The End of the End of History?   /   Fall 2017   /    Notes And Comments

Spookists and Other Rationalists

Christopher Sandford

The rhapsodic self-obsession of Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle—MD, seafarer, sportsman, tireless social crusader, and globally renowned author of the Sherlock Holmes tales—surely reached its apogee in the long, tragicomic affair of the Cottingley Fairies, which began life in the northern English countryside just a century ago. Since some forty-five books, not to mention the scholarly articles, doctoral theses, and a “freely adapted” 1997 movie starring Peter O’Toole, are all available on the subject, it’s perhaps best to be brief on the facts. Essentially, two young girls borrowed a Midg camera one hot Saturday afternoon in July 1917, disappeared into the fields behind one of their homes, and returned in high spirits about thirty minutes later with the request that the camera’s owner develop the pictures they had taken. When this person did so, what he called a “curious manifestation” occurred. Looming up at him out of the chemical tray was an image that seemed to show one of the girls leaning on the side of a small hill on which four fairies were dancing. A few days later, the two young friends again vanished with the camera and returned with a picture of what The Times called only an “entity,” but which Conan Doyle, the creator of English literature’s most famously rational detective, did not hesitate to identify as a winged gnome.

Again, we may pass lightly over subsequent events. A public debate ensued, with both Conan Doyle and other well-respected figures pronouncing the photographs not only genuine but “more significant than Columbus’s discovery of the New World.” “I have something infinitely precious,” Doyle wrote to his friend and sometimes rival Harry Houdini, “two photos, one of a goblin, the other of four fairies in a Yorkshire wood. A fake! You will say. No, sir, I think not.… The fairies are about eight inches high. In one [photo] there is a goblin dancing. In the other, four beautiful, luminous creatures. Yes, it is a revelation.”

It would be hard to overstate the shock and mounting ridicule that met both this private testimonial and the highly public endorsement that followed. The London newspaper The Globe expressed a widely held view in stating that “it is truly sad when in his old age [Conan Doyle was fifty-nine], a great man does such foolish things.” Other remarks were less elevated. In March 1922, Doyle went on to publish a full-length book, The Coming of the Fairies, in which he again attested to his powerful belief in this “subhuman” and “miraculous” life form. It remains his most notorious literary act, not excluding the killing of Sherlock Holmes.

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