Once upon a time, two girls played a prank that got way out of hand. A century ago, long before Photoshop, the pair fooled the world with photographs of what they claimed—and what eminent men believed—were fairies.
"The fairies are on the plate—they are on the plate!” That, reported Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a young girl’s excited reaction as she watched a photograph that she and her cousin had recently taken being developed. In an article titled “Fairies Photographed,” which he wrote for The Strand magazine in 1920, Doyle—best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes—explained that the two girls, ages 9 and 16, “claimed that when they were together, [they] continually saw fairies in the wood and had come to be on familiar and friendly terms with them.” Eventually, one of the girls’ fathers lent them a camera so they could photograph the magic they had witnessed. “The result was the picture of the dancing elves,” Doyle wrote. Delighted by the fairies, he noted, “What joy is in the complete abandon of their little graceful figures as they let themselves go in the dance!” For readers who might question the authenticity of the image, and a second one like it, Doyle assured them that “every objection has been considered and adequately met,” and that he himself had studied them “long and earnestly with a high-power lens.” For Doyle, a devoted believer in spiritual phenomenon, these pictures had the power to change the world. “The recognition of [fairies’] existence will jolt the 20th-century mind out of its heavy rut in the mud.” The astonishing photos, he concluded, “mark an epoch in human thought.”
It all began in the summer of 1917, when nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother moved from Cape Town, South Africa, to the picturesque town of Cottingley in Yorkshire, England. There, they moved into a cottage with Frances’ Aunt Polly, Uncle Arthur, and cousin Elsie Wright, 16. Despite their age difference, the girls had a few things in common. They were both only children, a rarity for the early 20th century. And they had both lived outside of England—Frances in South Africa and Elsie in Canada—thus, both had accents that marked them as outsiders in a time and place that judged class by the way one spoke.
Elsie was “young for her age,” according to Joe Cooper, author of The Case of the Cottingley Fairies (1997). She “liked to play with Frances’ dolls,” and she was more than happy to romp with her on the banks of the beck (local lingo for “stream”) that ran behind the house. The beck lay at the bottom of a narrow, deep ravine at the back of the Wrights’ garden, its banks covered with willow trees, greenery, and mushrooms, with a waterfall splashing over the rocks. The girls liked to spend hours there together, and sometimes they packed a lunch, even though the house was only yards away. Enchanted by the dreamy atmosphere, Frances more than once fell into the stream, soaking her long woolen stockings and lace-up leather boots. But no matter how many times her mother “slapped and scolded” her, Frances couldn’t keep away from the beck.
There came a day when Frances, soaking wet again, faced interrogation from both her mother and her aunt: Why, why, why did she keep going to the beck so often? Ashamed and on the spot, Frances, according to Cooper, burst out with, “I go to see the fairies! That’s why—to see the fairies!”
In a bid to cheer up Frances, Elsie suggested that they borrow her father’s camera to take pictures of the fairies. Photographs would prove the fairies’ existence to disbelieving adults.
Even before Frances had moved in, Elsie had spoken of seeing fairies at the beck. As later reported by The Westminster Gazette in 1921, her parents considered this “a childish fancy, and let it pass.” So it wasn’t surprising that, while the grownups remained skeptical of Frances’ claim, Elsie rushed to take her cousin’s side.
“Do you believe in fairies?” Peter asks the audience in a famous moment from Peter Pan, a 1904 stage production based on author J.M. Barrie’s character. In fact, fairies had long been part of British folk lore and pop culture. Fairies, pixies, brownies, elves, goblins, and boggarts populated folk tales throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. A Celtic revival in the late-19th century, along with the establishment of the Folklore Society in London in 1878, brought renewed attention to fairies. There were even Victorian painters who specialized in “the iconography of fairyland.” Beginning with The Blue Fairy Book in 1889, Andrew Lang published 12 volumes of collected fairy tales, each title corresponding to a different color. The staged version of Peter Pan was so popular that a novel, Peter and Wendy, was published in 1911. Elsie Wright was artistic and enjoyed drawing and painting fairies. Frances Griffiths brought with her from South Africa a copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book (1915), an illustrated volume of stories and poetry. One poem appeared on a page surrounded by drawings of dancing fairies. Both Elsie’s talent and Frances’ book would soon come in handy. In a bid to cheer up Frances, still weepy after her latest scolding, Elsie suggested that they borrow her father’s camera to take pictures of the fairies. Photographs would prove the fairies’ existence to disbelieving adults. Decades later, Elsie told Cooper: “I didn’t think we’d go on with it. It was just to take her mind off things.” But Frances latched onto the idea, so Elsie begged her father to borrow his new camera. Though amateur photography was a thriving hobby by 1917, supplies weren’t readily available during the war. Arthur Wright was understandably reluctant to relinquish his prized Midg to his daughter’s clutches. The Midg was a smallish box camera that used 3 1/4" x 4 1/4" glass plates. The exposed plates were developed in a darkroom, and paper prints were made from these glass negatives.
