The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters

Khalid Elhassan - October 31, 2019

Back in the 19th century, a huckster laid claim to most of Arizona. In of itself, that would not be too astonishing: any random nutjob out there could claim to own Mars, but claiming it does not make it so. What is astonishing in this case is that thousands took the huckster’s claims of owning Arizona seriously enough to pay him for the privilege of living in it – including major business entities that paid him a fortune. For a while, even the US government considered paying him off. It just goes to illustrate that if one is brazen enough, there is no shortage of people who would accept what one claims – be it so batty – provided the claim is made with confidence. Following are twenty things about fascinating historic hucksters.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Movie poster from 1950’s ‘The Baron of Arizona’, a film based on the life of James Reavis. IMDb

20. James Reavis’ Path to Becoming The Baron of Arizona: Getting Out of the Confederate Army

James Addison Peralta-Reavis (1843 – 1914), AKA “The Baron of Arizona”, might be the greatest conman you’ve never heard of. He defrauded thousands of people, and literally stole most of Arizona from its legal owners. Reavis’ father was a Welshman who arrived in the US in the 1820s, and his mother was a part Spaniard proud of her Spanish heritage. He grew up in Missouri, and during his childhood, Reavis’ mother fired up his imagination by filling his head with Spanish romantic literature. As a result, he ended up with grandiose notions of himself as a romantic hero in a melodramatic novel. It was reflected in his speech and writing, which was reportedly overly grandiloquent and bombastic.

When the Civil War broke out, an 18-year-old Reavis enlisted in the Confederate Army. However, he soon discovered that the tedium and travails of real soldiering were nothing like his romantic image of war. It was right around then that Reavis discovered he could make a perfect reproduction of his commanding officer’s signature. So he began issuing himself passes, with a forged signature, to escape the drudgery of soldiery and visit his relatives. When other soldiers noticed that Private Reavis was getting a whole lot of passes, he started a sideline business selling them forged passes. When the chain of command started getting suspicious and began investigating, Reavis finagled a quick leave, ostensibly to get married. He then promptly hightailed it out of Confederate territory, surrendered to Union forces, and even switched sides, serving for a while in a Union Army artillery regiment.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
James Reavis. Wikimedia

19. James Reavis’ Route to Arizona

After the Civil War, Reavis traveled to Brazil, and upon returning to the US, he got into real estate. In that line of business, Reavis discovered that the talent for forgery that he had discovered and honed while serving in the Confederate Army could come in real handy. Especially when it came to clearing up messy paperwork, and fixing vague property titles. When clients had difficulty selling land because they were unable to establish clear ownership, Reavis would magically produce some document that everybody else had somehow “missed” before, and that cleared up ownership in no uncertain terms. The discovered documents were forged by him, of course. Then in 1871, a prospector named George Willing sought Reavis’ help with a large Spanish land grant – 2000 square miles, about the size of Delaware – in the Arizona Territory.

Reavis partnered up with Willing to develop the grant, and in 1874, the duo decided to head to Arizona. Willing got there first, filed a claim in the Yavapai County courthouse, and was found dead the next day. Foul play was suspected. Reavis had made it to California by then, and was there that he got the news of his partner’s death. Low on funds, he got a job as a journalist, during which he came in contact with some railroad magnates. Reavis also came into contact with the Public Lands Commission – an entity established per the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, to determine the validity of Mexican and Spanish land grants in the territories won by America in the US-Mexico War. The Commission was corrupt to a fare-thee-well.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
The Peralta Grant claimed by James Reavis. Arizona Sonora News

18. The Baron of Arizona Arrives in Arizona

James Reavis learned that the Public Lands Commission approved most claims submitted to it, even frivolous ones, so long as a filer paid the examination expenses, coupled with a bribe. That was good news, because the land claim of Reavis’ deceased partner, George Willing, was weak. Willing claimed that in 1864, he had paid $20,000 in gold dust, mules, and other goods, to a Miguel Peralta for the land in question. Unfortunately, the deed of transfer was highly irregular, made on a sheet of greasy and marked-up paper, without a notary or justice.

