In 1917, two girls, 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, presented a local English newspaper with photographs of themselves in the company of fairies and a gnome.
In modern parlance, the story went viral: the media and the public nationwide gobbled it up with fascinated delight. More pictures followed. ‘Spiritists’ – a period term alluding to spirit mediums, clairvoyants and the like – including the New Zealander Geoffrey Hodson, who died in 1983 at the age of 96, converged on the girls. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote a letter expressing belief in the girls’ account.
Even in 1917, these pictures were easily identifiable as phoney. The little gnome is obviously a model of some sort, possibly a cardboard or paper cut-out. The angelic little figures prancing around Frances in the second picture are just as obviously the product of an artistic hand. Photography had been around for some time by then and the production of composite pictures (pictures made by superimposing images) was nothing new – by a remarkable coincidence, Elsie worked at a local photographer’s where she made composites for grieving families containing images of men who had just fallen in the Great War. The affair came to be known as the Cottingley Fairies. It was such a transparent hoax that no-one should have been sucked in. What on earth was going on?
Answer: the world was going mad, and the hoax tapped into that madness. Young men were being sent in human waves against fortified positions to be mown down like so many blades of grass by machinegun fire. Legend has it that the telegram boys sometimes brought the feared official envelopes in a wheelbarrow and would start at one end of a working-class suburb and methodically make their way to the other, followed by the sound of wailing as they delivered their grim harbingers of horrendous injury and death to every second household. It’s not far from the truth in the aftermath of some major engagements, such as the Somme – where Conan Doyle had lost his son. And all for what? Whatever the survivors may have convinced themselves of and told us decades later, it was a war without a purpose, a war in which men had no idea other than the most nebulous what they were killing and dying for. ‘Spiritists’ were flat out putting bereaved people ‘in contact’ with their beloved fallen sons, brothers and husbands ‘on the other side’. Some of these people were genuine in their beliefs, but there was no shortage of shysters to capitalise on the mass hysteria either, and they made a packet.
In the midst of all this insanity come two innocent young girls with pictures of themselves in the company of surreal little winged figures and an innocuous little gnome. The ‘purity’ of the depicted scenes contrasted with the putrid realities of an insane war that was leaving few lives unblighted. They were a conduit for mass escapism. But when three more pictures were released two years later, hardly anyone took any notice. The war had ended, and the madness was subsiding. The girls finally ‘‘fessed up’ on television in 1976. Not that they needed to.
We are approaching the centenary of the beginning of the Great War into which the whole (then) British Empire was drawn. Some will speak of sacrifice and heroism, while others will speak of futile mass slaughter at the behest of emperors and politicians. I am not getting into any arguments about that stain on human history. For me, the farce that was the Cottingley Fairies – that window into the psyche of a war-weary, demented populace desperately seeking temporary refuge in a puerile fantasy – just about says it all.
Dr Barend Vlaardingerbroek is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org