The Coming of the Fairies

This month’s book was not meant to be read by children, but it was written by a man with a child-like belief in the Cottingley Fairies. Arthur Conan Doyle was a well-eductated man (he had been a medical doctor) and is best known for writing Sherlock Holmes stories, which were often about unraveling mysteries involving people who were trying to trick others. But from what I read in this book, Doyle didn’t always require solid proof for what he wanted to accept as truth.

First I’ll give the background on what inspired this non-fiction book. In 1917 two cousins, nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright, were both living in the English village of Cottingley. The girls would play together in Elsie’s backyard, which had a beck (stream) and a wooded area. They told their parents they saw fairies, and Else talked her father into lending her his camera to photograph their small companions. When her father developed the film negative there was young Frances surrounded by dancing fairies. A little later Elsie once again gained use of the camera, and this time the photo showed Elsie coaxing a gnome to come closer to her.

Elsie’s father thought the girls were pulling a harmless prank, but her mother had an interest in the Theosophical Society, which believed in the existence of fairies. Her mother showed the photos to a group of learned gentlemen from the Society, and most claimed them to be authentic fairy photos. Copies were sent to other believers, including Arthur Conan Doyle, who asked a friend to investigate the matter, since Doyle would be out of the country for a time.

The girls were interviewed in 1920, and though they were at first reluctant to discuss their fairy encounters, after a bit of coaxing they told some interesting stories. They were given their own cameras and told to try and take more fairy photographs. They were able to provide three more. Once Doyle returned to England he wrote a couple of articles for The Strand magazine, plus wrote a short book entitled The Coming of the Fairies.

The book explains that several photography experts verified the photo negatives had not been tampered with, but the experts refused to say whether actual fairies were photographed. That showed Conan Doyle how narrow-minded people were. Just because some photographers were able to produce trick photos, experts refused to believe it possible for two innocent children, with little camera knowledge, to take real photos of fairies.

Some who studied the photos commented on how the fairies and gnome appeared to be flat, as if they were just pictures, and they didn’t cast the same type of shadows as the objects around them. Doyle patiently explained away those sceptical comments. Fairies don’t have human bodies, they are members of the spirit world, and only children and a few sensitive adults are able to see them. Why would anyone expect photos of fairies to look like photos of humans?

Doyle went on to quote letters from sane, respectable adults who’d been emboldened to write about their encounters with fairies. Then he summarized hundreds of years of stories about sightings of various types of spirit creatures.

He also gave the conclusions of a spirit expert on the types of occupations the different species of fairies worked at. Most are gardeners, and tend the plants and flowers found in the wild. (Did you think those plants just grew on their own?)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1922 book received mixed reactions. Believers believed, but sceptics weren’t convinced that the photographs taken by the girls proved the existence of spirit beings living amongst humans.

As for cousins Elsie and Frances, they spent their adult lives trying not to get into conversations about fairies. Finally, in 1983, they admitted that they had faked the photos. Elsie had copied pictures from a children’s book, added wings, and held the cut-out images up with hat pins. After the photos had been taken they tossed the pictures into the beck to destroy the evidence. The cousins said the photos were meant to be a joke, but when experts showed up to interview them they were afraid to admit that a prank had fooled educated adults.

So that clears up the mystery of the photos – except for their fifth image. This one is a bit fuzzy, but shows what appears to be a large cocoon, with a fairy beside it. Conan Doyle and others described this as showing the fairy taking a magnetic bath. Elder cousin Elsie claims that one was also faked, but Frances insisted it was real. They had been told to take fairy photos, Elsie had no cutout pictures prepared, so they went out to the backyard, Frances saw the fairy bathing amongst the tall grasses, and took the photo.

Which either proves that you really can take photos of fairies – or else Frances enjoyed telling tall tales about short spirit creatures.

`I don’t recommend anyone reading The Coming of the Fairies, for there are dull “explaining” sections, but you may want to look at the book online in order to see the Cottingley Fairy photos, which I’m unable to attach to this blog.

If you’d like to see Arthur Conan Doyle’s book it can be obtained free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/47506