However, once Reavis discovered how easy it was to get the Public Lands Commission to approve a claim, no matter how iffy, provided the right palms were greased, he decided it was time to head to Arizona. As a start, he “tipped off” his railroad tycoon acquaintances to the deceased Willing’s land – without disclosing his interest in it – and told them he could negotiate right-of-way privileges for their proposed Southern Pacific line through Arizona. He then traveled to Kentucky, where he met the deceased Willing’s widow, and bought his late partner’s interest in the land. Next, Reavis used his newspaper connections to hype the land grant, and exaggerate the supposed “solidity” of the title claim.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Depiction of Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta, the fictional 1st Baron of Arizona. Wikimedia

17. Creating the Baron of Arizona

To buttress the solidity of the land claim sold by Miguel Peralta to Reavis’ partner George Willing, Reavis fabricated a family history for Peralta out of whole cloth. He went about it in a highly creative way. Reavis knew that the way claims worked, people would check the archives. So he went to Mexico, befriended people in its archives, and inserted forged and artificially aged documents into those archives. They established a fictitious family lineage of an eighteenth-century Don Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Cordoba.

According to the documents inserted by Reavis in the Mexican archives, that eighteenth-century Peralta was granted the title of Baron Peralta de Los Colorados by Spain’s King Ferdinand VI in 1748. Along with the noble title came a huge grant of land in Arizona – the Peralta Grant out of which Reavis intended to make a killing. He added more fictitious documents in the Mexican archives, creating a family tree of the descendants of “Baron Peralta”. They eventually included an impoverished great-grandson, Miguel Peralta who sold the claim to George Willing, from whom James Reavis acquired the huge chunk of territory in central Arizona.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
James Reavis’ wife, Dona Sophia Micaela Maso Reavis y Peralata de la Cordoba, 3rd Baroness of Arizona. Arizona Memory Project

16. Becoming the Baron of Arizona

James Reavis put a lot of work in creating the documentary trail of the aristocratic Peralta family. He traveled to Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Spain, where he spent days on end in museums and archives to learn the style and feel of old documents. He experimented tirelessly with various inks and chemicals and papers, to figure out the best materials and processes for producing forgeries that would seamlessly fit in with original old documents. He even scoured Spanish flea markets, where he bought old portraits of random people, whom he then designated – with the requisite forged documentary support – as members of the Peralta family.

After creating the fictional aristocratic Peralta family, Reavis decided to hedge his bets by creating an even closer connection between himself and the Peralta land claim. So he married into the aristocratic Peralta family. The fact that the baronial brood was fictional was no insurmountable barrier for the ever-enterprising Reavis. He came across a sixteen-year-old orphaned Mexican girl named Sophia, and convinced her that she was a descendant of the noble Peraltas. By then, Reavis had honed his skills to the point of being a master forger, so it was child’s play for him to alter church records and insert documents that made Sophia the “last surviving” member of the fictional but illustrious Peralta family. Then having made her the “Baroness of Arizona”, he married her, and through that marriage, Reavis became the Baron of Arizona.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
A stock certificate in a company created by Reavis to cash in on his fraud. Wikiwand

15. Stealing Arizona

After carefully laying the groundwork, James Reavis finally made his move in 1883. One fine morning that June, the inhabitants of central Arizona woke up to discover that their land had been stolen from under their feet. Notices plastered all over public places and printed in newspapers warned all and sundry: “to communicate immediately with Mr. Cyril Barratt, attorney-at-law and agent general, representing Mr. James Addison Reavis, for registering tenancy and signing agreements, or regard themselves liable to litigation for trespassing and expulsion when the Peralta Grant is, as it must be, validated by the U.S. government“.

