Psychical researcher Fred Gettings uncovers the fairies and exposes a 60-year-old girlish prank.
By Jerome Clark
Has the controversy surrounding the Cottingley fairy photographs finally been laid to rest?
For 60 years the question of the authenticity of five pictures taken by cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths of Cottingley, Yorkshire, England, has gone unanswered. Two early analyses, one by Kodak laboratory technicians, concluded there was no evidence of fakery. And a Mr. Snelling, an expert photographer and employee of a photographic firm, concluded the two negatives he examined were entirely genuine, unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, even showing movement in the fairy figures. In 1920, shortly after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had brought the photographs to public attention in an article in The Strand, the Daily News & Westminster Gazette commissioned its Yorkshire reporter to “break the fraud” but a thorough investigation failed to do this.
Attempts by would-be debunkers to find the models which the girls could have used to represent the fairies invariably came to naught. As late as 1975 the photographers, both now elderly women, continued to swear the pictures were authentic.
But in 1977 researchers at Ground Saucer Watch, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based UFO organization, established beyond reasonable doubt that the pictures are fraudulent. As Robert Sheaffer reported in the June 1978 Fate, the ufologists subjected the pictures to computer enhancement and were able to determine that all of the fairy images except one were flat and “probably made of cardboard.” In one case an apparent string suspends a “fairy.”
This, however, still did not explain where the girls got the fairy figures.
Now the answer to this long-standing puzzle has been provided by psychical researcher Fred Gettings in his recent Ghosts in Photographs (Harmony Books, 1978). Gettings has traced three of the figures to a children’s book entitled Princess Mary’s Gift Book, published in 1915 by Hodder and Stoughton. The first Cottingley picture — the one in which strikingly similar figures appear — was taken in 1917; the photographers were 16 and 10 years of age and easily could have had access to this book.
The book drawings were done by Claude A. Shepperson to illustrate Alfred Noyes’ poem “A Spell for a Fairy,” which gives supposed directions for conjuring up fairies. Shep-person’s originals do not show the fairies having wings but the poem does refer to “four azure wings.”
“Perhaps the central figure in the photograph is an ‘original’ drawing,” Gettings says, “though it may have been copied from another source — certainly it is the least artistic of the series.” It is worth noting here that as a schoolgirl Elsie was known to possess some talent in drawing and painting. A contemporary of hers, interviewed on a BBC program in 1971, remembered pictures of fairies Elsie had painted.
“It is my opinion,” Gettings continues, “that one or other of the children copied these drawings, added larger wings . . . and stuck them in the grass and ferns before photographing them.”
What was the motive for the hoax?
In his Fate article Sheaffer suggests that the mastermind behind the affair was Theosophist writer and lecturer Edward L. Gardner, who first investigated the story and who many years later wrote a small book on the subject.
Sheaffer wrote that in August 1920 Gardner gave the girls two cameras, each loaded with a dozen plates, and asked them to supply him with more fairy photos. Gardner, who did not accompany Elsie and Frances on the picture-taking expedition but instead returned home to London, received only three more pictures. Writing a quarter of a century later in his Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel (Theosophical Publishing House, 1945), he explained the paucity of pictures as due to the fact that “it rained almost continuously throughout the country” and the fairies were driven into hiding.
Noting (correctly) that it is simpler to fake three pictures than it is to fake 24, Sheaffer produces weather records which show that rainfall in the area that month was actually less than normal. On the basis of this very slender evidence he jumps to the conclusion that Gardner, whom even Cottingley skeptic Stewart Sanderson has described as a man whose “intentions are as clear and honest as anyone could desire” (Folklore, Summer 1973), consciously perpetuated the hoax in order to advance Theosophical doctrines about fairy life.
There is probably a far less sinister explanation for Gardner’s erroneous weather report. Gardner was writing fully 25 years later when his memory of the events had surely begun to blur. If Sheaffer had checked the weather reports for the month before (which Robert Rickard and I recently did), he would have found that rainfall over almost all parts of England and Scotland was so heavy that it brought “the worst season for 30-35 years,” according to the London Times for August 9, 1920. The Times referred to “a drip-
ping July relieved only by intermittent deluges.”
In the absence of any real evidence of Gardner’s involvement in the hoax, I suggest a simpler, nonconspiratorial explanation: The girls, knowing they could not produce the two dozen pictures Gardner wanted from them, told the investigator that bad weather had kept the fairies away. Gardner, who was nowhere near Cottingley when all of this was going on, took them at their word. And 25 years later, when he wrote his book, his memory fastened on July’s foul weather instead of on the weather as it was in late August when the girls took the pictures.
In all probability the girls’ motives had nothing to do with religious or metaphysical doctrines. They were interested only in playing a prank — and by sticking tenaciously to their story all these years, they have managed to keep the hoax alive.
In actual fact, it was Conan Doyle who did the most to bring the weight of publicity and the will-to-believe to bear upon them. Doyle was actually writing his book The Coming of the Fairies when he first heard about the photographs. From then on the two girls were publicly stuck with their story so that in a sense they have been as much victims as the rest of us.
As Gettings puts it, the “hoax, perhaps starting in an innocent spirit of fun or even wonderment, opened a veritable Pandora’s box on the world.”