Fake news may seem like a fairly new phenomenon, but it's been around a lot longer than you think. Exactly one hundred years ago, an innocuous prank by two young girls spiralled out of control and managed to trick the world, including well-respected members of British high society, into believing that fairies existed.
Elsie Wright, then 16, and Frances Griffiths, then nine, were cousins living in Cottingley, a suburban village in Yorkshire. They would often play by a stream at the bottom of Wright's garden, coming back home with wet clothes. The girls' excuse, when reprimanded by their mothers, was that they only went to the stream to "see the fairies." Wright's father, a keen amateur photographer, lent them his camera so they could prove it. The rest was history.
The five iconic Cottingley Fairy photographs, now on display at the National Science and Media Museum in nearby Bradford along with two of the cameras used to take them, caught the attention of the media and noted spiritualists like Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Wright's father didn't think the photos of tiny winged beings offering flowers to his daughter and her best friend were real, but Wright's mother did—so she took them to a meeting of the Theosophical Society for a second opinion.
The British spiritualist society enthusiastically pronounced them real and began campaigning hard to convince people they were authentic as part of their belief in the paranormal. In 1920, Conan Doyle used the photos to illustrate an article he was writing about the existence of fairies. A psychic also visited the family home in Cottingley, claiming to see fairies everywhere.
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"This was their first 'fame' moment," says Geoff Belknap, the curator of photography and photographic technology at the Science and Media Museum. "Being attached to somebody like Conan Doyle, who seemingly believed them, gave them a lot of credibility. There's a reason why they became believable—there's enough 'trustworthiness' there to make that happen."
To us, the photographs look very clearly fake—cut outs of images from a book pasted on to cardboard, and, as Griffiths later admitted, propped up using hatpins. Even the girls' vacant expressions as they stare into the camera look completely staged. So why did so many people fall for it?
"They look fake to us because we've seen so many images. Photo manipulation is now so easy, so our levels of skepticism have changed a lot," Belknap says. "People at the time would have usually seen these photos in books or newspapers, and that doesn't show you it in depth. The fact you can't see where the fairies are attached on the ground because of the exposure hiding the pins also made them credible."
Spiritualist photography had been popular since the 1870s, where double exposure was used to supposedly prove the existence of apparitions. "People saw this kind of paranormal phenomenon pictures quite regularly throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries," Belknap says. "What makes the Cottingley fairy photos different is that it's a manipulation of the scene, but not the photographic negatives themselves."
The timing of the photos, which came to the attention of the public the year after World War I ended, could also be key. "During times of war or high death rates, spiritualism and beliefs in the unknown are easier to be capitalized upon," Belknap adds.
As with everything that goes viral, the media storm around the images subsided after a few months, causing what Belknap calls the "dormancy period." It wasn't until 1966 when a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper tracked down Wright, who said she had merely "photographed her thoughts." This created a renewed interest in the girls and their pictures; they both maintained that they had seen fairies, but soon began giving conflicting accounts.
In 1983, both women finally told The Unexplained magazine that the photographs had been faked and explained how they'd done it—but adding that they'd really seen fairies in Cottingley. This followed an investigation by Geoffrey Crawley, a noted photography editor, who concluded that the images were faked. Two years later, Wright told a TV reporter that she and Griffiths had been too embarrassed to tell the truth after somebody like Conan Doyle believed them.
"I think a big part about why they maintained their story was exactly this; that they didn't want to undermine people's reputations, and they didn't want to discredit everyone that had allowed themselves to believe it," Belknap explains. "I think they didn't want to show that people got fooled or that there was a hoax element to it, I don't believe they were malicious about it at all."
Interestingly, the pair both claimed responsibility for taking the fifth, and most controversial photo, named "The Fairy Bower" by Conan Doyle. Neither girl appears in it; the image shows the fairies alone, dancing in a bed of grass. The women subsequently fell out over the image. Wright said it was faked, but her cousin went to her deathbed in 1986 maintaining that the photo was absolutely authentic.
In 2009, Griffith's daughter Christine Lynch appeared on the UK TV show Antiques Roadshow declaring, as her mother did, that the fifth photo was real. "As far as [Griffiths] was concerned, fairies were a part of nature, they lived around the beck with the other wildlife who lived there," Lynch later told the Telegraph & Argus newspaper.
"These images were made, and regardless of whether they were fake or not, what happened was they became objects for people to put their beliefs on," Belknap says. "That's essentially what we do to all images—we add our own belief interpretations on top of them."
What is the legacy of the photos now, a hundred years on? For Belknap, it's the fact that they have "taken on such different public lives."
"We wouldn't be talking about them now if they had just sat in a family album and been destroyed. It's the fact they got all of this public interest, and so many people talking about them makes them interesting objects in themselves.
"It's hard to get into the psyche of why the girls took the photos in the first place. I don't think they didn't make the photographs in the expectation that they were going to perpetuate a hoax, it was just two cousins hanging out and having fun—but the images took on a life of their own and it was hard for the girls to pull back from that."