June 09, 2023

#08-317: The Cottingley Fairies

The first of the girls' five photos. (Wikipedia)

Note: One of the most amusing affairs in the history of fakery is the time two young girls fooled one of the most famous "smart guys" of his time.

Get Ready: Do you think that "belief" can ever be the enemy of "knowledge"?

Arthur Conan Doyle (later "Sir") was famed as the creator of the almost super-rational Sherlock Holmes, and was himself a trained physician. So how is it he was thoroughly duped by a hoax perpetrated by two young girls?

In 1917, Frances Griffiths, age 9, moved with her mother from South Africa to England to live with Frances's aunt and her family, including 16-year-old Elsie Wright. The girls would often play together at a "beck" or stream near the lower end of the Wright's garden in Cottingley, and return with muddy feet. When the were scolded, they would explain, "But we were only going there to see the fairies!"

To prove their alibi, they borrowed Elsie's father's camera and produced honest-to-goodness photographs of fairies! Arthur Wright naturally dismissed the photos as using "trick" photography, knowing Elsie had worked in a darkroom. But his wife Polly believed in them wholeheartedly, and try as he might, Arthur could not prove they were fakes.

Two months later the girls borrowed the camera again and produced two more photos. Arthur considered them fake; Polly still believed.

Two years later Polly displayed the photos at the annual conference of a "spiritualist" society, and one of its leaders, Edward Gardner, took up the girls' cause-- perhaps because he believed, too, but perhaps because it helped him promote his own movement.

Gardner sent the photos and their negatives to an expert who, without declaring that the images actually contained fairies, said, "these are straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time."

Enter Doyle. He had been commissioned to write an article about fairies. As a "true believer," he was thoroughly duped by the trick perpetrated by the girls, and in June 1920 contacted first Gardner then Elsie and her father to request permission to use the photos. Arthur Wright granted permission but accepted no pay, saying that the images would be "soiled" by money. It sounds like, by now, he believed in fairies too!

Gardner and Doyle submitted the photos to the Kodak company for further corroboration. Their technicians declined to issue a certificate of authenticity, saying that while there was no "conclusive evidence ... that they were authentic photographs of fairies," they also "showed no signs of being faked." Not exactly a glowing recommendation.

Nevertheless, Gardner and Doyle forged ahead with their plans to present the photos as genuinely showing fairies.

Too bad for them, in the early 1980s Elsie and Frances admitted that the photographs were faked; they had used cardboard cutouts of fairies--though both continued to maintain that a fifth photo, which they could not explain--perhaps an accidental double-exposure--was genuine!


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. an alibi
  2. corroboration
  3. a darkroom
  4. a double-exposure
  5. duped
  6. honest-to-goodness
  7. perpetrated
  8. a physician
  9. super-
  10. wholeheartedly

  1. a place to print photographs
  2. genuine
  3. excuse; proof that one could not have done something
  4. fooled
  5. two superimposed photos
  6. doctor
  7. committed (a bad action)
  8. extremely
  9. completely
  10. confirmation

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for June 9, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. j; 3. a; 4. e; 5. d; 6. b; 7. g; 8. f; 9. h; 10. i