631: The Case of Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Wanting to Believe in Fairies

(Update below on death of “debunker” Geoffrey Crawley)

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own words:

In Doyle’s own book, “The Coming of the Fairies,” he boasted: The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public—or else they constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character.

What a story!

The brilliant creator of Sherlock Holmes—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a world-famous, best-selling writer now in his 60s—publishes a major new non-fiction book that he insists will rank among his most important works! Why such a stunning claim? Because he has “actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race.”

That newly discovered “population”? Fairies.

Conan Doyle is absolutely convinced they are real—and he claims to have scientific proof. Actual photos! (The black-and-white photos today are part of his “proof.”)

Turns out, the Cottingley Fairies weren’t even an especially elaborate or ingenious hoax. The whole infamous incident unfolded because two curious little girls borrowed cameras to take pictures of some paper “cut outs” of fairies, which they held up in their garden with hat pins.

They were just having fun. Just kids.

Kids love fairies to this day. If you missed it, read our review of “The Night Fairy,” a wonderful new book by Newbery Medal Winner Laura Amy Schlitz about some back-yard connections with fairies.

But, in Conan Doyle’s life—this was a historic milestone for all the wrong reasons. These two girls’ handful of black-and-white photographs spiraled way beyond their control. At the time, speculation on mysterious spiritual forces ran rampant in popular culture. Conan Doyle announced to the whole world that he had proof of fairies.

In fact, these photos weren’t even good fakes. The images just struck a desperately wanting-to-believe old man at the right moment to rocket fairies into orbit for years to come.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s—more than 60 years after the photos were taken—that the “girls” admitted the photos were made from cut-out pictures held up by pins. To contemporary eyes, that’s exactly what they appear to be—photos made with cut outs carefully poised in the frame. Today, it looks like a fun elementary-school project—photographing your favorite illustrations in an outdoor setting. If only Conan Doyle hadn’t become so overly enthusiastic, right?

You may be wondering: How could these women spend most of their lives “keeping mum”? Well, that’s obvious, said one of them in an interview: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle—well, we could only keep quiet!”

Was it a “fraud”? No, they insisted. “I never even thought of it as being a fraud—it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in! They wanted to be taken in.”

And there’s the truth, I think. We do want to believe. And in our desire to believe we wager our lives and reputations on some beliefs that are timeless and noble and have changed the world in wonderful ways. But, let’s be honest, shall we? We also hold tight to lots of beliefs that are in fanciful shades of gray and pastel.

Who exposed the Cottingley fairies?
October 29, 2010, Cottingley debunker Geoffrey Crawley dies

A number of people have taken credit for the final exposure of the hoax. In the early 1980s, revived interest in the Cottingley fairies prompted a number of interviews with the elderly women, who readily admitted to the hoax. One filmmaker interviewed them at the time. A journalist named Joe Cooper also is credited with an interview in which they were fairly open about the hoax. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Crawley, a world-renowned expert on photography and editor of the esteemed British Journal of Photography, launched a careful study of how these photographs were created. In addition to the easy-to-detect method of using little paper figures, Crawley also exposed some later darkroom wizardry when the original prints were created—indicating that the entire hoax was more than an afternoon lark by a couple of little girls who barely knew how to take photos. Crawley’s series was so elaborate that it spanned issues of the journal from 1982-1983.

The fairies were such a hot topic that they eventually spawned two Hollywood movies: “Fairy Tale – A True Story” and “Photographing Fairies [VHS]” We recommend the first of the two films, which features Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini. The second film was a British indie production that never received much attention in the U.S. and, so far, hasn’t been released on DVD. The main criticism of “Fairy Tale” is that, in the end, it waffles on whether the photos were fake—in the interest in celebrating youthful fantasy.

Geoffrey Crawley’s death and the Cottingley Fairies

Geoffrey CrawleyGeoffrey Crawley was not interested in crushing anyone’s spirits. The New York Times obituary, which filled most of a page on Sunday, November 7, is headlined, “Geoffrey Crawley, 83; Gently Deflated a Fairy Hoax.” The Times requires readers to register to read its stories online, so here’s a link to the Telegraph obituary in the UK, which appeared on November 7 as well.

The Journal, where he worked so successfully for many years, posted a lengthy tribute, which includes these lines:

Crawley joined the British Journal of Photography in the 1960s … and became editor-in-chief around 1967, a position he held for more than 20 years. From 1987, … he continued as technical editor, working through into his seventies up until 2000. His reputation as one of the world’s leading figures in photographic science was without parallel during this period, and in all probability, no one in the post-analogue age will likely command the same all-round technical expertise and authority. In addition to his brilliant technical articles, he developed many chemical formulae … He also provided invaluable technical help to the industry during this time, advising Stanley Kubrick during the making of 2001, after which the filmmaker kept in touch with Crawley, suggesting article ideas for BJP. And, Crawley foresaw the impact of digital long before it became mainstream, embracing the new technology with his usual vim. Among his many talents, he was an accomplished concert pianist, and probably could have made a career as a musician, but he will probably be best remembered for his work uncovering one of the greatest photographic hoaxes of the 20th Century.

Read more on Cottingley Fairies?

READ DOLYE: Click here to buy a recently republished edition of the original Conan Doyle book “The Coming of Fairies” (with all of the original black and white photos) from Amazon.

WIKIPEDIA WEIGHS IN: Not every detail in the Wikipedia article is correct, but in this case Wikipedia does have a pretty good overview on the case of the Cottingley Fairies. Despite a few flaws, the page is worth a visit.

THE LARGER CONTEXT: Lock Haven University’s Dr. Donald Simanek maintains a popular Web page about Conan Doyle, Spiritualism and the case of the fairies.

THE DEBUNKING EXPERT: James Randi Educational Foundation—one of the most important de-bunking projects—devotes a page to the fairies. It’s intriguing because the page also has copies and transcripts of some of the letters related to the fairy photos.

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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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