Conversations With Spirits

By E O Higgins

The story of a dissipated genius in a borrowed hat and coat

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Coming of the Fairies

In 1917, ten-year-old Frances Griffiths moved from her native South Africa to the Yorkshire home of her aunt and uncle, the Wrights, whilst her father fought in the Great War.

In July, Frances, and her thirteen-year-old cousin Elsie, asked to borrow the family camera, telling Elsie’s father they wanted to take a photograph of the fairies they had been playing with that morning.

Amused by this, Mr Wright agreed and showed them how to use the camera. An hour later the girls returned, declaring the project a success.

When Mr Wright developed the plates that evening, he was surprised to see what did appear to be Frances posing with a number of winged fairies.

Polly Wright, Elsie’s mother, who had a strong belief in the supernatural, was intrigued by the plates. When she later attended a lecture on spiritualism, she took the pictures with her and showed them to the speaker, asking him if they 'might be true after all’.

Evidently the speaker thought they might, as he went on to bring the pictures to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical movement - who, in turn, asked a photographer, Harold Snelling, to examine them.

Snelling declared that the pictures were "genuine, unfaked photographs of single exposure, with no trace whatever of studio work". 

Following Snelling’s expert testimony, the fairy images began circulating throughout the British spiritualist community, where they soon came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Writing in The Strand Magazine in December 1920, Conan Doyle argued passionately for the pictures' authenticity, sparking an international controversy that pitted spiritualists against sceptics.

In his subsequent book The Coming of the Fairies (1922), Conan Doyle states at the end of Chapter 3:

"It may be added that in the course of exhibiting these photographs (in the interests of the Theosophical bodies with which Mr. Gardner is connected), it has sometimes occurred that the plates have been enormously magnified upon the screen. In one instance, at Wakefield, the powerful lantern used threw an exceptionally large picture on a huge sheet. The operator, a very intelligent man who had taken a sceptical attitude, was entirely converted to the truth of the photographs, for, as he pointed out, such an enlargement would show the least trace of a scissors irregularity or of any artificial detail, and would make it absurd to suppose that a dummy figure could remain undetected".

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle carried on staunchly defending the 'Cottingley fairy pictures' until his death in 1930. It was a further 50 years before the - not very shocking - news came out that they were, in fact, fakes.

In an article published in The Unexplained magazine in 1983, the cousins…er, explained how they had perpetrated this most audacious of tricks. They had traced pictures of fairies from a popular children’s book - Princess Mary’s Gift Book - and propped them up with hat pins.

(The above picture shows a montage of the 'Cottingley Fairies' and illustrations from the Princess Mary's Gift Book.)

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