Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote that the idea of an acceptable form of public entertainment underwent a rude shock in the years around World War I. By then in his mid-50’s, he had abandoned any pretense of sympathy for modern culture. In particular, Conan Doyle shrank from the more proscriptive plays of Henrik Ibsen, as well as the “organized din” of Gustav Mahler and the perceived decadence of conceptual painters such as Marcel Duchamp and Edvard Munch. In time, he would go on to support the Conservative government’s proposals for greater powers of artistic censorship. Doyle’s idea of a good writer remained the likes of Thomas Hardy, Winston Churchill, or Rudyard Kipling, the last of whom he called “England articulate.”
To many in wartime Britain, however, the greatest jolt to the established order wasn’t the advent of Cubism, or such eye-catching developments as the works of Mondrian and Picasso, or Stravinsky’s ballets, or the more kinetic rhythms of black dance bands accompanied by uninhibited young women in Scheherazade skirts. Nor was it the arrival on the London stage of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with its scandalous use of the word bloody. The subject of most news commentary wasn’t a public entertainment at all, though it may be argued that, over time, it became one. Rather, it was a 3,000-word article written by Conan Doyle himself that appeared in the December 1920 issue of the mass-market magazine Strand. During the preceding 27 years, The Strand Magazine’s readers had often enjoyed a privileged first glimpse of each successive Sherlock Holmes story as it was serialized before going into hardback print. They had grown used to the absorbing puzzle-plots involving the icily logical detective and his everyman sidekick Dr. Watson in their pursuit of purloined oriental treasure or top-secret government papers. At intervals between August 1901 and March 1902, customers had even lined up outside the magazine’s offices, waiting to get each new monthly installment of Holmes’s adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles as it came off the presses. So it was with an emotion “midway between indignation and bewilderment,” in Doyle’s own measured phrase, that those same readers now examined the bold-print headline confronting them over the masthead of the traditionally action-packed Christmas issue. “FAIRIES PHOTOGRAPHED,” it read. “AN EPOCH-MAKING EVENT DESCRIBED BY A. CONAN DOYLE.”
It would be hard to overstate the shock and mounting ridicule that met both this public testimonial and the events that followed. The London Globe expressed a widely held view when, in January 1921, it wrote, “It is truly sad when, in his old age [Conan Doyle was then 61], a great man does such foolish things.” Even that was mild compared with some of the popular jokes that made the rounds, including the one where Doyle was said to have appeared at the climax of his friend J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in order to lead the audience in a chorus of “I Do Believe in Fairies!” Other wisecracks were less elevated. It was a credit to Doyle’s tenacity, or perhaps his stubbornness, that he stuck to his guns even when much of the psychic world he had come first to endorse and then actively to promote following his heavy family losses in the Great War took issue with him. In March 1922, he published his full-length book The Coming of the Fairies, which again attested to his powerful belief in this “subhuman” and “miraculous” life form. It remains Doyle’s most notorious literary act, not excluding his killing of Sherlock Holmes.
Quite how Conan Doyle came to be so predisposed in the first place to this belief in the possibility of miniature life is unclear. But clues survive. When an American journalist named Harry How went to interview Doyle at his home in August 1892—still some 25 years before the author’s spiritual conversion—he found a “happy, genial, broad-shouldered man, with a hand that grips you heartily,” seated in a room decorated by “muscular accoutrements” such as a harpoon, a mounted lion’s head, and a stuffed seal’s paw, among “more whimsical furnishings” represented by Doyle’s extensive collection of statuettes depicting gnomes, goblins, and elves. The conclusion is inevitable. Doyle did not share his late father Charles’s emotional fragility. He shrank from the older man’s excessive fondness for drink that in time led to his confinement in the starkly named Montrose Lunatic Asylum. He had sided squarely with his mother when confronted by Charles’s ill-tempered demands and behavior. But Arthur was a thoughtful as well as a sensitive child. In later years he had come to see his father as an “intemperate” but “divinatory” character, whose life had consisted of his twinned enthusiasm for the bottle and his equally intense habit of tirelessly filling up notebooks with sketches of what his son called “representatives of primitive missing links” in the evolutionary chain, and more particularly of fairies.
The specific events that led Arthur Conan Doyle to this pass began on the hot Saturday afternoon of July 14, 1917, when 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 9-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths borrowed Elsie’s father’s new Midg camera and disappeared into the glen behind the Wrights’ home in the village of Cottingley, in England’s West Yorkshire. The two girls returned about 30 minutes later “in high spirits,” it was recalled. Later that evening, Arthur Wright developed the Midg’s photographic plate in his home darkroom, where what he called a “curious manifestation” occurred. Looming up at him out of the chemical tray was an image that seemed to show Frances leaning on the side of a small hill on which four fairies were dancing. Mr. Wright initially seems to have dismissed this as a girlish prank, and to have said nothing more about it for the moment. A few days later, however, Frances herself took the camera and returned with a picture of Elsie sitting on the back lawn holding out her hand to an “entity,” as her father termed it, and that Conan Doyle characterized as a winged gnome.
