Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths’ two photographs of fairies became public after Elsie’s mother took them to a Theosophical Society meeting. They soon came to attention of Edward Gardner, a leading member of the society. Seeking to verify them, Gardner sent the original glass-plate negatives and contact prints to a photography expert.
The expert replied they were genuine – ‘with no trace of studio fakery involving cardboard cut-outs or models’. But Gardner’s expert also enhanced the prints to make them more ‘conducive to printing’. He also provided copies of the enhanced prints for Gardner to sell in his lectures.
It is not easy to find originals. But some show the fairies as over-exposed outlines rather than the pretty detailed figures on the enhanced versions.
When Arthur Conan Doyle saw the enhanced prints, he believed they were clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena. Having lost a son in the First World War a few years earlier, Doyle and his wife were enthusiastic spiritualists. Lady Doyle was a much lauded amateur spiritualist medium.
Doyle and Gardner took the enhanced prints to two photographic firms, Kodak and Ilford, to confirm they were genuine. While Kodak agreed there was no obvious signs of fakery they declined to issue a certificate of authenticity. Ilford unequivocally thought there was evidence of fakery.
The historical novelist Maurice Hewlett had the last word when he pronounced – knowing children, and knowing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide the young ladies have pulled one of them.
Interest in the Cottingley fairies gradually ebbed after 1921. Elsie and Frances married and lived abroad. In 1966, a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper traced Elsie. She admitted the fairies may have been ‘figments of her imagination’, somehow transferred onto the photographs. Psychic photography was a new and exciting phenomenon around this time.
In 1983, the cousins admitted the photographs were faked, although they maintained they really saw fairies. The 16 year-old Elsie had copied illustrations from a children’s book and added wings. They supported the cardboard cut-outs with hatpins.
Elsie said they were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling Arthur Conan Doyle – ‘Two village kids and a brilliant man – well, we could only keep quiet.’
Frances added- ‘I never thought of it as fraud – we were having a bit of fun. I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in. They wanted to be taken in.’
Frances’ memoirs ‘Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies’ record often bitter exchanges between Elsie and Frances. In one letter from 1983, Frances wrote – ‘I hated those photographs from the age of 16. When Mr Gardner presented me with a bunch of flowers and wanted me to sit with him at a Theosophical Society meeting, I realised what I was in for if I did not keep myself hidden.’
The cousins disagreed about the final photograph of a fairy sunbath. Elsie maintained it was fake. Frances insisted it was genuine. This made some wonder if the print is a double exposure; both girls taking the same photograph without the other’s knowledge. But who knows… Perhaps, just perhaps…