We know that people have been faking spirit photography for over a century. While it is very easy now for someone to take a photo in Photoshop and an array of apps that are available at our fingertips, in 1917, it wasn’t so easy to do. When we see a photo of anything potentially supernatural, our first instinct is to rip it apart, write it off as photoshopped as we are just used to seeing fake photos. Some are ridiculously fake. If in today’s world we were presented with a photo where someone had claimed to have photographic proof of fairies, it would automatically be written off without another thought. Things however were different in the early 1900's and a fake fairy photo quickly became one of the most famous hoaxes in not just paranormal history, but it is considered by some to be one of the the top 10 hoaxes in history.
In 1917, two cousins Elsie Wright who was 16 and Frances Griffiths who was 10 had paper cut outs of fairies which Elsie had copied from a Children’s book. Elsie was quite good at arts and crafts and drew the pictures. She used a sharp pair of scissors to cut them out and secured them with hat pins so it looked like they were ‘standing up’. The went down to stream at the bottom of a garden in Cottingley England and took photos with a camera they borrowed from Elsie’s dad Arthur Wright. They took turns posing with the ‘fairies and returned home. When Mr Wright developed the photos in his dark room (remember this is 1917 and it was a plate camera), he saw ‘fairies’ in the picture. Knowing Elsie’s artistic talents, he immediately filed them away as fake. Later down the track he banned Elsie from borrowing the camera after he developed another picture showing Elsie playing with a gnome - another photo she had clearly faked. The photos were all filed away where they thought the matter had been put to rest.
Fast Forward to 1919, and Polly Wright and Frances Griffiths who were the girls mothers attended a lecture about Theosophy. They very much believed in the supernatural and Theosophy taught the possibility of nature spirits - such as fairies. Polly showed the photos to the lecturer to ask if he felt they could be real. He forwarded the photos onto Edward Gardner who was a self proclaimed expert in Theosophy and a leader in the movement of this particular field. He had a photographer by the name of Harold Snelling to examine them for authenticity. His conclusion was that the photos were genuine. He said they could not be faked as he determined on the one plate had been used (unlike in fake spirit photography) and the a single slow exposure was used determined by the softness of the water in the waterfall in the background. The fairies themselves seemed blurry due to this slow exposure suggesting that the fairies themselves were 'dancing'. With this declaration, the British spiritualist community began circulating the images. They got the attention of Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was a big believer in spiritualism. He was convinced that they were proof of the existence of fairies and in 1920, he urged the girls to try to capture more photos of the fairies.
The girls took a further 3 photos in 1920 and in December of that year, they were published in the Strand Magazine, giving them international exposure. Skeptics started to chime in with some concerns they spotted with the photos. Firstly, it is pretty clear they are cut outs. They also questioned, why were the girls not looking at the fairies? Their response was that they were so used to seeing the fairies that they often ignore them. Wings appeared to be missing from one of the fairies and in another shot they seemed to be wearing the latest in French designer fashion. They even spotted the hat pin in one of the photos, but it was thought to be a belly button adding to the notion that fairies were similar to humans and gave birth. It all seems quite bizarre and in this day and age, something like this would never be given a second thought, but it was the end of World War 1 in Britain and the public wanted something good to believe in.
Over the years many have come forward to 'debunk' the photos. In 1981, Elsie finally admitted that she had used cut out to fake all 5 of the photos. Frances admitted that 4 of the photos were faked, but said the last was the real deal. They claimed that the photos were a representation of the real fairies they had witnessed. Frances swore until the day she died that the last photo was real. The girls didn't come forward earlier as they were young girls and didn't want to embarrass the famous figures who went public. A special sculpture garden has been unveiled at Cottingley to honour the cousins. Are fairies real? I guess we don't know for sure, but what we do know is that they are not in these photos. It is a nice fairy - tale though!
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