The land Reavis claimed was about twelve million acres, extending from the vicinity of Sun City, Arizona, to Silver City, New Mexico, and including Phoenix. Throughout the territory, people were bewildered and incredulous at first. But then incredulity turned to panic when they read that the wealthy owners of the Silver King Mine, Arizona’s richest and most powerful mining corporation, had paid Reavis $25,000 – quite the princely sum back then – to avoid litigation. If such big shots had believed Reavis enough to pay him that much, it stood to reason that his claim really was solid. Suddenly, the threat that their land might get taken from them by this James Reavis seemed a distinct possibility.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Vincent Price and Ellen Drew in the 1950 movie ‘The Baron of Arizona’. Janus Films

14. The Baron of Arizona Cashes In

James Reavis had no intention of actually evicting the occupants of his “barony”. He simply wanted to extort as much as he could out of them in rent or quit claim fees, to support him and his “noble” wife in a manner befitting an aristocratic land magnate. Surprisingly, it was the large and wealthy landowners who proved to be the easiest marks: they figured it was cheaper to pay the Baron of Arizona, instead of risking litigation that might end in the loss of their valuable properties. Arizona’s biggest mining company paid him $25,000, and he got the Southern Pacific Railroad to cough up $50,000. Thousands of others paid smaller fees, which added up to a nice bundle.

At some point, even the US government fell for the con, and considered paying Reavis millions of dollars to settle the claim. All in all, Reavis collected about $5,300,000 in cash and promissory notes – the equivalent of about $160 million today. With that kind of loot, James Reavis and his wife Sophia were able to live it up in style. In addition to various ranches, they maintained nice homes in Arizona, New York City, Washington, DC, San Francisco, St. Louis, Madrid, and Chihuahua City. They traveled throughout Europe, and mingled with the Spanish aristocracy. Many of the Spaniards saw through his scam and figured he and his wife for frauds, but they got a huge kick out of the brazenness of it all, and how he was tweaking the yanquis’ noses. So the Spaniards went ahead and feted the “Baron and Baroness of Arizona”.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
James Reavis behind bars. Pinterest

13. The End of the Road For the Baron of Arizona

Things were going great for the Baron of Arizona, but all good things come to an end. Even as James Reavis was living the high life and enjoying being the nineteenth-century version of a rich jet setter, the wheels of justice were grinding – slowly but steadily – to expose his fraud and bring it all crashing down. For years, an official named Royal Johnson had been investigating Reavis’ claim, and in 1889, he released a devastating report that labeled it a fake. Despite his meticulous forgeries, Reavis had not been meticulous enough. His documents used printing styles different from those of the period they supposedly came from. Steel-nibbed pens – which did not come into use until the 1880s – were used for writing instead of quills. There were basic Spanish spelling and grammatical errors, unlikely to have been made by a Spanish official.

Reavis tried to brazen it out, and even sued the US government for 11 million dollars. He lost the lawsuit, with the court noting that his claim was “wholly fictitious and fraudulent“, and that his documents had been forged and “surreptitiously introduced” into the records they supposedly came from. As he left the court, he was arrested and hit with a 42-count indictment that included charges of fraud, forgery, presenting false documents, and conspiracy to defraud the US government. Tried, he was found guilty on June 30th, 1896, and sentenced to two years behind bars, plus a $5000 fine. Following his release, James Reavis drifted around in poverty, pitching investment ideas that found no takers. His wife divorced him in 1902, and he eventually ended up in Los Angeles poor house. He died in Colorado in 1914, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Shinichi Fujimura. Tussel

12. The Amateur Who Upended East Asian Archaeology

For most people, archaeology is not exactly the kind of stuff that generates excitement. Not so in Japan, where archaeology is quite a popular subject. The Japanese people revel in their country’s uniqueness, and exhibit greater fascination with their pre history than just about any other people in the world. In that country, new archaeological finds are frequently announced in bold headlines on the front pages of leading newspapers, and bookshops usually have entire sections devoted to Stone Age Japan. Because of that, Japan went into a tizzy in 1981, when self-taught archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura announced his discovery of stone age artifacts dating back 40,000 years. The most important thing about his discovery for the Japanese public was that it established that human beings had been present in Japan for at least that long.

