The Cottingley Fairies: Analysis of a Famous Hoax
The true and weird history of the two girls who fooled the world with their fairy photographs in 1917.
My first exposure to the Cottingley Fairies was as a young boy, when I eagerly read about them in my book Vampires, Zombies, and Monster Men. Two young girls — who had been about the same age I was when I read about it — had taken a series of photographs between 1917 and 1920 showing themselves in the woods with little six-inch-tall winged fairies dancing around and posing with them. I always thought the pictures looked a little odd; the fairies seemed flat and white, compared to the shaded three-dimensional girls and forest foliage. However, the book also contained what was, to me, absolute proof that these photos did indeed show real fairy creatures: and that's that the experts at Kodak had examined the negatives, and found no evidence of fakery. I considered myself skeptical, but obviously (to me) a 10-year-old boy's skepticism means nothing against actual photographic experts from the Kodak company.
In 1983, 66 years after they took the first photograph, both women finally admitted they'd hoaxed the photographs, and you've likely heard that by now. I'm leading with it because it's no great surprise, and also because it's hardly the interesting part of the story. Let's start with what happened at the time, and with what was publicly known.
The two girls were Elsie Wright, 16 years old in 1917, and her cousin Frances Griffiths, six and a half years younger, who had just moved from South Africa with her mother. The two girls liked to play in the wooded glen just behind the Wrights' home, which was in the village of Cottingley, in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. Elsie's parents, Arthur and Polly Wright, played a significant role. Arthur was an amateur photographer and had his own home darkroom; Elsie had learned it all well enough that she had a job working in a local photographer's studio. She was also a very good artist. So when she and Frances reported fairies in the glen, Arthur let her borrow his camera to take a picture, which he developed. The first photo became the most famous — it shows young Frances wistfully staring while four little fairies dance in front of her, one playing some sort of flute or horn. Well, Arthur recognized his daughter's artwork quite easily, which shouldn't surprise anyone who's ever had a daughter. She'd drawn and colored the fairies, cut them out, and the girls had used hat pins to affix them to the foliage, and they then took the picture. Arthur was well aware of his daughter's creativity, art ability, and photographic skills, even that she was experienced at manipulating photographic plates in the shop where she worked. To him, this was a fun example of his daughter's creative skills. Polly, however, took a very different view. She was an ardent theosophist — sort of an occult spiritualist type of Christian — and the idea of fairies appearing to her daughter meant, in her view, that her daughter was extraordinarily strong spiritually, so it was an idea she was quite receptive to. Two months later the girls produced a second photo, this time showing Elsie sitting on the grass with a single gnome rather than a string of fairies.
Two years later was when everything blew up. Polly Wright attended a lecture on fairies at the Theosophical Society, and brought the two photographs with her. They created quite a stir, the belief being that the girls emanated ectoplasm powerful enough for the fairies to attain visible form when the girls were present. This represented a powerful piece of evidence in favor of the Society's brand of theosophy, so they were exhibited at the Society's annual conference a few months later. There, Edward Gardner — one of the leading theosophists of the day — took charge of the case. He had one of his colleagues, Harold Snelling who was also a photographer, examine them. Snelling found the negatives had not been tampered with and did indeed represent whatever had been in front of the camera, but he stopped short of commenting on what that might have been. Snelling also produced new negatives which he "enhanced" or "clarified" — it's not recorded exactly what he did to them — to produce better quality reproductions.
This was when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the celebrated creator of Sherlock Holmes, came into the story. As discussed in Skeptoid #430 on his long friendship and rivalry with Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur had converted to spiritualism during World War I, and was so profoundly persuaded of the reality of the supernatural that he led a mass exodus of members from the Society for Psychical Research because it was too skeptical. Sir Arthur was preparing an article on fairies, heard about the photos, and contacted Gardner. They took the photographs to more photographic experts, intent on having them be somehow certified as authentic. The technicians at Kodak found the same thing as Snelling had, and declined to issue a certificate of authenticity because whether the fairies were real or paper was outside their scope. Technicians at the film manufacturer Ilford wouldn't even say that much, stating only that there appeared to be some evidence of tampering. Sir Arthur even got a rejection from a fellow spiritualist, the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who identified the photos (wrongly) as double exposures using a troupe of dancers playing the fairies.
