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James Randi Educational Foundation

Lecture Series

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies

Randi on the movie "Fairy Tale"
(Originally written in 1997. Slightly updated in 2006)

Hollywood has managed to do it again. We're able to sit agog at another example of re-writing history, though Oliver Stone didn't produce this blunder. Back in 1917, Britain was titillated by the spectacle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle declaring his belief in fairies as the result of a series of some very bad photos produced by teenaged Elsie Wright and her younger cousin. The photos were so very poorly done, one must conclude that Conan Doyle was quite bereft of any critical faculties at all.


Hollywood has remedied that for us. Bringing in Harry Houdini, though he was not at all involved in the matter, the film producers offer us Fairy Tale: A True Story. Tale, yes. Story, yes. Otherwise, no.

The truth about the Cottingley Fairies myth is told in my book, Flim-Flam! which I'm sure you will all hasten to purchase. Over the years, I exchanged several letters with Elsie, who lived (I kid you not) in the town of Bunny, and she remained convinced till the end of her days, that Hollywood would just love to tell her story. No, Elsie, Hollywood only wants to bowdlerize and re-write factual accounts, and they've now done that with your story. My correspondence with Elsie is quite fascinating, and reveals just how cunning and manipulative she was, both girl and woman.

Need I tell you that the PC script writers have the fairies win this one? Harvey Keitel is the perfect Houdini, and the props and presentations used are authentic to the last link in the chain. (I was originally approached to serve as the technical consultant on this film, but was unable to spare the several weeks required. They retained TV magician Simon Drake for the job, and it could not have been better handled.) Peter O'Toole hardly resembles Arthur Conan Doyle in any way except for the tweed suits he wore. The girls were a bit old for their roles, but otherwise I was generally well impressed.

Then came the blow for which I should have been prepared. To my eye, it appeared as if the producer was trying to present the story in a logical, truthful, fashion, and then realized that his audience might rankle at too much truth. Two major scenes were dropped in. In one, the parents who in reality never saw or claimed to have seen, the fairies are startled when one flies right before their faces, and they look at one another in amazement. The other abuse of reality occurs when a newspaper reporter breaks into the Wright home and finds the original cut-outs used by the girls. Those were never found, not to anyone's surprise.

An interesting feature I noticed was that in the film, the two girls were never shown seeing the fairies while together. Also, Frances always deferred to Elsie--the older of the two--when asked about the fairies. That agrees with the way things really were.

Frances returned to South Africa, from whence she came, after the fairy affair broke out. She never recovered from the attention the press imposed on her, and for the rest of her life tried to live down the event, though she always maintained, unlike Elsie, that at least one of the photos was not a fake. She died in 1986. Elsie moved to America, to the state of Maine, where she met and married Frank Hill, on leave from India, on July 28, 1926, and they remained married all their lives. As I knew her, she was a feisty lady, quick and bright, but always vainly nurturing the vision of opening on Broadway with her life story. She died in 1988, at the age of 88.

These two little girls perpetrated their innocent hoax, it was taken up by prominent persons who should have known better, and made into a cause célèbre. The children created a monster that eventually devoured them, a monster over which they soon found they had no control. The adults in their lives accepted their claim, promoted it, invested in it, and could not be told that it was a lie. This is not the first time this has happened, as the tragic case of Tina Resch in Columbus, Ohio, also proved, and the cases of several other claimed "poltergeist" and "psychic" children here and in other parts of the world. Their monsters, too, are and were very real. And unstoppable.

Return to the Cottingley main page.

Return to the library main page.

Cottingly Photos
Photo 1
Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4
Photo 5

Cottingly Extras
June 30 to Elsie Wright
June 30 to Arthur Wright
July 12 Reply to Conan Doyle
July 14 to Arthur Wright
August 3 to Arthur Wright

Cottingly Extras
Read more on this amazing story, and many more, in Randi's book Flim Flam!

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