Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will always be best remembered as the creator of the cynical, deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes but in his later years, he became a proponent of Spiritualism. His conversion lost him many friends, earned him much criticism and some cruel quarters even spread that word that Conan Doyle had gone senile. The Cottingley Fairies affair seemed to be proof of this.

Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in a photo taken at the "magical beck"

Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in a photo taken at the "magical beck"

In 1920, Conan Doyle received a letter from a Spiritualist friend, Felicia Scatcherd, who informed of some photographs which proved the existence of fairies in Yorkshire. Conan Doyle asked his friend Edward Gardner to go down and investigate and Gardner soon found himself in the possession of several photos which showed very small female figures with transparent wings. The photographers had been two young girls, Elsie Wright and her cousin, Frances Griffiths. They claimed they had seen the fairies on an earlier occasion and had gone back with a camera and photographed them. They had been taken in July and September 1917, near the Yorkshire village of Cottingley.

The two cousins claimed to have seen the fairies around the "beck" ( a local term for "stream") on an almost daily basis. At the time, they claimed to have no intention of seeking fame or notoriety. Elsie had borrowed her father's camera on a host Saturday in July 1917 to take pictures of Frances and the beck fairies.

According to their account, Mr. Wright developed the photos late that day, revealing anomalous white shapes that gradually moved toward the foreground of the photographs. They looked like sandwich papers or some sort of birds to Wright, but Elsie insisted they were fairies. Mr. Wright took no notice of it but then a month later, Frances photographed Elsie with what the girls claimed was a gnome. Arthur Wright questioned the girls about it but they stuck to their story -- they simply took photos of what they saw there. They were banned from borrowing the camera from that point on.

Wright was amused by the photos and to appease his wife (who was a believer), he combed the area around the beck and searched for signs of either of fairies or fraud. He found neither and since the photos had a novelty value, he made a few prints of them to show the neighbors. Wright's wife, Polly, though was a member of the Theosophical Society (founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky), which flourished in an atmosphere of belief and excitement about the impossible. It was at a local meeting of the society -- which incidentally was a lecture on fairies of all things -- that Polly confided to her friends about her daughter, her niece and the photographs of the fairies.

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Doyle's friend, Edward L. Gardner, was a Theosophist himself and had no trouble believing that the photographs were authentic. Even though the photographs were extremely questionable (and the fairies later turned out to be cut-outs from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, 1915), Gardner pronounced them genuine and obtained copies for Conan Doyle, was wary of them at first. He began seeking other opinions, including from Sit Oliver Lodge, who immediately pronounced them as fakes. Doyle had other ideas about the photos though. He was not sure that they were actually fairies but they were certainly mysterious figures. Obviously, the girls were central to the issue -- could they be gifted mediums? He sent Gardner back up north to meet with them and to investigate the "magical" beck. Doyle meanwhile left for Australia on a lecture tour and left Gardner to cope with the media storm that surrounded the revealing of the photographs. The newspapers, not surprisingly, were not open to the possibilities of fairies and the City News even stated that "It seems at this point that we must believe either in the almost incredible mystery of the fairy -- or in the almost incredible wonders of faked photographs".

Unknown to the newspapers and to Gardner and Doyle (at the time), the girls had taken three more fairy photographs during the summer of 1920. One of them showed an obviously two-dimensional fairy with fashionably bobbed hair offering a flower to Elsie and another depicted a "fairy bower" in a tree (an ectoplasm-like cocoon) that was very exciting to Conan Doyle. The third was of a leaping fairy that the girls claimed was captured on film during its fifth leap.

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Conan Doyle was intrigued but still bothered by the photographs and so he asked for an opinion about them from the Eastman Co. and from Kodak, although he never waited for their answers before declaring them the real thing. He published an article about the fairies in the Christmas 1920 issue of the Strand Magazine and soon was deluged with photographs from others who also claimed to have seen their own fairies. Conan Doyle examined them all, but saw none which appeared to be as genuine as the Cottingley photographs. He later penned a book in 1922 called The Coming of the Fairies, which detailed the entire account of the affair.

To look at these photographs today, the modern eye can easily see them to be fakes. In defense of Conan Doyle however, we have to realize that first and foremost, he was a gentleman and he believed that because he treated others with kindness and honesty, they would treat him in the same manner. Needless to say, he was taken advantage of on many occasions. On this occasion however, it would have never crossed his mind that the two girls might be lying about the photographs. Even if he had doubted them, he would have never accused them of dishonesty, for it was just not his way.

In the early 1980’s, the two women finally admitted the photographs were a hoax. They stated that they had faked them to get back at adults who teased them for saying they played with fairies. The joke had just gotten out of hand when Gardner and Doyle got involved and by that time, it was too late to back out. They promised though, that they would reveal the truth once all of the principles in the case had passed away, especially Conan Doyle, who they did not want to embarrass when it came out the photos were not real.

Strangely though, even though they eventually admitted the photos were not real -- they did maintain that they had really seen fairies in the beck. The photographs were staged to show their parents just what they had seen. In fact, despite their confessions, Frances went to her grave maintaining that one of the famous photographs was actually real. Which one? We will never know for sure...