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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cottingley Mystery: The Ultimate Fairy Tale

I spent the greater part of the day in the Accountant's office. This is NOT a pleasant experience for me. It never has been and I doubt ever will be, even if I make millions which seems rather unlikely given my experiences today. All that to say, I really needed a diversion away from hard core reality so I turned to my bookshelves and decided to browse through "The Ultimate Fairies Handbook" by Susannah Marriott. 

This is an interesting book, given to me by a friend who supports my need for "other world distractions" and a co-conspirator in a few childhood pranks I think.  Perhaps that's why the section that caught my eye was an explanation of what is known as, The Cottingley Mystery.

In 1917, two teenage girls (11 and 16 years old) claimed not only to have seen fairies in their English garden, they had the photos to prove it. Their photographs showed the friends in poses with quite modern looking (for the early 20th century), tiny dancing figures. Today's photo is one of those pictures. They didn't appear like orbs, unknowingly there and appearing only when the photo is developed, rather the girls seemed to be posing with the fairies. That might have been a clue in hindsight. But these girls must have been very convincing storytellers and the public very receptive to believing because the photos went "viral". Their story was written by Arthur Conan Doyle and the story and the photos were  published for the Christmas edition of The Strand magazine. The paper sold out in days. The girls got new cameras out of the deal as well, and were instructed on how to use them so they could get more pictures.

In 1983, at the age of 76, Frances Griffiths, the youngest photographer admitted the first 4 pictures had been faked.  It wasn't some widely clever or talented trick of photography.  They had cut out figures from a magazine, pasted them on hat pins, and arranged the photos.

Three things really strike me about this story. The first is how long those girls carried the secret. Amazing! Neither one of them told on the other despite what must have been some pretty incredible pressure. As the author of a few tall tales myself, and some events of deception, I'm quite familiar with the guilt of having a "little white lie" take on gargantuous proportions. Long before those two cameras were presented as gifts I would have had to spill the beans for sure. It probably would have been round about midnight the first day my mother took the pictures to the Theosophical Society meeting. I can only imagine the relief Frances must have had when she finally revealed the truth.

The second thing that strikes me about the story is how much people wanted to have living proof of the existence of fairies. I understand photography wasn't nearly as advanced as it is today, but honestly- cut out figures pasted on a hat pin!! To believe that proves the existence of fairies, I think you must really want to believe. And there is nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. The way this story went "viral" in the 1920s also shows how much so many people wanted to be connected with something from "beyond".  It seems as though it's human nature to feel we are not alone in this world. We know it deep in our hearts, but still crave evidence of such existence. Hmm...

The third thing that is very interesting about the story is that there was a 4th picture in the series that was published. It was taken with the new cameras that were gifted to the girls. Apparently this picture is not like the other three. It's more blurred than the others and the fairies don't seem to be posing with the girls as much as they are freely floating forms. When Frances "came clean" about the scrapbooking techniques, she stood firm that this fourth picture was not faked, and the images in it were completely real. Frances claimed that one picture proved what the girls knew in their hearts- that fairies really were in the garden. I can't see any reason why she would lie on that one. Nor do I choose to believe she did. Instead, I take that to mean  those two young girls really did experience something from beyond and they wanted to show the world. It would seem like the fairies must have supported them in that quest when they appeared for the final picture. I wonder if the girls were worried when they went to try and get that last picture? I think not, otherwise they would have been madly scrambling for pictures and paste again. I think they were confident in what they knew to be there and perhaps that's why they kept the secret for that long.

We all need to believe in pixie dust and magic and positive beings that can't often be seen.  I can't see anything wrong with that. To me the Cottingley Mystery is the ultimate fairy tale and I'm happy to believe. And on a day of facts and figures and harsh reality, I am more than  thankful for the distraction!

All you need is faith and trust and pixie dust!

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