In 1911, J.M. Barrie gave us one of the most iconic fairy tales of all time: Peter Pan. At a time when the world was obsessed with stories about these creatures, the novel became an instant success (not to mention the 1904 play where he created the characters). But who would’ve thought that it wouldn’t be Tinker Bell, the iconic fairy, the one who would make the world believe in them, but rather two young girls playing in their garden with an old camera? This is the story of the Cottingley Fairies, considered the biggest hoax of the twentieth century.
One boring summer day in 1917 in West Yorkshire, England, 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths (9 years old) decided to take Elsie’s dad’s old camera and go play in their cottage’s garden. After learning how to use it and spending a couple of hours outside, they took the film to her dad, who gladly developed the photos. To Mr. Wright’s surprise, the only picture they spent hours taking was a portrait of Frances posing with some unexpected characters: four beautiful fairies.
Frances and the Fairies. (July 1917)In September, the curious and imaginative girls took the camera one more time on their garden adventures. This time, Mr. Wright discovered a picture of his daughter talking to what seemed to be a small gnome. For some reason, according to the story, he chided the girls and forbid them from playing with the camera anymore. However, Mrs. Wright wasn’t as uptight as her husband, and the girl’s pictures actually intrigued her. As a serious believer of the supernatural, the mother was sure the photos were real and, as such, she decided to take them to a “professional.”
Two years later, she attended a lecture on spiritualism, and convinced that she had evidence of supernatural creatures living in her garden, she decided to show both photos to the lecturer who was close to Edward Gardner, leader of the Theosophical movement in England. A bit skeptical, Gardner took the pictures to an expert to examine them. His verdict: the pictures were real and hadn’t been staged.
Elsie and the Gnome (September 1917)Eventually, the strange pictures of these two young girls ended up in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hands. Besides being famous for his iconic character and classic Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle was an open spiritualist who was always working on ways to prove the existence of creatures and spirits (real story). Astonished, Doyle devoted an article to the subject and published the photographs and, all of a sudden, the images were all over the country causing a huge controversy over their authenticity.
On the one hand, many did believe the photos were real and that there wasn’t any way two girls could’ve forged them (let’s, of course, remember that photography was still a relatively new technology and definition wasn’t the best). On the other hand, a lot of people started noticing certain issues on them: the biggest of them all, the fact that the fairies and the gnome looked like paper cutouts. Still, the believers far outnumbered the skeptics, and the story of the girls who had managed to capture these creatures on film became a sensation all over the world.
Frances and the Leaping Fairy (August 1920)In August 1920, Doyle asked the girls to take more photos, so they could prove wrong all the skeptics who still claimed these were fakes. And so they did. The three final photos of the series portray the girls posing next to the fairies, and the last a group of fairies on the grass engaged in what seems to be some sort of dance. Naturally, these were an automatic success at the time, and the fact that they had managed to see them almost three years later (of course, this was seen with suspicion as well).
By the next year, the craze over the Cottingley Fairies was over and faded into oblivion for decades. During the sixties, the story re-emerged but didn’t get the punch it got during the late seventies and eighties when it all came back mainly because it was questioned once again. In 1978, the famous author and debunker of hoaxes James Randi pointed out that the Cottingley fairies had a lot of similarities to those portrayed in a book called Princess Mary’s Gift Book (quite a particular one during the time the pictures were taken).
Fairy Offering a Posy to Elsie (August 1920)Two years later, the cousins confessed in an interview for The Unexplained Magazine that the photos were, indeed, fake. That they had simply used colored paper cutouts, though they claimed the fifth photo was real. As Randi had discovered, these sketches were taken precisely from the illustrations in the Princess Mary’s Gift Book. Pretty much what shocked people at the time was the fact that two little girls had managed to get away with their prank for such a long time. So how did they? More importantly, why did people were so avid to believe such a story that seemed very unlikely?
Seen from afar, the most logical answer to that question is that people were hungry for hope and a nice story. By the time Elsie and Frances’ photos started getting attention, World war was coming to an end. Everything people read, saw, and heard was related to the horrors of the war, and a story about two young girls hanging out with fairies seemed like the best distraction and sweetness at a time of darkness.
Fairies and Their Sun-Bath (August 1920)Although these photos look clearly fake now, we can all agree it’s not a malicious hoax, at least on the girl’s part. Moreover, it’s a nice story that shows how far our minds are willing to go when it comes to finding a bit of light during dark times. And all in all, the photos are quite interesting and visually appealing, a great example of how innocence and creativity can actually have an impact in the world.
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