Fairies Photographed

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Fairies Photographed is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Strand Magazine in december 1920.


Fairies Photographed

The Strand Magazine, p. 462 (december 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 463 (december 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 464 (december 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 465 (december 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 466 (december 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 467 (december 1920)
The Strand Magazine, p. 468 (december 1920)

(An untouched enlargement from the original negative)

An Epoch-Making Event... Described by A. Conan Doyle

Should the incidents here narrated, and the photographs attached, hold their own against the criticism which they will excite, it is no exaggeration to say that, they will mark an epoch in human thought. I put them and all the evidence before the public for examination and judgment. If I am myself asked whether I consider the case to be absolutely and finally proved, I should answer that in-order to remove the last faint shadow of doubt I should wish to see the result repeated before a disinterested witness. At the same time, I recognize the difficulty of such a request, since rare results must be obtained when and how they can. But short of final and absolute proof, I consider, after carefully going into every possible source of error, that a strong prima facie case has been built up. The cry of "fake" is sure to be raised, and will make some impression upon those who have not had the opportunity of knowing the people concerned, or the place. On the photographic side every objection has been considered and adequately met. The pictures stand or fall together. Both are false, or both are true. All the circumstances point to the latter alternative, and yet in a matter involving, so tremendous a new departure one needs overpowering evidence before one can say that there is no conceivable loophole for error.

It was about the month of May in this year that I received a letter from Miss Felicia Scatcherd, so well known in several departments of human thought, to the effect that two photographs of fairies had been taken in the North of England under circumstances which seemed to put fraud out of the question. The statement would have appealed to me at any time, but I happened at the moment to be collecting material for an article on fairies, now completed, and I had accumulated a surprising number of cases of people who claimed to be able to see these little creatures. The evidence was so complete and detailed, with such good names attached to it, that it was difficult to believe that it was false ; but, being by nature of a somewhat sceptical turn, I felt that something closer was needed before I could feel personal conviction and assure myself that these were not thought-forms conjured up by the imagination or expectation of the seers. The rumour of the photographs interested me deeply, therefore, and following the matter up from one lady informant to another, I came at last upon Mr. Edward L. Gardner, who has been ever since my most efficient collaborator, to whom all credit is due. Mr. Gardner, it may be remarked, is a member of the Executive Committee of the Theosophical Society, and a well-known lecturer upon occult subjects.

He had not himself at that time mastered the whole case, but all he had he placed freely at my disposal. I had already seen prints of the photographs, but I was relieved to find that he had the actual negatives, and that it was from them, and not from the prints, that two expert photographers, especially Mr. Snelling, of 26, The Bridge, Wealdstone, Harrow, had already formed their conclusions in favour of the genuineness of the pictures. Mr. Gardner tells his own story presently, so I will simply say that at that period he had got into direct and friendly touch with the Carpenter family. We are compelled to use a pseudonym and to with-hold the exact address, for it is clear that their lives would be much interrupted by correspondence and callers if their identity were too clearly indicated. At the same time there would no doubt be no objection to any small committee of inquiry verifying the facts for themselves if this anonymity were respected. For the present, however, we shall simply call them the Carpenter family in the village of Dalesby, West Riding.

Some three years before, according to our information, the daughter and the niece of Mr. Carpenter, the former being sixteen and the other ten years of age, had taken the two photographs, the one in summer, the other in early autumn. The father was quite agnostic in the matter, but as his daughter claimed that she and her cousin when they were together continually saw fairies in the wood and had come to be on familiar and friendly terms with them, he entrusted her with one plate in his camera. The result was the picture of the dancing elves, which considerably amazed the father when he developed the film that evening. The little girl looking across at her playmate, to intimate that the time had come to press the button, is Alice, the niece, while the older girl, who was taken some months later with the quaint gnome, is Iris, the daughter. The story ran that the girls were so excited in the evening that one pressed her way into the small dark-room in which the father was about to develop, and that as she saw the forms of the fairies showing through the solution she cried out to the other girl, who was palpitating outside the door : "Oh, Alice, Alice, the fairies are on the plate — they are on the plate !" It was indeed a triumph for the children, who had been smiled at, as so many children are smiled at, by an incredulous world for stating what their own senses have actually recorded.

