by Tracie Griffith

The short film The Legend of Matilda Dixon was included in the DVD release of the US feature film Darkness Falls (2003) and independently released on YouTube (2011).The Legend of Matilda Dixon is presented in a documentary-style format and provides the foundation for the ‘Tooth Fairy’ myth that is the main storyline of the feature film. In the short film, Port Fairy is accused of murdering Matilda Dixon in 1841 and her death is promoted to a world-wide audience as the town’s dirty secret.

According to the short film, Matilda Dixon and her husband, Sonny, arrived in Port Fairy as newlyweds. Sonny worked on the fishing boats and Matilda worked in the bakery. Tragedy struck when Sonny was lost at sea in a storm in 1836. Matilda continued at Port Fairy and would bake treats for the children who had lost their baby teeth (the origins of the Tooth Fairy myth). After her face was horribly disfigured in an oven fire at her house, Matilda became more reclusive and would only go out at night to deliver her treats, leaving them on the doorsteps of the children’s houses. One day in 1841, two children said they were going to visit the Tooth Fairy and didn’t return. The town blamed Matilda for their disappearance and an angry mob lynched her – before the children were found unharmed. Matilda’s ghost is said to have haunted the town of Port Fairy from that day forward.

I was told about The Legend of Matilda Dixon when we first started researching Port Fairy’s ghost stories, and viewed both the short film and feature film Darkness Falls at the first opportunity. With 17 years of experience in the Australian film industry, it was immediately apparent that the short film was designed as a marketing tool for Darkness Falls. However, some people believe the short film’s assertions and it has become necessary to explain why Matilda Dixon won’t be included as one of the stories in the Port Fairy Ghost Stories project.

So why was Port Fairy chosen as the location for The Legend of Matilda Dixon? I spoke to John Hegeman (writer/director of the short film and producer of Darkness Falls) to find out. The answer is not particularly glamorous. John was already filming Darkness Falls in Melbourne when he decided to construct a backstory for the feature. “Every good horror movie needs a mythology,” he explained.

As the marketing executive who oversaw The Blair Witch Project (1999), a box office and marketing phenomena, John understood how effective it was to create a timeline chronicled with real events. “I found a book about the history of Port Fairy in the production office,” he said. “And it seemed a good fit. Especially as Darkness Falls was originally titled The Tooth Fairy.” So the rationale was a simple one: why not a Tooth Fairy in a township called Port Fairy?

“It was a matter of convenience,” said John. “It wasn’t premeditated beyond that.” The Legend of Matilda Dixon was shot with a small crew on their days off from the set of Darkness Falls; in locations around Melbourne and Port Fairy. John said he enjoyed filming in the Western Districts and working with the locals, and apologised for any inconvenience the short film may have caused, suggesting we create a flier to explain the truth of the Matilda Dixon story. “I want people to have a sense of humour about it and gain something from it,” he said.

We would like to thank John for kindly providing the truth of the origins of the Matilda Dixon story and helping to set the record straight.

The Legend of Matilda Dixon can be viewed at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GYSf32mJ_Y

A list follows of the assertions made in the short film The Legend of Matilda Dixon and the research undertaken to investigate those claims. We could find no factual basis for the story and no proof in the historical record that Matilda Dixon ever existed.  This research is included for anyone who doesn’t believe we spoke to John Hegeman or that we have faithfully represented his comments. As John said, some people are going to believe whatever they want to believe, no matter what proof you offer them.

  • The first government of the land was in 1827 (image of Atkinson’s survey in background).

    Atkinson’s Special Survey of Port Fairy was acquired in 1843. Records show a ‘Port Fairy Sheep Speculation’ and ‘Port Fairy Farming Speculation’ were operating in Port Fairy as early as 1836 (1). There were sealing and whaling operations in the area prior to Atkinson’s survey (2).

  • Matilda Schultz/Dixon was born on 24th December 1803 (the youngest of seven children).

    There is no record of Matilda Schultz/Dixon’s birth, marriage or death in Victoria’s early church records: baptisms, marriages and burials (1836-1853) or the Pioneers Index (1836-1888). There is also no inquest record or cemetery record for Matilda Dixon (courtesy of the Port Fairy Cemetery Trust).

  • Matilda’s father left the family one week after she was born.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • Sonny was a sailor at sea and was on one month’s leave when he met Matilda.

    There is no record of Sonny Dixon’s birth, marriage or death in Victoria’s early church records: baptisms, marriages and burials (1836-1853) or the Pioneers Index (1836-1888). There is also no cemetery record for Sonny Dixon (courtesy of the Port Fairy Cemetery Trust).

  • Matilda was working at a bakery when she met Sonny. It was love at first sight.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • Matilda and Sonny came to Port Fairy as newlyweds.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • Sony was killed on 13th January 1836, when the whaling vessel ‘Guiding Light’ was lost at sea in a storm. Records show that 15 of the townsmen were killed that day.

    There is no record of the whaling vessel the ‘Guiding Light’. There is also no record of Sonny or 15 townsmen dying at sea on that date in Victoria’s early church records: baptisms, marriages and burials (1836-1853), the Pioneers Index (1836-1888) or the cemetery records (courtesy of the Port Fairy Cemetery Trust).

  • Footage is shown from the 1922 documentary Mystery of the Guiding Light.

    There is no documentary by this name listed in the film databases or a general internet search (Screen Australia, BONZA – National Cinema and Television Database, IMDb Australia, Australian Screen, OZMOVIES, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia). The footage from the documentary is not properly credited at the end of The Legend of Matilda Dixon.

