It all began when two girls named Elsie and Frances became obsessed with playing by a certain stream near their house in Cottingley, England one summer. Problem was, the stream was really muddy.
Finally Frances’ mother had enough of dealing with muddy clothes and yelled that they were banned from playing near the stream again. The girls stood there stunned for a while, until Elsie spoke up and said that they absolutely had to keep going back to the stream. Why? Because they were doing something very important there: they were visiting with fairies.
Yes, fairies, the tiny creatures with wings and magical powers to bewitch humans.
Now if a parent heard that story these days they’d probably get mad at the girls for lying, or at least think they were imagining things. But back then in England many people believed that fairies were real and lived in forests, dancing around and doing fairy magic. Fairies were thought to avoid humans but would sometimes show themselves to the right people.
Elsie had worked in her father’s photography lab before and knew how to use the clunky camera equipment, so it would be easy for the two girls to go “take pictures of fairies” on their own. The girls insisted that they definitely had to go alone, because if anyone else was there the fairies wouldn’t show themselves. Hmm.
THE FAIRY PICTURES
And so Elsie and Frances went out to the stream the next day and came back with a single picture. It showed Frances near the stream and leaning on a little hill which had fairies dancing on top of it.
Frances’ mother was thrilled that the girls might actually have proof that fairies exist. And not only that but that the fairies were in her own backyard!
Elsie’s father had pretty much the opposite reaction though and thought it was a fake right away.
He knew that his daughter was not only good with a camera but also loved to draw. He figured the “fairies” in the picture were just drawings done on cardboard and that the girls were perpetuating a lie.
And when Elsie and Frances borrowed his camera a couple months later and came back with another fairy picture –this time showing Elsie in the woods holding out her hand to a tiny gnome with wings and a pointy hat– he banned them from ever borrowing his camera again.
It was too late by that point though. More and more people started to believe in the fairy pictures and the story spread beyond the little village of Cottingley to the rest of the country.
A CASE FOR SHERLOCK HOLMES?
People were abuzz with the news of the fairy pictures and a photography expert was called in to examine them.
Amazingly, the expert said that without a doubt the pictures were 100% real and after passing this test they were then sent to the famous Sir Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series.
Sir Conan Doyle was desperate to prove the existence of life after death and other spiritual things, including the existence of fairies. He was in the midst of a deep depression since many of his close family members had recently died, and he found comfort in the idea that their spirits lived on. So when he saw Elsie and Frances’ fairy pictures his heart soared.
His enthusiasm was so contagious that even Elsie’s father started to believe that the pictures could be real. It wasn’t long before Elsie and Frances gave Sir Conan Doyle more pictures of fairies and he happily published them, sparking a worldwide debate about the existence of fairies –a debate that was very emotional and sometimes got ugly.
On one side were the fairy believers, who insisted that the youthful innocence of Elsie and Frances is what convinced the fairies to let their picture be taken. On the other side were those who said that the fairy pictures were a hoax, that the girls were just mischievous kids playing a trick on gullible adults.
The truth? Well that didn’t come out until many decades had passed. Later on in life Elsie and Frances started to admit that the photos were not quite what they said…
THE TRUTH BEHIND THE COTTINGLEY FAIRY PICTURES
The first major crack in the story came when Elsie said in an interview that the pictures were “photographs of figments of our imagination”. Then later she outright admitted that all the pictures were fake.
But Frances was more stubborn. She said that most of the photos were faked but that one of them was definitely real. The last photo, she said, was taken of real fairies (like, for real-real this time lol).
She insisted that the girls just happened to come across the fairies one morning when they had the camera with them. Yeah, right.
From reading through all their confessions the true story behind the fairy pictures seems to be this:
Elsie used her drawing abilities to copy pictures of fairies from a book called Princess Mary’s Gift Book onto cardboard. Her and Frances then cut out the cardboard fairies and used long pins to prop them up for the pictures. A simple but effective hoax.
It’s hard to imagine that the creator of a logical and skeptical character such as Sherlock Holmes was so easily fooled by two kids with cardboard cutouts of fairies. But he was just so desperate to have proof that fairies really existed that he was willing to ignore the evidence that was right in front of him.
In the end there were no fairies needed to bewitch humans, only the cleverness of two mischievous girls. It’s a good thing that they didn’t have Photoshop back then or else who knows what Elsie and Frances might have gotten people to believe!