's boots, but then he discovered the only doll in the house, a G.I. Joe, was far too tiny to be responsible.
    That afternoon, they went to the boy's school and, with the permission of his parents, Bost joined with Mrs Jennie Brooks, the school principal, in giving him a "mild interrogation".
     Tonnlie said he was playing with his toy shovel in the dirt when he looked up and saw the little man watching him with an open mouth. The little fellow wore black boots, blue trousers and blue top made of "shiny stuff", a black "German-type hat" with something that looked like crossed rifles on it, and "the prettiest little white tie you ever saw.'
     The boy said that the little man seemed to have been reaching for something in a back pocket, but instead froze for a moment, then let out a little squeal like a mouse and ran - disappearing among the cornstalks.
     In the sketch he made, he also added a moustache.
     The other newspapers picked up the story, and Tonnlie was interviewed by the news section of WRAL-TV in Raleigh.
Photos of the footprints, taken by Fred Bost

 Same town, fast forward two weeks, to Monday 25 October. Shirley Ann McCrimmon, 20 was arriving home just before dawn after an all night party. Reaching into the front door, she turned on the light switch, and just then, she heard something like a small animal moving outside.  She looked out. A little man was staring back at her.
     He was either wearing a very thin garment, or he was naked, with a light brown skin. In either case, he had no hat, but he was wearing boots.
     Torn between fear and curiosity, she stood watching him for "several minutes" in the growing light, but when she moved, the tiny mannikin shone a tiny, but very bright, yellow light across her eyes. She screamed, and the little visitor zipped away down the side of her house towards the back, causing the dogs in the yard behind her to start barking.
     Shirley then ran to the house next door, and woke her mother, who told her she was drunk. She therefore went to the house of Mrs Corinne Smith, the owner of the barking dogs. Mrs Smith's advice was not to tell the police, or else she would be thrown into the "looney bin". Eventually, however, Shirley could contain it no longer; she went to her aunt's place down the road and called the police. When Officer George Robinson arrived, she showed him a tiny footprint. By the time Fred Brost arrived, the policeman had left, and the footprint had been obliterated. Shirley had covered it with a plastic container, but her baby boy had moved it, wiping away the print. Just the same, Officer Robinson later told him that it had definitely resembled a footprint. Also, Bost was able to discover another one in the hard-packed dirt of the driveway - a print not as clear as the earlier ones, and without cleats, but the same size.
     The strange part about the footprints were (sic) that they led nowhere in any of the locations where they were found. The ground was soft in both areas of the cornfield, yet in both cases the footprints ended abruptly.
     The ground was hard where the footprints were found at the McCrimmon home; yet around the back where the little man was said to have disappeared, there was a garden area with soft earth - but here no footprints could be found.
     Since then, I have looked at dolls in stores whenever the opportunity arose, trying to find a doll's boot that would fit the dimensions of the footprints. My search has been unsuccessful.
     With reports such as this, there is usually an explanation which is obvious, straightforward - and wrong. In this case, the temptation is to say: Get real! How can you take seriously such a wild tale from a little boy? You known how imaginative they are. As for the twenty-year-old party goer, probably as drunk as skunk! Didn't her mother say so?
     However, on closer examination, such a neat explanation starts to fall apart. It is true that small boys can make up some imaginative stories. But what they cannot do is maintain a hoax. Being questioned by his parents, then together by his school principal and a journalist, and finally by a television interviewer, he would have  either broken down, or he would have headed off into such a flight of fancy that the whole story would have collapsed. Also, his initial reactions - his repeated tears when he was not believed - is further evidence that he was sincere.
     Then there were the footprints. If he possessed no doll of his own capable of making them, then he would have to have borrowed one. A second child as confederate would have caused the truth to leak out. Furthermore, I would question the ability of an eight-year-old to "walk" a doll in such a way as to present a plausibly lifelike gait, and without giving the game away by spreading his own prints all over the site.
     As for Miss McCrimmon, if she had been partying all night, then she probably had been drinking. However, she would have to be very, very drunk in order to hallucinate like that - so drunk it would have been obvious from her gait, her slurred speech, and her smell. There would be no way a neighbour, an aunt, a policeman, and a journalist would not have immediately recognised the fact. The policeman would probably have run her in. Her reaction in running to her mother, her neighbour, and then her aunt, all testify to her sincerity. Then, again, there were the footprints.
     It is noteworthy that nobody ever used the terms "fairy" or "elf" in the account.
     This tale had one sequel. A resident came in to Mr Bost's office to buy up back copies of the relevant newspapers to send to friends in Cleveland, Ohio. It seems one of the women her friends knew had suddenly started talking about seeing "a very small, very little man".

