The Strange Story of the Cottingley Fairies


One of the most intriguing and contentious stories in the history of photography and folklore in the 20th century is still the Cottingley Fairies. The story revolves around Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two young girls who in 1917 claimed to have taken pictures of actual fairies in the area around their Cottingley, England, home. Famous people like spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were drawn to these pictures and the public was enthralled by them. The Cottingley Fairies narrative is still a powerful example of believing, deception, and the persuasiveness of visual evidence even after it was subsequently refuted.

Context of History

There was a great deal of social and cultural change during the period the Cottingley Fairies’ story took place. With the First World War now over, Europe was left to deal with unseen levels of devastation and loss. Many people’s faith in the pre-war rational and scientific worldview had been destroyed by the war. There was a rebirth of interest in spiritualism, the concept that deceased spirits can connect with living people, usually through mediums, in this atmosphere of uncertainty and loss.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a rise in spiritualism thanks to advancements in photography, which some believed could catch images of ghosts. People who were looking for solace and purpose outside of the material world during this time also experienced a resurgence of interest in folklore and the paranormal. In the midst of disenchantment, the Cottingley Fairies myth evolved against this backdrop, appealing to people’s innate need for wonder and believe.

The Images and First Responses

During the summer of 1917, nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her sixteen-year-old cousin Elsie Wright went into the beck, a tiny creek, near their Cottingley, West Yorkshire, home with Elsie’s father’s camera. Upon their arrival back, they presented a picture of Frances with a bunch of dancing fairies. Not long after, Elsie was pictured with a gnome in another picture.

The parents of the girls were intrigued but doubtful when they saw the photos. Arthur Wright, Elsie’s father and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, thought the girls had used cut-out figurines, so he wrote them off as clever fakes.

Edward Gardner, a prominent member of the Theosophical Society, saw the photos and was convinced of their validity. Photographic manipulation specialist Harold Snelling, who received the images from Gardner, determined that there was no evidence of alteration or double exposure. Gardner then got in touch with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a well-known spiritualist and the man who created Sherlock Holmes, who had a strong interest in the paranormal.

Conan Doyle believed that the images might provide evidence of fairies’ existence, bolstering his theory that there is a spiritual realm outside of the earthly world. He wrote a piece about the pictures for “The Strand Magazine,” which was published in December 1920. The article sparked discussion and curiosity among the general audience.

Public Response and Ongoing Debate

The pictures created a stir when they were published in “The Strand Magazine”. Some readers were suspicious, but others were mesmerized by the pictures and the idea that fairies might actually exist. The images were mainly written off as hoaxes by the scientific world, who pointed out contradictions and the impossibility of fairies ever existing.

Many individuals still yearned for belief in fairies in spite of their doubts. The pictures gave viewers a glimpse of a fantastical world where wonder and innocence were still prevalent, acting as a kind of escape from the harsh reality of post-war life. The debate concerning their veracity further heightened the story’s attraction and brought it even more exposure.

Conan Doyle continued to be an ardent supporter of the images, going so far as to plan a follow-up photo tour to Cottingley in 1920. Gardner gave the girls new cameras and film, which allowed them to take three more pictures of fairies. These more pictures were also released, but they didn’t dissuade those who weren’t convinced; instead, they stoked more discussion.

Examination of the Images
A thorough examination of the five Cottingley fairy pictures identifies a number of characteristics that influenced their acceptance at first and subsequent debunking:

  1. First Photograph (Frances and the Fairies): This image shows Frances Griffiths with four dancing fairies. The fairies appear to be in motion, with delicate wings and flowing garments. Upon close inspection, the fairies seem to cast no shadows and have a flat, two-dimensional appearance, suggesting they might be cut-out figures.
  2. Second Photograph (Elsie and the Gnome): This photograph depicts Elsie Wright sitting with a small gnome. The gnome, much like the fairies, has a flat appearance and seems to lack depth and shading.
  3. Third Photograph (Frances and the Leaping Fairy): This image shows a fairy leaping in front of Frances. The fairy’s wings appear transparent, and it casts no shadow, consistent with the previous photographs.
  4. Fourth Photograph (Fairy Offering Posy of Harebells to Elsie): Here, a fairy is seen offering a flower to Elsie. The fairy’s posture and expression are less lifelike than those of the children, further indicating a possible cut-out figure.
  5. Fifth Photograph (Fairies and Their Sun-Bath): This image depicts several fairies dancing on the grass. Like the earlier photographs, the fairies appear two-dimensional and do not cast shadows, reinforcing the suspicion of photographic manipulation.

The lack of shadows, the flat appearance of the fairies, and the static poses all suggested that the figures were likely cardboard cut-outs. However, the charm and novelty of the images, combined with the girls’ insistence on their authenticity, made them convincing enough to spark considerable debate.