It was a spectacular find that launched Fujimura’s career, gained him national and international fame, and quickly put him at the forefront of Japanese archaeology. The Japanese, whose culture is heavily indebted to that of China, have often sought to differentiate and set themselves apart from the Chinese. Historic discoveries that support the uniqueness of Japanese culture and origins are bound to make their discoverer hugely popular. So it was in that environment and against that backdrop that Fujimura’s archaeological finds made him into a national celebrity. His discoveries were incorporated into school textbooks, and taught to Japanese children for years.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Shinichi Fujimura caught burying artifacts at a dig site. Neotrouve

11. Fujimura Turns Out to be a Fraud

Fujimura worked on over a hundred archaeological projects around Japan after his first discovery. Amazingly, the spectacular good fortune with which he began his career continued without cease or letup, and Fujimura kept finding older and older artifact. As his lucky streak continued, Fujimura’s finds kept pushing Japan’s human prehistory further and further back. His fame and prestige, already high, reached stratospheric levels in 1993, when he discovered stone age evidence of humans near the village of Tsukidate, which dated back over half a million years. At a stroke, Japan became the equal of its rival, China, in the antiquity scale. So remarkable was that streak, and so fortunate did Fujimura seem in his ability to unearth objects that few if any other archaeologists could find, that awestruck admirers began referring to the seemingly divinely guided Fujimura as “God’s Hands”.

The man’s archaeological skills seemed too good to be true, and as is often the case, things that seem too good to be are usually just that. In 2000, Japan was rocked when a daily newspaper published three photographs showing the respected and celebrated archaeologist planting supposedly ancient stone age tools at a dig site. Forced to confess after being caught red-handed on film, Fujimura admitted to planting evidence not only at that site, but in other locations across Japan, and throughout his entire career. When asked why he did that, a sobbing Fujimura tearfully responded: “the devil made me do it“.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
A medieval fresco showing the Donation of Constantine. Getty Images

10. The Anonymous Forger Monks Who Shaped the Middle Ages

Among history’s most impactful con men and hucksters are a group of now-anonymous medieval monks who perpetrated the greatest hoax of the Middle Ages – a con whose impact reverberated for centuries. Known as the “Donation of Constantine”, the con consisted of a document recording a generous gift from Roman emperor Constantine the Great, transferring authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors. The text describes how Pope Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine from leprosy, which convinced the emperor to convert to Christianity. The emperor went on to demonstrate his gratitude by making the Pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast landed estates throughout the Roman Empire are also granted, for the upkeep and maintenance of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter.

To top it off, the Holy Father and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire. The donation of such vast territories elevated the Popes from mere priests and religious leaders to independent princes and sovereign rulers of territory in their own right. In reality, the Donation was forged in the eighth century by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both Constantine the Great and Sylvester I were dead and buried. The forgery had little impact when it was concocted, but centuries later, during a period of political upheavals that wracked Medieval Europe, the Donation ended up playing a huge role in shaping Christendom and the West.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Constantine the Great. Wikimedia

9. How the Donation of Constantine Shaped History

After it was forged, the Donation of Constantine was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years, until Pope Leo IX dusted it off in the mid-eleventh century, and cited it as evidence to assert his authority over secular rulers. Surprisingly, the Donation was widely accepted as authentic, and almost nobody questioned the document’s legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, the Donation of Constantine carried significant weight whenever a Pope pulled it out to figuratively wave in the face of secular rulers.

