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A fairy is a mythical being of folklore and romance. Fairies are often depicted as diminutive winged humans with magical powers. The Tooth Fairy exchanges presents, usually coins, for teeth left out or under one's pillow at night. Fairy godmothers are protective beings, like guardian angels.

Fairies should not be confused with gnomes, which are also mythical diminutive humans but are deformed and live underground. Pixies, on the other hand, might be considered a type of fairy known for their cheerful nature and playful mischievousness. An elf might be thought of as a big pixie, often depicted as a mischievous dwarf, such as the Irish leprechaun known for his pranks but also believed to know where treasure is hidden. Elves are sometimes depicted as helpers of magicians, e.g., Santa's helpers.

 Frances Griffiths, age 10, with fairy cutouts

Belief in such mythical beings seems common in rural peoples around the world. Occasionally, a city slicker who should know better is duped into believing in fairies. An infamous example of such a dupe is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was conned by a couple of schoolgirls and their amateur photographs of paper fairies (known as the "Cottingley Fairies") taken in their Yorkshire garden. The faked photos are reminiscent of the most famous Loch Ness Monster picture, faked in a similar fashion by Ian Wetherell, as are many UFO photos, e.g., those of Billy Meier. Doyle even published a book on the fairies: The Coming of the Fairies. He and a theosophist named Edward Gardner published the photos taken by 16-year old Elsie Wright of her 10-year old cousin, Frances Griffiths, with Elsie's cutouts of fairies. Gardner was shown the photos by another theosophist who had been approached by the girls' mothers after a theosophy meeting in 1919. They had asked whether the photos might be of interest to the theosophists.

Doyle and Gardner proclaimed that the photos were not fakes, but the real thing. They relied on the expert testimony of Harold Snelling, who apparently couldn't tell the difference between a blur caused by the object being photographed moving and the hand holding the camera being unsteady. Snellling wasn't dealing with copies or copies of copies but with the original negative glass plates.* Snelling's testimony should remind us of how much trust we should have of people who confidently declare they know something they couldn't possibly know:

This plate is a single exposure. These dancing figures are not made of paper nor any fabric; they are not painted on a photographic background—but what gets me most is that all these figures have moved during the exposure.*

There were skeptics, of course. Not everyone bought the story the way Conan Doyle and Edward Gardner did. When Doyle published an article with Cottingley fairy photos in The Strand magazine, one critic wrote:

On the evidence I have no hesitation in saying that these photographs could have been faked. I criticize the attitude of those who declare there is something supernatural in the circumstances attending to the taking of these pictures because, as a medical man, I believe that the inculcation of such absurd ideas into the minds of children will result in later life in manifestations and nervous disorders and mental disturbances...

Even though there is no evidence that Elsie or Frances suffered from nervous disorders later in life, there is evidence that some disturbed people were encouraged in their disorders by the fairy tale. One such man was Geoffrey Hodson who claimed to be clairvoyant and, like the girls, declared that he could see the fairies when he came to Cottingley.

The real howler, though, was the debate which ensued over whether these were photos of real fairies or psychic photographs which recorded the thoughts of the girls projected onto the film! Doyle, like many who have come before and after him, longed for any proof of a world beyond the material world. His desire to find support for spiritualism led him to a number of delusions. Even so, he wrote great detective stories and in Sherlock Holmes created a mythical being much more interesting than any fairy, even if he didn't know the difference between induction and deduction.

Paramount Pictures has made a movie about Griffiths and Wright called Fairytale: A True Story. Harvey Keitel plays Houdini and Peter O'Toole plays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

See also Aztec UFO hoax, Carlos hoax, Arthur Ford hoax, Tooth Fairy science, Mary Toft hoax, Piltdown hoax, Pufedorf hoax, Steve Terbot, hoax, and the Sokal hoax.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Bourke, Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary (Pimlico, 1999).

Carroll, Robert (2004). "Pranks, Frauds, and Hoaxes from Around the World." Skeptical Inquirer. volume 28, No. 4. July/August, pp. 41-46.

Cooper, Joe. "Cottingley: At Last the Truth," The Unexplained, No. 117, pp. 2338-40, 1982.

Crawley, Geoffrey. 1982. The astonishing affair of the Cottingley fairies. (Part 1 of a 10-part series). The British Journal of Photography. December 24, 1982 pp. 1375-1380.

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981), ch. 9.

Jastrow, Joseph. 1935. Wish and Wisdom: Episodes in the Vagaries of Belief. (Published in 1962 by Dover Books as Error and Eccentricity in Human Belief).

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).


The Debunking of Three Hoaxes: fairy photographs, Piltdown man, and faked Vermeer paintings by James Opie: "Innocent hoaxes begin as lighthearted spoofs or practical jokes, few of which get out of hand. Malignant instances may or may not cost us money, but, more importantly, they distort our view of the past, waste valuable time, and deflect us from authentic lines of study."

The case of the Cottingley fairies by Joe Cooper

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies - the Unmuseum news

new Geoffrey Crawley, 83, Dies; Gently Deflated a Fairy Hoax In the late 1970s and early 1980s, empirical investigation of the case began in earnest. The primary investigators, working independently, included James Randi, the magician and professional skeptic; Joe Cooper, an English journalist; and Mr. Crawley.

Last updated 24-Nov-2015

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