Cautionary Tales – Photographing Fairies

22nd April, 2022

Sherlock Holmes is known for approaching all mysteries with cool logic – and yet when his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw photographs taken by two young girls purporting to show real life fairies at play… he unwisely declared them genuine.

Elsie Wright - self portrait with fairy
Elsie Wright – Self portrait with fairy

How did Elsie and Frances fool so many people with their photography… and why did they keep the hoax going for decades?

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley, with support from Courtney Guarino and Emily Vaughn.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, including Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Royston Beserve, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morana, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

The definitive source is Geoffrey Crawley’s 10-part series “That Astonishing Affair of the Cottingley Fairies”, published in the British Journal of Photography 1981-82

Other sources include Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle; Frances Griffiths, Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies; and Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman Magic In Theory.

Harvey Sacks “Everyone Has To Lie,” was published in in B. Blount and M. Sanches (eds.) Sociocultural Dimensions of Language Use, Academic Press, New York, NY, pp. 57–80 and usefully summarised in Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler Useful Delusions.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own account is in The Coming of the Fairies.

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