In 1917 Annie Griffiths and her daughter Frances moved from South Africa to the small village of Cottingley, a suburb of Bradford in Yorkshire, England. They would live with Annie's sister, Polly Wright; her brother-in-law, Arthur; and her niece, Elsie, while her husband was in France fighting in the war. At the time Frances was nine and Elsie was 17. Despite their age difference, Elsie and Frances soon became best friends and played together in the stream at the bottom of the garden behind the Wright home. On one occasion, Frances's mother became irritated when the girls returned with wet shoes and socks. Frances responded to her mother's scolding by telling her they had gone to the stream to see fairies. To prove that they had actually seen fairies, Elsie borrowed her father's Midg camera and in July 1917 took a picture of Frances with the fairies. When they returned from the stream, Elsie's father developed the photograph they had taken, which showed Frances sitting by the stream surrounded by four dancing fairies. In September of the same year Frances took a photograph of Elsie with a gnome kneeling near her lap.
Despite the remarkable nature of these photographs, the family chose not to publicize them immediately; instead they remained silent until 1919 when Elsie's mother attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. Held at a time when interest in psychic phenomena was greatly increased, in the aftermath of World War I, the meeting was attended by several hundred persons. During the meeting the lecturer, a Mrs. Powell, apparently mentioned the existence of fairies, which prompted Polly to ask if it was possible that the fairy photographs taken by her daughter and niece could be valid representations of fairy life. Eventually the two photo-graphs taken by Frances and Elsie were given to Mrs. Powell, who forwarded them to Edward J. Gardner. Gardner discussed them with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who not only believed in the existence of fairies but was also coincidentally collecting material on fairies for an article he had promised to write for the Strand.
Doyle obtained prints of the photographs in June 1920, while he was making preparations for a trip to Australia with his family to preach the cause of Spiritualism. Because of the importance of the subject matter, Doyle made arrangements to meet Gardner at the Grosvenor Hotel in London to discuss the photographs. During those discussions, Doyle asked Gardner to travel to Yorkshire to meet with the family and to investigate the photographs. After completing his investigation, Gardner was convinced that the girls' story was true and that the photo-graphs were valid representations of fairies. Before leaving for Australia, Doyle spoke with Gardner and submitted an article to the Strand ; it appeared in December 1920. In the article Doyle used pseudonyms for Elsie (who became Iris) and Frances (who became Alice) and discussed the background of the two photographs and Gardner's visit with the family. Doyle left for Australia before the article was published, but he admitted in the published account of that trip that he took with him "the famous fairy photos—which will appear in England in the Christmas number of the Strand. I feel as if it were a delay-action of mine which I had left behind me. I can imagine the cry of "Fake!" which will arise. But they will stand investigation. It has, of course, nothing to do with Spiritualism proper, but everything which can shake the mind out of narrow material grooves and make it realize that endless worlds surround us, separated only by difference of vibration, must work in the general direction of truth."
When Doyle returned from Australia in the spring of 1921, he submitted another article to the Strand, which appeared in the March 1921 issue. Although two additional photographs were reproduced for the first time in this article—photographs that Elsie and Frances had been urged to take by Gardner in August 1920—the article itself had been written by Doyle before he knew anything about any of the Cottingley fairy photo-graphs. A preface to the article states: "This article was written by Sir A. Conan Doyle before actual photographs of fairies were known to exist. His departure for Australia prevented him from revising the article in the new light which has so strikingly strengthened his case. We are glad to be able to sit before our readers two new fairy photographs, taken by the same girls, but of more recent date than those which created so much discussion when they were published in our Christmas number, and of even greater interest and importance."
Following the publication of Doyle's articles, he wrote several letters to the British press to explain his belief in the fairy photographs. On June 18, 1921, he wrote to Light, a spiritualist magazine, and defended the photographs against charges that they were "clumsy fakes" by assuring its readers that "the photos have been enlarged and also examined in the negatives by some of the most competent professional photographers in England, who could find no flaw."
In October of the same year he wrote to the Yorkshire Weekly Post and repeated that the fairy photographs had been "inspected by several of the first authorities in England, who have found no flaw in them," but also added: "When one considers that these are the first photographs which these children ever took in their lives it is impossible to conceive that they are capable of technical manipulation which would deceive experts."
Despite these explanations, others advanced more skeptical theories. On December 20, 1921, an article appeared in the British newspaper Star, in which a representative of Price and Sons, who were candlemakers, suggested that the Cottingley fairies were almost identical to drawings the company had used to advertise their nightlights.
