Cottingley: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Fairie Folk

The most famous of all literary police detectives, Sherlock Holmes, was a logical and scientific man who insisted on evidence and proof. But the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was none of these things: he was a gullible and naive old man who embraced spiritualism, seances, and ghosts, and who foolishly got himself caught up in a hoax that involved, of all things, photographs of “fairies” taken by two young girls in England.

ElsieBank1920

Elsie Wright in 1920                                       photo from Wiki commons

In August 1914, the “Great War” broke out in Europe. The horrendous slaughter in the trenches wiped out an entire generation of young British men, and left shattered families and parents all over England. In desperation, bereaved families, during the war and in the years after, turned to “Spiritualism”, the effort to contact the spirits of the dead, to console themselves over the loss of their sons, brothers, and fathers. Fraudulent “mediums” used parlor-magician tricks in staged “seances”; fake “spirit images” were produced using the relatively new and, to most people incomprehensible, art of photography.

One of the most famous proponents of Spiritualism in Britain was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mystery stories. Although the detective stories would be Doyle’s enduring legacy and make him world-famous, Doyle actually considered the Holmes franchise to be unimportant, just a way to pay the bills. It was, Doyle thought, his Spiritualist writings and lectures that were his most important work–he even killed off Sherlock Holmes in one of his stories and announced he would not write any further mysteries, to devote more time to his Spiritualist work. (Fortunately, Holmes fans prevailed upon Doyle to revive the detective for more stories.)

In 1920, Doyle was contacted by a friend named Edward Gardner, a member of the Theosophical Society–an international group of mystics who embraced a mix of Asian philosophy, Spiritualism, and a belief in the supernatural. Gardner’s letter included two photographs which, he declared, proved that there were real fairies, the mythical “little folk”, alive and living in England.

In July 1917, two young cousins in Cottingley Village, near Bradford, 15-year old Elsie Wright and 10-year old Frances Griffiths, borrowed a camera from Elsie’s father, Arthur Wright, an electrical engineer, casually mentioning that they wanted to take a photo of the fairies who lived by the garden stream. Photography had been around for over 50 years by this time, but it was only recently that small portable cameras that could be used by ordinary people had become available: Elsie had worked for a short time as an assistant in a photographer’s shop.

When the girls returned from the garden, they persuaded Arthur Wright to develop the glass plate that served as the photographic negative. And there on the plate was an image of Frances with a number of “fairies” dancing in front of her. Wright, who knew that his daughter was an accomplished art sketcher and also knew how to use a camera, recognized them as paper cutouts, smiled at the prank, and saved the photo. Two months later, the girls came back with a second photo, this time of Elsie and a “gnome”.

There the matter might have ended, had Arthur Wright’s wife Polly, an enthusiastic believer in Spiritualism, not attended a lecture in 1919 by the Theosophical Society on “the reality of fairies”. Polly Wright told the lecturer about the photos taken by her daughter and niece, and later showed the photos to several members of the Society. From there, by 1920 the photos had made their way to Edward Gardner, a Theosophist friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who told the writer about them. Doyle wanted to go investigate for himself, but since he had to leave for a trip to Australia, he asked Gardner to interview the girls. Gardner reported that he believed the story, and thought the photographs were genuine. As it happened, Doyle had already been asked by a London magazine, The Strand, to do a story on fairies: he decided to publish the two photos and present the story given by the two girls (using pseudonyms). At the same time, Doyle provided Gardner with a new camera which he was to give to the girls and ask them to get more photos. Obligingly, in August 1920, Elsie and Frances provided three more photos of “fairies”. Doyle, upon receiving the new photos while still away on his trip, wrote back to Gardner, “My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance … We have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.” Gardner’s “investigation” was then capped off by a “psychic” who visited the girls in the garden, and declared that he too had seen the “nature spirits”. In 1922, Doyle published a book, titled The Coming of the Fairies, laying out the whole story.

The reaction was brutal. The photos were condemned as obvious fakes, made with paper cutouts (though a few photo experts pronounced them genuine), and Doyle was castigated as a doddering old fool who was probably going senile. Arthur Wright, who had recognized from the first that the photos were a prank, told the press that he was astonished that Doyle, or any other grown man, could seriously believe that there were actually real fairies in his garden. The girls, meanwhile, went silent and refused to talk further about the photos.

Finally in 1982, Elsie and Frances, now in their 80’s, finally ‘fessed up, mostly. While both women insisted that they had seen real fairies at the garden stream, Elsie admitted that all five photos had been faked; Frances declared that the last photo was real. The girls had, they confessed, drawn the “fairies” using the illustrations in a chidlren’s book titled Princess Mary’s Gift Book, cut out the paper drawings with a pair of scissors, then poked a hatpin through them to make a stand, which they then stuck into the ground. (In one of the photos, the tip of the hatpin is actually visible poking out through the paper, but Doyle had decided that this was the fairy’s bellybutton, declaring it evidence that the fairy folk reproduced the same way that humans do.)

By the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, the Cottingley Fairy Photos had been almost universally dismissed as a hoax. Today in the Internet Age, however, it is still possible to find apparently serious websites and blogs (usually Spiritualist or Theosophical) still arguing that they are genuine. Apparently, some people still have the need to believe what they want to believe.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.