The Story of Cottingley Fairies
A series of photographs taken between 1917 and 1920 by two young girls in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley captured fairies on film. Sixteen year old Elsie Wright and her ten year old cousin Frances Griffiths often played in the stream by their home. In July 1917 they borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera. When Mr. Wright developed the plates there appeared to be fairies dancing around Frances. He construed the girls’ explanation as a trick.
A month later, the girls produced another picture of Elsie with a gnome. Mr. Wright dismissed the photos as pranks and filed them away. Mrs. Wright a believer in spiritualism was intrigued by the photos. After attending a lecture on spiritualism in 1919, she showed the photos to the speaker. The speaker had professional photographer Harold Snelling examine the original prints and glass plate negatives. Snelling was an expert on photographic retouching and he declared the photos were “genuine unfaked photographs of a single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc.”
Once the photos had received the stamp of authenticity, they circulated through the British spiritualist community. They came to the attention of passionate spiritualist and author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle purchased cameras for each of the girls and requested further photographs. No photos were taken in Doyle’s presence as the girls claimed that the fairies would not come out for strangers. They did produce three more fairy photos. In the December 1920 issue of “The Strand Magazine” Doyle featured the five photos and wrote an article that supported the authenticity of the photos.
The two girls received celebrity status but increasingly declined publicity. The skeptics found many problems with the photos and interest in the Cottingley Fairies declined by 1921. Despite this Doyle published “The Coming of the Fairies,” a book about the subject in 1922.
In 1978 James Randi observed that the fairies in the photos were very similar to those in a children’s book “Princess Mary’s Gift Book” which had been published in 1915. In an interview in 1981, Elsie Wright confessed that the fairies were paper cut-outs that she had sketched and attached in place with long hatpins. Her copy of “Princess Mary’s Gift Book” had been the inspiration for her talented drawings. In March 1983 at the age of 76, Frances finally admitted “I hated those photographs and cringe every time I see them. I thought it was a joke, but everyone else kept it going. It should have died a natural death 60 years ago.” Elsie shared her cousin’s sentiments about the incident and added “I do not want to die and leave my grandchildren with a loony grandmother to remember.” The Cottingley Fairies were indeed a hoax. What started as a practical joke by two young girls became a sensational story that fooled many for over six decades.