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.


  • 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

When they were first made public in the 1920s, the Cottingley fairy photographs were believed to be genuine and to have been taken by two schoolgirls, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her ten-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, who said they had seen fairies while playing in a glen in Cottingley, England. Over time, however, people began to suspect that the photographs were fake, and in the early 1980s an in-depth, sophisticated examination of the photographs confirmed that this was indeed the case. After the results of this examination were published in a ten-part series in the British Journal of Photography in 1982, the two women, by then ages eighty-one and seventy-five, respectively, admitted that the fairies in their pictures were actually made of paper.

The two confessed that in 1917, they had cut out some illustrations of fairies, painted them, posed them, and then used a borrowed camera to create the photographs. Their pictures were so convincing that Griffith’s father, a member of the Theosophical Society, showed them to Edward Gardner, an influential Theosophist, who in turn showed them to the famous British mystery writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who also financed psychical research. Doyle then wrote an article about the girls’ encounter with the fairies for the December 1920 issue of Strand magazine, which also published the photographs. Doyle also wrote a book titled The Coming of the Fairies (published in 1922 and coauthored by Gardner) in which he suggested that the girls’ photographs proved that fairies were real. He also argued against a theory, proposed by some of his peers, that the fairy photographs had been created psychically—that is, that the girls’ thoughts had imprinted the images on the camera’s film.

Despite their eventual admission of faking the photos, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths continued to insist that they had indeed seen real fairies in the glen where they had played as girls. In fact, they said that they had made the photographs specifically to depict exactly what they had seen because they had been unable to actually photograph their fairy friends.


  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Fairies
  • The Theosophical Society



The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning