The case of the "Cottingley Fairies"

One of the most remarkable episodes of the early 20th century is that of the Cottingley Fairies.

The period just before the advent of the 20th century was marked by a distancing of many of those who considered themselves rational in spiritualistic and mystical things, seances, automatic writing, and Ouija boards, etc. Harry Houdi, showman and escape artist famously tried for years to contact his mother who had died.

Someone who should have known better and did not was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. This is an overview of an incident which happened during World War One which attracted news papers and the worlds attention for decades.

Elsie was the daughter of Arthur Wright, one of the earliest qualified electrical engineers. She borrowed her father's camera (a Butcher Midg No. 1 Magazine Type Falling Plate 1/4-plate camera) and took photos in the beck behind the family house. When Mr. Wright, upon developing the plates, saw fairies in the pictures, he considered them fake. After he saw the second picture, he banned Elsie from using the camera again. Her mother, Polly, however was convinced of their authenticity.

The first picture was taken by the girls at Cottingley Beck and shows Frances looking into the camera as a troop of fairies dances on the branches in the foreground. Some photographers of the day examined the photo and declared them to be genuine but the Kodak laboratories refused to authenticate them, stating that there were many ways to get such faked results.

The photo had been received in its original form in a letter to Edward L. Gardner along with the second photo in the series. However, as the images were relatively faded and ill defined, Gardner tasked Harold Snelling to produce some better reprints that were then made in enough numbers to satisfy the public as interest in the photographs accelerated.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his later years, became a proponent of spiritualism. This fascination lost him many friends, earned him much cruel criticism and was even accused of senility.

In 1920 Doyle was preparing a feature for the Strand magazine on fairies for the the Christmas issue. During his research he was contacted by a friend who was able to present him with a set of photos purportedly showing the two girls from Yorkshire in the company of fairies.

He contacted a friend Sir Oliver Lodge, a psychic researcher, to who Doyle showed the photos. Lodge dismissed the photos as fakes. A fairy expert even going so far as to indicate that the hairstyles were too Parisian. The photos were published and Doyle considered the photos as real. Below are the supposed fairy photos...

In 1981, in an interview by Joe Cooper for the magazine The Unexplained, the cousins stated that the photos were fake; they had held up cut-outs with hatpins. Frances Way (née Griffiths), however, continued to maintain until her death in July, 1986 (Elsie died in April, 1988) that they did see fairies and that the fifth photograph, which showed fairies in a sunbath, was genuine.

In a 1985 TV interview on Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers Elsie Wright stated that they were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling the author of Sherlock Holmes.

"Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle, well, we could only keep quiet."

In the same interview they also stated:

"I never even thought of it as being a fraud — it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can't understand to this day why they were taken in — they wanted to be taken in."

In this interview, neither woman said any photograph was genuine, however Frances maintained that there had been fairies in the garden.

The fifth photo.

de Brantigny


elena maria vidal said...

Very interesting! The photos are so obviously fake, it is amazing that anyone could have been deceived!

de Brantigny........................ said...

Well, I see these reasons:
World War 1 just ended. People world wide were suffering from a global trauma. Belief in God shifted to the occult. People were open to believing this that they other wise wouldn't because they were more spiritual. Lastly it was in Yorkshire.

Today we live with all manner of commuter generated images but not so in 1917. I first saw these in the 70's and they gave me a pause.