Little Girls Convince Sherlock Holmes’ Author, and Much of England, That Fairies are Real
One might imagine that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the cynical and deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes, would have been one of those hard-to-fool skeptical types. In reality, however, the author was nothing like his famous character. Late in life, Doyle became a big booster of spiritualism, and in his eagerness to credit anything that would support his beliefs, became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a hoax perpetrated by two little girls.
It began in 1917, in the English village of Cottingley. There, 9-year-old Elsie Wright and her 16-year-old cousin Frances Griffith claimed that they hung around with fairies beside a nearby stream. Their parents scoffed, so to prove it, the girls borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera, and came back half an hour later with “evidence”. When Elsie’s father developed the film, he was surprised to find a picture of fairies dancing around Frances. However, he dismissed it as a prank by his daughter, who knew her way around cameras. When the girls came up with more fairy photos in subsequent months, Elsie’s father finally forbade them to borrow his camera.
Two years later, the fairy photos started going viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a meeting of the Theosophical Society – a New Age spiritualist type group. The photos were clearly questionable, and experts who saw them pronounced them crude cardboard cutouts. However, the existence of Fairies dovetailed with some religious tenets of the Theosophical Society, so its members – who included prominent British figures – began spreading the photos and vouching for their authenticity.
In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of the photos. He was initially skeptical and went so far as to ask Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before receiving a reply from the camera and film manufacturer, Doyle concluded that the photos were real. Before long, Sherlock Holmes’ author was vouching for the photos’ authenticity, en route to becoming a huge advocate for the existence of fairies in real life.
In December of 1920, Doyle published a cringe-worthy article urging the public to accept that fairies existed. The article opened him to significant ridicule from a press that was equal parts puzzled, and equal parts embarrassed for the respected author. It did not dissuade Doyle, who followed the first article with a second in 1921, describing even more fairy sightings. A year later, he capped it off by publishing his 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies.
As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’ creator should have been more skeptical. In 1983, the cousins published an article, in which they confessed that the whole thing had been a hoax. They had used illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book, and simply drew wings on them. The girls had kicked off the prank as a means of getting back at adults who teased them for “playing with fairies”. The joke snowballed, however, and got out of hand once the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. Once that happened, they could not think of a graceful way to back out, so they just kept the hoax going, before finally coming clean, six decades later.