Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Extraordinary Story of Two Little Girls Who Not Only Believed in Fairies, But Made Friends With Them, And Even Captured Them on Film from the 1910s

All of us, when we were children, believed in fairies. Here's the extraordinary story of two little girls who not only believed in fairies, but made friends with them–and even captured them on film.

The Cottingley Fairies appear in a series of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright (1901–88) and Frances Griffiths (1907–86), two young cousins who lived in Cottingley, near Bradford in England.


1917 photographs

In mid-1917 nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother—both newly arrived in the UK from South Africa—were staying with Frances' aunt, Elsie Wright's mother, in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire; Elsie was then 16 years old. The two girls often played together beside the beck (stream) at the bottom of the garden, much to their mothers' annoyance, because they frequently came back with wet feet and clothes. Frances and Elsie said they only went to the beck to see the fairies, and to prove it, Elsie borrowed her father's camera, a Midg quarter-plate. The girls returned about 30 minutes later, "triumphant".

The first of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies.

Elsie's father, Arthur, was a keen amateur photographer, and had set up his own darkroom. The picture on the photographic plate he developed showed Frances behind a bush in the foreground, on which four fairies appeared to be dancing. Knowing his daughter's artistic ability, and that she had spent some time working in a photographer's studio, he dismissed the figures as cardboard cutouts. Two months later the girls borrowed his camera again, and this time returned with a photograph of Elsie sitting on the lawn holding out her hand to a 1-foot-tall (30 cm) gnome. Exasperated by what he believed to be "nothing but a prank", and convinced that the girls must have tampered with his camera in some way, Arthur Wright refused to lend it to them again. His wife Polly, however, believed the photographs to be authentic.

Frances Griffiths and
Elsie Wright, June 1917.
Towards the end of 1918, Frances sent a letter to Johanna Parvin, a friend in Cape Town, South Africa, where Frances had lived for most of her life, enclosing the photograph of herself with the fairies. On the back she wrote "It is funny, I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there."

The photographs became public in mid-1919, after Elsie's mother attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford. The lecture that evening was on "fairy life", and at the end of the meeting Polly Wright showed the two fairy photographs taken by her daughter and niece to the speaker. As a result, the photographs were displayed at the society's annual conference in Harrogate, held a few months later. There they came to the attention of a leading member of the society, Edward Gardner. One of the central beliefs of theosophy is that humanity is undergoing a cycle of evolution, towards increasing "perfection", and Gardner recognised the potential significance of the photographs for the movement:
... the fact that two young girls had not only been able to see fairies, which others had done, but had actually for the first time ever been able to materialise them at a density sufficient for their images to be recorded on a photographic plate, meant that it was possible that the next cycle of evolution was underway.

Initial examinations

Gardner sent the prints along with the original glass-plate negatives to Harold Snelling, a photography expert. Snelling's opinion was that "the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs ... [with] no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models". He did not go so far as to say that the photographs showed fairies, stating only that "these are straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time". Gardner had the prints "clarified" by Snelling, and new negatives produced, "more conducive to printing", for use in the illustrated lectures he gave around the UK. Snelling supplied the photographic prints which were available for sale at Gardner's lectures.

The second of the five photographs, showing Elsie with a winged gnome.

Author and prominent spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned of the photographs from the editor of the spiritualist publication Light. Doyle had been commissioned by The Strand Magazine to write an article on fairies for their Christmas issue, and the fairy photographs "must have seemed like a godsend" according to broadcaster and historian Magnus Magnusson. Doyle contacted Gardner in June 1920 to determine the background to the photographs, and wrote to Elsie and her father to request permission from the latter to use the prints in his article. Arthur Wright was "obviously impressed" that Doyle was involved, and gave his permission for publication, but he refused payment on the grounds that, if genuine, the images should not be "soiled" by money.

Gardner and Doyle sought a second expert opinion from the photographic company Kodak. Several of the company's technicians examined the enhanced prints, and although they agreed with Snelling that the pictures "showed no signs of being faked", they concluded that "this could not be taken as conclusive evidence ... that they were authentic photographs of fairies". Kodak declined to issue a certificate of authenticity. Gardner believed that the Kodak technicians might not have examined the photographs entirely objectively, observing that one had commented "after all, as fairies couldn't be true, the photographs must have been faked somehow". The prints were also examined by another photographic company, Ilford, who reported unequivocally that there was "some evidence of faking". Gardner and Doyle, perhaps rather optimistically, interpreted the results of the three expert evaluations as two in favour of the photographs' authenticity and one against.

Doyle also showed the photographs to the physicist and pioneering psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge, who believed the photographs to be fake. He suggested that a troupe of dancers had masqueraded as fairies, and expressed doubt as to their "distinctly 'Parisienne'" hairstyles.


