There are certain myths and legends that are firmly believed by certain groups of people while other individuals are quick to dismiss them out of hand. It begs the question: Why? Why does one group of supposedly sane, intelligent, and sophisticated people believe one way while another equally sane, intelligent and sophisticated group does not?
Many myths and legends are intertwined with a specific culture or country. For example, many Irish to this very day insist that leprechauns exist. Yet we Americans readily dismiss those claims as the ravings of mad men, idiots, or fools. We are so certain that we are correct that we leave not a single ounce of possibility for the existence of this magical sprites.
Being one eighth Irish, I’m not about to take a stand one way or the other. I do, however, believe that “there are more things in heaven in earth than we have dreamt of. . .” Given the opportunity, I’ll jump to the side of faith and hope every single time. That doesn’t mean that I believe in leprechauns, but it does mean I am certainly free to “hope” that they exist.
We aren’t going to debate leprechauns today, however. Instead, let’s look at something similar in nature that seems to have an even broader fan following: Fairies. Let’s turn to a famous case history that seems to offer proof in the existence of fairies.
In 1917, two young cousins by the name of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, living in Cottingley, near Bradford, England supposedly documented – – on film – – the existence of fairies. Five photographs taken by the young girls showed the pair engaged in activities with small creatures that looked, for all of world, exactly like the fairies often outlined in books and spoken of in legends.
Elsie was the daughter of a respected electrical engineer. Reports indicate that she was not normally involved in flights of fancy or involved in composing make believe stories. Frances was also the picture of a normal, well balanced girl. And from all accounts, both girls were initially hesitant to share their surprising discovery with adults.
Instead the girls borrowed Arthur Wright’s camera and took the photos on their own. Imagine Mr. Wright’s surprise when he developed the plates for them and discovered what appeared to be fairies playing with his niece and daughter. Perhaps because of fear, he forbade the girls from using the camera again. However, Elsie’s mother believed her daughter’s story and supported the girls’ efforts.
Polly Wright, who was herself interested in the occult, shared their discovery with others she felt might also believe in her daughter’s stories. Several supposed experts in the field of the occult were brought in to see if the circumstances around which the sightings were made seemed feasible. Experts in the field of photography were also brought in to examine the pictures. While no one was willing to openly verify the photos, neither were they ready to pronounce them a hoax. And no one was willing to openly declare that the two young girls were openly lying.
Eventually another interested party – – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – – was asked to look into the case. He eagerly accepted the challenge, thinking that he’d be able to make short order of the hoax. After meeting with the Wright family, however, Doyle was not at all certain the family was trying to perpetuate any kind of hoax at all. In fact, he produced them “quite honest and totally respectable.”
In November of 1920, Strand Magazine published Doyle’s article “An Epoch Making Event: Fairies Photographed.” It he included two of the photos taken by the young girls. The publication sold out quickly and opened up a heated debate about the existence of fairies that would last for decades.
In 1921, after Doyle arranged for Elsie and Frances to be given a new camera for their use, the girls produced three more fairy photos. Shortly after that, however, Elsie and Frances were separated. Neither girl reported seeing fairies again. Conan Doyle, however, did print the three final photographs in a sequel to his earlier article, and, in 1922, he expanded the two articles into a book entitled The Coming of the Fairies.
The legend of the Cottingley Fairies continued to be told in numerous magazines and children’s books for years. In 1960, with the advent of new technology that could be used to examine the photographs more closely. Examinations of the pictures raised more questions than they answered although most experts in the field insisted that they must have been cleverly faked. So it seemed that a definitive answer might never to found.
In 1983, however, a 76-year-old Frances Griffiths admitted that the photos were faked. Her cousin, 82-year-old Elsie refused to validate that claim at first. However, she eventually gave in and confirmed the hoax, even going so far as to explain how it was perpetrated.
The girls admitted to cutting out the carefully drawn figures and mounting them in the ground with hat pins. Using this method they took the first four photographs. However, they differed on how the fifth photo came about. Both girls claimed to be the one who took the photo. Elsie stated she was alone when she took the photo and that “it was all done with my own contraption and I had to wait for the weather to be right to take it.” Frances, on the other hand, continued to insist that the fifth, and final photo, was totally authentic.
There are still many who wonder which story was the real hoax; the one that claims that two teenage girls could concoct such clever photo forgeries or the one that claims that the fairies never existed at all? Perhaps the truth will never be known. In truth, it doesn’t need to be.
Do I believe in fairies? No, I don’t! However, I do believe in possibilities and maybe that is the most important belief of all.