Cottingley’s Fairies: the pictures that tricked also Arthur Conan Doyle7 min read
There are fairies in the stream that runs through the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire.
It’s true, and there are pictures to prove it!
The very popular Cottingley Fairies refers to five photographs taken by two schoolgirls between 1917 and 1920 near Cottingley Beck, England, close to a narrow stream. Elsie Wright (1901–1988) and Frances Griffiths (1907–1986), cousins living at Elsie’s house in the village, liked to play by the stream at the bottom of the garden, much to their mothers’ annoyance, because they frequently came back with wet feet and clothes. The two girls said they only went to the beck to see the fairies.
In 1917, the date on which the first photos were taken, Elsie was 16 years old and Frances was just 9. One day, they came back, triumphant, with photographic “proof”: a picture showing Frances behind what appeared to be four small dancing fairies.
Elsie was not a particularly bright girl (it seems, she was the class dunce) and was also very clumsy, but she managed to take her father’s camera, a Midg quarter-plate, and take the photos. Elsie’s father, an electrical engineer, but also a keen amateur photographer, who had set up his own darkroom, when he developed the photos immediately thought that they were fake shots and harshly scolded his daughter. Knowing Elsie’s artistic ability, and that she had spent some time working in a photographer’s studio, he dismissed the figures as cardboard cutouts. Two months later the girls borrowed his camera again, and this time returned with a photograph of Elsie sitting on the lawn holding out her hand to a 30 cm gnome. Exasperated by what he believed to be “nothing but a prank”, and convinced that the girls must have tampered with his camera in some way, Arthur Wright refused to lend it to them again.
However, the girl’s mother, Polly, wanted to believe her daughter and was deeply influenced by the story.
All the story seemed destined to remain within family boundaries, and so it would have been if Elsie’s mother, Mrs. Polly Wright, passionate about occultism and a strong supporter of the existence of astral and paranormal experiences, had not talked about it at a meeting of the Theosophical Society of Bradford. Two years had already gone by and one more was needed before the shot taken by Elsie and Frances ended up in the hands of the famous theosophist Edward Gardner. The first snapshot was followed by four others, taken with a camera given to the girls by Edward Gardner himself, head of the Theosophical Society, who believed the photographs were real when Elsie’s mother brought them to the society’s attention. He wasn’t the only one.
Ironically enough, precisely in that year, 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritual man despite being famous for creating the highly rational detective Sherlock Holmes, had been commissioned by The Strand Magazine to write an article on fairies for their Christmas issue.
Despite he was so interested in the occult, he remained rather skeptical about the affair, however he decided to see the shots of Cottingley’s cousins anyway and was deeply impressed, to the point of writing to Elsie, then almost twenty years old, not to be “never been interested so much in something for a long time ”.
Doyle, however, could not believe these photos to be true, and he consulted many specialists, both scientists and occult scholars, and even these confirmed his doubts. Finally, in agreement with Gardner, Doyle decided to go together with the theosophist to the village where the girls lived to investigate. Meanwhile Doyle, who still had to hand over the article he had been asked, had not resisted the temptation to publish two of the shots depicting the fairies of Elsie and Frances, accompanying them with the sensationalist title:
Fairies photographed – an epoch making event
To place the matter of the photographs’ authenticity beyond doubt, Gardner returned to Cottingley at the end of July with two cameras so that Frances and Elsie could take more pictures of the fairies.
Until 19 August the weather was unsuitable for photography. Because Frances and Elsie insisted that the fairies would not show themselves if others were watching, Elsie’s mother was persuaded to visit her sister’s for tea, leaving the girls alone. In her absence the girls took several photographs, two of which appeared to show fairies. In the first, Frances is shown in profile with a winged fairy close by her nose. The second, shows a fairy either hovering or tiptoeing on a branch, and offering Elsie a flower. Two days later the girls took the last picture, Fairies and Their Sun-Bath.
The plates were packed and returned to Gardner in London, who sent an “ecstatic” telegram to Doyle, by then in Melbourne. Doyle wrote back:
“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.”
Doyle’s article in the December 1920 issue of The Strand contained two higher-resolution prints of the 1917 photographs, and sold out within days of publication. He ended his article with the words:
“The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.”
The great resonance that the story continued to have was useful to those who, like Doyle, tried to convince the vast public of the existence of paranormal beings: therefore, although probably not yet completely convinced of the authenticity of the images produced by the two cousins, the writer exploited its relative celebrity to try to support his theories on the existence of an otherworldly reality.
Others, including Elsie’s father, were less convinced of the pictures’ authenticity, claiming the image was manipulated or faked with cardboard cutouts. Representatives of the Eastman Kodak Company said that the pictures at once “showed no signs of being faked” but were not necessarily “authentic photographs of fairies.”
The fact, however, that the girls were not able to produce more shots afterwards, partially reduced public attention.
In fact, there were no more fairy photos after 1920, but in 1921 Geoffrey Hodson, a clairvoyant visiting the girls, claimed that he saw fairies everywhere around the beck.
Both girls married and lived abroad for a time after they grew up, yet the photographs continued to hold the public imagination.
Frances Griffiths always maintained that some of the fairies in the pictures were real, but in 1983, almost seventy years after the first shot, Elsie Wright told the BBC that the pictures had been staged with using cutouts, hatpins, and twigs in order to take pictures and provide tangible proof of their perceptions. And yet, some still believe.
However, in front of an analysis carried out with modern technologies, fairy photos prove to be unquestionably false: with better print quality the pins used to stop them in the desired position are even visible, and it is evident that they are cut out paper figurines.
The photographs and two of the cameras are on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford, not far from Cottingley Beck. Even if the images were recently auctioned for 20,000 pounds, about 21,300 euros, bus conductors have been known to welcome passengers to “Fairyland” when letting them off the bus at Cottingley Bar. The story inspired the 1997 movie Fairy Tale: A True Story.
Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, June 1917
Images from web, source: Wikipedia