Both Arthur Wright and his wife, Polly, were aware of their daughter’s artistic streak, and went to the trouble of searching the child’s bedroom for any scraps of pictures or cutouts that might have been used to fabricate the images. They found nothing, and both of the girls stuck to their story. This being the famously hard-boiled and empirical north of England, and it being the year of Messines and Ypres and all the horrors of the Western Front, the Wrights seem to have felt it best not to advertise further the supernatural phenomena apparently occurring behind their home. The only known reference to the matter came in a letter young Frances Griffiths wrote to a friend on November 9, 1918—two days before the Armistice—in which she cheerfully remarked,
We all think the war will be over soon. We are going to get our flags to hang upstairs in our bedroom. I am sending two photos, both of me, one of me in a bathing costume in our back yard, [and] the other of me with some fairies up the beck. Elsie and I are very friendly with the beck fairies . . . I am learning French, Geometry, Cookery and Algebra at school now.
Any parent will recognize the charm and poignancy of this little note written by one ten-year-old child to another. The point is that Frances Griffiths maintained the central narrative of the fairies even in her correspondence with a friend she had no apparent reason to lie to. Of course, perhaps the whole story was a figment of her imagination, and Frances had simply convinced herself of its verity. In her later years as a soldier’s wife and a provincial shopkeeper this same individual occasionally demonstrated a willingness to substitute dramatic fiction for prosaic fact when it served a moralizing purpose or enabled her to fashion a suitably vivid tale. Regrettably, no correspondence of this period between Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright has come to light, and neither of the girls’ families appears to have related the account of the paranormal sightings in the fields around Cottingley either in the press or elsewhere.
In fact, the whole story might have ended there, but for the growing interest by Elsie Wright’s mother in the theosophical movement, a sort of Westernized version of Buddhist reincarnation and time-travel theories that was active even in the rural Yorkshire of the 1920’s. In time, the local chapter of the Theosophical Society heard of the fairy photographs, which then came into the hands of the society’s “Blavatsky Lodge” president, Edward L. Gardner. The 49-year-old Gardner combined his career as a stoutly working-class London building contractor with an avid belief in leprechauns, goblins, pixies, elves, and other woodland creatures. He in turn sent copies of the pictures to the editor of the psychic magazine Light and to Conan Doyle, who was not slow to pronounce on them as proof of a “God-given manifestation,” and as such “more significant than Columbus’s discovery of the New World.” “I have something infinitely precious—” Doyle wrote to his friend and sometime rival Harry Houdini on June 25, 1920,
two photos, one of a goblin, the other of four fairies in a Yorkshire wood. A fake! you will say. No, sir, I think not . . . The fairies are about eight inches high. In one [photo] there is a goblin dancing. In the other four beautiful, luminous creatures. Yes, it is a revelation.
So far as is known, Houdini kept his counsel on the matter, at least in public, possibly because he thought the whole thing so ludicrous. (The “freely adapted” plot of the 1997 movie Fairy Tale: A True Story, starring Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel, showing Houdini and Doyle tramping around the Wrights’ home, truly belongs in fairyland—there was no such joint field trip.) If so, however, the magician was one of the few public figures not to comment on the curious events at Cottingley. No less an authority than the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, one of the pioneers of wireless telegraphy, pronounced the fairy photographs to be “compelling,” even if the creatures themselves struck him as “rather Parisian” in their dress. The social reformer Margaret McMillan emphasized that the photographers were children, and thus without motive or guile. “How wonderful that to these dear young ones such a divine gift has been vouchsafed,” she wrote. To the Irish novelist Henry de Vere Stacpoole, author of the adolescent love story The Blue Lagoon, it was this same aura of girlish innocence that swung the day. “Look at Frances’s face. Look at Elsie’s face. There is an extraordinary thing called Truth which has ten million faces and forms—it is God’s currency and the cleverest coiner or forger can’t imitate it.”
Other public luminaries in turn flocked to this same consensus—the photographers were mere children, and as a result could have had neither the technical skill nor the baseness of heart required to perpetrate a hoax touching on the ultimate meaning of human life. Even the sober-suited experts at the Kodak company, to whom Conan Doyle took a set of the negatives, issued a statement declaring that the pictures “showed no signs of being faked.” A Yorkshire photographer named Harold Snelling, whom Doyle also consulted, came down squarely in the girls’ favor, announcing, “There is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models.”
In July 1920, as Conan Doyle himself was setting sail for a lecture tour in Australia, Snelling and Gardner went back to Cottingley armed with two cameras and 24 secretly marked photographic plates. The weather was uncongenial for three weeks, but on August 19 Frances and Elsie, now aged 12 and 19, returned from the woods with two more pictures that appeared to show fairies. A third and final shot, of the diaphanously clad sprites fluttering around the undergrowth, followed two days later.
On seeing these results, Edward Gardner sent an “ecstatic” message to Conan Doyle, who by then was 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 séances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.
