In the December 1920 issue of The Strand magazine in London, an article appeared by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which caused a sensation. The issue sold out within days, but it was not the article itself that caused the flurry. It was the photographs which came with them.
Alongside Conan Doyle’s ringing endorsement were several detailed, clear pictures of two girls interacting with fairies in their garden. The two girls, who were given the false names Alice and Iris, had in fact concocted an elaborate hoax, for which the author of Sherlock Holmes had completely fallen.
The story starts during the First World War, when Frances Griffith settled down in Cottingley, Yorkshire, leaving behind the British Colony of South Africa. Her mother was a widow, but they lived with her uncle and her cousin Elsie Wright.
Elsie was 16, and Frances herself was a teen. Together, the girls would play around the green woods of Cottingley. The two girls loved to play, and they would spend hours in the abandoned forest.
They spent so much time in the forest that their parents would often scold them for being outside during late hours. The two girls then came up with a bizarre and creative excuse for their long absences: the forest they played in had supernatural creatures like fairies and gnomes.
The Story of Cottingley Fairies
It was Frances who came up with the excuse and came back with stories of these fascinating fairies they had found, and that they lost track of time playing with the creatures. Elsie backed this childish fantasy of Frances too.
At first, the adults of the Wright family did not believe Frances and Elsie. The two girls then took a camera and set off in the woods to capture the fairies they played with. They borrowed the camera from their uncle Arthur, an amateur photographer who had a dark room in their house. The two girls returned after an hour and gave their camera roll for development to Frances’s uncle.
Arthur knew that Elsie and Frances were mischievous, and Elsie had a knack for photography. When he saw the photograph with Frances sitting on a log, little fairies dancing around her, he thought those might be paper cutouts. Which is what they were.
When the adults did not believe in the lies, Elsie and Frances took another photograph where the girl was seen interacting directly with the fairies. Arthur found it ingenious but impudent.
He even searched their beds and rooms for paper cutouts of fairies and gnomes. But while Arthur still believed that the fairies were children’s imagination, Elsie’s mother, Polly, started to believe.
Polly Wright was a member of the Theosophical Society, and she believed that the photographs were a sign of such mythical creatures existing. Less than a year later, Polly arrived in London and addressed the Theosophical Society, talking about the existence of fairies.
She took the photographs that Elsie and Frances had taken with her. To the surprise of Arthur, the people at the meeting believed the photographs to be true.
One of the most fervent supporters of the Theosophical Society was Edward Gardner. Edward Gardner believed in the photographs and took the photographs to be authenticated by Harold Snelling, who was himself a photograph expert.
Snelling never said that these creatures in the photo were real. He said that the images showed what was in front of the camera. The nature of the things in front of the lens was not discussed or attested by the cameraman.
Knowing that the photographs were authentic and thinking these were real fairies, Gardner kept giving lectures in London on them. The photographs were so sensational that they were displayed at the Society’s yearly conference in Halifax. While not everyone was completely taken in by the photographs, many were fascinated and sided with the realness of the fairies.
Even people from the highest social circles and intelligentsia were intrigued by the photographs. The photographs had evolved from a child’s play to a figment of fraud coated with the truth.
Enter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the notable English personalities who took notice of the photographs was Arthur Conan Doyle. Sadly the creator of Sherlock Holmes was nowhere near as perceptive as his fictional counterpart, and had allowed himself, out of a desire to advance the world of science, to believe all sorts of things.
His natural curiosity had led him to spiritualism. He was always on the search for something supernatural and otherworldly. This desire of his also comes across in the stories he wrote. Sir Arthur came across the Cottingley fairies in an article published in the spiritual publication Light which he was evidently not treating with the skepticism it merited.
Coincidentally, Sir Arthur himself was working on a Christmas edition article on fairies for the magazine Strand. He was so mesmerized by the photographs that he wanted to feature the photographs with his article.
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Since Sir Arthur was already renowned at that time, the Wright family let him use those photographs without a fee. Sir Arthur and Gardner then took the photographs to Kodak and asked for an expert analysis of the photographs’ authenticity.
The expert technicians at Kodak concurred with the initial opinion of Snelling. However, Kodak never gave its official opinion or decision on the matter.
While this would have convinced rational minds of the nonexistence of fairies, the denial only added another layer of mystery for the believers. Gardner was convinced that the photographs had true fairies in them and Kodak had an anti-spiritual stance.
Sir Arthur became more engrossed in the photographs and fairies when the experts unofficially verified the authenticity of the photographs. He then sent Gardner to Cottingley and asked the Wright cousins to take more pictures of the fairies. With the adults following them to the forests with cameras and equipment, the Wright cousins knew their play had become serious.
The cousins then told the adults that the fairies only came out in front of children and that the photos could be taken when they were alone in the woods. Thus, the Wright cousins then produced new series of photographs with the fake fairies.
How they did, it was not clear to the adults. In fact, Sir Arthur and Gardner were ecstatic when they saw the new photographs. Both of them believed that they could now convince the people of spiritualism with the help of the Cottingley fairy’s photographs.
Sir Arthur then went on to publish the photographs in an article titled “Fairies Photographed: An Epoch-Making Event”. He claimed that the photos were credible and fairies existed. There was, of course, criticism of the photographs, but it was not as strong as the acceptance they got from adults who wanted to believe in something fantastic.
Years later, it was revealed that the fairies in the photographs were indeed paper cutouts. The girls had taken the cutouts from children’s storybooks. Ironically, one such book that they made illustrations from had a story written by Sir Doyle himself.
However, Frances insisted, even on her death bed that one of the photographs, taken by a camera that Doyle had given them was genuine and had real fairies in it.
Top Image: The Cottingley Fairies were no more than paper cutouts, but to many they were very real. Source: Katy_novikova / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri