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[whitespace] The Great Fairy Hoax

Got any fairy photos you want to sell us?

By Rebecca Patt

ARE FAIRIES real? We wish we could have captured some on film or something, but unfortunately we couldn't find any willing to be photographed.

Or maybe we got lucky, considering how a British magazine called Strand got duped back in 1920. Their story about fairies--written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was long famous by that point for creating the master sleuth Sherlock Holmes--caused a sensation, containing as it did black-and-white single exposure photographs of what appeared to be winged, dancing fairies.

The photos were created by two cousins from Bradford, Yorkshire, in England: Elsie Wright, age 16, and Frances Griffiths, age 10, in Cottingley Glen, near their home. A leading photography expert verified the authenticity of the photographs, and Doyle, who had a reputation as quite the thinker, went out on a limb to endorse them as genuine evidence of fairy folk. Not a wise move, as it turns out.

Part of Doyle's reasoning was that the girls were young and "photographic tricks would be entirely beyond them," though Wright was at the time helping out in a photographer's shop. Indeed, even experts with the Kodak company said they couldn't find evidence of photo tomfoolery.

The debate concerning the legitimacy of the photos went on for decades, though other photo experts eventually pointed out many mistakes made by those who had initially called them the real deal.

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The Case of the Cottingley Fairies: Photos and letters pertaining to the famous hoax.

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Finally, some 60 years later, the jig was up. Wright admitted that the photos were created with cut-out drawings stuck into the ground with hatpins. Griffiths also confessed, though the two womens' stories about who did what shifted quite a bit. Wright seemed to have been chiefly responsible for the hoax, while Griffiths, interestingly enough, claimed that one of the photos was actually legitimate.

Today, the photos for the most part look ridiculously primitive--you can even clearly see Wright holding the thin handle of the cut-out fairy in one of them. A movie, Fairy Tale: A True Story, was made out of the girls' story, and professional paranormal skeptic James Randi deconstructed the whole phenomenon in his book Flim-Flam!

"You can see how even a person like Arthur Conan Doyle can talk himself into believing that these girls went down to the river and took pictures," says Randi. "It's amazing that a man who could have invented Sherlock Holmes could have been so easily deceived himself."

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From the June 5-12, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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