It was not until the Renaissance and the spread of secular humanism that the Donation’s authenticity was finally challenged. With the revival of classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not possibly have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. One hint was the use of language and terms that did not exist in the fourth century, when the document was supposedly written, but that only came into use hundreds of years later. On top of that, the document contained dating errors that a person writing at the time could not possibly have made. The Popes did not officially renounce the document, but after the mid-fifteenth century, they stopped bringing up and referring to the Donation of Constantine in their Papal Bulls and pronouncements.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
John Keely and an early version of his engine. Wikimedia

8. The Conman “Inventor”

John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) had many faults, but sloth was not one of them. He always hustled to get ahead, and among the jobs, he worked as a young man were painter, carpenter, member of a theatrical orchestra, carnival barker, and mechanic. It was while tinkering as a mechanic that he came up with the idea that would make him one of history’s greatest “inventor” con men. In 1872, Keely declared that he had come up with a new engine that would revolutionize the world, by drawing its energy from a new physical force that held limitless potential power.

Back in the nineteenth century, there was a widespread although mistaken belief that all space was filled with something called a “luminiferous ether“. It was a hypothetical substance thought necessary for the movement of light or electric waves, and without which those things would be impossible. Keely claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from this (actually nonexistent) substance. Having unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, Keely claimed that he could now tap the power of atoms in water to furnish energy.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
An older Keely and his con, still going strong. Great Big Canvas

7. Selling the Revolutionary Engine

As John Keely explained it when describing his engine to listeners, atoms are in a state of constant vibration, and by harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his engine, people could tap into limitless energy. By getting the water’s atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether – a substance supposedly filling all space – one could use its “etheric force” to power motors. Put another way, the Keely Engine was a perpetual motion machine – an impossibility under the basic laws of physics, because it would violate the first or second laws of thermodynamics. Keely demonstrated a prototype to guests in his workshop by pouring water into its engine, then playing the harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instruments to activate the machine with sound vibrations. Soon, the device would start gurgling, rumbling, then come alive, providing pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges.

Harnessing that power, Keely arranged demonstrations in which thick ropes were ripped apart, iron bars were bent, twisted, and snapped in two, and bullets were driven through twelve-inch wooden planks. Keely made up science-y sounding terminology to describe the principles of his invention. He began by describing his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he started telling observers that they were witnessing “quadruple negative harmonics”. At other times, he told gullible investors that he was going to make them filthy rich with his “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacu-engine”. And whenever a listener sounded a note of skepticism, he drowned it with yet more science-y sounding phrases such as “etheric disintegration”, “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, and “atomic ether vibrations”.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
A spherical tank beneath Keely’s lab, held the compressed air that had been powering his engine all along. Wikimedia

6. Getting Rich Off of Gibberish

John Keely used the kinds of words that sounded impressive to nonscientists, but that in reality were simply pseudo-scientific gibberish. However, it was effective pseudo-scientific gibberish: within a short time, Keely had convinced investors to give him the equivalent of about $25 million in current dollars as startup capital. He used that as seed money to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors coughed up the equivalent of more than $100 million in today’s dollars for a stake in Keely’s enterprise.

For more than two decades, Keely closely guarded the secret of his invention, refusing to share its details with anybody. But he kept promising investors that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was just right around the corner. And throughout that time, gullible investors kept giving him more and more money, notwithstanding the consensus of physicists that Keely was a charlatan and a quack, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was physically impossible. Finally, when Keely died in 1898, the secret of his engine was revealed to the world. It had not been powered by water, but by a compressed air, machine hidden two floors below, and connected to the Keely engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
The discovery of life on the Moon. The New Yorker

5. The Discovery of Life on the Moon

America was gripped by excitement in the summer of 1835, after a New York newspaper, The Sun, announced the recent discovery of life and civilization on the Moon. In a series of six articles, beginning on August 25th, The Sun described how Sir John Herschel, the era’s leading astronomer, had used powerful telescopes to get a clear glimpse of the Moon’s surface. What he saw astonished him and upended all human knowledge to date, because it offered a truly stunning glimpse into another world. As the newspaper put it: “By means of a telescope of immense dimensions and an entirely new principle“, Sir John Herschel had discovered planets in other solar systems, and established new and revolutionary theories. He had also “solved or corrected nearly every problem of mathematical astronomy“.

