The Case of the Cottingley Fairies
On a Saturday afternoon in July of 1917, a hoax was perpetrated to rival only the Piltdown Man as one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century. Or is it?
Frances Griffiths was visiting her cousin Elsie Wright in Cottingley, near Bradford in West Yorkshire, England from South Africa. They spent most of their time in the vast Wright garden by a stream. When Frances fell in, wetting her clothes, she was severely scolded by her mother. Elsie borrowed her father's camera–a Midge quarter-plate–that Saturday afternoon in order to take Frances's photo and cheer her up. They were away for about half an hour and Mr. Wright developed the plate later in the afternoon. He was surprised to see strange white shapes coming up, imagining them to be first birds and then sandwich papers left lying around. Elsie told
him they were fairies.
The photograph taken by Elsie–the famous one, which has since been reproduced thousands of times around the
world in an improved version–showed a little girl staring pensively at a camera, while fairies danced in front of her. On the back of the snapshot the following was scrawled in untidy schoolgirl glyphs: “Elsie and I are very friendly with the beck Fairies. It is funny I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there.”
In August it was Frances who had the camera, when she and Elsie scaled the sides of the beck and went up to the old oaks. There she took a photograph of Elsie with a gnome. The print was under-exposed and unclear, as might be expected when taken by a10 year old. The plate was again developed by Elsie's father, Arthur, who suspected that the girls had been playing tricks and refused to lend his camera to them any more.
The Cottingley fairy photographs made a journalistic sensation when they first appeared in an article in the Strand Magazine, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle towards the end of 1919. Conan Doyle, who had been asked quite fortuitously by The Strand to write a feature on fairies for the Christmas edition, had heard about the photographs in July. That issue of the Strand sold out within days of publication at the end of November.
The Cottingley fairy pictures provoked heated argument. To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle they were the long-awaited proof of the existence of spirits–but to many people they were just clever fakes. In the spring of August 192O, Frances Griffiths was asked to come by train to Cottingley from Scarborough, where she had gone to live with her mother and father after the First World War. She was told that Edward Gardner, a cohort of Conan Doyle, would be traveling up from London, with new cameras, so that the cousins might have further opportunities of taking fairy photographs to add to the two they took in 1917.
In the summer of 1920, Gardner at last succeeded in persuading the girls to take a further series of photographs. These three last photographs were believed by both Gardner and Conan Doyle to constitute proof that it was possible to photograph fairies. Frances, on the other hand, has always marveled at the fact that anyone could believe them to be genuine. The flying fairy in the third photograph was pinned to the branch behind it; it was drawn freehand by Elsie, and seems to Frances to be out of proportion. The fairy offering flowers to Elsie in the fourth photograph was attached to a branch in a similar way, and sports a fashionable hairstyle that has attracted much comment.
The two cousins are divided about the authenticity of the fifth picture. To the casual eye, it looks very much like the result of a simple overlapping of photographs, but Frances insists that it was a genuine photograph of fairies.
“It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared,” she says. “I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph.” Elsie, on the other hand, insists that all five photographs are of cut-outs. Frances had often said that it is as if some psychological blockage prevents her remembering events surrounding the photographs with any accuracy; yet this discrepancy in the cousins' accounts of taking the photographs remains curious.
For over sixty years the photographs were regarded as perhaps the most convincing evidence for the existence of fairies. But, in late 1981 and mid 1982 respectively, Frances Way (née Griffiths) and Elsie Hill (née Wright), who took the photographs–now, of course, elderly ladies–admitted that the first four pictures were fakes. Speaking of the first photograph in particular, Frances had said: “My heart always sinks when I look at it. When I think of how it's gone all round the world–I don't see how people could believe they're real fairies. I could see the backs of them and the hatpins when the photo was being taken.”
How was the hoax set up? It started, as both ladies agree, with the best of intentions. Frances, she says, was able to perceive many forms of fairy life in the garden of the Wright household and was, understandably, continually drawn back to the stream. Occasionally she fell in and her clothes were wet, for which she was reprimanded. Elsie was much moved by the tears of her cousin, and sympathized with her when she blurted out to the adults that the reason why she went so often to the bottom of the garden was because there were fairies to be seen there.
Elsie lacked Frances's keen perception of fairy life, she was sensitive to atmosphere and had a fine appreciation of the mysticism of nature. Mr. Gardner was a precise, particular man.
