How Sherlock Holmes’ Author Was Tricked Into Believing in Fairies

Humanity has been looking for proof of the paranormal for a long time. Many people insist there is more to the world than the things most of us see. Skeptics need evidence, however. If only there were reliable photographs to support the claims about the paranormal, that would put a lot of doubts to rest. Such evidence would have to be solid, verifiable, and so concrete that not even Sherlock Holmes would harbor any doubts.

It was 1917. Sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her ten-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths had just moved to Cottingley in the United Kingdom. They had spent most of their lives in South Africa and were having difficulty adjusting to their new environment. They found each other’s company preferable to the prospect of making new friends. As a result, they spent much of their time together, exploring and playing in the nearby woods.

Their parents were curious about what the girls were doing. Elsie and Frances answered that they were visiting the fairies that called the woods their home. This, of course, was nothing more than the product of the girls’ overactive imaginations. At least, that’s what their parents assumed. The girls were indignant, however. They were going to prove that they were telling the truth.

Frances Griffiths and fairies

Elsie borrowed her father’s glass plate camera. In less than an hour, the girls were back. Beaming with pride, they declared they had gathered photographic proof that fairies were real.

Arthur Wright decided to go along with whatever game the girls were playing. He agreed to develop the exposed plates in his darkroom. Elsie joined her father as he processed the plates. As the image came into view, Elsie’s smile grew and her father’s jaw dropped. The image that came into focus was a very familiar girl with her chin resting on her hand. In front of her were four small, pale shapes. At first, he thought they were birds. When the plate was fully developed, however, he could see that the winged creatures were fairies.

Elsie Wright with gnome

The girls were delighted to be vindicated. Arthur was still skeptical, however. He knew his daughter was a skilled artist as well with a mischievous streak. He concluded that the fairies were nothing more than cardboard cutouts. Fairies couldn’t possibly be real!

Two months later, the girls borrowed the camera again. When they returned, the photograph showed Elsie being greeted by a one-foot-tall winged gnome. This was getting out of hand, thought Arthur. He told the girls that they were banned from further use of the camera and that they needed to stop their ridiculous practical jokes.

The more Arthur resisted the evidence of his own camera, the more the girls insisted that fairies were real. Frances wrote to a friend in South Africa, sending two of the photographs as proof of her claim. She wrote:

Elsie Wright with a Cottingley Fairy

“Elsie and I are friendly with the beck fairies. Funny, I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there. We all think the war will be over in a few days, we are going to get our flags to hang up in our bedroom. I am sending you two photos, both of me, one is me in a bathing costume in our back yard, uncle Arthur took that, while the other is me with some fairies up the beck, Elsie took that one. Rosebud is as fat as ever and I have made her some new clothes. How are Teddy and dolly?”

Although Arthur was convinced the photos were part of an elaborate prank, his wife, Polly, had her doubts. She and Frances’ mother, Annie Griffiths, recently became interested in Theosophy. This occultist movement was founded by Helena Blavatsky, who held that mystical creatures such as fairies were real. She believed certain humans were gifted with the ability to see them.

The girls’ mothers attended a lecture about fairies at the Theosophical Lodge in Bradford in 1919. After the lecture, they showed the photographs to the speaker. He, in turn, brought them to the attention of Theosophist leader Edward Gardner. Gardner was captivated by what he saw and wrote to Polly Wright:

“[This photograph is] the best of its kind I should think anywhere. I am keenly interested in this side of our wonderful world life and am urging a better understanding of nature spirits and fairies.”

Gardner was wary of putting too much stock in the photographs until they had been professionally examined. He enlisted the services of photographer Harold Snelling, saying, “What Snelling doesn’t know about faked photography isn’t worth knowing.”

Breathlessly, Gardner, the mothers, and all interested parties awaited the results of Snelling’s investigation. When it came, it was better than anyone could have hoped. Snelling concluded, “These two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement on the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures etc. In my opinion they are both straight untouched pictures.”

With the photographs having been authenticated by an expert, Gardner began using them in his lectures. Sitting in the crowd of one of these lectures was the celebrated author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was not there out of idle curiosity. Editors of The Strand magazine assigned him to write an article about fairies for the 1920 Christmas edition. When he saw the photographs of the Cottingley fairies, he was beyond intrigued.

Doyle wrote to Arthur Wright, seeking permission to use the photographs in the upcoming article. In the letter, he referred to the images as “very interesting” and “certainly amazing” and suggested to Wright that either he or Gardner should try to “run up and have half an hour’s chat with the girls.”

As it turned out, Doyle was too busy to make the trip to meet the young photographers. Gardner went in his place. Elsie and Frances retold the stories of how the fairies were photographed. Their mothers attested to the girls’ honesty and pointed to the fact that for the past three years, they had not wavered in the least about their account of events. Gardner was convinced and returned in July to give the girls his own camera. Writing about the trip, Gardner recalled:

“I went off, to Cottingley again, taking the two cameras and plates from London, and met the family and explained to the two girls the simple working of the cameras, giving one each to keep. The cameras were loaded, and my final advice was that they need go up to the glen only on fine days as they had been accustomed to do before and tice the fairies, as they called their way of attracting them, and see what they could get. I suggested only the most obvious and easy precautions about lighting and distance, for I knew it was essential they should feel free and unhampered and have no burden of responsibility. If nothing came of it all, I told them, they were not to mind a bit.”

