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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

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Cottingley fairies In 1917, two little Yorkshire girls in Bradford, England, Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances, told everyone that they had seen fairies in a place called Cottingley Glen, and they said that they had even taken photographs of the entities as proof of their stories. They produced five rather amateurish “fairy” photos that were widely celebrated at the time.
      Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an otherwise often levelheaded man except when it came to the supernatural, chose to accept and endorse the story told by the girls, probably because it fit in well with his belief system. Conan Doyle, even before he saw the photographs——and he never did meet the girls——accepted the whole tale and set about promoting the existence of fairies, elves, and other wee creatures who he firmly believed were flitting about in the woods.


The Cottingley fairy photographs were staged using cutouts prepared from illustrations in a children's book. Yet this photograph fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the great detective hero, Sherlock Holmes.

      Sir Arthur even took lantern slides made from the Cottingley photos abroad to America with him, as part of his lecture tour. The rights to the photos themselves were given by Elsie's mother to the Theosophy movement, which embraced belief in wood sprites and such beings. Years later, when Elsie saw a photograph of a huge church the Theosophists had built with the proceeds of sales of the photos, she grumbled that she and Frances hadn't seen a penny for their labors, while millions of pounds had been raised from their work.
      Only a few years ago, the two who had perpetrated this rather delicious hoax on Conan Doyle——and, through him, on the whole world——died. They had not ever been willing to openly admit that their photos were fakes, but along the way they dropped tantalizing hints. Elsie, the elder, admitted in 1978 that their “little joke fell flat on its face right away” and explained that, had it not been for the hopelessly unrealistic Conan Doyle seizing upon the opportunity to discover and champion yet another supernatural discovery, their photographs would have just remained “out of sight in a drawer” where her father had thrown them.
      Elsie was amazed that people accepted their hoax. She wrote, “Surely you know that there can not be more than one grown up person in every five million who would take our fairies seriously.” Elsie's dad, she wrote, was dismayed by it all. He asked his wife, “How could a brilliant man like Conan Doyle believe such a thing?”
      The photos were prepared simply by photographing cutouts of fairies drawn by Elsie from a popular children's book, Princess Mary's Gift Book. Frances and Elsie thus created a hugely successful monster that lives on even today——despite the proof of trickery——in the pages of sensational journals and in books.
      The great puzzle is why the Cottingley Fairy photographs were ever accepted in the first place. They are very obviously fakes, and it can easily be proven that they are. The first, and the most famous, of the five photographs shows Frances with four tiny fairies in full flight. What is often ignored is the image of a small waterfall in the background behind Frances, which Mr. Brian Coe, curator of the Kodak Museum in Harrow, England, says was registered on the film of that era only by a lengthy time exposure. However, the fairies themselves, and their fluttering butterfly wings, are very sharp and clear. That rapid motion would have required a shutter speed that was far beyond the capabilities of the camera that was used to take the picture, particularly in view of the subdued light that was present, and sufficient film speed was similarly not available. The four other photos are subject to the same kind of detection.
      The British Society for Psychical Research (SPR)——already well organized when these photos began being publicized——took a quarter century before they examined the evidence, and in 1945——to their credit——they decided that they were now “skeptical of the reality of fairies in general and of the Cottingley Fairies in particular.” Science marches on.
      The British Journal of Photography understandably took until 1975 to even mention these photos, then in 1982 ran a series of quite devastating articles that should have effectively ended the controversy. Despite such in-depth investigative research and the very strong negative evidence it has produced, the fact is that articles still appear which support the fairy photographs as genuine.
      See also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and fairies.



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