How the Cottingley fairies fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.Nearly 100 years ago, the world-famous creator of Sherlock Holmes—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—pushed aside his detective tales to publish a non-fiction book that he thought would change world history and become his most famous work by far! Thanks to photographs taken by two little working-class girls in the village of Cottingley about 200 miles north of London, Sir Arthur thought he was making history by proving the existence of fairies!

This is not a joke.
This is not a fictional tale.
In Sir Arthur’s book, now virtually fogtten compared with the enduring fame of his Sherlock Holmes stories, claimed that he had “actually proven the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race.” Sir Arthur meant: Fairies.

Until today, there have been a few fanciful books and films loosely based on this world-famous case. In 1997, for example, Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel co-starred in a feature film, Fairy Tale: A True Story. Although the movie is entertaining and we can recommend it for family fun—unfortunately, there’s a lot of fiction in the movie script. The major fakery in the movie version is that somehow Harry Houdini gets involved in the international news story—which is not true. We won’t spoil the movie for you, but the movie’s ending is fictional as well.

To this day, tourists show up in the village of Cottingley to see the spot where the little girls fooled the whole world. And a common question since the 1990s is: “Where did Harry Houdini stay while he was here?”
The answer: Houdini never set foot in Cottingley.

Of all the myths surrounding this sensational story, veteran journalist Mary Losure says the biggest myth was this: Until now, most people think the story of the Cottingley Fairies is all about adults. According to reams of journalism published over the past 100 years, the main characters in the tale are Sir Arthur, then all the famous journalists who stepped into the story themselves—and then a long parade of journalists after the story resurfaced in more recent decades. For many years, Losure was a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and a regular contributor to National Public Radio. After considerable trans-Atlantic research into the story of the Cottingley fairies, Losure corrects the record in her new book. After all that work, her main correction is this: The Cottingley story is fundamentally about the children who made all those adults run in circles for so many decades.

That’s why she calls her new book, The Fairy Ring: Or, Elsie and Frances Fool the World, and retells the entire story from the point of view of the two young cousins: Frances (whose photo is on the book cover with a fairy) and Elsie. Most of Losure’s Fairy Ring centers on their lives and experiences. In the middle of her book, however, Losure does explain why Sir Arthur was so eager to accept this crazy story as a sciencific breakthrough.


Cottingley Beck, today. “Beck” is a term once used to describe a stream. It was in the woods around this stream that Elsie and Frances had their fun with fairies.Sherlock Holmes was a keen-eyed, hawk-nosed man who had made detective work into a precise and rational science. Sherlock Holmes could put the tiniest clues together to find the truth. He was almost impossible to fool. So it might seem surprising that his creator, Sir Arthur, believed in fairies. But he did.

To Sir Arthur, fairies were part of a spirit world that coexisted with the everyday world he saw all around him. The spirit world was invisible, though. Only special people could see it or hear the voices of the spirits who lived in it. Those spirits included the ghosts of dead people, Sir Arthur believed. His own son, who had died of sickness after being wounded in the Great War, was one of them.

(Then, Losure tells how Sir Arthur heard about the snapshots taken by girls in the distant village. He got his hands on the photos. The book resumes with …)

Sir Athur went to his men’s club, the Athenaeum, and showed the fairy pictures to a friend of his, Sir Oliver Lodge, an expert in “psychic maters.” Sir Oliver was skeptical: he suspected the ring of fairy dancers had been somehow imposed on a different background.

Sir Arthur didn’t agree. “I argued that we had certainly traced the pictures to two children of the artisan class, and that such photographic tricks would be entirely beyond them,” he wrote. Working-class children, surely would not be able to pull off such a sophisticated trick.

In fact, they could—even though the girls had two strikes against them back in Sir Arthur’s judgment. The girls were just “working class” (Sir Arthur, in his day, called them “artisan class”) and just “little girls” as Sir Arthur kept emphasizing in his own writings and talks about the Cottingley fairies. Losure shows us in her book that it was these strong biases, universally accepted in that era, that allowed the girls to keep their fanciful story going for decades. And, in fact, the little girls didn’t think of the whole experience as fraud. They were simply … Well, to find out more, we recommend that you order a copy of The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World.

Continue by reading our author interview with Mary Losure on her search for Elsie’s and Frances’s true story—nearly a century later.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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