Cottingley Fairies

Cottingley Fairies : a scandal involving fabricated photographs of fairies that fooled many, including the eminent Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The photographs, created by children, were so amateurish it is hard to believe that anyone might take them for real. Doyle, a supporter of Spiritualism, tended toward credulity when it came to evidence of spirits, ghosts and Survival After Death.

Fairy lore had interested Doyle all his life. In 1920, he was excited to receive a letter from a spiritualist friend, Felicia Scatcherd, informing him that the existence of fairies had been proven with photographs taken in Yorkshire, England. Doyle asked a theosophist friend, Edward L. Gardner, to investigate. Gardner examined the photographs, which showed diminutive female figures dressed fashionably in Paris gowns with transparent wings and the traditional double pipe of elves. The photographers were two young girls, Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths, who claimed they were able to see the fairies, as well as a gnome who did not want his photograph taken. They said they had taken the photos in July and September of 1917 in the countryside near their Yorkshire village of Cottingley. The bodies of the fairies were white, they said, and the wings were pale green, mauve, and pink.

Though the photographs looked suspiciously faked (they were actually cutouts taken from an illustration in Princess Mary’s Gift Book of 1915), Gardner pronounced them genuine and sent them to Doyle. Doyle asked opinions from the Eastman Company and from Kodak but took Gardner’s word as the truth. He was further swayed by the testimony of his friend Geoffrey Hodson, a clairvoyant, who said he had seen fairies in the Cottingley area. When Elsie and Frances produced three more photographs (shot by themselves with no witnesses), Doyle was elated.

He published an article about the fairies in the Christmas 1920 issue of the Strand Magazine, complete with illustrations. Other fairy-seekers deluged Doyle with “genuine” photographs, but he saw none that had the charm of the Yorkshire sprites. Over and above Doyle’s desire to believe, he refused to consider the possibility that two girls, aged 16 and 10, so innocent in their youth, could hatch professional trickery.

In 1922, Doyle published The Coming of the Fairies containing a full account of the girls’ encounters and including chapters giving other fairy evidence and the theosophic case for fairy sightings. He opined that more authentic fairy sightings would be documented. He then left for Australia on a lecture tour. Upon his return, he found himself the laughingstock of the press on both sides of the Atlantic. The photographs had been widely circulated, examined, and deemed false. Doyle finally admitted that perhaps he was the victim of what might be the greatest hoax in history.

It was not until long after Doyle’s death that Wright and Griffiths finally admitted their hoax. In the early 1980s, they finally stated that they had faked the photographs to get back at adults who had chided them for saying they played with fairies. As girls, they actually had seen fairies, they said. The cousins said that when Doyle became enthusiastically involved, they had been unwilling to embarrass him by admitting to him the photos were fake. Unfortunately, their silence led to an even greater embarrassment for him. Despite the setback and ridicule, Doyle remained steadfast in his spiritualist beliefs and activities.

Further Reading:

  • Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
  • Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Coming of the Fairies. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922.
  • Higham, Charles. The Adventures of Conan Doyle: The Life of the Creator of Sherlock Holmes. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1976.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007