As we wait excitedly for the release of Fairy Tale For Homeless Fairies, due out tomorrow, let’s visit one of the most famous Fairy photograph cases, The Cottingley Fairies, which was enormoualy controversial in its day and championed by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
In 1917 two cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, were playing by the stream on a lovely estate in Bradford, England. Their mothers didn’t like them playing by the stream, but they did anyway. When Frances returned that day with wet feet, her mother asked her why on earth she just had to play there. Frances told her mother she went to see the fairies.
Her mother and aunt greeted this statement with disbelief. Frances’s cousin Elsie added that she had seen the fairies too, and suggested to Frances that they borrow Mr. Wright’s camera and take some photographs of them. Within a half hour of taking the camera, they were back begging Elsie’s father to develop the film plates for them. After tea, Mr. Wright (with Elsie at this side) developed the film in his darkroom. The picture did indeed show Frances looking straight at the camera while a group of five fairies danced before her on an earthen bank.
However, Mr. Wright dismissed the fairies as cardboard cutouts and didn’t for a second believe the photograph was real. He knew his daughter was a talented artist who enjoyed drawing fairy figures. Eventually Mr. Wright stopped loaning his camera to his daughter and niece when two months later they took another photo with Elsie posed next to what appeared to be a gnome.
The story should have ended there, but two years later in 1919, the girls’ mothers, Polly Wright and Annie Griffiths attended a Theosophy meeting. We’ve written about Theosophy in great length in other blogs, but in the early 1900s theosophy was the rage, encompassing all things esoteric.
After the meeting the women showed the speake the pictures. This brought the photographs to the attention of Edward Gardner, a well-known leader in the Theosophical movement. He wrote to Polly Wright telling her that the photographs were “the best of its kind I should think anywhere.” Gardner obtained from the Wrights the original negative glass plates and sent them to photographic expert Harold Snelling. It was said of Snelling, “What Snelling doesn’t know about faked photography isn’t worth knowing.”
After examing them Snelling concluded, “This plate is a single exposure. These dancing figures are not made of paper nor any fabric; they are not painted on a photographic background-but what gets me most is that all these figures have moved during the exposure.” What Snelling meant by his last sentence was that the camera’s shutter speed must have been set very low and that the fairies appeared to be blurred as if the exposure had caught them moving in their dance.
Snelling made better prints of the photos and they appeared in the Spiritualist magazine Light. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle not only saw the photos, but had been commissioned by The Strand Magazine to write an article on fairies for their Christmas issue, an article he hadn’t come up with an angle for yet. Thus Sir Doyle sent Edward Gardner to the Wrights to inquire about the photo, get a feel for whether the girls and family were genuine and look into the possibility of more.
It should mentioned that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a well known Spiritualist and enormously interested in all things arcane and esoteric. Despite his most well known character Sherlock Holmes’ obsession with skepticism and evidence, Doyle had a predisposition towards belief in the supernatural. He did try to verify his beliefs in the way Victorian Theosophists were always trying to be “scientific” about the supernatural, but like Theosophists, was quick to accept a smaller amount of hard evidence then others.
So Gardner went to visit the two girls. He gave them two cameras and asked them to take more pictures if circumstances should arise. Frances stayed with Elise during the summer holiday and naturally, opportunity did present itself and three more pictures were taken.
The plates were packed in cotton wool and returned to Gardner in London, who sent an “ecstatic” telegram to Conan Doyle who was in Australia. Conan 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 appeared in the Dec.1920 issue of The Strand, and the article was an utter sensation. Everybody had an opinion. Many argued the photos were fake, many argued they was genuine. It was an uproar and Doyle ended up publishing another article with photos in 1921 and a book in 1922, The Coming of the Fairies.
Flash forward 60 years. Frances and Elise are in their 60s and 70s. In 1981 and 1982 Joe Cooper interviewed Frances and Elsie for an article in The Unexplained. Elsie admitted that all five of the photographs had been faked. Frances claimed that the first four had been faked, but the fifth was real. Both ladies contended they had indeed seen real fairies near the beck on other occasions.
The hoax had been carried out by using the cutout and hatpin method as many people had suspected. Elsie had some art training and drew the characters based on drawings by Arthur Shepperson in Princess Mary’s Gift Book of which Frances owned a copy. Using a sharp pair of scissors owned by Frances’s mother, they cut them out and secured them to a bank of earth with hat pins. After the photographs were taken, they dropped the evidence into the stream and brought the camera back to Elsie’s father so that he could develop the pictures.
Elsie said that she and Frances were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling Conan Doyle, 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 Frances said: “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.”
Frances however, went to her grave maintaining that the 5th photograph was in fact genuine.