1920 photographs

Doyle was preoccupied with organising an imminent lecture tour of Australia, and in July 1920, sent Gardner to meet the Wright family. Frances was by then living with her parents in Scarborough, but Elsie's father told Gardner that he had been so certain the photographs were fakes that while the girls were away he searched their bedroom and the area around the beck (stream), looking for scraps of pictures or cutouts, but found nothing "incriminating".

Frances and the Leaping Fairy, the third of the five Cottingley Fairy photographs.

Gardner believed the Wright family to be honest and respectable. To place the matter of the photographs' authenticity beyond doubt, he returned to Cottingley at the end of July with two Kodak Cameo cameras and 24 secretly marked photographic plates. Frances was invited to stay with the Wright family during the school summer holiday so that she and Elsie could take more pictures of the fairies. Gardner described his briefing in his 1945 Fairies: A Book of Real Fairies:
I went off, to Cottingley again, taking the two cameras and plates from London, and met the family and explained to the two girls the simple working of the cameras, giving one each to keep. The cameras were loaded, and my final advice was that they need go up to the glen only on fine days as they had been accustomed to do before and tice the fairies, as they called their way of attracting them, and see what they could get. I suggested only the most obvious and easy precautions about lighting and distance, for I knew it was essential they should feel free and unhampered and have no burden of responsibility. If nothing came of it all, I told them, they were not to mind a bit.
Until 19 August the weather was unsuitable for photography. Because Frances and Elsie insisted that the fairies would not show themselves if others were watching, Elsie's mother was persuaded to visit her sister's for tea, leaving the girls alone. In her absence the girls took several photographs, two of which appeared to show fairies. In the first, Frances and the Leaping Fairy, Frances is shown in profile with a winged fairy close by her nose. The second, Fairy offering Posy of Harebells to Elsie, shows a fairy either hovering or tiptoeing on a branch, and offering Elsie a flower. Two days later the girls took the last picture, Fairies and Their Sun-Bath.

Fairy Offering Posy of Harebells to Elsie, the fourth of the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies.

The plates were packed in cotton wool and returned to Gardner in London, who sent an "ecstatic" telegram to Doyle, by then in Melbourne. Doyle wrote back:
My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance ... We have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.

Later investigations

Public interest in the Cottingley Fairies gradually subsided after 1921. Elsie and Frances eventually married and lived abroad for many years. In 1966, a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper traced Elsie, who was by then back in England. She admitted in an interview given that year that the fairies might have been "figments of my imagination", but left open the possibility she believed that she had somehow managed to photograph her thoughts. The media subsequently became interested in Frances and Elsie's photographs once again. BBC television's Nationwide programme investigated the case in 1971, but Elsie stuck to her story: "I've told you that they're photographs of figments of our imagination, and that's what I'm sticking to".

Fairies and Their Sun-Bath, the fifth and last photograph taken of the Cottingley Fairies, the one that Frances Griffiths insisted was genuine.

Elsie and Frances were interviewed by journalist Austin Mitchell in September 1976, for a programme broadcast on Yorkshire Television. When pressed, both women agreed that "a rational person doesn't see fairies", but they denied having fabricated the photographs. In 1978 the magician and scientific sceptic James Randi and a team from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal examined the photographs, using a "computer enhancement process". They concluded that the photographs were fakes, and that strings could be seen supporting the fairies. Geoffrey Crawley, editor of the British Journal of Photography, undertook a "major scientific investigation of the photographs and the events surrounding them", published between 1982 and 1983, "the first major postwar analysis of the affair". He also concluded that the pictures were fakes.


Confession

In 1983, the cousins admitted in an article published in the magazine The Unexplained that the photographs had been faked, although both maintained that they really had seen fairies. Elsie had copied illustrations of dancing girls from a popular children's book of the time, Princess Mary's Gift Book, published in 1914, and drew wings on them. They said they had then cut out the cardboard figures and supported them with hatpins, disposing of their props in the beck once the photograph had been taken. But the cousins disagreed about the fifth and final photograph, which Doyle in his The Coming of the Fairies described in this way:
Seated on the upper left hand edge with wing well displayed is an undraped fairy apparently considering whether it is time to get up. An earlier riser of more mature age is seen on the right possessing abundant hair and wonderful wings. Her slightly denser body can be glimpsed within her fairy dress.
One of Claude Arthur Shepperson's illustrations of dancing girls, from Princess Mary's Gift Book.

Elsie maintained it was a fake, just like all the others, but Frances insisted that it was genuine. In an interview given in the early 1980s Frances said:
It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph.
Comparison of Cottingley Fairies and illustrations from Princess Mary's Gift Book.

Both Frances and Elsie claimed to have taken the fifth photograph. In a letter published in The Times newspaper on 9 April 1983, Geoffrey Crawley explained the discrepancy by suggesting that the photograph was "an unintended double exposure of fairy cutouts in the grass", and thus "both ladies can be quite sincere in believing that they each took it".

In a 1985 interview on Yorkshire Television's Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers, Elsie said that she and Frances were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes: "Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet." In the same interview Frances said: "I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can't understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in."

(via Wikipedia)

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