So, contrary to what the books had told me when I was a boy, it was not true that no photography experts considered them to have been faked. In fact the truth was almost the opposite, that no photography experts were willing to certify them as genuine.
Gardner personally visited the girls in 1920, now three years after the two famous photos. He gave Frances and Elsie each a W. Butcher & Sons Cameo folding plate camera, each with 12 photographic plates that were secretly marked, so that Gardner was later able to verify the girls had used the film provided. Though Elsie's father, Arthur Wright, continued to maintain his belief that Elsie had drawn the figures and cut them out, Gardner and Elsie's mother Polly were not deterred. The girls were left alone to take further photos unsupervised; the girls said the fairies wouldn't appear if anyone else was around, and this actually concurred with the theosophical belief that the ectoplasm wouldn't be strong enough to make the fairies visible if anybody was around who was less spiritual than the girls.
To make a long story short, three more photographs were taken with the new cameras: one each of each girl (now three years older), each shown with a single fairy. A third photo was of some of the fairy cutouts positioned by themselves in some tall grass, and it arguably looks the best of all five photos. Gardner sent prints to Sir Arthur, then in Australia. He wrote back:
Public interest in the fairies ran high upon the publication of Sir Arthur's 1921 book The Coming of the Fairies, but as with all things, it soon waned. Interest in the fairies also waned for Elsie and Frances, who were once again given cameras and film by Gardner, but took no more photos, and both distanced themselves from the whole episode.
That was where the story sat for another forty years. Both girls had married, moved away, and had careers and full lives. Then in 1966, reporters began harrying Elsie. She told the Daily Express tabloid that the fairies were "figments of her imagination." She said the same thing in a television interview in 1971, and then again in 1976. By then, Elsie and Frances were both publicly noncommittal on the reality of fairies, but both still insisted the photos were genuine — statements which are obviously in conflict.
But it was 1978 when the heat was turned up for real. James Randi himself, champion of all fake busters, led an investigation. Among the things Randi found was a set of illustrations previous researchers had unearthed in a 1914 children's book titled Princess Mary's Gift Book. The pictures showed women in poses precisely identical to all the fairies Elsie had drawn and cut out. Elsie had added fairy wings, but that was it. Otherwise, Elsie's poses and flowing gowns were just as they were in the book. Without any credible doubt, Elsie had copied the illustrations in the book. Frances, then 75 years old, wrote in a personal letter to Randi in 1983:
There were other skeptical investigations and other articles over the years. And, in 1983, shortly before her death, Elsie Wright went public in an interview published in a magazine called The Unexplained — something of an ironic title, in this case. Her father Arthur had been spot on from the beginning. She'd copied the drawings from the book, cut them out, affixed them to the foliage with hatpins, and snapped the photos. Frances, on the other hand, concurred on all points but one: she insisted until she died that the fifth photograph of the fairies in the tall grass was genuine.
So how and why did they decide to hoax the world? By all accounts, the girls were both frightened and embarrassed that they'd fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the most famous author in Britain, perhaps in the world, and universally considered a brilliant man. The two young girls didn't know what to do, and so they remained silent. As Elsie explained in these latter years:
Later speculation — totally unevidenced — incriminates Arthur Wright as well. Perhaps he took the pictures himself, and concerned over having defrauded a luminary like Sir Arthur, also remained silent. There is still one hanging thread to this story. Two other fairy photographs were taken by an unknown photographer in 1918 and published in a magazine called The Sphere. Their style is clearly different from the Cottingley photographs. Fairies surround an unidentified girl, about the same size as the Cottingley fairies but much more naturally lighted and better blended into the foliage than the Cottingleys. Was Arthur part of a ring of fairy photographers at this same time and place in history? So far, so we don't know enough to speculate any further.
It's often said that young Frances and Elsie's pictures fooled some of the greatest minds of the day. Well, no, they didn't. Sir Arthur and any other great minds who believed the pictures were genuine didn't get fooled, they fooled themselves. These were people who were already fully invested in the reality of fairies and in the ectoplasm necessary to make them take form, and who were on the hunt for any evidence supporting that, to help win over the rest of us to their view. Sir Arthur had been hopelessly trapped in a spiral of confirmation bias, both seeing and seeking only information that confirmed his preconceived conclusion, and ignoring or dismissing everything that did not. No matter how famous of an author you are or are not, the same can happen to you, and to any of us. The Cottingley Fairies are yet one more example of why we must all always be skeptical.
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