The father holds a position of trust in connection with some local factory, and the family are well known and respected. That they are cultivated is shown by the fact that Mr. Gardner's advances towards them were made more easy because Mrs. Carpenter was a reader of theosophical teachings and had gained spiritual good from them. A correspondence had arisen and all their letters were frank and honest, professing some amazement at the stir which the affair seemed likely to produce.

Thus the matter stood after my meeting with Mr. Gardner, but it was clear that this was not enough. We must get closer to the facts. The negatives were taken round to Kodak, Ltd. where --- experts were unable to find any flaw ----------- to testify to the genuineness of ---------------- possible trap. An amateur photographer of experience refused to accept them on the ground of the elaborate and Parisian coiffure of the little ladies. Another photographic company, which it would be cruel to name, declared that the background consisted of theatrical properties, and that therefore the picture was a worthless fake. I leaned heavily upon Mr. Snelling's whale-hearted endorsement, quoted later in this article, and also consoled myself by the broad view that if the local conditions were as reported, which we proposed to test, then it was surely impossible that a little village with an amateur photographer could have the plant and the skill to turn out a fake which could not be detected by the best experts in London.

In the course of our investigations we had an interesting example of the power and also of the limits of psychic knowledge. A friend who was a medium and had a control in whom he had faith was allowed to examine the prints. His report, or rather that of his control, was that there was reason to fear a fake as he saw the negative being tampered with by a fair man, short, with his hair brushed back, in a room filled with all sorts of cameras and other queer machines and devices. This was, as a matter of fact, a fairly accurate description of Mr. Snelling and his surroundings, who had, as will be shown, prepared a second negative from the precious original.

The matter being in this state, Mr. Gardner volunteered to go up at once and report — an expedition which I should have wished to share had it not been for the pressure of work before my approaching departure for Australia. Mr. Gardner's report is here appended :—

5, Craven Road,
Harlesden, N.W. 10
July 29th, 1920.


It was early in this year, 1920, that I heard from a friend of photographs of fairies having been successfully taken in the North of England. I made some inquiries, and these led to prints being sent to me with the names and address of the children who were said to have taken them. The correspondence that followed seemed so innocent and promising that I begged the loan of the actual negatives — and two quarter-plates came by post a few days after. One was a fairly clear one, the other much under-exposed.

The negatives proved to be truly astonishing photographs indeed, for there was no sign of double exposure nor anything other than ordinary straightforward work. I cycled over to Harrow to consult an expert photographer of thirty years' practical experience whom I knew I could trust for a sound opinion. Without any explanation I passed the plates ever and asked what he thought of them. After examining the "fairies" negative carefully, exclamations began : "This is the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen" — "Single exposure !" — "Figures have moved !" — "Why, its a genuine photograph ! Where ever did it come from ?"

(An untouched enlargement from the original negative)

I need hardly add that enlargements were made and subjected to searching examination — without any modification of opinion. The immediate upshot was that a "positive" was taken from each negative, that the originals might be preserved carefully untouched, and then new negatives were prepared and intensified to serve as better printing mediums. The originals are just as received and in my keeping now. Some good prints and lantern slides were soon prepared.

In May I used the slides, with others, to illustrate a lecture given in the Mortimer Hall, London, and this aroused considerable interest, largely because of these pictures and their story. A week or so later I received a letter from Sir A. Conan Doyle asking for information concerning them, some report, I understood, having reached him from a mutual friend. A meeting with Sir Arthur followed, and the outcome was that I agreed to hasten my proposed personal investigation into the origin of the photographs, and carry this through at once instead of waiting till September, when I should be in the North on other matters.

In consequence, to-day, July 29th, I am just back in London from one of the most interesting and surprising excursions that it has ever been my fortune to make !

We had time, before I went, to obtain opinions on the original negatives from other expert photographers, and one or two of these were adverse rather than favourable. Not that any would say positively that the photographs were faked, but two did claim that they could produce the same class of negative by studio work involving painted models, etc., and it was suggested further that the. little girl in the first picture was standing behind a table heaped up with fern and moss, that the toad-stool was unnatural, that in the gnome photo the girl's hand was not her own, that uniform shading was questionable, and so on. All of this had its weight, and though I went North with as little bias one way or the other as possible, I felt quite prepared to find that a personal investigation would disclose some evidence of falsity.

