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What are the Cottingley Fairies?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2014
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The Cottingley Fairies are figures that appear in a set of five photographs taken by cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917 and 1920. Today, the Cottingley Fairies are widely considered a hoax. However, at the time they were taken, the photographs had a number of believers, including Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths began claiming that they regularly saw fairies at their home in Cottingley, England in 1917, when Elsie was 16 and Frances nine. Naturally, the adults in their family were skeptical, but Elsie's father allowed the girls to borrow his camera to photograph the fairies and corroborate their story. When a picture of Frances surrounded by dancing fairies emerged in the dark room, the girls received mixed reactions. Elsie's father was unconvinced, but the girls' mothers were astonished at this apparent proof of the supernatural.

The girls took another photograph the same year, of Frances with a gnome. In 1919, Elsie's mother brought the Cottingley Fairies to the attention of the Bradford Theosophical Society. Edward Gardner, a well-known Theosophist, was very impressed with the pictures and began using them in his lectures.

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Eventually, in 1920, the Cottingley Fairies came to the attention of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was very impressed with the photographs, which he believed to be proof of the existence of fairies. Gardner supervised Elsie and Frances while they took more photographs, only three of which showed the Cottingley Fairies. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about the Cottingley Fairies in two articles for The Strand, in 1920 and 1921, and published a book called The Coming of the Fairies in 1922.

The furor over the Cottingley Fairies waned over time, especially when enhanced versions of the photographs appeared in which the fairies very closely resemble cardboard cutouts. In a 1981 interview, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths admitted that the Cottingley Fairies pictures were a hoax. However, Frances maintained until her death in 1986 that they had actually seen fairies and that the last of the five pictures was genuine.

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