  • The ‘Guiding Light’ tragedy was reported in The Belfast Gazette on 14th January 1836 (the whaling vessel was lost the previous Wednesday).

    The Belfast Gazette commenced publication in 1849. The first newspaper in the area was The Portland Mercury & Normanby Advertiser (which commenced publication in 1842).

  • Matilda would bake cakes for the children who lost their baby teeth, thereby becoming known as the Tooth Fairy.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • There was a terrible oven fire at Matilda’s house in 1840 and she was burned. She no longer went out during the day or let the children stop by.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • Matilda still exchanged gifts for the children’s teeth. The children would leave their teeth wrapped in a handkerchief and taped to the front door at night, and she would leave change on their doorstep.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • It was rumoured that Matilda hid her face behind a porcelain mask because she had been disfigured in the fire.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • On the night of 23rd September 1841, two children went to visit the Tooth Fairy and didn’t come back. Their parents raised the alarm and an angry, drunken mob invaded Matilda’s house. The mob was led by Colin O’Donnell.

    There are no birth or death records for a Colin O’Donnell at that time in Victoria’s early church records: baptisms, marriages and burials (1836-1853) or the Pioneers Index (1836-1888). He is also not listed in The Biographical Dictionary of the Western District of Victoria (3).

  • Footage is shown from the 1936 film ‘Sweet Matilda’ by Southstar Productions.

    There is no film by this name listed in the film databases or a general internet search (Screen Australia, BONZA – National Cinema and Television Database, IMDb Australia, Australian Screen, OZMOVIES, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia). The footage from the film is not properly credited at the end of The Legend of Matilda Dixon. There is no record of a production company named Southstar Productions.

  • The mob hung Matilda from a tree, killing her. The two children were found, but it was too late – Matilda was dead and the entire town was guilty of her murder.

    No one has ever been hung in Port Fairy (courtesy of the Port Fairy Historical Society).

  • Matilda’s death was recorded as accidental asphyxiation by the local authorities (Belfast Department of Police #5729 23rd September 1841). Her body was buried in an unmarked plot in the town’s cemetery.

    There is no record of Matilda Dixon’s death in Victoria’s early church records: baptisms, marriages and burials (1836-1853) or the Pioneers Index (1836-1888). There is also no record of an inquest or cemetery record for Matilda Dixon (courtesy of the Port Fairy Cemetery Trust).

  • Matilda’s murder became the town’s dirty secret.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • In 1861, the town continued its desecration of Matilda Dixon when they moved the original cemetery to make room for modern expansion. Her body was supposed to be relocated to a new location, but it was lost and to this day, has never been found.

    Cannot be substantiated.

  • In 1951, the plaque dedicated to Matilda’s memory was stolen and the area vandalised.

    There is no record of a plaque being erected in Port Fairy in honour of Matilda Dixon (courtesy of the Moyne Shire). There is no record of such a plaque being vandalised (review of The Port Fairy Gazette for 1951).

    NB: Why would the town erect a plaque in Matilda Dixon’s memory if it was intent on suppressing the truth of her murder?

  • The article ‘Still no leads in missing teens case’ appeared in The Port Fairy Times on 22nd September 1951. The youths responsible began to disappear (origin of the curse of the Tooth Fairy).

    There is no record of youths vanishing (review of The Port Fairy Gazette for 1951). The Port Fairy Gazette was the town’s only newspaper in 1951. The Port Fairy Times & Macarthur News was published in 1917-1918 only.

  • A new plaque was erected in Matilda’s honour in 1953.

    There is no record of a replacement plaque being erected in Port Fairy in honour of Matilda Dixon (courtesy of the Moyne Shire and a review of The Port Fairy Gazette for 1953).

  • The curse is now considered a legend and draws tourists who want to know more about Matilda Dixon’s sad life.

    The Port Fairy Historical Society and Port Fairy Visitor Information Centre regularly receive requests for information about Matilda Dixon. Some people become angry when they find out the story is a hoax.

  • The Port Fairy Inn is featured in several of the interviews in The Legend of Matilda Dixon.

    The Port Fairy Inn has never existed.

  • The short film The Legend of Matilda Dixon featured interviews with the citizens of Port Fairy.

    This could not be substantiated. The town historian was George Liddle, a well-known Australian Production Designer (credited as Production Designer on the feature film Darkness Falls).

  • Photographs of Matilda Dixon are shown in the short film.

    Photography arrived in Sydney, Australia in 1841 as an exhibit only (the year Matilda was supposedly murdered). Matilda would have been 38 when she died and the photograph used in the short film is of a much older woman.

  • Photographs and footage of Port Fairy and Matilda’s relatives are shown in the short film.

    Photographs and footage of the town, port, lighthouse and cemetery are generally not of Port Fairy. Historical photographs are not properly credited at the end of The Legend of Matilda Dixon. One photograph is of William Rutledge and his wife, Eliza, standing outside their house in Cox Street (Rutledge was a prominent citizen of the district from the 1840s onwards).

References:

  1. Carroll, J.R. (1986). The Foundation of Port Fairy. Royal Historical Society of Victoria, 57(4), 23-34.
  2. Powling, J.W. (1980). Port Fairy: The First Fifty Years. Melbourne: William Heinemann.
  3. Forth, G. (Ed.). (1998). The Biographical Dictionary of the Western District of Victoria. South Melbourne: Hyland House.
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