Photo: Iris Carpenter in 1920, standing by the tree shown in the frontispiece — where she played with the gnome three years before.

The lengthy journey completed, I reached a quaint, old-world village; in Yorkshire, found the house, and was cordially received. Mrs. C. and her daughter I. (the girl as shown playing with the gnome) were both at home to meet me, and Mr. C., the father, came in shortly afterwards.

Several of the objections raised by the professionals were disposed of almost at once as, a half-hour after reaching the house, I was exploring a charming little valley, directly at the rear, with a stream of water running through, where the children had been accustomed to see and play with the fairies. I found the bank behind which the child, with her shoes and stockings off, is shown as standing; toad-stools exactly as in the photograph were about in plenty, quite as big and hearty-looking. And the girl's hand ? Well, she laughingly made me promise not to say much about it, it is so very long ! I stood on the spots shown and easily identified every feature. Then, in course of eliciting all that one could learn about the affair, I gathered the following, which, for the sake of conciseness, I set out below :—

Camera used: "The Midg" quarter-plate.
Plates: Imperial Rapid.
Fairies photo: July, 1917. Day brilliantly hot and sunny. About 3 p.m.
Distance: 4 feet.
Time: 1-50th second exposure.
Gnome photo : September, 1917. Day bright, but not as above. About 4 o'clock. Distance : 8 feet. Time ; 1-50th second.

I. was sixteen years old; her cousin A. was ten years. Other photographs were attempted but proved partial failures, and plates were not kept.

Colouring: The palest of green, pink, mauve. Much more in the wings than in the bodies, which are very pale to white. The gnome is described as seeming to be in black tights, reddish-brown jersey, and red pointed cap. He was swinging his pipes, holding them in his left hand, and was just stepping up on to I.'s knee when A. snapped him.

A., the visiting cousin, went away soon after, and says they must be together to "take photographs." Fortunately they will meet in a few weeks' time, and they promise me to try and get some more. I. added she would very much like to send me one of a fairy flying.

Mr. C.'s testimony was clear and decisive. His daughter had pleaded to be allowed to use the camera. At first he demurred, but ultimately, after dinner one Saturday, he put just one plate in the Midg and gave it to the girls. They returned in Less than an hour and begged him to develop the plate as I. had "taken a photograph." He did so, with, to him, the bewildering result shown in the print of the fairies!

Mrs. C. says she remembers quite well that the girls were only away from the house a short time, before they brought the camera back.

Extraordinary and amazing as these photographs may appear, I am now quite convinced of their entire genuineness, as indeed would everyone else be who had the same evidence of transparent honesty and simplicity that I had. I am adding nothing by way of explanations or theories of my own, though the need for two people, preferably children, is fairly obvious for photography, in order to assist in the strengthening of the etheric bodies. Beyond this I prefer to leave the above statement as a plain, unvarnished, narrative of my connection with the incidents.

Photo: Mr. E. L. Gardner standing behind the bank on which Alice is seen leaning in the photograph below.

I need only add that no attempt appears ever to have been made by the family to make these photographs public, and whatever has been done in that direction locally has not been pressed by any of them, nor has there been any money payment in connection with them.


I may add as a footnote to Mr. Gardner's report that the girl informed him in conversation that she had no power of any sort over the actions of the fairies, and that the way to "'tice them," as she called it, was to sit passively with her mind quietly turned in that direction. Then, when faint stirrings or movements in the distance heralded their presence, to beckon towards them and show that they were welcome. It was Iris who pointed out the pipes of the gnome, which we had both taken as being the markings of the moth-like under-wing. She added that if there was not too much rustling in the wood it was possible to hear the very faint and high sound of the pipes. To the objections of photographers that the fairy figures show quite different shadows to those of the human, our answer is that psychoplasm, as the etheric protoplasm has been named, has a faint luminosity of its own, which would largely modify shadows.