Reference:  Fred H. Bost (1977). 'A few small steps on the earth: a tiny leap for mankind?' Pursuit 10(2): pp 50-53. (Pursuit was the journal of SITU, the now defunct Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained.)
Note: I have quoted the original source. However, the account was also briefly summarised in Fairies; real encounters with little people by Janet Bord (1997). It is a large collection of very peculiar stories by apparently good witnesses. The folklorist, Katherine M Briggs also had a chapter in her book, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967) concerning modern day sightings.
     In my next post, I shall cite a number of sightings which were not as well investigated as this one, but are much, much stranger.


  1. These footprints are phony. Someone pressed them into the soft soil, straight down in and straight back up. I have studied tracks for years. In soft soil especially the front of your foot pushes off and makes an indent and moves some soil back towards the heal. The faster you run the more soil you move. Even a slow walk shows evidence of some earth being displaced backwards. There is no such movement in these tracks. And both prints have been placed close together for the photographer to take their picture. It is just too perfect.

  2. Good point! However, the hypothetical maker would have been very small - probably about 1½ lb, according to the square-cube rule. Also, there does appear to be a small area of raised earth at the rear of each print - but perhaps I'm reading too much into it. I agree that the prints are too close together for a normal stride. Mr Brost said that he took several photos. If this one was typical, then something is amiss.

  3. Did anybody re-interview Tonnlie Barefoot in recent times? Did anybody acquire the newspaper accounts and/or interview Fred Bost, and try and see if the original trace photo's are still around for study? Did anybody re-interview Shirley Ann McGrimmon?

    I am not posting this as criticism, but as a pointer of what we can do nowadays: revisit these puzzling cases where we may assume the original eyewitnesses are still alive.

    This case is fascinating, Well known to me and we may be able to revisit it! So we should be doing that instead of only reporting the status quo as it was back then.

    I did so for instance with the case of the little blue man of Studham Common where I was able to locate the principal eyewitness more than half a century later and interview him on this strange event.

    Best regards and keep up the good work,


    1. In reply to both Theo and Vicar Lee: I did a web search on Toonlie Barefoot, and could find no further reference to the case. I agree that revisiting the case would be a great idea, but I'm on the other side of the world, so I shall have to leave it to someone else.
      Can you provide a reference to the blue man of Studham Common? It sounds like it might be interesting.

  4. Excellent work, Mr. Smith. I'm mightily impressed. The Barefoot case has always been one of the weird ones.

    It's possible for a child that young to display significant symptoms of ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) or Conduct Disorder (leading to full blown adult Antisocial Personality Disorder) in which case we might expect an 8-year-old capable of maintaining a "big lie" over time and through repeated interviews and interrogations. But for the tale to hold water and keep its structure, we should also expect a high IQ.

    Are you aware of any evidence that Tonnlie was a "troubled child" or that he went on to become a criminal mastermind? (Or a major political figure?)


    R Emmet Lee

  5. Spontaneous endogenous DMT visions. See Graham Hancock's "Supernatural"

  6. I can easily understand how one might scoff at such seemingly absurd stories. I would too, except for the fact that, years ago, a pair of trusted lifelong friends of mine had a most strange and utterly inexplicable experience one night on a lonely road that plainly terrified them.

    I personally believe that what we think of as "reality" is not at all what we believe it to be.

    Brian from Colorado