Weeks of bad weather prevented further photo excursions. Finally, on August 19, the girls announced they had two more photographs to add to the collection. One showed a fairy leaping through the air near Frances’ nose. The other presented the image of a fairy offering Elsie a bouquet of flowers. Two days later, one more photograph was added to the collection. This captured a group of fairies sunbathing in a nest made of grass. A delighted Gardner notified Doyle of these developments. The author’s response shows his excitement:

“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, “Fairies Photographed — An Epoch-Making Event,” appeared in the Christmas edition of The Strand. It was written before the acquisition of the most recent photographs. He is unable to hide the fact that he is a true believer in the previously-hidden world of fairies. The article begins with the preface:

“Should the incidents here narrated, and the photographs attached, hold their own against the criticism which they will excite, it is no exaggeration to say that they will mark an epoch in human thought, I put them and all the evidence before the public for examination and judgement. If I am myself asked whether I consider the case to be absolutely and finally proved, I should answer that in order to remove the last faint shadow of a doubt I should wish to see the result repeated before a disinterested witness. At the same time, I recognize the difficulty of such a request, since rare results must be obtained when and how they can. But short of final and absolute proof, I consider, after carefully going into every possible source of error, that a strong prima facie case as been built up. The cry of “fake” is sure to be raised, and will make some impression upon those who have not had the opportunity of knowing the people concerned, or the place. On the photographic side every objection has been considered and adequately met. The pictures stand or fall together. Both are false, or both are true. All the circumstances point to the latter alternative, and yet in a manner involving so tremendous a new departure one needs overpowering evidence before one can say that there is no conceivable loophole for error.”

Although he begins with a note of detached skepticism, Doyle soon veers off the road of detached scientific observation:

“In the course of our investigations we had an interesting example of the power and also of the limited of psychic knowledge. A friend who was a medium and had a control in whom he had faith was allowed to examine the prints. His report, or rather that of his control, was that there was reason to fear a fake as he saw the negative being tampered with by a fair man, short, with his hair brushed back, in a room filled with all sorts of cameras and other queer machines and devices. This was, as a matter of fact, a fairly accurate description of Mr. Snelling and his surroundings, who had, as we will be shown, prepared a second negative from the precious original.”

Doyle continued, noting that Elsie was unable to draw convincing fairies from memory, so she couldn’t have possibly faked the photographs. Having dismissed the notion of fakery, the man who created the coldly-logical Sherlock Holmes turned his attention to various aspects of fairy biology and culture, including the species of butterflies and moths their wings most resembled and the artistic and musical traditions that might be inferred by the musical instruments they played. He wonders if the fairies might actually be “thought forms” manifested by the girls’ psychic abilities.

Three months later, The Strand featured “The Evidence For Fairies,” a follow-up article prompted by the three additional photographs. Doyle used both articles to form the basis for his book, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922.

Doyle would have done well to remember the words he attributed to Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be true.” His problem was that he was too quick to conclude that faking the photographs was not possible.

Others were not so easily convinced. Physicist Sir Oliver Lodge pointed out that the fairies seemed to be suspiciously enamored with the latest Parisian hairstyles. X-ray pioneer Major John Hall-Edwards wrote:

“On the evidence I have no hesitation in saying that these photographs could have been “faked”. I criticize the attitude of those who declared there is something supernatural in the circumstances attending to the taking of these pictures because, as a medical man, I believe that the inculcation of such absurd ideas into the minds of children will result in later life in manifestations and nervous disorder and mental disturbances.”

Poet Maurice Hewlett opined in the literary journal John O’ London’s Weekly: “And knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that the Miss Carpenters have pulled one of them.”

At the same time, there were those who doubled down on the authenticity of the photographs. Novelist Henry de Vere Stacpoole observed, “Look at [Frances’] face. Look at [Elsie’s] face. There is an extraordinary thing called Truth which has 10 million faces and forms — it is God’s currency and the cleverest coiner or forger can’t imitate it.”

For over half a century, the Cottingley fairies were the subject of intense debate. Elsie and Frances continued to insist that the photographs were genuine. In a 1971 television interview, Elsie even speculated that her imagination caused the fairies to become manifest so they could be captured by the camera.

It would not be until shortly before the cousins’ deaths in the 1980s that they finally came clean and admitted that they faked the whole thing. How had they done it? Various experts had insisted for years that the fairies could be simulated with the use of people dressed in costume, double exposure of the camera, or other photographic tricks. The answer was embarrassingly simple. The fairies were nothing more than cardboard cutouts. The girls copied the pictures from a popular children’s book and propped them up with hat pins. After the photographs were taken, all of the evidence was destroyed.

The fifth and final photograph of the Cottingley fairies

Curiously, the cousins only admitted to faking the first four photographs. They insisted to their dying day that the fifth photograph was the real McCoy. Photography experts now believe the fifth photograph to be an unintentional double exposure, with an image of the fairy cutouts lying on the ground superimposed over an image of a grass nest. This would explain why the fairies in the photograph appear more three-dimensional than in the others and why neither girl could remember faking that particular image.

Why did the cousins stand by their story for over 50 years? Frances explained that the story had grown far beyond their ability to deny it:

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

Doyle, for his part, appears to have never changed his mind about the existence of fairies. As he concluded in his 1920 article in The Strand:

“I must confess that after months of thought I am unable to get the true bearings of this event. One or two consequences are obvious. The experiences of children will be taken more seriously. Cameras will be forthcoming, Other well-authenticated cases will come along. These little folk who appear to be our neighbours, with only some small difference of vibration to separate us, will become familiar. The thought of them, even when unseen, with add a charm to every brook and valley and give romantic interest to every country walk. 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 so convincingly put before it.”

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