The Fairy Picture Hoax: How Two Girls Fooled The Author Of Sherlock Holmes - Anita's Notebook


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    A picture of Anita Wirawan in Seattle, Washington.

    My name is Anita Wirawan and I love stories :).
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*The Fairy Picture Hoax: How Two Girls Fooled The Author Of Sherlock Holmes*

Cottingley Fairy Picture first one released by Elsie and Frances.This picture may look innocent but it caused a major controversy back in the early 1900’s, fooling many people around the world …including the author of Sherlock Holmes.


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.

Cottingley Fairy Picture showing Elsie next to a flying fairy.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.

Picture of Elsie who took the Cottingley Fairy Pictures.The mother was intrigued but not totally convinced, so Elsie volunteered to take pictures of the fairies to prove their story.

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.


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.

Cottingley Fairy Picture showing Frances with fairies dancing in front.

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.Cottingley Fairy Picture girl with gnome fairy in front.


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.

Cottingley Fairy Picture of Elsie with fairy standing on a branch.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 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.

Picture of a newspaper article about Cottingley Fairy Picture hoax revealed.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.
Picture of Princess Mary's Gift Book pictures similarity to Cottingley Fairy Pictures.

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!


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  1. Jenn says:

    This is fascinating darling! It is amazing how many people actually believed them. They do not look like very nice people though, and it’s sad that they fooled so many people just so they could play by a river.

    Thanks for this story!

    Love you,

    • Hi Honey :). Yeah I agree that they don’t seem like very nice people. I can (kind of sort of maybe) make excuses for mischievous kids but even as adults they kept changing their stories, then shifting the blame to everyone else but themselves for the hoax.

      The saddest part of the whole thing though is that Frances told her kids that one of the pictures was definitely real, and they grew up thinking that was the truth. One of her daughters went on a tv show and said that she still believed her mother. It’s pretty sad that Frances would even lie to her own kids like that.

      They could have simply come clean and said “We’re sorry, things just got out of hand.” or something, instead of keeping up the lies and hurting people. Plus…then they could have had long and prosperous careers as trick photographers lol.

      This is definitely one of those stories that shows truth is stranger than fiction though!


  2. jami says:

    i still believe in fair folk’s tho,there real i just know it

  3. Nancy says:

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (supposedly) fooled the world in an elaborate and (seemingly) scientifically backed-up scheme as the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax. Later he falls victim to the hoax on two little girls and a camera…Karma? Is that you? (^_^)

  4. Cassy says:

    wow this open my eyes,i was a girl who loves chatting on facebook twitter …but know i think i get more interest to these things,great thankyou a lot Made my day !

  5. Alex says:

    Once the girls said it was fake there is no more need of explanations. But that does not mean that actually the existence of invisible beings is impossible. I myself when I was a kid saw a being behind a tree that tried to communicate with me; I then run away and came back with friends to see it, but it was too late; it was go on. I think it is possible; there are so many things on nature that the human senses cannot perceive.