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THERE’S NOTHING particularly new about recent reports of a likely faked Everest photograph or another showing a mysterious hand in an image from 1900. Back in 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle accepted as authentic five photos of the Cottingley Fairies. These ethereal dancing girls weren’t debunked until more than six decades later.
Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1887. He was also a member of The Ghost Club, an organization founded in 1862 to investigate hauntings.
In 1920, The Strand Magazine commissioned Doyle to write an article on fairies for its Christmas issue. (Sherlock Holmes first appeared in similar Christmas wrapping 33 years before in “A Study in Scarlet,” Beeton’s Christmas Annual, 1887).
For illustrating his article, Doyle used photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two cousins in the English village of Cottingley, in West Yorkshire about 200 miles northwest of London. In 1917, when the first two photos were taken, Elsie was 16; Frances, nine.
The two girls got into mischief at Cottingley Beck, a stream at the bottom of the Wright’s garden. They told Mrs. Wright that they were visiting fairies. And, to prove it, Elsie borrowed her father’s Midg quarter-plate camera. Thirty minutes later, they returned with an exposed plate.
Elsie’s father, a keen amateur photographer, developed the plate and dismissed its fairy images as cardboard cutouts. Two months later, the girls borrowed his camera again and returned with another image. “Nothing but a prank,” Elsie’s father said.
In 1919, the photos gained notoriety through a meeting of the Theosophical Society. Arthur Gardner, a prominent member, was impressed with the images. Harold Snelling, a photography expert, hedged later, “… these are straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time.”
This was when Doyle got involved and arranged permission to publish the photos in his article. The Wrights declined any payment.
In 1920, Arthur Gardner went to Cottingley with two Kodak Cameo cameras and 24 secretly marked photographic plates. Frances and Elsie were encouraged to take more photos of the fairies. This task they accomplished alone, saying the fairies would not show themselves if others were watching. The girls again returned with ethereal images.
Two days later, they took their last fairy photograph, of several fairies frolicking in the sun.
When the two 1917 photos appeared in The Strand Christmas Edition, 1920, Alice and Iris Carpenter were used as pseudonyms to protect the girls’ identities. Doyle summarized his views on fairies with “The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud….”
His assessment was not universally shared. Maurice Hewlett wrote in John O’London’s Weekly, “And knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decided that the Miss Carpenters have pulled one of them.”
During World War I, Princess Mary’s Gift Book raised money for The Queen’s “Work for Women” Fund. One of its illustrations shows dancing girls only a few artful steps away from Frances and Elsie’s ethereal friends.
In 1983, in the magazine The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space, & Time, the pair admitted that the first four photographs had been specially prepared, with cutouts aligned using hat pins. However, both maintained they had really seen fairies.
The fifth photo? Neither claimed sole responsibility for this image of fairies taking a sun bath. Maybe a subtle way of suggesting a double exposure?
It wasn’t only Watson’s literary agent getting his leg pulled. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016