Fairies at the bottom of ...?

Once upon a time, two young girls - Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths - found themselves in big trouble. Despite the fact that they had been told not to play in the Cottingley Beck, a stream near their house, they had come home late, with Frances soaking wet.

Their excuse? They said that they had been playing with the fairies.

Elsie’s mother wasn’t fooled. She packed both girls up to the attic bedroom they shared, and they could well have gone without supper that evening (though this isn’t recorded).

Elsie, in an attempt to cheer up her younger cousin, suggested that they take a picture of the fairies. So, the next day, she persuaded her father to lend them his 'state of the art' camera,. As this was 1917 'state of the art' was a model called the ‘Midg’ that used photographic plates ...
And, thinking that this would put an end to the affair, her dad agreed.

Little did he know. To his astonishment the girls came back with a photograph of the fairies ...

He immediately dismissed the image as a fake, and the matter probably would have ended there except for the fact that, two years later, the photograph fell into the hands of someone from the Theosophical Society.

Theosophy was a fashionable theory in those days. It held that ‘nature spirits’ existed, and the photograph taken by these girls appeared to be concrete proof of this.

The photograph got passed up through the ranks of the Theosophical Society and the original glass plate was examined by a photographic expert called Harold Snelling.

Snelling peered at it closely and concluded that, “This plate is a single exposure. These dancing figures are not made of paper nor any fabric; they are not painted on a photographic background.” But what seems to have convinced him most of all was that the fairy figures were blurred. “What gets me most,” Snelling continued, “is that all these figures have moved during the exposure.”

In other words ... motion blur.

And on that evidence Snelling pronounced the photograph as real.

This added impetus to the story. It grew and grew until, finally, it reached the ears of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur was a bit more credulous than his astute fictional hero. He believed in fairies.

He took the photo to be proof of their existence and even went so far as to use the image in an article he was writing about fairies for The Strand Magazine (Doyle, Arthur Conan. "Fairies Photographed. An Epoch-Making Event." The Strand Magazine, Dec. 1920)

He also suggested that more photographs be taken. The girls - now young women - obliged and made more bizarre photographs of fairies and gnomes ...

After this, the story refused to die. In fact, it wasn’t until 1982, when both ladies had been tracked down by an investigative journalist, that Elsie finally admitted that the photographs were fakes.

But, even so, a small, mystery remains. The Midg was quite a crude camera by today’s standards, and the closest it could focus was 4 feet (about 1.3 metres). On top of that it had a maximum shutter speed of 1/25th sec.

So, the two girls managed to create their models without being seen, smuggle them out of the house, set them up and photograph them hand-held in the gloom without the benefit of a test run, and get a photograph that fooled an expert of the day.

Were they natural-born photographers? Or did they just get fed up with all the questioning and say they faked it to shut everyone up?

Maybe the fairies were real ...

More on this bizarre story here.

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