From Skeptic vol. 5, no. 3, 1997, pp. 10ff.

The following article is copyright ©1997 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.

VOL 5#3, page 10

Twas Brillig

Observations on a Bizarre World
Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Case of the Fake Fairy Photos

by James Randi

With the release of the film Fairy Tale: A True Story from Paramount Studios at the end of October, we see a tired old farce once more dragged out for examination. Hollywood, forever intent upon re-writing history to meet the requirements of popular belief, has managed to bowdlerize and augment the story of two little girls in 1917 England who perpetrated what began as an innocent prank and became a major hoax. Elsie Wright (15) and Frances Griffiths (9) simply posed cut-out paper drawings of fairies in a glen near their Cottingley, Bradford, home, and photographed them. When these amateurishly naive snapshots fell into the hands of a fervent Theosophist--Elsie's mother--they were seized upon as evidence that fairies were real, and that little girls could photograph them.

While researching this story for my 1982 book Flim Flam!, I found that my correspondence with Elsie, who lived in Bunny, Nottingham (no kidding!), was frustrating and quite sad. Elsie was confident that the motion picture industry and a major publisher would surely snap up her life story. I tried to gently inform her that one event does not a life make, and that the monster she and her cousin Frances had created would not be put to rest unless she made a full confession that it had been a fraud. Elsie was not yet ready to take that step, though less than a year after our correspondence began she made the enigmatic statement that she would "not swear on the Bible that they are real fairies." She followed that, in March of 1983, with a total admission that "the photographs were a fake [sic] I admit it at last."

This strange adventure was to prove a prolonged tragedy for Elsie Wright, who was forced by the public attention to move to Maine, marry a textile worker there, and labor in the mills. Meanwhile, the photos buoyed the expectations of the Theosophists--who made literally a half-million pounds from distributing the photos--and quite convinced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, of the reality of fairies. Enter Harry Houdini, famed American escape-artist and magician, who regarded Conan Doyle's acceptance of the fairy photos as more than a little ridiculous. Houdini had long argued about such subjects with Sir Arthur, and the public image of the two was that they rather liked one another, but disagreed on anything beyond the time of day and the fact that they both loved the spotlight of attention afforded them so freely by the public.

Without question, Houdini cultivated Conan Doyle in the same way and for the same reason he chased after popular actress Sarah Bernhardt and other celebrities of his day. Association with these folks gave him more newspaper space. I think he had considerable disdain for the famous author, and would, of course, have wanted to be the means of his conversion to rationality, an event that never took place. Conan Doyle, too, as he admitted in his correspondence with the Escape King, felt it his moral duty to convey the truth of Summerland to Houdini. Each had taken on impossible tasks.

There could not have been two more unlikely acquaintances than the magician and the author. Houdini was essentially uneducated, Sir Arthur was extensively schooled and had a medical degree. One was straight from the rough streets of Brooklyn, the other was an aristocratic product of post-Victorian elegance. Pragmatist, dreamer. Realist, fantasist. Short and athletic, tall and sedentary. Admittedly, both were stubborn, proud, egocentric, celebrities. But their differences were deep and abiding.

Eric J. Dingwall, a prominent member of the Society for Psychical Research in the UK, knew Sir Arthur well. While "Ding,' experienced as a conjuror and very aware of the fact that little girls can lie and hoax as well as anyone else, was understandably cautious about his research and eventually decided that there was no truth in spiritualism or in survival after death, Conan Doyle was fatuous to excess. Ding told me,"Sir Arthur was not accustomed to being told that he was wrong." Conan Doyle's knighthood was not, as many have believed, awarded him for the creation of Sherlock Holmes. Rather, he was honored for his spirited defense of the British presence in South Africa, a situation he wrote about extensively well after the Holmes stories had brought him fame, and thus influence.

Much has been made of the desire Houdini had to investigate the possibility of survival-after-death. I have never felt that he had any belief whatsoever in that myth. He was much more interested, I think, in the kind of mind-set that leads people to accept such ideas, and he was surely astonished that a person of renown like Conan Doyle had swallowed the whole thing so eagerly and uncritically.

Sir Arthur had lost two sons, Raymond and Innes, in World War I. Though he was by then already a believer in spiritualism, this double tragedy tipped him completely into the hands of the fakers who then mercilessly exploited him in every way they could, and he became their greatest publicist, ever. The argument was that the man who had created the super-logical character Holmes, would use logic and care in his own life.

The flaw in that argument, as I see it, lies in the fact that Sherlock Holmes could not have survived in a real world. The post-Victorian era celebrated the reign of reason, reflected in the exciting new scientific discoveries of Curie, Lodge, Röntgen, and Crookes. Everything was logical. Facts could be inferred from trends and data samples. All was well with the universe, and it was consistent. Well, not quite. I believe that Conan Doyle assumed far more consistency for his world than he should have, and put Holmes into that fabric. Holmes could only have functioned if ships always docked at the same day and hour, persons of certain birth-lines always behaved in the same fashion, and mind-sets never changed. His dismissal of the skeptics who doubted the validity of the Cottingley fairy photos was succinct. The girls could not have deceived an aristocrat like himself, he averred, because they were "of the artisan class." Case closed, as Holmes would say.

Houdini, on the other hand, was familiar with a real world in which the artist had to always be ready for the unexpected. He regularly put himself in substantial danger (though not nearly as often as his public was led to believe) and was prepared to handle emergencies and problems in a practical manner. The idealistic view put forward by Conan Doyle was entirely foreign to him in every way. He solved the tricks of the fakers by direct observation and shrewd expertise derived from his experience. He observed the swindlers using methods and approaches with which he was quite familiar, though his intent was to entertain, not cheat.

We can only wonder what the reaction of Harry might have been, had he known that once he was safely in the grave, the pompous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would issue a statement that during one of the magician?? performances, he had hidden himself backstage and witnessed Houdini dematerialize himself from a confinement. The fact that he had no explanation for Houdini's tricks drove him to this ridiculous statement, and Im sure he believed that it could have been true. And that's all he needed to state it as a fact.

Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering, there's no good evidence for the reality of fairies. Sorry...