The Cottingley Fairies - Birth of the modern hoax

The above photograph of the "Cottingley Fairies" - along with the other 4 photos found here - is said by some to be the most reproduced photograph in the history of the world. Shot by cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith on the Wright's property in the UK circa 1917 (one week before the end of the first World War), the photographs seem to show the girls playing with "fairies", and in one of the pictures what appears to be a "gnome".

The girls became famous when aging author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ("Sherlock Homes") - who had become obsessed with the occult and spiritualism in his latter years - took up the cause and began preaching their authenticity around the world. For their part, the general public seemed pretty torn on the prospect that the mythical creatures could be real. And although they look hokey and obviously fake by today's standards, it's important to put them into cultural context to fully understand their meaning.

Before I begin pontificating, I'd recommend reading The Wikipedia page on the fairies for a lengthy and fascinating timeline of the events. I don't have the time or the energy to recall it all for you here.

But the reason why I wanted to bring it up was just to discuss why this story fascinates me so much. For starters... I've never been a huge advocate of "Cryptozoology", or the study of animals that aren't known to be real but may possibly exist. Big foot and The Lochness monster are two big examples. That said, I remain open to the idea that these things might exist. I just think that there's too much of a little kid inside of me to ever give up hope of such things. And as humans, we just seem predisposed to believe in the fantastical. Look at any history - written, oral or otherwise - and it's easy to see that we're a species obsessed with knowing what lies just beyond the darkness.

I heard a very smart history professor once describe World War I to me as the birthing of the modern world. We forget some times that the early 1900's world was still incredibly primitive. With that primitive nature came old world beliefs, including that of the supernatural. They may have had cars, but it didn't seem that far fetched to many that things like fairies existed either.

Also, I'm fascinated by the notion of "truth" and whether or not it exists. For my money, there is no such thing as truth in any situation. All "truth" is to me is a combination of personal experience, cultural bias, history, point of view etc etc. Which in it's purest form, means that objective truth does not exist.

With the invention of the camera in the mid-late 1800's, suddenly there was hope in the Western world for some type of final chapter on truth. The idea being that, you could now see almost everything for yourself, and therefore truth would no longer be up for interpretation. This myth survived largely untarnished until the late 20th century, when computer technology became such that no one could trust what their eyes were showing them anymore. Despite public acceptance of the axiom, a story like that of the Cottingley fairies proves that the existence of photographic truth probably lasted for much less time than anybody realizes.

Still, when I stare at these photographs there is a certain creepy feeling that overcomes me. Despite the fact that one of the girls would admit in the 1980's that the photographs were of paper cutouts, they managed to capture a series of uncanny images that to this day seem to fascinate people. And now with the internet - the purveyor of all that is questionable - the girls' fairy tales are able to live on for generations to come.

I came back to this story a few weeks ago after seeing that terrifying video purported to be of a creepy gnome terrorizing a small town in Argentina. It got me thinking... Video is no longer any measure of truth, yet as a society we are more obsessed with photographic evidence than ever. And despite the fact that video or images of an event should at least help shed some light on these issues, all it seems to do nowadays is confuse the issue further. And therefore, it seems that the pursuit of "truth" may be lost forever.

So, next time you see video on the news of an incident and think you know the truth about it, remember that since the invention of the captured image, people have used it to manipulate others into believing their own brand of truth. Just a little food for though for you this afternoon.

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