(Investigator 100, 2005 January)


Although we usually associate fairies with folklore, the common perception of fairies being creatures or beings unlike the normal, this puts them into the category of the paranormal.
Fairies have been around as long as man and take many forms, among them gnomes, pixies, goblins, mermaids, hags, bogeys, elves, sprites, fays, brownies, leprechauns, lobs, banshees and Will o' the Wisps.
Every country and in the British Isles almost every county has  its fairies, the Shellycoat, the Cally Berry, the Black Annis and the Hedley Kow in the Midlands, the murderous Redcaps on the border of England and Scotland, the Glaistigs in the Highlands and the Yarthkins in Lincolnshire, just to mention a few.

The powers, habits and characters ascribed to fairies are as diverse as the sizes and shapes they come in. Although most tend to be mischievous, some are claimed to work for man’s benefit.

The theories put forward to support the existence of fairies are almost as numerous as there are types. St Augustine suggested that they were fallen angels trying to usurp the place of God, puritans went one further and maintained that they were outright devils. In Cornwall they claim that fairies are the ghosts of the old Druids and others look upon them as being "spiritual animals" here to fill an intermediate space between man and angels.

More substantive evidence was forthcoming early this century however, when the famous writer and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle endorsed as authentic the photographs of fairies taken by two young girls in July and September, 1917.
The girls, Frances Griffiths, age ten, and her cousin Elsie Wright, age sixteen, took photographs of each other, the younger in the company of four fairies, the elder playing with a gnome. At the behest of Conan Doyle, a noted Theosophist and mystical philosopher, Edward L. Gardner, interviewed the two girls and assured Sir Arthur of their honesty and also submitted the photographs to two first class photographic experts who pronounced them authentic.
The most convincing proof of the genuineness of the photographs was supplied by a Mr H. Snelling, who, with a lifetime's experience in photography and special studio work, unhesitatingly staked his reputation on the truth of his verdict that they were in fact genuine photographs of fairies.
In 1922, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a book, The Coming of the Fairies, a thoroughly researched documented account of first hand sightings of fairies by reliable and credible witnesses. He. quoted as the most convincing evidence the series of five photographs taken by the two young girls mentioned above and they became known as the Cottingley Fairies. The negatives of the photographs were examined by photographic experts and pronounced genuine, and an independent third eyewitness, a clairvoyant by the name of Geoffrey L. Hodson, also reported seeing the phenomenon.
Although the burden of proof should sit squarely on the shoulders of the claimant in these matters, say a fairy or a gnome captured and in a cage, it has been left to sceptics, once again, to prove a negative, not an altogether impossible task in this case, as what evidence there is can be scrutinized and found wanting.
The principal players in what turned out to be a hoax, were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Elsie Wright, the former, desperate for any evidence in support of his spiritualistic beliefs, the latter, far from being incapable of the techniques required to perpetrate a hoax of this nature, was employed in a photographer's shop with experience in photography and skilled in touching up methods.

Mr H. Snelling, the photographic expert who staked his reputation on the photograph’s genuineness and Edward L. Gardner, President of the Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society, were also committed spiritualists. Remember too, that this was the heyday of spirit photography it was a common and lucrative practice for mediums to produce images of the dear departed on photographic plates on request.
Some of the Cottingley photographs when examined by unbiased experts were so obviously fakes that it was ludicrous to think that they could be accepted as anything else. Others when examined in greater detail exposed little giveaways such as a thread used to support one of the "fairies" and a pin protruding from a gnome's belly button!

With the advent of computer enhancement technology, William Spaulding, of Ground Saucer Watch in Phoenix, Arizona, put the photographs under the scanner making it possible for some conclusive data to emerge.
The "fairies" were not three dimensional, they were flat paper cutouts, the originals eventually traced to drawings published in Prince Mary's Gift Book, published in 1915. So it would seem that Elsie had simply copied the figures, altered them slightly, added wings and cut them out. The figures and poses in the photographs and the gift book were to all intents and purposes one and the same.

Spaulding’s conclusion was: "There is absolutely no photographic evidence to substantiate these "fairy" photographs as authentic evidence. In essence these photographs represent a crude hoax."

Hardly in a position to deny what had started as a childish prank, in a 1971 BBC-TV interview, Elsie said that she "would not swear on the Bible that the fairies were really there."


Cavendish, R. (Ed.) 1970. Man, Myth & Magic. BCP Publishing. London.

Doyle, A. 1922. The Corning of the Fairies. GE. Doran & Co.
Gardner, E.L. 1945. Fairies. Theosophical Publishing House.

Randi, J. 1987. Film Flam. Prometheus Books. Buffalo NY.
Sheaffer, R 1977. "Do Fairies Exist?" Skeptical Inquirer. 2(l):45-52.

From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age.