Despite these criticisms, Doyle utilized both Strand articles as chapters in the first edition of The Coming of the Fairies (1922), which consisted of 1,000 copies published on September 1, 1922. A second impression was made on November 23, 1922, in which an additional 500 copies were published. The first American edition of The Coming of the Fairies, which consisted of 1,500 copies, was published later that same year. These publications included the four previously published fairy photo-graphs and a fifth photograph, which was also taken in 1920. Following the publication of the first edition of The Coming of the Fairies, the South African newspaper Cape Argus published an article that disclosed that Elsie Wright wrote a letter concerning her fairy photographs before making them public. Believing that this disclosure was significant, Doyle submitted a third article to the Strand, for their February 1923 issue, in which he writes that there is new evidence that vindicates Elsie and Frances: "There are a good many apologies due to the children for criticism which could only mean that they were dis-honest little wretches. That line of comment must now be definitely abandoned by every fair-minded critic, but what other one is open?"
Following the publication of this article, Doyle relied on others to argue the case. Geoffrey Hodson, a medium who visited Elsie and Frances in Cottingley in August 1921 and whose account was included in Doyle's book, published his own book on the subject. In Fairies at Work and Play (1925) Hodson cites the Cottingley fairy photos as evidence that fairies exist. His book also describes other sightings of brownies, elves, gnomes, manikins, undins, sea spirits, sylphs, devas, and nature spirits. That same year Doyle wrote a letter to The Northern Whig and Belfast Post in which he blasted an "allusion to the 'Fairy Photographs' as if they had been in some way explained or discredited." He declared "This is not so," and reviewed the evidence that supported their veracity, including the letter that appeared in the Cape Argus, and the unquestioned honesty of the girls.
Although Doyle considered writing a fourth article for the Strand after the discovery of additional fairy photographs from other sources, he decided, instead, to publish a second edition of The Coming of the Fairies in 1928. This second edition, published by Doyle's own Psychic Press, added material that was not in the first edition, including a new preface in which he recommends Hodson's book, and an article by Florizel von Reuter which discusses photographs of nature sprites.
Following the publication of the second edition of The Coming of the Fairies, Doyle wrote nothing further on the subject until 1929. In Our African Winter —the account of his missionary adventures in Africa—he recognizes that:
"… there are thousands of people who still believe the wild assertion made years ago that the fairy photographs were taken from a well-known advertisement. I took the line in my lecture that I was prepared to consider any explanation of these results, save only one which attacked the character of the children. I am sure that when I had explained the facts there were few in the Hall who were not prepared to accept the photographs…. There have been many objections made to the Cottingley photographs, most of them palpably absurd. The one which merits most attention is that they are cleverly cut-out figures which have been held up by invisible threads. Such an explanation is conceivable, but the balance of probability seems to me to be greatly against it."
In the same book Doyle also explains why he continued to reject the skeptical explanations advanced concerning the Cottingley fairy photographs:
"1. Frances, the younger girl, wrote at the time (1917) that Cottingley was a nice place on account of the butterflies and fairies. This card was sent to her friend in South Africa (who came from South Africa) and was unearthed in 1923, or thereabouts, and published in the Cape Argus. For what possible reason would she, a child of ten, write thus, if she knew it was a deception?
"2. If the figures were cut out, then similar figures must be in existence in other copies of the book or paper. These have not been found.
"3. There is a great difference in solidity between the 1920 figures and those of 1917, which could be accounted for by waning mediumship, but which is inconsistent with faking.
"4. Experts have reported signs of movement in the figures. "5. Mr. Gardner formed a high opinion of the character of both of the children and of their father. The latter would certainly have known if there were deception."
Until his death in 1930, Doyle continued to believe that the photos were genuine and that Elsie and Frances were telling the truth. Edward J. Gardner, who first interviewed the girls, also wrote a book on the subject in 1945, in which he includes all five fairy photographs and describes the events that led to their publication.
Although Doyle, Gardner, and Hodson all died believing that the photographs were genuine, the controversy survived them, and more than 60 years after the initial photographs were taken, Frances and Elsie finally admitted that "for the most part, the Cottingley fairy episode was a fraud."
Following Gardner's death in 1970, at age 100, the British press revived the Cottingley fairy story. Beginning in 1971, television programs were produced in which Elsie appeared and described her first conversations with the fairies. Of course, most of these programs were tongue in cheek attempts by the British press to report the historical facts of the episode while, at the same time, leaving no doubt that it was all in good fun. In 1973 the president of the Folklore Society in Yorkshire delivered his annual address, in which he assured his audience that he did not believe the photographs actually depicted real fairies. He concluded this after watching Elsie's 1971 interview.
In 1976, another interview with both Frances and Elsie was televised in Yorkshire. During this program both women confirmed the events recorded by Doyle, Hodson, and Gardner.
