Why did Arthur Conan Doyle fall for two schoolgirls’ outrageous hoax?
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It sounds like the start of a classic Sherlock Holmes story. “The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public, or else they constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character,” reads the first line of the book.
But this work from 1922 was meant to be fact, not fiction. In The Coming of Fairies, Arthur Conan Doyle claimed to be setting out the evidence for a race of magical beings, visible only to a chosen few. For the past five years, the writer and doctor had been studying a series of photographs that appeared to have captured this ‘subhuman race’ frolicking in a brook in Yorkshire – and he was now convinced of their authenticity.
The photos were a hoax – a schoolgirl prank that duped many people besides Conan Doyle. But how could someone so intelligent have fallen for such an obvious scam?
The story begins 100 years ago in Cottingley, West Yorkshire, with 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths. The two girls had long claimed that they could see fairies playing in the garden, and one July day they borrowed a camera to prove their story.
Wright’s father immediately suspected a prank, but her mother was more easily taken in, and instead took the images to a meeting of ‘theosophists’ intent on exploring the spiritual world. The pictures caused ripples in psychic circles, and they eventually found their way to Conan Doyle – a committed spiritualist – who published them in Strand magazine.
If you look carefully at the original photos, you can find signs that the fairies were really cardboard cut-outs: there appears to be the end of a hat pin sticking through this gnome’s midriff. Conan Doyle, however, took it to be a belly-button – leading him to muse about the ways that fairies give birth.
Even some of Conan Doyle’s spiritualist friends believed the images were fakes. Oliver Lodge – a noted physicist who had dabbled in the paranormal – questioned why the fairies had such modern haircuts, for instance. Surely magical creatures would follow their own fashions rather than copying human trends?
Conan Doyle never lived to hear their confession, however, and continued to believe in fairies until the day he died.
There were many other cases when the powers of deduction failed him, too. In the 1920s, for instance, he became fascinated by the amazing stunts of Harry Houdini, believing that only magic could explain the feats. Houdini tried in vain to persuade him that the tricks were simple showmanship – but Conan Doyle remained convinced nonetheless.
He even hypothesised that Houdini could move in and out of the ether to escape his locks and chains. “Is it possible for a man to be a very powerful medium all his life… and yet never to realise that the gifts he is using are those which the world calls mediumship?” Conan Doyle wrote after Houdini’s death. “If that indeed be possible, then we have a solution of the Houdini enigma.”
In reality, it is Conan Doyle who remains the enigma. How could someone have written so eloquently about the science of rational reasoning in his fiction, but fail to see through the scam of two young girls?
Modern psychology can offer some answers. Studies have shown that many people engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ – picking and choosing the evidence to suit your pre-existing beliefs. What’s more, we all have a ‘bias blind spot’ – the ability to identify the gaps in other people’s logic, but not our own. Crucially, neither intelligence nor education can protect us from this kind of irrational thinking. Indeed, greater brainpower may just make it easier for you to build elaborate arguments to justify your convictions – whether or not they are true. Today, we may not believe in fairies, but like Conan Doyle, we still fall for ‘fake news’ that reinforces our existing prejudices.
Frances may have hit on this in one of her last interviews. “I can't understand to this day why they were taken in,” she said. “They wanted to be taken in.”