This year, 2017, marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the most famous hoaxes in history: the Cottingley fairies photos, taken by two Yorkshire girls in 1917. Or were they? A new hypothesis, recently put forward in the pages of Fortean Times magazine, suggests that the photos may actually have been taken later, after very similar pictures, recently rediscovered, had already been created by other photographers. But why would the dates of the Cottingley photos be changed? That’s the interesting part. Let’s first take a step back and review the story.
The ‘Revelation’ of the Fairies
“I have something … precious” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote one day in 1920 to his (then) friend Harry Houdini. “Two photos, one of a goblin, the other of four fairies in a Yorkshire wood. A fake! you will say. No, sir, I think not. However, all inquiry will be made. These I am not allowed to send. The fairies are about eight inches high. In one there is a single goblin dancing. In the other four beautiful, luminous creatures. Yes, it is a revelation” (Doyle 1921).
The pictures he was referring to were taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, two girls living in Yorkshire who enjoyed playing outdoors. One day in July 1917, so the story goes, they asked Elsie’s father, Arthur, if they could borrow his new Midg camera and with that they took some pictures of themselves with what appeared to be little fairies and goblins. When the pictures found their way into Doyle’s hands, first he had them examined by experts and, although Kodak representatives told him they could undoubtedly reproduce similar effects, he preferred to believe a photographer who asserted that he would have been able easily to spot any trick. Since he could not detect any photographic fakery (such as double exposures) in the fairy images, he declared them genuine and Doyle believed him.
Poor Sherlock Holmes!
Doyle’s good friend and Spiritualist Sir Oliver Lodge, however, refused to accept the photos as genuine. It seemed to him that some Californian classical dancers had been superimposed against a rural British background. Doyle replied dismissively that such tricks would have been quite impossible for two “working-class Yorkshire girls.”
He could not bear to entertain the possibility of fraud on the part of two young girls: the very idea offended his notions of chivalry. He considered the photos an “epoch-making event”—and declared so to the world, first with articles in the Strand magazine and then with a book, The Coming of the Fairies (1922), which contained all five photographs taken by the girls. He saw himself as a pioneer: “The discovery of Columbus of a new terrestrial continent,” he wrote in the book, “is a lesser achievement than the demonstration of a completely new order of life inhabiting the same planet as ourselves” (Doyle 1921).
The reaction of the public and of the press was of amusement, if not downright scorn: “Poor Sherlock Holmes,” ran one headline, “Hopelessly Crazy?” and phrases like “easily duped” and “sad spectacle” began to appear in the papers.
It would take more than sixty years for the hoax to be revealed. Only in 1982, in fact, when all of the other people involved in the fairies saga had died, eighty-one-year old Elsie and seventy-five-year old Frances felt ready to reveal the truth behind a “practical joke” that had confounded so many people. The fairies were cut-out drawings: “From where I was,” Frances said, “I could see the hatpins holding up the figures. I’ve always marveled that anybody ever took it seriously” (Wright 1983).
Elsie explained that they had agreed to keep silent because they were “feeling sad” for Doyle: “He had lost his son recently in the war, and I think the poor man was trying to comfort himself in these things, so I said to Frances, we are a lot younger than Conan Doyle … so we will wait till they die of old age and then we will tell.”
Earlier Fairies Photos?
The story is richer with facts and twists, and detailed analysis can be found in books such as James Randi’s Flim-Flam! (Prometheus Books, 1982) or Joe Cooper’s The Case of the Cottingley Fairies (Roberta Hale, 1990).
However, Fiona Maher, in a recent article published by Fortean Times, wonders if there was more to the episode than what has been repeated for years. She found two very interesting pictures. “The first looks like a direct copy of the most famous of the Cottingley photographs—the initial one showing the fairies dancing before Frances” writes Maher (2017). “Its execution, though, is poor in comparison to the Cottingley pictures, and the pale fairies seem out of place against the dark background.”
Nothing much is known about the photographer, except for the fact that the photo was created in 1918 and is held in the same collection as the Cottingley fairies material at Leeds University Library labeled “Mrs. Inman’s Fake Photograph.”
This picture was taken in the summer of 1917 and published in February 1918 in a popular magazine called The Sphere.
“Both images,” explains Maher, “pre-date the Cottingley photographs, which weren’t seen by anyone outside of the immediate families until 1919. We have only the word of the Wright and Griffith families that the girls took the first Cottingley photographs in the summer of 1917. What if they didn’t?” To Maher, the insistence that the first two pictures were taken in 1917 could point to a different conclusion: the adults were part of the conspiracy.
A Forced Deception
The suggestion is that Arthur Wright came across one or both of these earlier pictures and decided he could do better. The photos were taken by an “experienced photographer,” according to Kodak’s original assessment: Could Arthur have taken them?
If that’s the case, Doyle’s involvement in the matter made it impossible for Mr. Wright to admit it was a prank. “If he was so embroiled” reasons Maher, “it is likely he was either embarrassed or ashamed of using the girls to front the photos and possibly fearful of being accused of fraud or even of obtaining money by deception.”
The fees to publish the photos were in fact paid by those wishing to reproduce them and sell them as postcards, as well as by The Strand magazine, who paid ten pounds for their temporary use—a sum that could pay many months’ rent on a cottage in those days. Later on, Doyle was able to get a dowry of £100 for the girls. Not bad for a prank.
Maher admits that her own are mere conjectures, but the argument is compelling. No one can prove today who took the photos or when, but it appears certain that even a century later the little fairies of Cottingley may still have some tricks up their wings.
- Doyle, A.C. 1921. The Coming of the Fairies. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Maher, F. 2017. Deceiving Doyle: The Cottingley centenary. Fortean Times 356(August): 30–35.
- Wright, Elsie. 1983. Letter by Elsie Wright to James Randi; no date (circa January 1983).