Strangely enough, both Conan Doyle and several of the other leading advocates of the absolute purity of the Cottingley duo’s hearts announced themselves less convinced by a series of apparitions that occurred to another group of children at about the same time in the fields outside Fatima, Portugal. Ten-year-old Lúcia dos Santos and her younger cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto reported seeing visions of a luminous figure, whom they believed to be the Virgin Mary, on the 13th day of each month, at approximately noon, for six straight months in 1917. On Friday, July 13 (the day before the first ever Cottingley photographs were taken), this figure is said to have appeared and presented the children with three divine auguries: According to later interpretation, the first two of these secrets concerned the nature of Hell and of the future course of the two world wars, and the third foretold the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Word of the children’s reported audiences spread quickly in the local community. When the six-month period ended on a stormy October 13, 1917, as many as 70,000 people were gathered at the site to witness what became known as the “Miracle of the Sun”—to some, an inexplicable series of flashing lights and other solar phenomena, and, to others, a combination of mass hysteria and mere meteorological curiosities, if not a simple optical illusion produced by temporary retinal distortion owing to staring at such an intense aura. Apprised of these events, Conan Doyle, at home in England, remarked only that the young Lúcia Santos struck him as a “fantasy-prone” personality, though the real offending party in the matter was the “Papal establishment,” whose malign influence he saw at work in “promot[ing] these delusions” while simultaneously denying the “manifest truth” of spiritualism and its physical byproducts. “Every new thing faces the opposition of ignorant and prejudiced people,” Doyle would write in the New York Times. “And ectoplasm is no exception.” As he went on to note, “reactionary intrigue” and the uniquely baleful influence of various “Roman Catholic swindles” had been responsible for everything from persecuting innocent mediums to undermining the claims of the young Cottingley photographers and their “unassailable” proof of a new life form.
In 1983, the then-elderly cousins at the heart of the Cottingley affair admitted in an article published in the magazine The Unexplained that at least the first four of their five pictures had been crudely faked. The girls had simply cut out illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, a 1914 annual (in which Conan Doyle himself had published a story), and propped them up with hatpins to the grassy banks of the stream that ran behind the Wrights’ home. The children had expected their prank to be spotted straight away, but were horrified to see it take root in academic thought. So they stayed silent: “We did not wish to embarrass someone as eminent as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” Elsie Wright explained. Some discrepancy existed, however, about the fifth and final fairy photograph. Elsie maintained it was a fake, just like all the others, but Frances insisted it was genuine: “I saw these creatures building up in the grasses, and just aimed the camera and took a shot,” she said. By all accounts, she had by then become a somewhat eccentric old lady. Perhaps the whole affair can best be summed up by the Australian newspaper Truth, when, on January 5, 1921, it wrote, “For the real explanation of these fairy photographs what is wanted is not a knowledge of occult phenomena but a knowledge of children.”
The Cottingley Fairies saga reveals a society obsessed, like our own, with the possibility of extraterrestrial sightings and, more particularly, by the notion that all the diversity of life on earth should necessarily arise by natural law rather than through a divine act of self-revelation. In a world where the Great War had resulted in some 17 million military and civilian deaths, and the subsequent flu pandemic claimed as many as 80 million more, the times hungered for something to lend “meaning” to man’s precarious existence. Many people naturally sought solace for their grief. Unfettered by an established Church, the United States was particularly rich in alternatives. Among other flourishing sects of the 1920’s, there were Holy Jumpers (“pretty much like the Methodists,” to the New York Times, “except that they are more in the habit of working themselves up to a state of religious frenzy which calls for groans and dancing and laughing and shouts to give it adequate vent”); Holy Rollers, who showed similar Pentecostal enthusiasm; and the estimated two million followers of the Protestant evangelist Frank Buchanan, whose core gospel of “inclusiveness” eventually led him to attend the 1935 Nuremberg rally in an abortive attempt to convert Hitler.
But none of these groups, however well-subscribed or devoted to their various causes, could compare in size or intensity to the worldwide Spiritualist crusade. By early 1922, there were reported to be more than 14 million “occasionally or frequently” practicing occultists, served by a network of 6,200 individual churches, in North America alone. If orthodox religion lost ground in the postwar decade, it was perhaps because, as the syndicated journalist (and later Soviet apologist) Walter Lippmann wrote, “People were not so certain that they were going to meet God when they went to church.” We can argue whether this loss of spiritual dynamic was because of the wholesale collapse in moral confidence that followed the prolonged shock of the war and the subsequent plague; or, perhaps later in the decade, because of prosperity, which encouraged the comfortable belief that it profited a man very considerably if he gained a Model T and a round of golf on a Sunday morning. Leaving aside what could be called the sociological factor, perhaps the real explanation for the headlong embrace of the occult by Conan Doyle and so many others in the intellectual and artistic elite in the years around 1917-30 lies in the eternal truth of Houdini’s dictum: “As a rule, I have found that the greater brain a man has, and the better he is educated, the easier it has been to mystify him.”
It remains only to add that in 1925 the 18-year-old Lúcia Santos entered the Institute of the Sisters of St. Dorothy in Tui, Spain, and that she resided in a series of convents from then until her death at the age of 97 in February 2005. No one has ever conclusively disproved the truth of the visions that she and her young cousins claimed to have witnessed in the fields outside their home in 1917.