Since I've written two recent posts on Arthur Conan Doyle, I thought I should take up the most notorious incident in his career as a paranormal investigator - the case of the Cottingley Fairies. The story is pretty well known and needs no retelling here; those who are interested can read the essentials in Doyle's own book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies. The complete text is available online, along with all the photos that featured in the controversy. A much shorter version of the story, with some photos, is found at Wikipedia; unlike some Wiki articles on the paranormal, this one seems to be accurate, at least at the present time.
Probably the most famous criticism of the Cottingley case was presented by James Randi. In his well-known book Flim-Flam!, Randi devotes all of Chapter 2 to an in-depth analysis of the controversy, which includes original research making use of the then-new technique of computer scanning.
I must admit that when I read Doyle's book, I was hoping to find his presentation of the facts more convincing - and hence less damaging to his reputation - than I'd been led to expect. Not that I harbored any doubts about the photos; they are obvious fakes, and their artificiality is immediately apparent to any modern viewer, though people in Doyle's era were considerably less sophisticated in regard to trick photography. What strikes us as clear fakery apparently looked pretty convincing to some people - even presumed photographic "experts" - of that day.
So yes, the photos are undoubtedly fakes; nothing can alter that fact. But if Doyle had presented his case with appropriate qualifying remarks, he might have escaped much of the opprobrium he later suffered. Sadly, he did not. Though he sounds a few notes of caution, the overall attitude of his book is that of a true believer, doggedly certain that these five photos are the beginning of a new era for humanity, a time when the mystical creatures previously seen only by clairvoyants would become visible to us all. No wonder he described the Cottingley photos as "epoch-making."
In his book, elaborate and highly doubtful claims are made on behalf of the photos. It is claimed that the fairies are clearly in motion in the stills, when actually there is little if any blur on the figures - understandably, since they were cutouts. It is claimed that only a photographic genius with the full resources of a studio at his disposal could have attempted such fakes; in reality, the shots were easily done by placing the cutouts in front of a human subject. It is claimed that innocent little girls never lie; well, not all girls are so innocent.
Though I'm not normally a fan of Randi, I must admit that in Flim-Flam! he makes mincemeat of the fairies - and, with his typically unsparing sarcasm, of Doyle as well. According to Randi, Doyle was "convinced of many irrationalities ... a man who needed such evidence desperately to bolster his own delusions... [and who] spent some L250,000 in pursuit of this nonsense [i.e., spiritualism]."
Doyle himself begins his book with the earnest hope that his arguments for the validity of the photos, even if rejected by the reader, will not prejudice anyone against the idea of life after death, which is to him a separate issue. In this he was surely naive. His exposure as disappointingly gullible in one area of paranormal investigation inevitably colored all subsequent perception of his efforts in other areas. If he could be taken in by two girls playing a childish prank, how can we trust his judgment regarding séances conducted by professional mediums?
Although the photos have been thoroughly debunked, interest in the fairies continues. This Web page, part of a site devoted to the Cottingley area, offers some useful information and links. The Museum of Hoaxes covers the topic and includes all five photos. Joe Cooper, who wrote a book on the subject, presents the essentials of the case here. The Cottingley Network goes all-out with a multi-page presentation. An essay rather sympathetic to Doyle was put out by the Arthur Conan Doyle Society; it makes the point that the original prints were not as clear as the more modern ones (see the comparison at the very bottom of the page).
I have not found anyone who still believes the fairies were real.