The Cottingley Fairies

Cottingley_Fairies_1Of the silly Fortean beliefs held by people of the late 19th and early 20th century, some are more understandable than others.  When an idea infects the populous it can spread as quickly as a scientifically engineered super-virus, and when those ideas are backed by the likes of intellectual giants such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s easy to forgive the people for buying into it.

I characterize Doyle as an intellectual giant, and he rightly was, but to be honest, he got behind some fairly weird ideas during his heyday.  Doyle was a huge proponent of the séance, he held an immense fascination with tipping tables and the medium’s trumpet and ectoplasm, but his attentions weren’t only focused on the ghostly and the spiritual.  In fact, his interest and passion for cryptozoological topics resulted in his being taken in by a few well executed hoaxes over the years.

fairy3One such example was the Cottingley Fairies.  As the story goes, in mid-1917, two young girls, cousins Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths of West Yorkshire, England, visited Cottingley beck, a small stream running near their small village.  There the girls apparently witnessed groups of fairies frolicking about near the rivers edge.  Elise being 16 at the time and Frances being only 10 years old, claimed to not only interact with the fairies but, incredibly, they captured five photographs of the creatures over a period of time.

Showing several small (approximately six inch tall), apparently female fairy like creatures, the photos became public in mid-1918 through the Theosophical Society of Bradford England, via one of the cottingley_fairies_14_by_victoriaemmathompson-d32xeppSociety’s leading members, Mr. Edward Gardner.  Gardner subjected the photos to analysis, such as it was at the time, and with the help of photography expert Harold Snelling, determined that the photos were not faked.  At least as far as saying that the photos showed what had been presented to the camera at the time of exposure and were not manipulated photographically.

Elise’s Father, a professional photographer himself, with a darkroom set up in his home and whose camera the girls had borrowed to take the photos, had dismissed the photos as a hoax, believing the fairies to be cardboard cut-outs, but Frances’ Mother was taken by the photos and was the one to bring them forward to Gardner.

Public opinion was split over the authenticity of the photos and the girls enjoyed some short-lived celebrity over the incident.  They eventually became disenchanted with the idea of fairies and the attention of investigators and psychics interested in exploiting the situation soon became a burden to the girls and their families.

Conan Doyle became aware of the photos through the editor of the Spiritualist publication Light.  And having been commissioned to write an article on fairies for the 1920 Christmas issue of The Strand Magazine, Doyle used the photos as the basis for his article, interpreting them as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomenon.

170px-CottingleyFairies4Following Conan Doyle’s involvement, further analysis took place via the photography companies Kodak and Ilford, and while the Ilford technicians found evidence that the photos had been faked, the Kodak analysis agreed with Snelling’s initial assessment.

Like most incidents of paranormal phenomenon, the fervour and public interest in the photos eventually died down and Elise and Frances went on with their lives.  Until, that is, the BBC covered the story in 1971 in their Nationwide programme in which Elise maintained her original story, that she believed the fairies were figments of her imagination and that she had somehow managed to photograph her own thoughts.

Over the years Elise and Frances had been interviewed for other programmes and news stories and they always maintained their story.  James Randi, in cooperation with a team from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, concluded through computer analysis that strings could be seen suspending the fairies in mid air.  And in 1983 the cousins admitted in an article published in the magazine The Unexplained that they had in fact hoaxed the photos.

Elise admitted that the fairies were cardboard cut outs from a children’s book (Princess Mary’s Gift Book – 1914), and that they had been suspended in front of the camera using hat pins.  While Elise claimed that all five photos were faked, Frances maintained, quite adamantly, that the fifth photo was genuine and that it did in fact depict real fairies that they saw at Cottingley beck.

170px-CottingleyFairies3The women, now deceased, were responsible for pulling the wool over the eyes of many a learned and experienced investigator, not the least of which was Conan Doyle, and their accounts of the events surrounding the photos never waivered, up until their admission of the hoax.  It’s a near certainty that some people still believe the fairies are real, in spite of the confession, and bearing that in mind, can one forgive the great genius of Conan Doyle for being duped by a couple of adolescent girls with vivid imaginations and the creative expertise to affect some of the most convincing fairy photos in history?

This wasn’t the first time Conan Doyle was taken in by a story of incredible proportions and it certainly wasn’t the last, but in my mind, his passion for the subject and the reach of his own imagination outweigh his ultimate gullibility.

What do you think about the Cottingley Fairies and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s quick acceptance that Fairies actually do exist?  Voice your opinion in the comment section below.

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Martin J. Clemens

Writer, Canadian, Fortean Addict...and lover of science and history. "As for me...I know only, that I know nothing..." I also blog at www.dailygrail.com and mysteriousuniverse.org
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  • http://gravatar.com/sarijj sarijj

    While the story of Doyle being so easily duped makes me shake my head in disbelief, the story of the cousins makes me smile. My grandmother had a large farm and in one of the fields sat a large 5 foot tall Rock. The rock had a perfectly round hole in the top and down the side from weathering was a wide groove than ended in what looked like a pool. When it rained the water ran down the groove into the pool. My aunts called it the fairy rock and told my cousins and I that fairies lived in the rock and used the pool to bath. I remember sitting on the rock with one of my cousins for hours on end waiting for the fairies to emerge. Sadly, they never did but we imagined them to look like the ones in the Cottingley pictures. Years later, when I first heard about this story I laughed and thought “that could have been my cousin and I” had we been cunning naughty girls.

  • Martin J. Clemens

    It is a sort of innocently romantic story. And your story makes me smile. Thanks for reading!

  • Robin

    Who among us DOESN’T want to believe in fairies and magic? Given the horrors of the Great War that England had just come through, the tremendous loss of lives it caused (England lost over 900,000 young men, including Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley), it’s no wonder people were desperate to believe in something, proof of the supernatural, including God.