Arthur Conan Doyle & The Cottingley Fairies: How Two Young Girls Fooled Sherlock Holmes’ Creator


In a pre­vi­ous post, we brought you what is like­ly the only appear­ance on film of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—an inter­view in which he talks of Sher­lock Holmes and spir­i­tu­al­ism. Although Conan Doyle cre­at­ed one of the most hard­nosed ratio­nal char­ac­ters in lit­er­a­ture, the author him­self lat­er became con­vert­ed to a vari­ety of super­nat­ur­al beliefs, and he was tak­en in by a few hoax­es. One such famous hoax was the case of the so-called “Cot­tin­g­ley Fairies.” As you can see from the pho­to above (from 1917), the case involved what Conan Doyle believed was pho­to­graph­ic evi­dence of the exis­tence of fairies, doc­u­ment­ed by two young York­shire girls, Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Grif­fiths (the girl in the pho­to above). Accord­ing to The Haunt­ed Muse­um, the sto­ry of Doyle’s involve­ment goes some­thing like this:

In 1920, Conan Doyle received a let­ter from a Spir­i­tu­al­ist friend, Feli­cia Scatcherd, who informed of some pho­tographs which proved the exis­tence of fairies in York­shire. Conan Doyle asked his friend Edward Gard­ner to go down and inves­ti­gate and Gard­ner soon found him­self in the pos­ses­sion of sev­er­al pho­tos which showed very small female fig­ures with trans­par­ent wings. The pho­tog­ra­phers had been two young girls, Elsie Wright and her cousin, Frances Grif­fiths. They claimed they had seen the fairies on an ear­li­er occa­sion and had gone back with a cam­era and pho­tographed them. They had been tak­en in July and Sep­tem­ber 1917, near the York­shire vil­lage of Cot­tin­g­ley.

The two cousins claimed to have seen the fairies around the “beck” (a local term for “stream”) on an almost dai­ly basis. At the time, they claimed to have no inten­tion of seek­ing fame or noto­ri­ety. Elsie had bor­rowed her father’s cam­era on a host Sat­ur­day in July 1917 to take pic­tures of Frances and the beck fairies.

Elsie’s father, a skep­tic, filed the pho­tos away as a joke, but her moth­er, Pol­ly Wright, believed, and brought the images to Gard­ner (there were only two at first, not “sev­er­al”), who cir­cu­lat­ed them through the British spir­i­tu­al­ist com­mu­ni­ty. When Conan Doyle saw them in 1920, he gave each girl a cam­era and com­mis­sioned them to take more. They pro­duced three addi­tion­al prints. The online Muse­um of Hoax­es details each of the five pho­tos from the two ses­sions with text from Edward Gard­ner’s 1945 Theo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety pub­li­ca­tion The Cot­tin­g­ley Pho­tographs and Their Sequel.

These pho­tos swayed thou­sands over the course of the cen­tu­ry, but arch-skep­tic James Ran­di seem­ing­ly debunked them for good when he point­ed out that the fairies were ringers for fig­ures in the 1915 children’s book Princess Mary’s Gift Book, and that the prints show dis­crep­an­cies in expo­sure times that clear­ly point to delib­er­ate manip­u­la­tion. The two women, Elsie and Frances, final­ly con­fessed in the ear­ly 1980s, fifty years after Conan Doyle’s involve­ment, that they had faked the pho­tos with paper cutouts. Watch Ran­di and Elsie Wright dis­cuss the trick­ery above.



The daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter of Grif­fiths pos­sess the orig­i­nal prints and one of Conan Doyle’s cam­eras. Both once believed that the fairies were real, but as the host explains, they were not sim­ply cred­u­lous fools. Through­out much of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, peo­ple looked at the cam­era as a sci­en­tif­ic instru­ment, unaware of the ease with which images could be manip­u­lat­ed and staged. But even as Frances admit­ted to the fak­ery of the first four pho­tos, she insist­ed that num­ber five was gen­uine. Every­one on the show agrees, includ­ing the host. Cer­tain­ly Conan Doyle and his friend Edward Gard­ner thought so. In the lat­ter’s descrip­tion of #5, he wrote:

This is espe­cial­ly remark­able as it con­tains a fea­ture quite unknown to the girls. The sheath or cocoon appear­ing in the mid­dle of the grass­es had not been seen by them before, and they had no idea what it was. Fairy observers of Scot­land and the New For­est, how­ev­er, were famil­iar with it and described it as a mag­net­ic bath, woven very quick­ly by the fairies and used after dull weath­er, in the autumn espe­cial­ly. The inte­ri­or seems to be mag­ne­tised in some man­ner that stim­u­lates and pleas­es.

I must say, I remain seri­ous­ly uncon­vinced. Even if I were inclined to believe in fairies, pho­to num­ber five looks as pho­ny to me as num­bers one through four. But the Antiques Road­show appear­ance does add a fun new lay­er to the sto­ry and an air of mys­tery I can’t help but find intrigu­ing, as Conan Doyle did in 1920, if only for the his­tor­i­cal angle of the three gen­er­a­tions of Grif­fiths who held onto the leg­end and the arti­facts. Oh, and the appraisal for the five orig­i­nal pho­tos and Arthur Conan Doyle’s cam­era? Twen­ty-five to thir­ty-thou­sand pounds—not too shab­by for an ado­les­cent prank.

Josh Jones is a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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  • Anonymous says:

    The nov­el “Pho­tograph­ing Fairies” takes off from this inci­dent. Doyle appears in a cameo that gets the plot rolling. After that it’s a lyri­cal adven­ture in high lit­er­ary style.

  • The inter­est in fairies and alchemey seems to have a long tra­di­tion. A lost chil­dren’s book has brought to light anoth­er fairy/gnome like crea­ture found in the US one hun­dred years ago about a famous artist. See for the pic­tures.

  • tony says:

    I have often seen the unusu­al, l have claimed to seen fairies, and real. Gnomes. I’ve seen my share,you can believe it or not l have SEEN IT. Wished to have a cam­era to prove it.The unex­plained is all around us and just because you can’ t seen doesn’ t mean it can’ t exist.ghosts to mer­maids to u.f o.s are the part of paranormal.l keep an open mind!

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