Does This Photo Prove Fairies Exist?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle achieved fame and fortune through his fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes A master of logic and deduction, Holmes epitomises the scientific progress made by Victorian culture

But in his later life, Holmes’ creator shifted his attention to the supernatural He sought proof that otherworldly beings existed And in 1920, he found it, in a series of photographs taken by two girls – photographs that, according to Doyle, confirmed that fairies are real Doyle had a longstanding relationship with The Strand magazine, ever since it had published the first Sherlock Holmes short story in 1891 In 1920, The Strand commissioned Doyle to write an article about fairies, as part of the author’s interest in spiritualism

To Doyle’s delight, his friend Edward Gardner lent him two photographs as conclusive proof that fairies did exist The photographs were taken in 1917 by nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright They were cousins, and spent that summer together in Elsie’s family home in Cottingley in Yorkshire They passed a lot of time playing beside a beck, or creek, at the bottom of the garden They returned from play with stories of encounters with gnomes and fairies who lived on the water’s edge

Elsie’s parents did not believe her, so one day she borrowed her father’s Midg Quarter-plate camera to prove her stories were true Thirty minutes later, the girls returned with this photo of Frances with four dancing fairies Later that year, they took a second photo of Elsie sitting on the lawn with a gnome Elsie’s mother was convinced by the photos and through her the photos reached Edward Gardner, who showed them to Arthur Conan Doyle, who introduced them to world in his article The photos caused a sensation, attracting the attention of believers and skeptics alike

Adding fuel to the fire was Doyle’s reputation for scientific logic As a medical man, he was trained in the scientific process and was keen to test the pictures’ veracity Doyle and Gardner took the images to Harold Snelling, an expert in photography Snelling extensively examined them and concluded, “They are genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work… there is no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc” Doyle also took the photographs to technicians at the Kodak company, the world’s leading manufacturer of film and cameras

Kodak verified that the pictures “showed no obvious signs of being faked” Edward Gardner went a step further He visited the Wright family in Cottingley and asked Elsie to take more photographs while they played at the beck She and Frances took several, two of which showed Frances and Elsie with fairies Another, final, photo shows the fairies in the grass

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was ecstatic: the photos were real He believed this until his death in 1930 Frances and Elsie eventually grew up, got married and moved away from England In 1966, they were tracked down by a reporter and interviewed They still said the photos were real, and the photos became a national sensation once again

Then, in the 1970s, both women separately suggested they did not believe in fairies This sparked a new wave of skepticism In 1978, magician James Randi led a computer analysis of the photographs He said the analysis found the fairies were hanging from strings In 1982, the editor of the British Journal of Photography, Geoffrey Crawley, investigated the photos, trying to to recreate them with the same technology

He also determined they were fake Of course, Elsie and Frances always had their critics Most of them pointed out how conventional the fairies appeared, and how they sported the latest Parisian hairstyles Escapologist Harry Houdini declared they were fake when the picture were first published Moreover, Elsie’s own father was convinced the pictures were faked

He was so sure that he refused to sell the photos to Gardner and Doyle, instead giving them away for free As an amateur photographer, he developed the very first photographs He dismissed them as a joke made with cardboard cut-outs He knew Elsie had an artistic streak and had some basic knowledge of photography, thanks to his hobby and her part-time job at a local printer’s shop If Elsie’s mother hadn’t believed the pictures were real, they would never have reached Arthur Conan Doyle’s desk

In 1983, Elsie and Frances gave an interview in which they insisted they had really seen fairies at the bottom of the garden in Cottingley Nevertheless, they finally confessed the photographs were fake The fairies were copied from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, a children’s book published in 1914, and stuck to cardboard which they supported with hatpins They explained that, as children, they were too embarrassed to admit the truth after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had proclaimed the pictures to be genuine Frances died in 1986

Elsie died in 1988 Shortly before she passed away, Elsie said, “The whole affair had been a practical joke that had fallen flat on its face The laugh was on us” Nevertheless, even after the confession, the two cousins disagreed over the fifth and final photo They both claimed to have taken it, but Frances insisted it was the one image they did not fake

There was nothing in the grass when she took it Investigators like Geoffrey Crawley and James Randi say it could be the product of a double exposure – in which case, both girls took the photo These photographs instigated massive debate in twentieth century There is no doubt that they are fake, and it may seem silly to us that anyone would believe these might be real Nevertheless, hoaxes and fake images of supernatural phenomena are still created all the time, and rarely with so innocent an intention

What’s particularly disturbing is that people of great influence, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, can be taken in And when they spread the false word to a whole society ready to believe them, serious damage can be done to legitimate causes Conan Doyle’s research into the supernatural was undermined by his support for these photos We are led to argue what is real, and to become divided over even the most obvious truth Proof is paramount – but the quality of that proof, is equally important

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