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  • Case of the Cottingley Fairies December 2, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Joe Cooper, The Cottingley Fairies, 1990.

    The story is a simple one. In the First World War a young girl named Frances Griffith saw fairies at the brook where she played in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley. In 1917 she and her older friend Elsie Wright were stung by their parents’ refusal to believe Frances. They, therefore, went out and photographed a number of cardboard cut-outs of fairies and challenged their elders and betters with the pictures that they had created. The pictures would have, should have sunk without trace but by chance they found their way into the hands of local theosophists who publicised them. The children were encouraged to take more photographs in 1920 and, in fact, under considerable pressure to perform, they produced a further three.

    Here still the girls might have got off the hook had it not been for Arthur Conan Doyle. At the end of 1920 the creator of Sherlock Holmes wrote a long article for the Strand Magazine publicising the photographs and writing as if he very much believed they were genuine. The girls became nationally, even internationally known and it is sometimes said that the five photographs that they took are the most reproduced in the history of photography. After a long silence in 1965 the girls, now in their sixties were interviewed again by the press and they were interviewed again periodically until 1982 when finally the truth came out in painful circumstances.

    It must be extraordinary for the single most important thing to happen to you in your life, for that thing to be, well, a lie. And yet from their teens up until when they finally confessed Frances (who always claimed that she had seen fairies) and Elsie lived that lie as best they could. By the time that Conan Doyle had made them famous, there was no way out except to go down the tunnel, looking neither left nor right, and hoping that they would not be turned into pariahs by the goading journalists and adulating groupies around them.

    This book then is about a life-long ordeal: a multi-jawed, poison-edged monster trap that would have defeated most of us and that was quite too much for two little girls who strayed too far into the undergrowth. Who says that fairies are no longer frightening? The author, Joe Cooper, who, himself thinks that fairies exist and who for many years defended the photographs knew both women. It was he, in fact, who finally brought the truth out in circumstances that perhaps do not do him the greatest credit. Both Frances and Elsie cut all contacts with him after he went public.