The early 20th century saw a massive wave of spiritualism across Europe. What had begun as parlor games and theater made a sharp turn during and in the wake of World War I, during which 6% of all adult men in England were killed. Suddenly, a lot more Victorians were interested in communicating with ghosts.
At the same time, a brand-new religion was taking root in Victorian England. Theosophy was less concerned with the spirit world, focusing instead on eastern mysticism, divine knowledge, and the hidden secrets of the universe. Among these alleged secrets were teleportation, telekinesis, reincarnation, and “sub-human orders of beings” — also known as fairies.
Playing in the Garden
In the summer of 1917, nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother moved into the Yorkshire home of Frances’ cousin, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright. Frances’ father was a soldier stationed in France during World War I, prior to which the family had lived in South Africa.
Despite their age difference, the girls got along well, often playing down near the ravine at the back of the Wright family’s garden in the village of Cottingley. It wasn’t until the girls came home one too many times with wet and muddy clothing that the adults in the household thought to ask what the girls were doing down in the garden. Their answer? Playing with fairies.
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Rather than dismiss the girls out of hand, Elsie’s father lent them his camera. The two returned shortly, and Arthur took the plates into his darkroom. When the two photographs indeed appeared to depict fairy-like creatures upon being developed, Mr. Wright was dismissive, albeit amused. His wife had a different reaction.
She took the photos along to a lecture on fairies being held at the local branch of the Theosophical Society, setting in motion a series of events that would cause a national sensation.
The Most Important Thing in the World
Also in attendance that evening was Edward Gardner, a leader in the local theosophical community. Fascinated by the photographs, he took it upon himself to investigate.
Gardner had the photos enlarged and the negatives examined by multiple professional photographers, all of whom (he claimed) determined the photographs to be genuine. It would later be revealed that one photographer refused to examine the photos due to the fairies’ “elaborate and Parisian coiffures,” while another declined based on the photos’ “theatrical” properties.
With the permission of the girls’ family, Gardner began to use the Cottingley Fairies photos while presenting his own lectures on the existence of fairies and sent them to various spiritualist publications. There, they would catch the eye of none other than Arthur Conan Doyle.
In addition to being the famed author of the Sherlock Holmes detective novels, Arthur Conan Doyle was a sincere and devoted spiritualist. Born into a Catholic family in Scotland, he was sent away to be educated at a Jesuit boarding school at the age of nine. Upon graduating, he went on to earn a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh.
Despite his strict Catholic upbringing and scientific education, Conan Doyle began expressing an interest in spiritualism as far back as the 1880s. Though admittedly dubious at first, he would later go on to call it “the most important thing in the world.” By the outbreak of the First World War (during which Doyle would lose his firstborn son, Kingsley), Arthur Conan Doyle was one of spiritualism’s greatest and most fervent champions.
Doyle had been asked to write a piece about fairies for The Strand Magazine’s December 1920 edition and hoped to feature Frances and Elsie’s photographs in it. He also hoped for more photographs. He personally gifted each girl an expensive Cameo camera in the hopes that they might capture another elusive creature on film.
He didn’t have long to wait; the girls promptly provided three more photographs.
With the publication of the Strand Magazine piece, “Fairies Photographed,” the press (and public) went wild over the Cottingley Fairies. Just over a month after the photographs were published in Doyle’s piece, The Guardian reported a crowd of press standing outside an already packed theater where Edward Gardners was giving another lecture. The names of the girls and the location of their home had wisely been changed for the article.
Conan Doyle, meanwhile, got to work on a book about the phenomenon; he published The Coming of the Fairies in 1922. He wrote that the photographs were “either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public, or else they constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character.”
The Debate Rages On
Of course, not everyone was so quick to believe that the photos were genuine. A newspaper in California published an article in November of 1922 titled “Poor Sherlock Holmes – Hopelessly Crazy?”.
Major John Hall-Edwards, a fellow British physician, was more scathing in his response. He published a rebuttal stating, “as a medical man, I believe that the inculcation of such absurd ideas into the minds of children will result in later life in manifestations of nervous disorder and mental disturbances.” He further revealed that Elsie Wright, the elder of the two girls, had once worked as an apprentice to a local photographer.
Conan Doyle doubled down on his convictions in The Coming of the Fairies, reprinting what criticisms the photos had received and responding to each individually. The debate grew heated.
Meanwhile, Frances and Elsie (having enjoyed relative anonymity throughout the debacle) grew up and moved on with their lives. Elsie traveled first to America and later to India, where she lived with her husband until 1949.
Frances Griffiths married a soldier (like her father) and also spent a great deal of time abroad, most prominently in Egypt. Eventually, both girls returned to England, by which time the hubbub over fairies had mostly settled down. Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930 at the age of 71.
A Decades-Long Mystery Solved
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the story made headlines again. British journalist Geoffrey Crawley published an article in the British Journal of Photography confirming the photos had been faked. He was soon surprised to receive a letter from one of the original photographers, Elsie Wright.
Well into her eighties at the time of writing, Elsie thanked the journalist for understanding the “pickle” she and Frances had gotten themselves into with the photos. She explained that the photos had been her idea, as a “practical joke” on the family that swiftly got out of hand when her mother brought the photographs to Edward Gardner.
To create the fairies in the photograph, Elsie copied the diaphanous fairy illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, and the girls set them up to be photographed using hatpins.
By the time The Coming of the Fairies was published, the girls were in over their heads and afraid to come forward with the truth. Frances was being teased at school for the scandal, and Elsie felt too guilty to confess. She had seen and heard the vitriolic criticism Arthur Conan Doyle was receiving in his staunch defense of their photographs and didn’t want to see him shamed.
After Elsie came forward, Frances also changed her tune. “I can’t understand to this day why people were taken in,” she told the BBC. “They wanted to be taken in.”
However, Frances also maintained until her death that one of the photographs, Fairy Sunbath, the fifth and final taken by the girls, actually did depict real fairies.
Spiritualism in the United Kingdom experienced a gradual decline over the course of the 20th century, particularly following the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which made pretending to contact the dead for profit both illegal and punishable. The act was repealed in 1980, however, and both spiritualism and theosophy are practiced to this day.
The Cottingley Fairies hoax remains one of the most famous in modern history.