Sunday, August 2, 2015

Conan Doyle and the Fairies

Yesterday I posted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s quote that if he was only remembered in 100 years as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes, then he would consider his life a failure. I commented that Doyle iss not only so remembered, he is also known as the man who believed in the Cottingley fairies.

For those who have never heard of the Cottingley fairies and the involvement of Sir Arthur, here is a brief rundown.

The first photographs:

Once upon a time (well, this is a fairy story) there lived two girls who were cousins, Frances and Elsie. Frances had come to England from South Africa in 1917 when she was ten, because her father was fighting in the war. Frances and her mother stayed with her mother’s sister Polly Wright and her husband Arthur Wright in Cottingley in West Yorkshire, where Frances became friends with their daughter, her cousin, Elsie, who was then aged 13.

Frances, 1920

Elsie, 1915

The two girls often played beside the stream at the bottom of the garden, the Wrights having a large garden. In July 1917 they asked to borrow Arthur’s camera to take a photo of the fairies with which they had been playing. Arthur was a keen amateur photographer and agreed, not taking them seriously, and showed them how to use the camera.

Later that day they returned the camera and said that the shoot was successful. Arthur developed the plate in his darkroom and found that it was indeed a photo containing fairies. It showed four fairies dancing in front of Frances. The girls later described the colouring of the fairies as shades of green, lavender and mauve, most marked in the wings and fading to almost pure white in the limbs and drapery.

Photo 1, 1917

Arthur was aware that his daughter Elsie had artistic ability and that she had worked in a photographic studio. He dismissed the photo as a prank with cardboard cutouts. Nonetheless two months later, in September 1917, the girls borrowed the camera again and produced a photograph of Frances holding her hand out to a 30cm winged gnome.

Arthur had had enough of their pranks and was concerned that they may have harmed his camera. He banned them from future use.

Polly, Elsie’s mother, was not of the same opinion. Polly believed in the supernatural and, in 1919 when she attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford where the lecture was on “Fairy Life”, she showed the photographs taken by the girls. From there they were shown to the speaker, Edward Gardner, who asked photographer Harold Snelling to examine them. He declared that they were "genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc." He did not declare the fairies real, saying only that "these are straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time".

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

The photographs became more widely circulated within the British spiritualist community, Gardner using them to illustrate his talks and selling prints at meetings. The photographs then came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent and committed spiritualist, who established their origin and then wrote to the girls encouraging them to take more photographs of the fairies.

At the same time, Gardner and Doyle sought further opinions on whether the photographs were genuine or fakes. Kodak agreed with Snelling that the photographs did not appear to be faked but declined to give a certificate of authenticity. One examining technician was alleged to have observed that since fairies aren’t true, the photographs must not be true, causing Gardner to allege bias. Ilford examined the photographs and declared that there was evidence of faking. Doyle and Gardner both elected to regard the photographs as real.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

More photographs:

In 1920, at Doyle’s urging, the girls took three more photographs. The camera and plates were given to them by Gardner who also instructed in the use thereof.

Photo 3, 1920: Frances and the leaping fairy

Photo 4, 1920: Fairy offering a posy to Elsie

Photo 5, 1920: Fairies and their Sun-Bath

The plates were sent to Gardner who had them printed. He sent copies to Doyle, who was on a lecture tour in Australia. 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.”


In December 1920 Doyle wrote an article for The Strand magazine and used the 1917 photographs, giving Frances and Elsie other names, along with their families, to protect their identities. This brought the fairy photographs to the attention of the public. Doyle felt that if the public accepted the existence of fairies, they might also more readily accept other psychic phenomena:
“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.”
Reactions were either that the photographs genuinely depicted fairies or that they were fake.

The historical novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett declared ".. knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that the [girls] have pulled one of them." 

he Sydney newspaper Truth on 5 January 1921 stated "For the true explanation of these fairy photographs what is wanted is not a knowledge of occult phenomena but a knowledge of children."

Many noted and public figures declared publicly that they believed the fairies to be real. In 1921 Doyle published a second article in The Strand, using the 1920 photographs for illustration as well as describing other fairy sightings. The article formed the foundation for his 1922 book The Coming of the Fairies.


There were numerous skeptics, some of the photographic points raised being:

· Why do the fairies look like bits of paper?

· In the first photo why is Frances not looking at the fairies? (The girls claimed they were so used to the fairies that they often paid them no attention.) 

· Also in the first photograph, why does the second fairy from the left not have wings? 

· In the second photo, why is Elsie's hand bizarrely elongated? (Frances attributed this to "camera slant.") 

· In the fourth photo, why is the fairy dressed in the latest French fashions?

· Why do the fairies have modern Parisian hairstyles?

According to the Museum of Hoaxes:

Despite these problems, the photos continued to attract believers. Much of this belief might be attributed to the context of the times. By the end of World War One the English were emotionally bruised and battered by four years of unrelenting bloodshed. They seemed to be in need of something that would reaffirm their belief in goodness and innocence. They found this reaffirmation in the fairy photographs of Frances and Elsie.

Later years:

After 1921 interest in the Cottingley fairies subsided. 

The girls married and lived abroad, occasionally being interviewed but declaring that if the fairies were not real, they (the girls) had succeeded in photographing what was in their minds.

In 1978 James Randi, famous magician, skeptic and debunker of alleged paranormal phenomenon, noted the similarity between the fairies in the photographs and the figures in a 1915 children's book called Princess Mary's Gift Book.

See James Randi speak about the fraud and Elsie’s comments at:

Randi also pointed out that the camera had to be held open for 10 seconds to take the photographs, hence the blurred waterfall in Photo 1, yet the fluttering wings of the fairies are in sharp definition, consistent with no movement.

This would also account for the elongated hand in Photo 2, that Frances had moved her hand during the long exposure.

Fairy figures in Princess Mary's Gift Book

Side-by-side comparison of the figures in Princess Mary's Gift Book and the fairies in the first Cottingley fairy photo.

In 1981 Elsie admitted that she had copied the drawings from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, had cut them out and held them in place with hatpins.

In a 1985 interview, Elsie said that she and Frances were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling 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." 

In the second photo, being of Elsie and the gnome, the tip of a hatpin can actually be seen in the middle of the creature. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had seen this dot. The inventor of Sherlock Holmes and the author of Holme’s deductions, analyses and ability to unravel mysteries, had interpreted the dot on the gnome's stomach as the creature's belly button, leading him to argue that fairies give birth just like humans.

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