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Futility Closet

Jun 21, 2021

In 1917, two young cousins carried a camera into an English dell and returned with a photo of fairies. When Arthur Conan Doyle took up the story it became a worldwide sensation. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll tell the story of the Cottingley Fairies, a curiosity that would remain unexplained for most of the 20th century.

We'll also remember a ferocious fire and puzzle over a troublesome gnome.


Poet Harry Graham found "a simple plan / Which makes the lamest lyric scan."

In the 1920s, Otto Funk fiddled across the United States.

Sources for our feature on the Cottingley fairies:

Jason Loxton et al., "The Cottingley Fairies," Skeptic 15:3 (2010), 72B,73-81.

Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Biography, 2008.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Coming of the Fairies, 1922.

Timothy R. Levine, Encyclopedia of Deception, 2014.

Jerome Clark, Encyclopedia of Strange and Unexplained Physical Phenomena, 1993.

Joe Cooper, "Cottingley: At Last the Truth," The Unexplained 117 (1982), 2338-2340.

A. Conan Doyle, "The Cottingley Fairies: An Epilogue," Strand 65:2 (February 1923), 105.

Kaori Inuma, "Fairies to Be Photographed!: Press Reactions in 'Scrapbooks' to the Cottingley Fairies," Correspondence: Hitotsubashi Journal of Arts and Literature 4 (2019), 53-84.

Douglas A. Anderson, "Fairy Elements in British Literary Writings in the Decade Following the Cottingley Fairy Photographs Episode," Mythlore 32:1 (Fall/Winter 2013), 5-18.

Bruce Heydt, "The Adventure of the Cottingley Fairies," British Heritage 25:2 (May 2004), 20-25.

Helen Nicholson, "Postmodern Fairies," History Workshop Journal 46 (Autumn 1998), 205-212.

Michael W. Homer and Massimo Introvigne, "The Recoming of the Fairies," Theosophical History 6 (1996), 59-76.

Alex Owen, "'Borderland Forms': Arthur Conan Doyle, Albion's Daughters, and the Politics of the Cottingley Fairies," History Workshop 38 (1994), 48-85.

"The First, and Best Known, of the Cottingley Fairy Photographs," Nature 346:6281 (July 19, 1990), 232.

"Away With the Fairies," Country Life, Nov. 11, 2020, 128-129.

Leslie Gardner, "Notes on Mr S. F. Sanderson's Presidential Address, 21 March 1973, on 'The Cottingley Fairy Photographs,'" Folklore 86:3/4 (Autumn-Winter 1975), 190-194.

S.F. Sanderson, "The Cottingley Fairy Photographs: A Re-Appraisal of the Evidence," Folklore 84:2 (Summer 1973), 89-103.

David Barnett, "Fairy Tales," Independent, March 28, 2021.

"Cottingley Fairies: How Sherlock Holmes's Creator Was Fooled by Hoax," BBC News, Dec. 5, 2020.

"Cottingley Fairies Fake Photos to Go Under the Hammer," Guardian, March 31, 2019.

Edward Sorel, "The Spiritual Life of Arthur Conan Doyle," New York Times, Dec. 28, 2018.

Phil Penfold, "One Hundred Years on From the Famous Cottingley Hoax, Why People Still Believe in Fairies," Yorkshire Post, Feb. 13, 2018.

Emily Hourican, "A Country Devastated by War, a Famous Author Desperate to Believe in the Spiritual World and Two Little Girls Who Borrowed a Camera ... the Fascinating Story of the Cottingley Fairies," Belfast Telegraph, Sept. 2, 2017.

Hazel Gaynor, "Inside the Elaborate Hoax That Made British Society Believe in Fairies," Time, Aug. 1, 2017.

David Barnett, "Why Do So Many People Still Believe in the Cottingley Fairies?" Telegraph, July 17, 2017.

Mark Branagan, "Academic's Daughter: Curse of Cottingley Fairies Destroyed My Poor Father's Life," Express, Jan. 15, 2017.

Sarah Freeman, "How the Cottingley Fairies Cost My Parents Their Marriage," Yorkshire Post, Dec. 28, 2016.

Martin Wainwright, "Obituary: Joe Cooper: He Got the Cottingley Fairy Fakers to Confess," Guardian, Aug. 25, 2011.

Chris Cheesman, "Obituary: Geoffrey Crawley: Photographic Scientist Who Played a Key Role in Debunking the Cottingley Fairies," Guardian, Nov. 16, 2010.

Rick Whelan, "The Enchanting and Phony Cottingley Fairies," [Stratford] Beacon Herald, Nov. 11, 2010.

"Geoffrey Crawley: Photographic Expert and Journalist Who Exposed the Myth of the Cottingley Fairies That Had Been Championed by Arthur Conan Doyle," Times, Nov. 10, 2010.

Margalit Fox, "Geoffrey Crawley, 83, Dies; Gently Deflated a Fairy Hoax," New York Times, Nov. 6, 2010.

James Johnston, "Memorabilia of 'Fairies' Hoax for Auction," Scotsman, March 12, 2001.

Mel Hunter, "Fairy Tales," Birmingham Post, March 6, 2001.

Vicki Goldberg, "Photography View; Of Fairies, Free Spirits and Outright Frauds," New York Times, Feb. 1, 1998.

"Famous Fairy Photos 'Fakes,'" Canberra Times, March 21, 1983.

"Shows Photo of Elves: English Theosophist Here to Lecture on 'Coming of the Fairies,'" New York Times, Feb. 3, 1927.

"Has Conan Doyle Gone Mad?" [Perth] Mirror, Jan. 13, 1923.

"'The Coming of the Fairies' Made Real by Conan Doyle," New York Tribune, Oct. 15, 1922.

"Hoax or Revelation?" Illustrated London News 161:4352 (Sept. 16, 1922), 444.

Frank Conroy, "Fairies Photographed," New York Times, Jan. 2, 1921.

Naomi Rea, "Faked 'Fairy' Photographs From a Famous 20th-Century Hoax Could Fetch $90,000 at Auction," artnet, April 2, 2019.

Karen Sayers, "The Cottingley Fairies: A Study in Deception," Leeds University Library, Oct. 28, 2020.

Colin Harding, "Griffiths, Frances, (1907–1986)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 1, 2017.

Listener mail:

"The King's Cross Fire," London Fire Brigade (accessed June 9, 2021).

"Medical Detectives (Forensic Files) - Season 8, Episode 42 - Flashover," YouTube, March 24, 2016 (video).

"King's Cross Fire," Wikipedia (accessed Jun. 9, 2021).

"Trench Effect," Wikipedia (accessed June 9, 2021).

"Flashover," Wikipedia (accessed June 9, 2021).

Ryan Meeks, "Gail Halvorsen, aka the 'Candy Bomber,' Has Recovered From COVID-19," KSL News Radio, Jan. 24, 2021.

"Rhoticity in English," Wikipedia (accessed June 12, 2021).

"Rhotic," Merriam-Webster (accessed June 12, 2021).

"Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City," Wikipedia (accessed June 12, 2021).

"Wroclaw, Breslau, Vratislav ... One City, Many Names," In Your Pocket, July 23, 2020.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Rohan Bassett. It's based on an item in Steven Levy's 2011 book In the Plex.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!