Even a look at his photograph conveys this precision, which is also suggested by the neat copies he kept of his letters. Gardner's immediate impulse after seeing the fairy pictures was to clarify the prints and, in a letter to a photographic expert, Fred Barlow, he describes the instructions he gave to his assistants: “Then I told them to make new negatives (from the positives of the originals) and do the very best with them short of altering anything mechanically. The result was that they turned out two first class negatives which … are the same in every respect as the originals except that they are sharp, clear, and finer for printing purposes.” It seems incredible to us today that he could be so naive, not anticipating the inevitable questions from critics as to shutter speed, figure definition, the suspicious resemblance of the fairies' clothes and hairstyles to the latest fashions. But Gardner only wanted the clearest pictures–as a Theosophist he had been studying fairy lore for years and had heard many accounts of fairy sightings, so the possible reactions of skeptics never entered his head.
What seems rather mysterious to us today is that no one was over-anxious to examine the original photographs, but seemed content to analyze the prints. Several famous photographers were quoted as saying in the “rough” print they could detect movement in all the fairy figures. Kodak, by contrast, stated that an experienced photographer may have been involved, which suggests that the prints that they had been examining may have been the sharpened ones.
A possible explanation is that Conan Doyle and Gardner may have wished to avoid any mention of improving the originals at that stage; perhaps they did not consider the matter important. What was vital to them was the propagation of Theosophical and Spiritualist doctrines. As far as they were concerned, clear prints showing recognizable fairies and a gnome would provide the long-sought after incontrovertible evidence for “dwellers at the border” (as Conan Doyle was later to term nature spirits).
The fifth, and last, fairy photograph is often believed to be the most striking. Nobody has ever been able to give a satisfactory explanation as to what seems to be happening in the picture. However, Conan Doyle, in his The Coming of Fairies advances a detailed, if somewhat over-elaborate, view of the pictured proceedings:
“Seated on the upper left hand edge with wing well displayed is an undraped fairy apparently considering whether it is time to get up. An earlier riser of more mature age is seen on the right possessing abundant hair and wonderful wings. Her slightly denser body can be glimpsed within her fairy dress.”
This piece of whimsy from the creator of that most unsentimental and coldly logical character in English fiction –Sherlock Holmes–provided the “Conan Doyle's going soft” school with formidable ammunition. It is perhaps unfortunate that his ardent interest in Spiritualism should coincide with his later years, especially in an age when anyone in his or her sixties was very much considered past their prime. His championship of the Cottingley fairies did little to dispel the growing image of him as a gullible old man. However, he was by no means the only
believer in elemental spirits.
Cottingley is virtually on the outskirts of populous Bradford, and is not, as many imagine, an isolated village. There is a reservoir and an old water bridge over the stream–key markers for the fairy photographs. Traditionally nature spirits inhabit wooded and watery places and there are many stories of nature spirits being observed in such secluded spots. Also, the oak, ash and thorn are traditionally associated with fairies and these varieties of tree are found around the beck. In August 1921, a last expedition was made to Cottingley–this time the clairvoyant, Geoffrey Hodson, was brought along to verify any fairy sightings. (The feeling being that if anyone, apart from the girls, could see the fairies, a psychic could.) Alas, the fairies refused to be photographed –although they were seen both by Hodson and by Elsie.
But by then both Elsie and Frances were tired of the whole fairy business. Many years later, Elsie looked at a photograph of herself and Frances taken with Hodson and said: “Look at that –fed up with fairies!” Both Elsie and Frances had agreed that they humored Hodson to a sometimes ludicrous extent. This naive admission played right into the hands of their critics.
Quite apart from “playing Mr. Hodson along” there were still the allegations of faking the whole fairy business in the first place and when more fairy photographs were not forthcoming, the “Cottingley Incident” seemed all set to be relegated to the
dusty gallery of famous fakes. Yet the episode is not closed….
Most people do not believe in fairies and therefore, to them, any alleged fairy photographs must be fakes. To skeptics there is no question about it: the Cottingley fairies were cut out of a children's book and superimposed, very cleverly (for no one has conclusively proved that they were faked) on photographs of the cousins, Elsie and Frances.
And yet fairy lore can be found in every civilization and continent down through history. The Irish Sidhe, the Scandinavian and German trolls, the French Fée, and the English gnomes to name a few, all attest to the universal appeal of fairy lore and tales.
When psychical researcher E. L. Gardner visited Cottingley in the 1920s he claimed mediumistic powers for both girls, but especially for Frances. He believed that the elemental spirits–fairies–used loosely-knit ectoplasm emanating from the girls with which to form visible bodies; visible, that is, only to the girls and the eye of the camera. The exact form they took was he hazarded, chosen by the subconscious minds of the girls, hence the strange mixture of traditional and contemporary. But, for whatever reason, both girls stopped claiming to see fairies after 1921.
And yet, neither woman ever stated publicly that they had not seen actual fairies in the Wright garden. On the contrary, with every retelling of their story down through the decades, both women were emphatic that Frances had seen the fairies and Elsie had seen a gnome. The photos were just their way of getting even with incredulous adults. So the case of the Cottingley fairies is far from closed.
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