The Swindle Exposed

The Cottingley Fairies continued to be a source of curiosity and conjecture for many years. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths did not acknowledge that the photos were fake until the early 1980s. The two women, who were in their seventies at the time, admitted using cardboard cutouts of fairies that they had reproduced from the well-known children’s book “Princess Mary’s Gift Book” (1914) and propped them up with hatpins in an interview with “The Unexplained” magazine in 1983.

Frances insisted that the sixth picture, “Fairies and Their Sun-Bath,” was authentic even after they acknowledged it. She maintained that although the first four pictures were manufactured, the last one showed actual fairies. There was skepticism towards this assertion, and it was still widely believed that all five of the photos were fake.

The girls’ motivation for creating the photographs was relatively simple. They wanted to play a prank on their parents and friends, never intending for the images to gain international attention. Once the photographs attracted significant interest and were endorsed by prominent figures like Conan Doyle, they felt compelled to maintain the ruse to avoid embarrassment and disappointing their supporters.

The Psychological and Social Factors

The Cottingley Fairies episode can be understood within the broader context of psychological and social factors at play during the early 20th century. The post-war environment was rife with grief, loss, and a longing for reassurance and wonder. The fascination with spiritualism and the supernatural provided an escape from the grim realities of life and offered hope that there was more to existence than the material world.

The females had a very straightforward reason for taking the pictures. They had no idea that the pictures would go viral throughout the world; they only wanted to pull a practical joke on their parents and friends. After the pictures garnered a lot of attention and were supported by well-known people like Conan Doyle, they felt obliged to keep up the hoax in order to save face and disappoint their fans.

The Social and Psychological Elements

It is possible to comprehend the Cottingley Fairies story in light of the larger psychological and social milieu prevalent in the early 20th century. There was a lot of pain, loss, and a need for wonder and assurance in the post-war world. The obsession with spiritualism and the paranormal brought hope that there was more out there and served as an escape from the harsh realities of life.

Suggestion power was also quite important. The pictures gained a great deal of legitimacy from Conan Doyle’s support. Being a well-known and adored writer, his conviction that the pictures were real shaped perceptions and made it simpler for people to suspend their disbelief. The “halo effect,” a phenomena where a credible person’s endorsement gives credibility to a claim, played a key role in the Cottingley Fairies story’s virality.

The pictures themselves were also pleasant and visually appealing. The fairies, portrayed as delicate, ethereal creatures, sparked people’s curiosity and connected with both artistic representations and fairy mythology. The pictures’ eye-catching quality enhanced their persuasiveness and allure, which added to their general acceptability.


Cultural Influence

The tale of the Cottingley Fairies had a profound cultural impact, affecting many facets of popular culture, literature, and the arts. It emphasized the attraction of the paranormal and people’s propensity to believe in the extraordinary. The program also demonstrated how effective photography is as a tool for both creating and documenting reality.

The Cottingley Fairies served as an inspiration for many literary works, such as plays, novels, and academic studies. The story offered a wealth of material for analysis and interpretation because of its unique combination of mystery, deceit, and wonder. It also sparked debates on the nature of believing, the validity of visual proof, and the psychological underpinnings of widespread occurrences.

The fairies have been portrayed in art in a variety of media, including paintings, sculptures, installations, and drawings. Even after it was discovered that the photos were fake, the Cottingley Fairies’ fanciful and magical imagery never stopped inspiring artists.

The Cottingley Fairies have been mentioned in movies, TV series, and documentaries throughout popular culture. The tale’s timeless appeal stems from its unique fusion of historical intrigue, childlike innocence, and the complexity of human belief. It reminds us of the importance of narrative and the ways in which myths and legends may influence how we perceive the world.

Lessons Learned

The Cottingley Fairies episode offers several important lessons about human nature, belief, and the influence of media:

  1. The Power of Belief: The story illustrates how deeply people want to believe in the extraordinary, especially during times of uncertainty and hardship. Belief in the fairies provided comfort and a sense of wonder in a world recovering from the devastation of war.
  2. The Influence of Authority Figures: The endorsement of the photographs by a respected figure like Conan Doyle significantly impacted public perception. This highlights the importance of critical thinking and skepticism, even when claims are supported by trusted authorities.
  3. The Role of Photography: The Cottingley Fairies story underscores the power of photography to shape perceptions of reality. Photographs can be compelling evidence, but they can also be manipulated, reminding us to approach visual evidence with a critical eye.
  4. The Complexity of Hoaxes: The motivations behind the hoax were simple, yet the consequences were far-reaching. The episode reveals how innocent actions can escalate and take on a life of their own, driven by societal and psychological dynamics.
  5. The Intersection of Science and Superstition: The story reflects the ongoing tension between scientific rationalism and the human propensity for magical thinking. It serves as a case study in how these forces interact and influence public discourse.