Friday, October 29, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

In case you’re not familiar with this particular bit of weird history . . .

Back in 1917 two girls in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley took two photographs that rocked Arthur Conan Doyle’s world. Doyle was deep into spiritualism at the time, and had had been gathering information for an article to support his belief in the existence of fairies. 

Imagine his delight, then, to receive what he considered concrete evidence that he was right. The photos (shown below so that you too may be astounded), depicted one of the girls posing with a group of dancing fairies, and the other shaking hands with a gnome.

Doyle began a lengthy correspondence with the man who had sent him the pictures, a Theosophist named E. L. Gardner. Gardner did most of the on-site investigating of the girls, their family, the photos and the site where they were taken. Strangely, there is no indication Doyle ever attempted to meet the girls or visit the site himself.

In any case, Doyle presented the first two photos to the world with an article in The Strand magazine. Not long after, the girls were given a new camera and asked to take more pictures. They did, producing three more. 

Along with the Strand article, the five photos formed the basis of The Coming of the Fairies.  Doyle then added correspondence, arguments for and against the authenticity of the photos, other accounts of close encounters with nymphs, brownies, goblins, elves, gnomes and fairies, plus a good deal of pseudo-scientific nonsense speculating on the how and why of their existence. First published in 1922, the book was largely forgotten and remained out of print until rediscovered in 1997.

That Doyle truly believed such stuff is pretty clear. He’s convinced the photos and other evidence demonstrate that… “this new order of life is really established and has to be taken into serious account, just as the pygmies of Central Africa.”

One of the best lines in the book actually belongs to a skeptic. He's quoted as saying . . . “knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that the [girls] have pulled one of them.”

What is not included in the book is what happened long after. In the 1980s, the girls finally admitted they had faked the first four pictures, using cardboard cutouts traced from childrens books. One girl, however, still insisted the fifth photo, supposedly depicting a fairy bower, was genuine. You be the judge.

Here are the photos in the order they were taken. Captions are those used in the book.

 FRANCES AND THE FAIRIES

ELSIE AND THE GNOME

FRANCES AND THE LEAPING FAIRY

 FAIRY OFFERING POSY OF HARE-BELLS TO ELSIE

FAIRIES AND THEIR SUN-BATH

For links to many more (and hopefully less strange) Forgotten Books, visit Patti Abbott's pattinase.

14 comments:

Deka Black said...

Poor Mr. Doyle... I mean... His supernatural stories.. i like them. From what i know, maybe all his craze about this fairy-spirit stuff came from the death of his son in the trenches.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is fascinating.

Richard R. said...

Talk about gullible! But then we already knew he was nutty when it came to spiritualism and other such fantasy topics.

George said...

I wonder if Art Scott has read this.

Todd Mason said...

I enjoy the notion that one of the women would maintain one of the photos wasn't faked. Very amusing, indeed.

Paul D. Brazill said...

It's a wonderful story.

BV Lawson said...

This is a fun Halloween choice. I think it's fascinating how someone who wrote such a logically-minded detective could be so gullible in real life. I'm fascinated, too, by his friendship with Harry Houdini, who tried unsuccessfully to get Doyle to be more skeptical (I heard Daniel Stashower talk about this not too long ago). Doyle even thought at one point that Houdini had actual psychic powers!

Charles Gramlich said...

Those pics are just wonderful.

Richard R. said...

Say, if I'd had a piece of string and an aluminum pie tin, I probably could have convinced Doyle that spaceships were visiting the Earth.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I'm familiar with this incident but I thought the debunking happened during Doyle's lifetime. I could be misremembering.

Evan Lewis said...

That would fool me, Rick.

Well, Cap'n, the debunking started immediately, but no one could prove anything until the 80s.

Loren Eaton said...

Evan, have you ever read Doyle's "The Horror of the Heights"? Seriously chilling horror in the vein of Poe. Good stuff.

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Anonymous said...

Deka-my impression has always been that Doyle became interested in spiritualism after his son's death in WWI. Of course, a lot of people had lost family members in the war, and that may account for the fad for seances in the early 1920's. BV-I've always thought it ironic that the creator of Sherlock Holmes could be a spiritualist. Surely, Holmes would have been a skeptic. But Doyle's Professor Challenger was open-minded. Speaking of which, Houdini made a practice of exposing phony psychics and seances, but, reportedly, he was frustrated by the special effects in the 1925 movie "The Lost World." He never could prove that those dinosaurs were fake.