I’ve been reading Flim-Flam! by James Randi and he discusses the Cottingley Fairies hoax in great detail. I don’t remember how I first heard about this case, but it has always interested me. On one hand, I wonder how any one was ever taken in by such an obvious fake and on the other hand, I just want to say “Well done!” to the two little girls who pulled it off.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, in 1917 Frances Griffiths (10 years old) and Elsie Wright (16 years old) borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera and took two photos of what they said were fairies, but were actually cutout paper drawings. Two years later, their mothers became interested in theosophy and showed the photos to members of the Theosophical Society. The original glass plates were sent off for all sorts of tests and proclaimed genuine. Later, three more photos were taken. You can see all five on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottingley_Fairies
Most important among those people who were fooled was Arthur Conan Doyle. He was a great writer, but surprisingly gullible. Sherlock Holmes would not have been taken in by cutout drawings like Doyle was. As is often the case when you are dealing with claims of the supernatural, the experts discarded any evidence that didn’t fit with their preconceived beliefs.
There were all sorts of red flags for anyone who cared to look. Even though this was not a time like today when people are used to photoshopping, double exposures and photographic tricks were not unknown. Elsie even worked in a photography store and she was known to like drawing fairies. No one believed two girls could be capable of such a hoax. It wasn’t until 1983 that the women finally admitted they used traced cutouts from Princess Mary’s Gift Book held in place by hatpins.