when I was researching for my latest podcast all about Fairies in Literature (shameless plug) I remember this story that I heard as a kid. it didn’t really fit in to the episode but Its too wild not to talk about, so here’s the story of how two young girls with amature photography skills, made friends with fairies and fooled the world.
Over of a hundred years ago in the quaint town of Cottingley, England two cousins, Frances (9) and Elsie (16) claimed that they had not only made friends with fairies, but had photos of them too. They had used Elsie’s fathers camera and darkroom and when they showed him the photos he was impressed with their prank. Elsie’s mother however, had a strong belief in the supernatural and was convinced these photos were proof. These five iconic photos were taken show the girls by the river near their home, with a parade of pixies dancing around them.
Looking at them now it seems immediately obvious that they were made from paper cutouts and pins. but we must remember that in 1917 not many people were familiar with photography or owned a camera, and photoshop wasn’t as common as it is today. There was also a much stronger belief in the supernatural. In fact, Elsie’s mother was a member of the Theosophical Society which was a group that aimed to “form universal brotherhood” and “investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.”
A whole 2 years after the photos were taken, she brought them to a group meeting all about fairy life and the speaker that night was absolutely convinced of the photos authenticity, and believed they were proof that “the next cycle of evolution was underway”. He made it his mission to get these photos public attention and so he made copies to pass around, and held lectures emphasizing their importance. However, the photos grabbed public attention thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes Series. I think it’s fascinating how such an educated man, who created such a hard – headed and rational characters ended up being one of the firmest believers of this hoax and risking is reputation. excitedly He published the photos in The Strand Magazine and requested more photos from the girls. I imagine the girls were now really starting to panic, what had started out as a creative game of make believe was now gaining the attention of some real notable figures. The girls did what probably any panicked children would do, they went back to the river and soon produced 3 more photos: Frances and the Leaping Fairy, Fairy Offering Posy of Harebells to Elsie, and Fairies and their Sun-Bath. the photos were sent around to different photography experts, including Kodak who couldn’t prove the photos were fake but refused to give a certificate of authenticity.
Many skeptics spoke up , but were drowned out by optimistic believers. The hype surrounding the photos, also springboarded the creation of the Fairy Investigation Society in 1927. This was a secret group devoted to collecting evidence and information about fairies, and to organize documented instances of fairy sightings. It had some famous members including Walt Disney
As time went on the hype died down and the photos were soon forgotten. The girls grew up and grew apart but every once in a while some reporter would track them down looking for new details, or a confession. In 1983 Elsie confessed to faking the photos but claimed that they really had seen fairies. Frances on the other hand. claimed until her death, that the fifth photo was real. Sir Conan Arthur Doyle also never gave up the hope that they were real and there are still people even today that believe them. A movie was made about the girls in 1997 a year later prints of their photos, along with a few other items including a first edition of Doyle’s book The Coming of the Fairies, were sold at auction in London for £21,620. in 2019 a series of the photos sold for £50,000 showing how people are still fascinated with this story today.
This story amazed me as a kid because I didn’t know all the details, and these photos fueled my obsessed with fairies and proved they were real. I am even more fascinated by this story now, because it shows how easily a white lie can grow out of control and also displays how badly humans want to believe that there’s more to life than what we can see, no matter how weak the proof is. People were especially eager to believe in something so pure and magical after the horrors they had just experienced during WW1. In ways i feel bad for the girls, they received a lot of backlash for this stunt and their relationship fell apart. I don’t think they meant any harm, or that they were chasing fame. I think they felt so pressured to maintain this lie, that they eventually began to believe it themselves. What do you think?