However, Herschel’s prior accomplishments were just the tip of the iceberg, and paled in comparison to his latest find: the discovery of life on the Moon. According to The Sun, Herschel’s telescope revealed that the Moon was teeming with life. From his observatory in the Cape of Good Hope, the astronomer saw oceans, rivers, and trees. A variety of animals roamed the lunar surface, including goats, buffaloes, walking beavers, and unicorns. And flying above them all, were human-like creatures who built houses and temples.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Bat men and other lunar creatures ‘discovered’ by John Herschel. Smithsonian Magazine

4. The Bat Men of the Moon

As detailed by The Sun in a 17,000 word six-part series, reprinted from The Edinburgh Journal of Science, Sir John Herschel had traveled to the Cape in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. However, he discovered far more than stars with his powerful telescope when he turned it to the Moon. First, were hints of vegetation, a body of water, a beach, and a string of pyramids. As the focus was adjusted for sharper detail, herds of bison-like animals were seen. Next came blue goats that looked like unicorns. Yet more animals, such as walking beavers, were described in the third installment. The fourth installment produced the biggest shock: the discovery of hominids, about four feet tall, who flew with bat wings.

As the article put it: “We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures“. That was when the mounting excitement reached a fever pitch. That was also when the authors discovered that they had greatly underestimated just how gullible the public could be. The whole thing had been satire, something that the authors and The Sun’s editors thought was obvious. Instead, satire was taken as gospel truth. The authors eventually wound down the story with the telescope’s accidental destruction. It had been left exposed to the Sun, whose rays caused its lens to act as a burning glass, which started a fire that destroyed the telescope and the observatory. Needless to say, Sir John Herschel had never claimed the astronomical discoveries attributed to him, nor had he made any such lunar observations.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sunday Post

3. The Two Little Girls Who Conned Sherlock Holmes’ Author

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the sharp-minded, cynical, and deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes. That being so, one might reasonably assume that Sherlock Holmes’ author was one of those hard-to-fool skeptical types. One might, but one would be wrong. In reality, Doyle was nothing like his famous character. Late in life, the famous author became a big booster of spiritualism, and in his eagerness to credit anything that would support his beliefs, he became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a hoax perpetrated by two little girls.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Frances Griffiths with a fairy. BBC

It all 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 often interacted 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. By then, however, the seeds had been planted for one of history’s most fascinating hoaxes.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Cottingley Fairies. Art Critique

2. The Cottingley Fairy Hoax Takes Wing

Two years after cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith photographed “fairies”, the images started going viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a meeting of the Theosophical Society – A New Age spiritualist 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. Like his famous detective, Doyle was initially skeptical about the fairy images, and went so far as to ask camera and film manufacturers Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before receiving a reply, and for reasons unknown other than a sheer desire to believe, 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.

The ‘Baron’ of Arizona and Other Historic Hucksters
Comparison between the Cottingley Fairies and illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book. Wikimedia

1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Cringeworthy Fall For the Fairy Hoax

In December of 1920, Sir Arthur Conan 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 in 1922, he capped it off by publishing an even more cringe-worthy book, titled The Coming of the Fairies.

As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’ creator should have been more skeptical. In 1983, cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths 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.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Archaeology Magazine, Volume 54, Number 1, January / February 2001 – “God’s Hands” Did the Devil’s Work

Listvrese – 10 of History’s Most Prolific Con Artists and Their Famous Cons

Live Science, June 25th, 2008 – A Savage Hoax: The Cave Men Who Never Existed

Money Inc. – The 20 Most Notorious Con Artists of All Time

Museum of Hoaxes – Lord Gordon-Gordon

New York Herald, July 8th, 1849 – Arrest of the Confidence Man

Quartz, February 17th, 2017 – The Cottingley Fairy Hoax of 1917 is a Case Study in How Smart People Lose Control of the Truth

Smithsonian Magazine, December 15th, 2009 – Crop Circles: The Art of the Hoax

Smithsonian Magazine, July 2nd, 2015 – The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time

Wikipedia – James Reavis