Before Columbo, before Inspector Clouseau, before Monk—there was Sherlock Holmes. Nobody could pull the wool over Sherlock’s eyes! He spotted every discrepancy, every minor slip-up made by men who were bent on deceiving others. And it would seem logical to assume that the creator of this fictional master sleuth would himself be impervious to being humbugged by even the most clever criminals and con artists.
Perhaps that was true of Arthur Conan Doyle. Perhaps he would have been able to solve real crimes in the way his alter-ego Sherlock solved them. Perhaps the master-minds of the world would have been nothing compared to his powers of logic and common sense and careful observation.
But how about challenging his powers with … the silly shenanigans of a couple of schoolgirls ages 9 and 16?
As it turns out, Arthur was no match for these young women. And the aftermath left the great Conan Doyle’s reputation for wisdom sorely tarnished.
Their names were Elsie Wright, who was about sixteen years old, and her cousin Frances Griffiths, who was nine years old when this saga began. In the summer of 1917 Frances was visiting at Elsie’s home in the small village of Cottingley in England. As the stories about the incident go, Frances regularly got in trouble for stumbling into a nearby little brook while playing on its banks, and getting her shoes and clothing wet. When quizzed by her mother why she kept going there, she announced that it was because she enjoyed watching fairies frolicking there. As you might expect, the adults in her family mocked her for these claims.
One day Elsie and Frances decided to conspire to trick these old fogies who doubted their youthful fantasies. Frances had an illustrated book titled Princess Mary’s Gift Book that included an artist’s fanciful vision of fairies. Elsie had been taking art lessons for three years and was quite accomplished at imitating the artwork of others. She used the book’s fairies as templates and drew several fairies of her own, and the girls cut them out with her mother’s fine tailor shears. Elsie borrowed her father’s large camera, the kind that took pictures on glass plates, and she and Frances went off to the brook. Pushing hat pins over a foot long into the paper cutouts, they affixed them into a mound of dirt, and posed Frances behind them. And thus was created the first photo of what were to become famous as the Cottingley Fairies.
Elsie’s father helped her develop the glass plates, but when he saw the “fairies” in the photograph, he was unimpressed and took them for what they were … a visual trick the girls had somehow managed.
For a later photo-shoot, Elsie decided she wanted to pose with a fanciful woodland creature too, and chose a gnome.
The girls had a few prints made of their photos, and passed them out to friends and family.
Elsie and Frances’s little project would have gone unnoticed by the world, and would have soon drifted from their own memory but for one coincidence. Elsie’s mother Polly had been recently swept up into the enthusiasm of that period in time for occult and supernatural topics … including belief in the reality of fairies and gnomes and such creatures
Two years after the girls created their early version of “photo-shopped” photos, Polly attended a Theosophical Society meeting where this very topic was earnestly discussed. And after the meeting, she shared that her daughter and a cousin had actually taken photographs that appeared to show genuine fairies.
Some in the Theosophical Society were impressed and encouraged when they saw prints of the photos, and by early 1920 those photos made their way to the attention of one of the leading Theosophists in England, Edward Gardner. That summer, while working on an article for the Strand Magazine on the topic of fairies, Arthur Conan Doyle heard about the fairy prints, and obtained copies from Gardner. Later that summer, at Doyle’s request, Gardner visited the Wright family to investigate the claims. He left more cameras and photographic plates with the girls so that they could attempt to get more Candid Camera photos of the fairies.
The girls eventually provided their admirers with three more photos. In one, a standing fairy appears to be offering Elsie a flower. In another, a flying fairy appears to hover like a hummingbird in front of Frances. And in a third, much less clear picture, a group of fairies, with neither of the girls present, appear to be sunning themselves in the grass.
[Elsie’s] father returned the plates to London, wrapped in cotton wool. Arthur Wright was greatly puzzled. He understood the photographs were faked, irrespective of him and his wife not finding incriminating evidence that showed their daughter had done it. Still, he could not understand that other grown men had been fooled. Furthermore, his daughter was now the centre of a nationwide, if not international, sensation. As Conan Doyle had used pseudonyms, the children were fairly safe from public scrutiny, but Arthur Wright began to have a lower estimation of Conan Doyle. He found it hard to believe that such an intelligent man could be bamboozled “by our Elsie, and her at the bottom of the class!”
