Historic Hoaxes · Weird History

Weird Wednesday: The Cottingley Fairies

Elsie Wright as photographed by her cousin Frances Griffiths in 1920 with a "fairy"
Elsie Wright as photographed by her cousin Frances Griffiths in 1920 with one of the most debated fairies of the 20th century.  Photo: http://www.cottingleyconnect.org.uk

This is a story that has captivated my attention since I was a little girl. It was 1917 in Cottingley, UK when two cousins, Elsie Wright, then 16 and her 10 year old cousin Frances Griffiths created two photographs- one of Frances with fairies and another of Elise with a gnome. These pictures were shown at a lecture on “Fairy Life” in 1919 and from that point sparked a debate among many prominent individuals at the time, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. Critics felt that the fairies looked too modern with current hairstyles and clothing to be real while others argued that no darkroom manipulation or double exposures had taken place after examining the negatives.

This debate went on for years and the girls even produced three more photographs. The fourth one in the series is pictured above. Frances claimed to have captured a fairy presenting a small flower wreath to Elsie. Obviously this photograph has been cleaned up and color was added but I wanted to show a clear enough picture to give an idea of what people were looking at in the 1920s and debating the authenticity of.

As the years went by the cousins maintained these were real photographs, and it wasn’t until an interview in 1983 that the truth came out. The fairies were faked by taking a copy of the popular children’s book Princess Mary’s Gift Book and cutting out the cardboard illustrations that were secured with hatpins for the pictures. Once they were done, the girls disposed of the evidence in the nearby creek where the alleged sightings took place.

So why did they keep quiet for so long? One reason given by Elsie was that she and Frances were too embarrassed to admit to the truth after the highly respected Conan Doyle had been so convinced that the photos and the fairies were real. Both Elise and Frances maintained that they had indeed seen actual fairies out in their yard but just never caught them on film. Frances stated in an interview that she could not understand how anyone ever thought they were real. There was some debate between the two about the fifth and final photograph being genuine. Elsie claimed it was a hoax just like the others but until her death Frances asserted that these were indeed fairies captured on film.

The fifth and last Cottingley fairy photograph, claimed to be authentic by Frances. Taken in 1920. Photo:wikipedia
The fifth and last Cottingley fairy photograph, Fairies and Their Sun Bath, claimed to be authentic by Frances. Taken in 1920. Photo:wikipedia

It’s crazy to imagine a time where such photographs were taken so seriously by so many scholars and intellectuals but at the time there was no digital manipulating of pictures, and with no distractions like t.v. or computers Elsie and Frances had plenty of time to get everything looking as legit as it could have possibly gotten given their resources. It is pretty amazing though to think their photographs caused such a stir and remained unresolved for the better part of a century. Luckily for me and anyone else as captivated by this story, Frances’ daughter Christine Lynch created a  memoir titled Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies and it will definitely be on my summer reading agenda.

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