Shortly thereafter, Fred Gettings discovered a picture in a book entitled Princess Mary's Gift Book (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1914), which, unlike the Price & Sons advertisement, depicted dancing fairies very similar to those in the first of the photographs. Ironically, Princess Mary's Gift Book also contained an article by Doyle. In 1982 James Randi, the famous magician, published blowups of the photographs to demonstrate that the fairy figurines in the Cottingley photos were cutouts and that the last photograph was a double exposure.
The same year Randi's book appeared, a series of articles by Geoffrey Crawley, entitled "The Astonishing Affair of the Cottingley Fairies," began running as a series in The British Journal of Photography. These articles examine the history of the episode, give an analysis of each of the photographs, and detailed discussions of the Midg camera used by Frances and Elsie and of the source material the girls could have used in constructing the photographs. It also describes Elsie's artistic abilities. The articles become truly "astonishing" in Part 9, which contains a letter from Elsie in which she admits, apparently for the first time, that the fairy photograph episode was a "practical joke that fell flat on its face." She also writes that:
"My dad said really you must tell right now how you got these photos, so I took Frances aside for a serious talk, as the joke had been my own invention. But she begged me not to tell as the Strand Magazine had brought her so much teasing at school, and I was also feeling sad for Conan Doyle, we had read in the newspapers of his getting some jarring comments, first about his interest in Spiritualism and now laughter about his belief in our fairies, there was also a critical cartoon of him in a newspaper chained to a chair with his head in a cloud and Sherlock Holmes stood beside him, he had recently lost his son in the war and the poor man was probably trying to comfort himself with unworldly things."
In the same issue, Frances also admits that the first four photographs were staged but, unlike Elsie, she maintains that the pictures were taken "to help establish that fairies did exist" and that as a child "she did indeed see real fairies very close." In addition, she says she believed that the final photograph was "a genuine one of real fairies."
Apparently, Frances had made a similar confession to Joe Cooper, who published an article on the subject in the British magazine The Unexplained —before its appearance in The British Journal of Photography. Geoffrey Crawley later admitted that he was aware of the confession when he wrote his articles but that he believed that the subsequent confessions made by Frances and Elsie, published in The British Journal of Photography, established for the first time in written form, the reason for the charade. Crawley also sets forth in the articles the first detailed analysis of each of the five photographs and concludes that only one of the photographs, the first one, contained material similar to the illustration found in Princess Mary's Gift Book. The fairy figurines in the next three photographs were drawings made by Elsie from other sources, he says. The first four photo-graphs were taken while the fairy figurines were planted in the earth with hat pins. Crawley, unlike James Randi, offers no solution for the last photograph.
Ironically, Geoffrey Hodson died in January 1983, at age 97 shortly after the beginning of The British Journal of Photography 's investigation.
The final chapter in the Cottingley fairy episode was written by Joe Cooper in 1990 when he published his recollections of Frances's first confession. According to Cooper, Frances first confessed in September 1981 during a discussion with him in Canterbury. During this conversation she claimed that the final photo was of real fairies. She also admitted, however, that she brought a copy of Princess Mary's Gift Book with her from South Africa in 1917, and that Elsie in fact copied the figures for the first photograph from that book. Apparently, the first confession made by Elsie was her letter to The British Journal of Photography, which appeared in the April 1, 1983, issue.
Although Frances and Elsie steadfastly maintained that the photographs were valid for most of their lives, they both eventually admitted they were faked. However, Frances only admitted that four of the five were fake. She maintained that the last photograph, which she took, was not faked and, to her dying day, believed in the existence of fairies. Elsie, on the other hand, stated in her last interview that she did not believe in fairies.
In Doyle's December 1920 Strand article he alludes to his Sherlock Holmes character when he writes, "I will now make a few comments upon the two pictures which I have studied long and earnestly with a high powered lens." Cooper, in his 1990 book, also mentions Holmes in his discussion of the fairy photos in a four-page pastiche in which Holmes solves the Cottingley fairy mystery. One telling incident occurs after Holmes solves the mystery and Doyle recalls that he wrote an article in Princess Mary's Gift Book. In hindsight, he laments that he should have realized that the figures in that book could have been copied by the girls for their fairy pictures.
Cooper, Joe. The Case of the Cottingley Fairies. London: Robert Hale, 1990.
Crawley, Geoffrey. "The Astonishing Affair of the Cottingley Fairies." British Journal of Photography 24 (December 1982-April 1983; 24 May 1985; 25 July 1986).
Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Cottingley Fairies: An Epilogue." Strand Magazine 65 (February 1923).
——. "The Evidence for Fairies; with More Fairy Photo-graphs." Strand Magazine 61 (March 1921): 199-206.
——. "Fairies Photographed: An Epic-Making Event." Strand Magazine 60 (December 1920): 463-68.
Gardner, Edward L. Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel. London: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1945.
Hodson, Geoffrey. Fairies at Work and Play. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1925.