In 1917, ten-year-old Frances Griffiths moved into her uncle’s and aunt’s home in Cottingley, Yorkshire, England while her father fought in WW I. Frances and her teenaged cousin, Elsie, daughter of Polly and Arthur Wright, played in the family’s garden. In July, the girls claimed they saw fairies and asked to borrow Arthur’s camera to take pictures of the fairies. He agreed and showed them how to use the camera.
Cottingley Fairies’ Photographs
The girls returned home a short time later and said they took the photos. When Arthur developed the plate, he saw a fairy posing with Frances in the picture. He thought the photo was a fake and asked Elsie why there appeared to be pieces of paper in it. When the girls took another photo about a month later, showing Elsie with a gnome, Arthur thought they were a joke and filed them away; however Polly was intrigued by the photos.
In 1919, Polly went to a lecture about spiritualism and showed the fairies’ photos to the speaker. She asked him if they could be real. The speaker showed the photos to Edward Gardner, one of the leaders of the Theosophical Society, who asked photographer Harold Snelling to examine them. Snelling affirmed the photos were genuine and that there was no evidence of chicanery involving paper cutouts.
The fairy photos circulated through the British spiritualist community and came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known as the author of the Sherlock Holmes books. He was a spiritualist and was convinced they were proof that fairies existed.
Cottingley Fairies’ Pictures Fooled Sir Conan Doyle
In August 1920, Doyle asked Frances and Elsie to take three more photos of the fairies. He wrote an illustrated article about the photographs that appeared in the December 1920 issue of The Strand Magazine, in which he vouched for the authenticity of the photos. His article brought the photos to the attention to more people and started an international controversy that pitted believers against disbelievers.
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Believers contacted photographic experts who averred that none of the negatives had been altered and there was no proof that the photos were double exposures. The experts said an insignificant blurring of one of the fairies showed the fairy was moving during the exposure and dismissed the thought that the fairies were paper cutouts.
In 1922, Doyle published The Coming of the Fairies, again vowing that the girls’ experiences and pictures were genuine before he left Britain for an Australian lecture tour. When he returned home, he discovered the media ridiculed him and admitted that, perhaps, he was fooled by a hoax.
Cottingley Fairies’ Pictures: A Hoax
Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930. In the early 1980s, Elsie and Frances admitted their hoax. The fairies in the photos were incredibly comparable to pictures in a children’s book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, published in 1915. Elsie sketched the fairies, using the book as a model. After she made the cutouts, she put them in place using hatpins. The girls alleged that they had actually seen fairies and were angry with the adults who scolded them for seeing the creatures, so they faked the photos. Later, they were shocked that Conan Doyle was so interested in their hoax, and didn’t want to embarrass him by admitting the truth.
Huntington, T. The Man Who Believed In Fairies. (1997). Smithsonian Mag. Accessed October 27, 2013.
Fodor, Nandor. Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. (1969). University Books.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. (1992). Facts On File, Inc.© Copyright 2013 Jill Stefko, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past