Arthur Conan Doyle could be one of the best authors the English language has ever seen. He also managed to create one of the most well-known super sleuth’s in history. And he fell for a poorly staged hoax orchestrated by two young girls.
The fraud began with some photographs the girls had taken with their father’s camera in 1917, creating the fairies out of paper. For a few years, the story got minimal attention and seem to have largely been met with skepticism. All that changed, however, when Arthur Conan Doyle stumbled onto the scene. Eager to find proof of fairies, Doyle not only completely believed the photographs without question, he promoted them. With the help of an internationally acclaimed author, the fraud became wildly popular, and the girls stuck by their story. Until 1980.
By the time they finally admitted to the fraud, Doyle was long dead. In the type of tragic plot twist a 19th century author would come up with, he died thinking he had found proof of magic.
Doyle wrote a professional, business letter to the girls’ father, but his one to the girls shows how completely he bought their story. “Dear Miss Elsie Wright, I have seen the wonderful pictures of the fairies which you and your cousin Frances have taken and I have not been so interested for a long time. I will send you tomorrow one of my little books for I am sure you are not too old to enjoy adventures. With best wishes. Yours sincerely.” [text via The Daily Mail]
According to The Telegraph (which puts the date of Doyle’s involvement at 1919, not 1920), when she finally confessed, “[s]peaking of the first photograph in particular, Frances [one of the girls] has said: ‘I don’t see how people could believe they’re real fairies. I could see the backs of them and the hatpins when the photo was being taken.'”