Doyle eventually used the first two photos for his Strand article, and included information about the whole incident and more photos in his 1921 book, The Coming of the Fairies. Yes, in spite of how ridiculously fake the Cottingley photos look to most modern viewers, Conan Doyle became convinced they were legitimate pictures of real fairies, and widely promoted the claims made for them. When someone pointed out what appeared to the average person to be the obvious top of a hatpin sticking out of the stomach of the gnome in the picture with Elsie, Arthur was not dissuaded—he insisted it was a belly button and that it offered proof of how fairies reproduced!
The famous author had long been fascinated by claims of the paranormal, including alleged contact with the dead. Some have said that this was because he had lost so many close family members and, not being a religious man in the normal sense—with a biblical hope in the resurrection—it left him very melancholic. Whatever the reason, he seems to have been particularly susceptible to outrageous claims. Twenty years before the Cottingley situation, Doyle had been obsessed with the activities of “Spritualists” who conducted séances, in which unusual sounds and movements were attributed to communication from the Other World. The first well-known characters in this movement were the Fox Sisters from New York, who became famous in 1848 for the unusual “knockings” in their meetings, attributed to spirits of the dead. The whole organized Spiritualist movement grew directly from their activities, and their fame spread around the world. The movement was rocked twenty years later when one of the sisters confessed that she had been part of a total fraud perpetrated on the gullible. The knockings had been made by various natural tricks, including exceptionally loud “popping” of the joints of the sister’s toes! Yet even when she clearly demonstrated her skill at this type of trick for the public, as part of her revelations of the secrets of the Spiritualists, many refused to accept her confession.
Margaret wrote a signed story that appeared in The New York World, Oct. 21, 1888. She said:
“Spiritualism is a fraud and a deception. It is a branch of legerdemain [an illusion designed to fool the naïve], but it has to be closely studied to gain perfection.”
One of those who would not accept Margaret’s confession was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional Sherlock Holmes and a convinced believer in spiritualism. He responded:
“Nothing that she could say in that regard would in the least change my opinion, nor would it that of any one else who had become profoundly convinced that there is an occult influence connecting us with an invisible world.”
The magician Harry Houdini, a showman continually alert to opportunities for self-promotion, publicly exposed mediumistic trickery in his stage shows and wrote pamphlets opposing fraudulent mediums. In spite of this, some spiritualists claimed that Houdini had genuine spiritualistic powers, refusing to accept Houdini’s own statements that only deception was involved in his performances.
Arthur Conan Doyle devoted a whole chapter of his book The Edge of the Unknown to a detailed argument that Houdini had genuine psychic power, but wouldn’t admit it. Curiously, Doyle and Houdini remained friends for a long while, in spite of public clashes over spiritualism. Perhaps they shared an appreciation of the value of public self-promotion. Eventually Houdini became outraged as a result of a seance in which Mrs. Doyle claimed to have communicated with Houdini’s mother, and the details she reported were obviously wrong.
Doyle was a credulous dupe for various kinds of nonsense. He not only believed in spiritualism and all of the phenomena of the seance room, but he also believed in fairies.
Yes, Doyle was duped into believing in the Cottingley Fairies just as he’d been duped by the Fox Sisters. In the matter of the fairies, the creator of the Great Sleuth should have paid attention to the clues that came his way… the Princess Mary book from which the girls copied the bodies of the earliest fairies actually contained one of Conan Doyle’s own stories!
A curious fact is that in this book, a compilation of short stories and poems for children by various authors, there’s a story, “Bimbashi Joyce” by Arthur Conan Doyle! Surely he received a copy from the publisher. If Doyle had noticed this picture, and if he had the sort of perceptiveness he attributed to Sherlock Holmes, he might have concluded that the Cottingley photographs were fakes. But, maybe not. Believers are good at seeing what they believe, and not seeing things that challenge their beliefs. http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/doyle.htm
But Conan Doyle missed the connection, and it wasn’t noticed by anyone else until 1977, when a scholar doing research on children’s book illustrations discovered a copy of the 1915 book and recognized the obvious similarity to the Cottingley Fairies.
