Okay, so technically they duped the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I think that counts as besting him by proxy. In any case, allow me to set the scene for you: It’s 1920. Photography as we know it has only existed for 85 years, and has been in wide use as a part of the average person’s life for less than 60. There is no Photoshop. There is no “airbrushing.” You open the December edition of The Strand and see an article written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a famous Spiritualist in the John-Travolta-Scientology tradition, and you see these:
What would you think? In this Victorian version of the Bat Boyof Piggly Wiggly checkout lanes, would you accept the seemingly impossible? Or would you dismiss the images as a hoax, even if you couldn’t figure out how it would have been done?
The English public was divided over the photographs. Novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett joked that “knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I have decided that the Miss Carpenters [Elsie and Frances's alias] have pulled one of them.” On the other hand, several photography experts gave the negatives their stamp of authenticity, with one saying “the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs … [with] no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models.”
Of course, that expert was hired by Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society , who saw the Cottingley photographs as portending this rather 2012-ish line of thought, way before 2012 was cool: “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.” It was Gardner’s interest and promotion of the photographs that led them to be seen by Doyle in a Spiritualist publication called, ironically given the nature of photography, Light.
Doyle arranged for Gardner to visit Elsie and Frances’s home, where he encouraged the girls to take more pictures, resulting in the second pair of mystical photographs:
Doyle’s response was ecstatic: “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 seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.”
It wasn’t until 1983 that Elsie and Frances admitted publicly that the photos were fakes, using cardboard cut-outs from illustrations in a children’s book called Princess Mary’s Gift Book and propped up with hatpins. Interestingly enough, though, Frances maintained to her death that the fifth and final photograph was real:
In a television interview in 1985, Elsie said that it was their embarrassment over fooling such a brilliant man as Doyle that kept them from revealing the truth sooner. In the same interview, Frances gave a statement that I think is the most profound tidbit of this entire fascinating story, and says so much about human nature and imagination:
I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in. They wanted to be taken in.
To learn more about Spiritualism, fairies, and fakery: