Sir Arthur and the Fairies

via The Public Domain Review 8970056301_fc37167f90_o

In the spring of 1920, at the beginning of a growing fascination with spiritualism brought on by the death of his son and brother in WWI, Arthur Conan Doyle took up the case of the Cottingley Fairies. Mary Losure explores how the creator of Sherlock Holmes became convinced that the ‘fairy photographs’ taken by two girls from Yorkshire were real 

In the winter of 1920, readers of the popular British magazine the Strand found a curious headline on the cover of their Christmas issues. “FAIRIES PHOTOGRAPHED,” it said. “AN EPOCH-MAKING EVENT DESCRIBED BY A. CONAN DOYLE.” The Strand’s readership was well acquainted with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; most of his wildly popular Sherlock Holmes stories had appeared for the first time in its pages. The great man’s claim that fairies –real fairies – had been photographed in the north of England by two young girls was greeted with wonder, but unfortunately for Conan Doyle, most of it was of the “what can he be thinking?” variety. How could the creator of the world’s most famous, least-fool-able detective have convinced himself that “fairy” photographs were real? Let us proceed, Holmes-like, to examine the question.

Mistake Number One: Misinterpreting the Evidence

To his credit, Conan Doyle made what was (to him) a thorough, scientific, step- by- step investigation of the “fairy” photographs. For his first step, he consulted experts at the London offices of the George Eastman Kodak Company. They examined prints of the first two “fairy” photos and told Conan Doyle they could find no evidence of photo-doctoring; still, they insisted someone who knew enough about photography could have faked them. In Conan Doyle’s mind, that ruled out the two Yorkshire village girls who had taken the photographs, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. “I argued that we had certainly traced the pictures to two children of the artisan [working] class, and that such tricks would be entirely beyond them,” he wrote. Working class girls, surely, would not be able pull off such a hoax….

Mistake Number Two: Our Man Not on the Spot

Conan Doyle’s next step was an on-the-scene investigation – but Conan Doyle himself did not go. Instead, he enlisted a far-from-impartial surrogate — an ardent believer in fairies named Edward Gardner — to carry out the mission. Gardner had already talked to several people who had assured him the girls had played with fairies and elves since babyhood. He had already written to Elsie Wright’s mother begging her to get her “little girl” to take more photos. “I know quite well that fairies exist,” Gardner wrote in one of several letters to Elsie’s mother, “and that they are very shy of showing themselves or approaching adults, and it is only when one can obtain the help of their ‘friends’ that one can hope to obtain photographs and hence lead to a better understanding of Nature’s ways than is possible otherwise.” Gardner explained to Elsie’s mother that he had long been anxious to obtain photos of “fairies, pixies, and elves, and if possible of brownies and goblins.”

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  • BuzzCoastin

    in today’s Photoshopped whirled
    those pics couldn’t get past a preschooler
    he was blinded by his credulity

    an apt analog for today’s average American
    easily duped by eager credulity
    given a lil dose of plausible deniability

    • echar

      I agree, but add average human.

      • BuzzCoastin

        the level of credulity & gullibility
        varies by culture & country
        and is due to a lot of factors beyond human comprehension
        even to be above average isn’t insurance against being duped
        e.g. Sir Arthur

        in fact, you have to get burned a few times
        in order to learn how the credulity tricks work

        • echar

          Not that I doubt, but I wonder how a person makes it without getting burned enough.

          • BuzzCoastin

            some never learn
            and most dull themselves to it

            my father was career Navy
            he used to tell me stories of how he’d been lied to
            and cheated by his employer Uncle Homeland

            he had service related disabilities
            and they tried to deny him his deserved benefits

            he voted for Raygun &
            Raygun cut his retirement benefits
            and to the end
            he was a big supporter of Big Gov

          • echar

            Perhaps denial is all that some people have.

      • Liam_McGonagle

        You know, there is a sense in which it doesn’t really matter whether something is factual or not. There are some mythological tropes so persistent in the human imagination that one is tempted to call them “inevitable fictions”–even if you can’t accept them as “necessary” fictions.

        Society would do well to add to its ontological vocabulary a third classification to the traditional True and False.

        • echar

          I can think of quite a few inevitable fictions. Some piercing the light, and some piercing the shadows.

  • cakey pig

    I’ve loved this story ever since I was a kid. The pictures themselves have a really eerie quality that used to send such a shiver down my spine…..

    It is popularly believed that one of the sisters confessed in her old age but this is not the case – she admitted to the photos being faked but said the faeries were real…….

    • echar

      It’s quite amazing how many people believe in the Sidhe.

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