Neither Fairy nor Foul

AT FIRST, TINKERBELL WAS ONLY A LAMP, a small mirror, and someone crouching in the dark. He tilted his wrist to make her fly, shimmering light. A bell was her voice and applause was her medicine. In 1904, she promised children that belief was enough, ritual worked, and friends could come back from the dead. “Never” was a land, a country. If you were an eight-year-old boy in that London theater, clapping for Tink, odds are you were deep or dead in the trenches ten years later. Loss dug itself into towns, steady and chasmal, leaving old men, women, and children behind. New types of family spooled out, woven from the ticking machinery of war. In 1917, Frances Griffiths, nine years old, left the British colonies in South Africa when her father was conscripted, and moved with her mother to Cottingley, West Yorkshire, to stay with her aunt and uncle. There, she met her cousin, Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, who showed her the secrets of the unsupervised countryside. Green hills, little lives, upheld by horrors: in England, violence is always the groundwater. Childhood was dispersed unevenly; some kids became heads of household, some adults returned to former consolations. Magical thinking swelled. And so, when the two girls came back muddy from the river that sloped behind their house, a clunky camera in their arms, saying that they had photographed some fairies, more than some grown-ups believed them.

The first photograph shows Frances, leaning on a ledge with stiff yearbook elbows, flowers in her hair. She is on the bare edge of a smile, confident in her own inevitability. Calm, wonderless. In front of her, four smaller figures dance on the mossy shelf, raving, arms raised, knees up, with exultant, Barbie toes. They aren’t alien in form, only size—also girls, but with butterfly wings. Their wispy dresses slip from their shoulders. Frances stares directly into the camera, as if she’s seen them before, knows them well. This is their world. We can only imagine Elsie, the teenager, arranging her curious kid playmate, fiddling with the lens. Elsie’s father was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, building his own darkroom in their house. Snapshot photography had become widely accessible with the release of the Kodak Brownie in 1900—named after a kind of fairy itself, the brownie, a Scottish household sprite. When he developed the girls’ first photograph, he was “expecting only a blur, and was startled to see flash up, almost at once, the dark figures which he took to be some white swans.” Another kind of magic: the fog lifting from a wet page, the glimmer of unseen bodies, or birds, or both. Once the fairies took shape, her father immediately dismissed the pictures as a trick. When the girls came back muddy again, this time with a photograph of Elsie gently touching a gnome, he cut them off from the camera entirely. It was only Elsie’s and Frances’s mothers who thought these images were real. In the summer of 1919, less than a year after the end of the war, Polly Wright and Annie Griffiths went to a meeting of the local Bradford Theosophical Society to hear a lecture on fairies, and brought the evidence everyone in the room already desired.

Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright's "leaping fairy" photograph, 1920.
Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright's "leaping fairy" photograph, 1920.

Founded by Helena Blavatsky in New York City in 1875, theosophy was a freshly born American religion that claimed to be the oldest one, ever. Alongside the popular Spiritualist movement, the Theosophical Society was by the 1920s trendy and cult-adjacent, with strong Hollywood tendencies, utopian promise, and occultist thrills, jump-starting many of the later-twentieth-century New Age industries. It’s hard to find a paranormal, or mythological, phenomena that its members didn’t believe in. The Cottingley fairy photographs rose through their ranks with natural ease, like a stray balloon up a hot sky. Soon, the photos reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was writing a pro-fairy opinion piece for The Strand, which had serially published The Hound of the Baskervilles two decades earlier. He became obsessed with the images, publishing them, attempting to verify them, and eventually writing a book about the girls and their body of work, The Coming of the Fairies, in 1922. As they moved into the public, the Cottingley fairy photographs caused a media frenzy, a churn of hot takes, brutal takedowns, and impassioned defenses.

Conan Doyle was a true believer in ghosts, afterlives, psychics, magical beings, other worlds—a conviction strengthened by the deaths of his son, brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews in or shortly after World War I. He was fervent and evangelical, determined to use his eminent literary reputation to add credence to otherwise dismissed possibilities. Maybe he hoped that the almost mythical rationality of Sherlock Holmes could lend some excess coherency to the supernatural predilections of his creator. This is why the photographs were so urgent, why the private scenes of play between two Yorkshire girls became so central. The fundamental principle of Sherlock Holmes is that every problem can be solved if one only looks hard enough. There are no secrets, no mysteries, only missed details: everything you need to know is right in front of you. Pull out the magnifying glass. Zoom in. Enhance! And there they are. The fairies are right there. No applause necessary. When Conan Doyle and his theosophist peer Edward Gardner sent the photographs to Kodak to verify their authenticity, the team there responded gruffly that “the plates showed no signs of being faked,” no sign of double exposure or tampered negatives. No evidence of forgery, however, did not prove that they were real, Kodak clarified. But as Conan Doyle famously wrote, phrased with slight adjustments across several different Holmes stories, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Even as the decades passed, the news cycle faded, and the mood of the public changed, Frances and Elsie maintained that the fairies were real. Finally, when a journalist tracked down Elsie at sixty-four years old, she said, “As for the photographs, let’s say they are pictures of figments of our imagination, Frances’ and mine, and leave it at that.” How to photograph one’s imagination, rather than one’s world? It wasn’t until the 1980s that it was revealed how the girls had made the images happen, six decades earlier. In a coincidence so unlikely it almost seems, well, magical, the girls traced illustrations from a book of folklore that also contained a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. They made paper cutout puppets, arranged them in tableaux. The remaining mystery is the last two photographs, which appear to be double exposed. The fifth image does not have the girls in it. A braided crown of snowbells arches over a circle of tiny ghost women. They are turned away, preoccupied. Their wings are transparent, out of focus, caught fluttering, or made of clouds. The flower petals seem heavier. Journalists debated at length whether or not the Cottingley cousins could have figured out how to double expose an image so effectively, when it was still a complicated technical feat. Which seemed more likely: teenage girls who are artists, or magical beings, other worlds? In J. M. Barrie’s 1911 novelization of his play Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, Peter cries out to all the dreaming children to save what would become the most famous fairy in the world: “‘If you believe,’ he shouted to them, ‘clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.’” The response is surprisingly unromantic: “Many clapped. Some didn’t.”

Audrey Wollen is a writer from Los Angeles, living in New York.