Mr. Wright finally gave in on a sunny day in July 1917. He loaded the camera with a single plate and explained to the girls how to take “a snap,” according to The Westminster Gazette. Elsie and Frances were in a state of “high glee” when they returned in less than an hour, and asked Mr. Wright to develop the plate. Elsie followed her father into the darkroom under the stairs, while Frances eagerly listened at the door.
As Elsie watched, swirling forms appeared on the glass plate swimming in its chemical bath. There was Frances, staring intently at the camera, as a group of winged beings danced on the moss in front of her. Mr. Wright thought the wispy images might be sandwich wrappers, but the girls assured him—they were fairies!
In September, the girls borrowed the camera again to take another photograph, this one showing a stylish, hat-wearing Elsie beckoning a gnome to her knee with her oddly elongated hand. But despite the photographic evidence, the adults remained skeptical. Speaking to a reporter in 1921, Elsie’s parents “confessed they had some difficulty in accepting the photographs as genuine, and even questioned the girls as to how they faked them,” writes Cooper. Even though Elsie and Frances had always been truthful girls, and denied trickery now, Arthur Wright refused to let the girls use his camera again.
Everything would have ended right there, if Elsie’s mother Polly, and Frances’ mother Annie, hadn’t attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in 1919. Founded in 1875, Theosophy followers believed in reincarnation and karma, along with more esoteric concepts such as the astral plane and the human aura. They also believed in elementals, nature spirits, and, yes, fairies. Along with Spiritualism, Theosophy’s emphasis on life after death especially appealed to those grieving the loss of loved ones in the aftermath of the bloody First World War.
Gardner had the duplicate glass plates retouched... The papery wisps were now clearly recognizable as fairies.
When a lecturer at the Theosophical Society mentioned fairies, Polly approached them and asked if they’d be interested in seeing some odd photos her daughter and niece had taken a few years ago. They were indeed interested—and so began a chain of events that brought the Cottingley fairies to the world’s attention. The photos eventually made their way to Theosophist Edward L. Gardner, who was a fervent believer in fairies, and immediately and unquestioningly accepted the photos as genuine. He also realized, however, that they needed some work. According to Cooper, he wrote to Polly Wright in February 1920, asking if he could borrow both original glass plates to make duplicate negatives. He had these duplicate glass plates retouched, the one of Frances substantially so. The papery wisps were now clearly recognizable as fairies.
Gardner also showed the original glass plates and sepia prints to photographer Harold Snelling, who pronounced them as free of trickery. They were single exposures, he said, and the images that appeared in front of Frances were not made of fabric or painted on a background. What’s more, according to Snelling, the fairies had moved during the exposure.
This was proof enough for Gardner, who shared the news with Doyle. In addition to being an esteemed author, Doyle was a trained physician. He was also a Spiritualist, who just happened to be writing a feature story on fairies for The Strand magazine. While cautious at first, Doyle found Gardner to be “a solid person with a reputation for sanity and character,” and he found Snelling’s professional assessment of the photos’ genuineness compelling. Doyle wrote to Elsie’s father and asked to use the girls’ fairy photos for his upcoming article, in exchange for a £5 cash payment or a three-year magazine subscription. (Doyle received £500 for the article.)
Excited by their discoveries and curious for more, Gardner and Doyle supplied Elsie and Frances with a new camera and a supply of glass plates. By this point, Frances’ family had moved away from Cottingley, and Elsie informed Gardner that she and Frances had to be together to take fairy photographs. Rather than finding this suspicious, Gardner wrote to Doyle that the need for two people was “fairly obvious,” the better “to assist in the strengthening of the etheric bodies” (the Theosophical concept of the aura that separated the physical body from the astral). Doyle concurred. Elsie and Frances needed to be together to take the photographs because, he later wrote in The Coming of the Fairies (1922), “the associated aura of the two girls” produced “a stronger effect than either can get singly.”
Privately, Doyle and Gardner were worried that, at ages 19 and 12, Elsie and Frances were already too old to make contact with the fairies. Gardner wrote in a letter reproduced in The Coming of the Fairies: “I fear now we are late because almost certainly the inevitable will shortly happen, one of them will ‘fall in love’ and then—hey presto!!”
Doyle also feared that, after three years, the girls’ ability to photograph the fairies might be compromised as “the processes of puberty” were “often fatal to psychic power.” Nevertheless, Frances obligingly returned to Cottingley in August 1920, and together, she and Elsie took three more photographs of fairies. The photos showed Frances and a leaping fairy, a fairy offering a harebell flower to Elsie, and an enigmatic, nest-like object that Gardner described as a “fairy bower,” which he speculated was used for rest and hygiene.
