Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Cottingley Fairies

In 1920 a series of photos of fairies captured the attention of the world. The photos had been taken by two young girls, the cousins Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright, while playing in the garden of Elsie's Cottingley village home. Photographic experts examined the pictures and declared them genuine. Spiritualists promoted them as proof of the existence of supernatural creatures, and despite criticism by sceptics, the pictures became among the most widely recognized photos in the world. It was only decades later, in the late 1970s, that the photos were proved false

In July 1917 the two girls borrowed Elsie's fathers camera, and used it to take a photo of the fairies they had been playing with all morning. When Mr. Wright developed the photo he assumed the picture was a trick, and believed the fairies were "bits of paper". A month later the girls took another photo, and again their father treated it as a joke. However in 1919 Elsie's mother attended a lecture on spiritualism, and afterwards she showed the photo to the speaker, asking him if they "might be true after all". The photos were taken to Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement, who asked Harold Snelling, a photographer, to examine them. Snelling declared the photos were "genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc."

The fairy images soon became famous. Sir  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries spotted the photos, and, convinced they were conclusive photographic proof of the existence of supernatural fairy beings. he convinced the girls to take three more pictures of the fairies in August 1920. Doyle then wrote an article about the photographs that appeared in the December 1920 issue of The Strand Magazine, in which he passionately argued for the authenticity of the images. This article brought the photos to the attention of the wider public and sparked an international controversy that pitted spiritualists against sceptics.

Sceptics noticed many problems with the photos, for example, the fairies looked like bits of paper. In one of the photos, one of the girls hands is elongated and in another the fairy is wearing the latest French fashions.

Fairy figures in Princess Mary's Gift Book
In 1978 James Randi pointed out that the fairies in the pictures were very similar to figures in a children's book called Princess Mary's Gift Book, which had been published in 1915 shortly before the girls took the photographs.

In 1981 Elsie Wright confessed to Joe Cooper, who interviewed her for The Unexplained magazine, that the fairies were, in fact, paper cut outs. She explained that she had sketched the fairies using Princess Mary's Gift Book as inspiration. She had then made paper cut outs from these sketches, which she held in place with hat pins. In the second photo (of Elsie and the gnome) the tip of a hat pin can actually be seen in the middle of the creature. Doyle had seen this dot, but interpreted it as the creature's belly button, leading him to argue that fairies give birth just like humans.