“I am sending two photos, both of me, one of me in a bathing costume in our back yard, Uncle Arthur took that, while the other is me with some fairies up the beck, Elsie took that one. Rosebud is as fat as ever and I have made her some new clothes. How are Teddy and dolly?”
In a letter dated 9 November 1918, 11-year-old Frances Griffiths casually informed a friend of a startling discovery–she and her older cousin Elsie Write had discovered fairies living in the countryside of Elsie’s home in Cottingley. The photograph included in the letter depicted a girl, Frances, staring at the camera as four fairies danced around her. On the back of the photograph, Frances elaborated:
“Elsie and I are very friendly with the beck Fairies. It is funny I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there.”
One Saturday afternoon in July 1917, Frances and Elsie borrowed Mr. Wright’s camera to take a number of photos in the garden. When Mr. Wright developed the photos, he was surprised to see odd shapes forming on the photograph. His daughter, standing with him the dark room, notified him that they had captured fairies on the film. Suspecting her to be playing tricks, he banned her from using his camera, but the damage had already been done. The events that transpired as a result of that Saturday afternoon would forever shape the legacy of Spiritualism and the art of the hoax.
Elsie’s mother brought the photographs into circulation after she showing them at meeting on “fairy life” held by the Theosophical Society. The photos caught the attention of the leading member of the society, Edward Gardner, who thought they proved that humankind was on its way to a new stage of evolution:
“…the fact that two young girls had not only been able to see fairies, which others had done, but had actually for the first time ever been able to materialise them at a density sufficient for their images to be recorded on a photographic plate, meant that it was possible that the next cycle of evolution was underway.”
After having them authenticated, Gardner incorporated the photographs into his lectures around the United Kingdom, where they caught the eye of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A prominent Spiritualist, Doyle became enraptured by the photographs and included them in an article on fairies commissioned by Strand Magazine. The girls received no payment, as Mr. Wright did not want to accept money considering the questionable legitimacy of the photos.
In subsequent years, Frances and Elsie produced two more photographs of the Cottingley fairies, though they claimed to be tired of the whole ordeal. The girls later grew up, got married, and for the most part put the fairy business behind them. They admitted that they had faked the photographs using cut-outs from a popular illustrated book, though Frances maintained until her death that the fifth and final photograph was genuine.