To the very clear and, as I think, entirely convincing report of Mr. Gardner's let me add the exact words which Mr. Snelling, the expert photographer, allows us to use. Mr. Snelling has shown great strength of mind, and rendered signal service to psychic study, by taking a strong line, and putting his professional reputation as an expert upon the scales. He has had a varied connection of over thirty years with the Autotype Company and Illingworth's large photographic factory, and has himself turned out some beautiful work of every kind of natural and artificial studio studies. He laughs at the idea that any expert in England could deceive him with a faked photograph. "These two negatives," he says, "are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures, etc. In my opinion they are both straight untouched pictures."

A second independent opinion is equally clear as to the genuine character of the photographs, founded upon a Large experience of practical photography.

Photo: Alice leaning on the bank on which the fairies were dancing, as shown in the photograph on page 465.

There is our case, fortified by pictures of the places which the unhappy critic has declared to be theatrical properties. How well we know that type of critic in all our psychic work, though it is not always possible to at once show his absurdity to other people.

I will now make a few comments upon the two pictures, which I have studied long and earnestly with a high-power lens.

One fact of interest is this presence of a double pipe — the very sort which the ancients associated with fauns and naiads — in each picture. But if pipes, why not everything else ? Does it not suggest a complete range of utensils and instruments for their own life ? Their clothing is substantial enough. It seems to me that with fuller knowledge and with fresh means of vision these people are destined to become just as solid and real as the Eskimos. There is an ornamental rim to the pipe of the elves which shows that the graces of art are not unknown among them. And what joy is in the complete abandon of their little graceful figures as they let themselves go in the dance I They may have their shadows and trials as we have, but at least there is a great gladness manifest in this demonstration of their life.

A second general observation is that the elves are a compound of the human and the butterfly, while the gnome has more of the moth. This may be merely the result of under-exposure of the negative and dullness of the weather. Perhaps the little gnome is really of the same tribe, but represents an elderly male, while the elves are romping young women. Most observers of fairy life have reported, however, that there are separate species, varying very much in size, appearance, and locality — the wood fairy, the water fairy, the fairy of the plains, etc.

Another point is that the two upheld hands of the elves seen under a high power do not appear to be human, nor does the left foot of the figure capering upon the right. The hands seem furred at the edges and the fingers to be in a solid mass. This also may be due to movement and position, but it is curious that both hands give the same impression. It is notable also that the one figure which is without wings is the one which is sinking into the herbage.

Can these be thought-forms ? The fact that they are so like our conventional idea of fairies is in favour of the idea. But if they move rapidly, have musical instruments and so forth, then it is impossible to talk of "thought-forms," a term which suggests something vague and intangible. In a sense we are all thought-forms, since we can only be perceived through the senses, but these little figures would seem to have an objective reality, as we have ourselves, even if their vibrations should prove to be such that it takes either psychic power or a sensitive plate to record them. If they are conventional it may be that fairies have really been seen in every generation, and so some correct description of them has been retained.

There is one point of Mr. Gardner's investigation which should be mentioned. It had come to our knowledge that Iris could draw, and had actually at one time done some designs for a jeweller. This naturally demanded caution, though the girl's own frank nature is, I understand, a sufficient guarantee for those who know her. Mr. Gardner, however, tested her powers of drawing, and found that, while she could do landscapes cleverly, the fairy figures which she had attempted, in imitation of those she had seen, were entirely uninspired, and bore no possible resemblance to those in the photograph. Another point which may be commended to the careful critic with a strong lens is that the apparent pencilled face at the side of the figure on the right is really only the edge of her hair, and not, as might appear, a drawn profile.

I must confess that after months of thought I am unable to get the true bearings of this event. One or two consequences are obvious. The experiences of children will be taken more seriously. Cameras will be forthcoming. Other well-authenticated cases will come along. These little folk who appear to be our neighbours, with only some small difference of vibration to separate us, will become familiar. The thought of them, even when unseen, will add a charm to every brook and valley and give romantic interest to every country walk. The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and a mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been so convincingly put before it. All this I see, but there may be much more. When Columbus knelt in prayer upon the edge of America, what prophetic eye saw all that a new continent might do to affect the destinies of the world ? We also seem to be on the edge of a new continent, separated not by oceans but by subtle and surmountable psychic conditions. I look at the prospect with awe. May those little creatures suffer from the contact and some Las Casas bewail their ruin! If so, it would be an evil day when the world defined their existence. But there is a guiding hand in the affairs of man, and we can but trust and follow.