In the words of historian Alex Owen, “It might have taken youth and femininity to create the Cottingley fairies, but it was power and privilege [from men like Doyle and Gardner] that made those fairies fly.” Now, with the three new photos as “proof,” the fairy-making machine went into overdrive. Doyle’s article, “Fairies Photographed,” featured the first two images and made the cover of the December 1920 issue of The Strand with the headline, “An Epoch-Making Event.”
Once the public at large saw those photos, fairy-mania took hold. Though Doyle used pseudonyms for Elsie (“Iris”) and Frances (“Alice”), a reporter tracked down Elsie in January 1921 at the Christmas card factory where she worked, describing her as a “tall, slim girl with a wealth of auburn hair.” Elsie did not want to talk to the press, claiming she was “fed up” with the thing, but eventually she relented. She could not explain where the fairies came from and “was equally at a loss to explain where they went after dancing near her and was embarrassed when…pressed for a fuller explanation.” She first saw the fairies in 1915, she said. No, she hadn’t told her mother. No, nobody but she and Frances had seen the fairies. “If anybody else were there,” she said, “the fairies would not come out.” The reporter dug further, but his questions, “were only answered with smiles and a final significant remark, ‘You don’t understand.’”
Not everyone was impressed with the photographs. Why did the fairies have Parisian hairstyles and gowns that were the height of fashion? Why was Elsie’s hand so big in her photo with the gnome? Just how foolish was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle anyway? Surely, Arthur Wright was not the only person to lose respect for an author he previously admired in the face of Doyle’s willful inability to see what was right in front of his face.
In August 1921, 20-year-old Elsie and almost 14-year-old Frances were brought together again to take photos, but the magic was gone. Hoping to strengthen their aging auras, Gardner sent a psychic medium, Geoffrey Hodson, to sit with the girls this time. Not surprisingly, no photos were taken. Elsie and Frances, nevertheless, said they saw fairies, and according to Doyle, Hodson confirmed the glen was “swarming with many forms of elemental life…not only wood elves, gnomes, and goblins, but the rarer undines [aka nymphs], floating over the stream.” (In 1976, writes Cooper, middle-aged Frances and Elsie collapsed in giggles when a television interviewer asked them about Hodson. He was “a phony,” they said, who looked where Frances and Elsie pointed and agreed that he saw the things they said were there.)
Doyle, however, was on a roll, and in 1922 he published an entire book about the girls and their photographs, titled The Coming of the Fairies. On some level, it seems he knew the photos were fakes. “Elsie could only have done it by cut-out images…fashioned and kept without the knowledge of her parents,” he briefly speculated in The Coming of the Fairies, before dismissing this as “a large order!” for a teenage girl. Clearly, Doyle didn’t know teenage girls. He and Gardner simply couldn’t accept that a pair of “country” girls could or would perpetrate such a fraud, let alone keep it secret in the face of scrutiny from a pair of educated men such as themselves.
Reviews of the book were brutal. “Poor Sherlock Holmes—Hopelessly Crazy?” was the title of one syndicated article from The Pittsburgh Press that was reprinted all over America. “Conan Doyle, Who Has Been Victimized by Transparent ‘Spirit’ Frauds, Now Offers Photographic Evidence That Fairies Really Exist, Just Like the Story Books,” was the sub-heading. But undeterred, Doyle and Gardner claimed to believe in fairies for the rest of their lives. (Doyle died in 1930, Gardner in 1969.)
The young cousins grew up, and both married and had children. Elsie lived in India for a time before returning to England, where Frances was the matron at a boys’ school. They began a long process of public confession in 1965, though they didn’t fully come clean until the 1980s, finally admitting that the fairies were merely paper cutouts. Elsie had drawn them while looking at Frances’ copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book. They used long hat pins to hold the fairies in place, and the drawings’ hands looked like fins, because hands are hard to draw. Paper cutouts stuck to hat pins fluttered in the gentle breezes of the beck, thus accounting for the motion that so impressed Harold Snelling. “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle–well, we could only keep quiet,” said Elsie in a 1985 interview on Yorkshire Television’s Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers. “I never even thought of it as being a fraud,” said Frances on the same program. “It was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in.” A year later, Frances died, followed by Elsie in 1988.
Speaking to the BBC in 1983, Frances said, “People often say to me, ‘Don’t you feel ashamed that you have made all these poor people look like fools? They believed in you.’ But I do not, because they wanted to believe.” This may have even been true of Frances herself. Until her dying day, Frances would occasionally claim that she had actually seen the fairies, and that the fifth photo, the one of the “fairy bower” was genuine.
This article originally appeared in BUST's Winter 2021/2022 print edition. Subscribe today!
Lynn Peril writes the Museum of Femoribilia column for BUST magazine. She is the author of three books, most recently Swimming in the Steno Pool (W.W. Norton), a history of women and office work. Follow her on her website www.pinkthink.com, Twitter and Facebook.