By that time, although Doyle himself had gone to his grave evidently convinced of the validity of the pictures, and many die-hard Theosophists and the like clung to the pictures with enthusiasm, they were widely viewed as a hoax by most educated folks. Still, the controversy didn’t totally die out, and it wasn’t until Elsie and Florence themselves, by then old ladies, finally granted an interview in the early 1980s in which they confessed to the ruse that the speculation was laid to rest. Elsie even carefully demonstrated how they pulled it off. A recording of this interview can be seen at:
However, Florence insisted that, although the photos themselves were a hoax, she had literally seen real fairies near the brook, and, in fact, the final picture was “real.” Elsie, however, was adamant that the whole thing was a hoax, including the final picture, and it’s not clear why or how the discrepancy in their individual stories developed. To an objective observer, the figures in the final picture look just as flat and phony as the others.
The reality was that the girls never intended to “hoax the world” with their photos. They were merely pulling a prank on their own families. But they soon found themselves swept along by irrational mania of adults around them, including such famous names as Arthur Conan Doyle. And eventually it became emotionally impossible for them to extricate themselves from trying to live up to the expectations of those adults. As psychic investigator and debunker James Randi put it in an article on his website about the Cottingley mania:
These two little girls perpetrated their innocent hoax, it was taken up by prominent persons who should have known better, and made into a cause célèbre. The children created a monster that eventually devoured them, a monster over which they soon found they had no control. The adults in their lives accepted their claim, promoted it, invested in it, and could not be told that it was a lie. http://www.randi.org/library/cottingley/
Randi described two other major figures who were taken in by the story:
…However, some public figures were sympathetic–sometimes embarrassingly so. Margaret McMillan, the educational and social reformer (who, among other reforms, brought the benefits of public baths to the slum children of Bradford), waxed fulsome about the Cottingley incidents: `How wonderful that to these dear children such a wonderful gift has been vouchsafed.’
Another eminent personality of the day, the novelist Henry de Vere Stacpoole, decided to take the fairy photographs–and the girls–at face value. He accepted intuitively that both girls and pictures were genuine. In a letter to Gardner he said:
“Look at Alice’s face. Look at Iris’s face. There is an extraordinary thing called TRUTH which has 10 million faces and forms–it is God’s currency and the cleverest coiner or forger can’t imitate it…”
(The aliases ‘Alice’ and ‘Iris’ first used by Conan Doyle to protect the anonymity of the girls were deliberately preserved by Stacpoole.)
A review of the interview of the two elderly ladies had these final comments to offer about the Fairy humbug (humbug: something designed to deceive and mislead):
…The attitude of Elsie and Frances to the whole question of the fairy photographs is a typical Yorkshire one–to tell a tall story with a deadpan delivery and let those who will believe it do so. Indeed, Elsie has often said as much: `I would rather we were thought of as solemn faced comediennes.’
Frances, on the other hand, has always marveled at the fact that anyone could believe them to be genuine. The flying fairy in the third photograph was pinned to the branch behind it; it was drawn freehand by Elsie, and seems to Frances to be out of proportion. The fairy offering flowers to Elsie in the fourth photograph was attached to a branch in a similar way, and sports a fashionable hairstyle that has attracted much comment.
…The second set of photographs was hailed with joy by Gardner. And, trapped by their first trick, Elsie and Frances had no choice but to remain silent; the consequences that would have resulted from any disclosures must have seemed terrifying to them.
It would be comforting if we 21st century hard-nosed realists could rest assured that it was just the gullibility of a much earlier, less-enlightened age that led so many, including a brilliant author of detective novels, to be taken in by such an obvious humbug as the Cottingley Fairies. And to think that such a thing would never happen today.
Unfortunately, I receive CCMails almost every day with hoaxes just as ludicrous or obvious … or easily disproven … passed along by highly educated, intelligent people. Sometimes the photo alterations are a bit more sophisticated… but not by a whole lot! And usually the stories that go with the pictures are a not quite so outrageous as insisting in the existence of fairies. But that tends to just increase the gullibility of readers!
Humbuggery is alive and well and thriving in CyberSpace. Sometimes, as in the Cottingley Fairies incident, the results are mostly benign. But the very fact that intelligent and educated people can be so easily taken in by benign humbugs renders many of them even more susceptible to what can end up yielding much more toxic results. If you are convinced that you can’t be humbugged, I would suggest you take the advice of the Bible … let he (or she) who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall… for a humbug.
This story is featured on my Wild World of Humbugs website.
Visit the site for more examples of humbuggery.