Friday, September 06, 2019

fairies AND gnomes

It’s now just over 100 years since the famous Cottingley fairy hoax. Two spotty teenage English cousins called Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright took photographs of ‘fairies ‘at the bottom of the garden of the house belonging to Elsie’s parents in Cottingley, a leafy West Yorkshire village close to Bradford.

Of course, the photographs are clearly staged. The fairies are simply paper cut-outs Elsie had copied from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary's Gift Book, published just a couple of years earlier in 1915. The girls were having a bit of creative fun, hoping to wind up Elsie’s father whom they had borrowed the camera from and been given some quick photography lessons.

It was all harmless fun until Elsie's mother, Polly, attended a lecture on ‘spiritualism’ a couple of years later. Following the talk, she dug out the photos bringing them to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement.

Boom! The photos were declared totally “genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures."

Very soon the validated fairy pictures began circulating throughout the spiritualist community and landed on the desk of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Whilst the fictional Holmes is arguably the epitome of rationality and scepticism, the avid spiritualist Doyle immediately endorsed the fairy pics as clear proof of the existence of supernatural entities.

Before you can say ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’, Doyle had sent Gardner up to West Yorkshire to interview the girls, collect some new photos of the fairies (and a couple of Gnomes who happened along), and penned an ecstatic article for the December 1920 issue of The Strand Magazine. Within weeks the Cottingley fairies became among the most widely recognised examples of early amateur photography in the world, their authenticity further endorsed by Gardner who - having taken a registered psychic with him on the trip oop t’north just to be sure - declared the whole area to be teeming with fairies.

Things had clearly got out of hand, but the girls decided to roll with it. What started out as a bit of kid fun had seemingly caused a large group of adults to completely lose control of their minds. What should they do? Confess to the hoax and face the wrath of cheated believers? Or just carry on with the fiction and go along with what the grown-ups want?

The thing is, the time was just about right in 1920 for the Cottingley fairies.

Throughout World War I, spiritualism had grown in popularity with the grieving British public.

Amid the chaos of war, with deaths occurring in almost every family there arose a sudden and concentrated interest in ideas of the afterlife, and so the prospect of being able to access some supernatural power, or otherworldly influence, would have been consoling.

Spiritualism, mediums and psychics role was twofold; to reunite families with their dead sons and husbands with ‘evidence’ that they were in a better place and as a reassurance of an afterlife that represented a promise of respite from the hardship and turmoil experienced during and after the Great War.

Of course, Spiritualism's success was its entrepreneurial egalitarianism.

The ability to incorporate a variety of other supernatural concepts, including fairies and gnomes, into its repertoire without blinking is phenomenal agility.

New technology also played a major role. Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic..

This was certainly the case in the early 20th century with the advent of ‘radio’, and telegraphy linking people together during the war. This was close to magical and gave people a way of understanding Spiritualism.

A medium making contact with the spirit world would ‘tune-in’ to the ‘channels and wavelengths’ of the ‘other side’. Even the real world of wireless communications led to experiments in ‘psychic telegraphs’, which inventors claimed could pick up ‘auras’.

In 1920 even any kind of photography was still quite a new idea for ordinary people. The world’s first mass-market camera, the Brownie from Eastman Kodak had only been invented twenty years earlier in 1900.

The most remarkable part of the Cottingley hoax is not that two young girls pretended they found fairies at the bottom of the garden. That is what children do. Play make-believe.

What is remarkable is that so many adults really wanted it to be true.

Fairies and gnomes.


This is a short excerpt from the chapter 'A Cauldron of Illusions' which examines 'magical thinking' and why smart people believe stupid things.
The full essay is in Eaon's forthcoming second book 'Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here is a Failure To Communicate'. The book will be available towards the end of 2019.