Is there anyone who is a fan of folklore that hasn’t heard of the Cottingley Fairies, for good or ill? There may be a few, I suppose. I’ll give a brief explanation, by way of introducing a very charming film taken from The BBC Roadshow, featuring Frances Griffiths’s daughter and granddaughter.
Basically, two girls named Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright came home one day in 1917 and told their parents Frances had seen fairies by the brook near their village of Cottingley in Yorkshire. Their parents mocked them, which made them mad, so they set about creating photographic proof. They were so determined to come up with this proof that they cut out pictures of fairies from Edwardian books, mounted them on cardboard, and artfully arranged them in the foliage near the brook so they could interact with them. Everyone was amazed. The local theosophists got ahold of the story and ran with it, then the spiritualists, then (and this is what really condemned the girls to a life of lying) the great spiritualist himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who went so far as to write a book on the subject.
Do I believe in fairies?
Certainly not in cardboard cut out ones. A modern eye isn’t as easily fooled, I don’t think, as Edwardians. (But that could just be early 21st century hubris talking.) We look at these photos and think, “How could anyone be fooled by them?” But people wanted to believe, and in that time when photography was new, many accepted that the camera could not lie—and believed.
Do I believe Frances saw fairies that first day and that childish righteous indignation at being mocked for the truth led her and Elsie to a twisted path of lies?
I believe anything is possible, especially lies hiding a truth, and truths hiding a lie. I believe in the will to believe and the will to persuade. I believe that things unseen are not so easily reproduced upon command and the temptation to give nature a helping hand is sometimes overwhelming. I believe that is almost as tricksy an answer as the Cottingley Fairies themselves, who are often obstreperous and contrary creatures.
And so, the film. I love the little girl in pink standing next to the “expert appraiser.” Her expressions and body language are priceless, swinging between boredom and interest. A child of a different time than Frances and Elsie, to be sure, but no less fascinated.
Mirrored from Better Than Dead.
This is one of those stories where folklore and history intersect, and more compelling for the union.
Some of you may know this haunting song by Alison Krauss:
Some of you may even know it’s based on a true story.
On the morning of April 24, 1856, in the remote and dense forest of Spruce Hollow, Pennsylvania in the Blue Knob region of the Alleghenies near Pavia, Samuel Cox went out hunting for dinner while his wife was distracted with chores. When he returned to the log cabin he’d built for his wife Susannah and their two sons, Joseph, aged 5, and George, aged 6, his frantic wife told him that when she’d looked up from her work the boys had disappeared. She’d been calling their names and searching the area but they never responded to her calls, and she could find no trace of them.
Samuel began a desperate search, but had no better luck. Neighbors were implored for help and within hours nearly two hundred people had joined the search. They scoured the area for days, the numbers of searchers growing to almost one thousand persons. Some came as far as fifty miles to aid the Cox family at a time when traveling through that rugged country was very difficult. A dowser and a local witch were even brought into to help. Nothing—no one could find any trace.
Inevitably, with so many searchers coming up empty, rumors and gossip began to fly. Eventually, even the parents were suspected of murdering their own children, some people going so far as to tear up the floorboards of the cabin and digging up the land around it to search for bodies.
At the height of this rumor-frenzy, a man named Jacob Dibert, living some twelve miles from Spruce Hollow, had a nightmare. In this dream, Jacob saw the search parties looking for the Cox children and saw himself amongst them—though in reality he hadn’t joined them. In the dream, he became separated from the rest and didn’t recognize the part of the forest he moved through, but then he came to a fallen tree and saw a dead deer. Just beyond the deer, he spied a small boy’s shoe, and just beyond that a beech tree lying across a stream. Crossing the stream, he ascended a steep and stony ridge, then down into a ravine. By the roots of a large birch tree with a shattered top, he found the missing boys lying in each others’ arms, dead from exposure.
Shaken by this dream, Jacob at first told only his wife, but it returned to him the next night, and the night after that, so he finally told his brother-in-law, Harrison Whysong, who lived in Pavia. Whysong was skeptical, but he knew the area and knew a ridge that matched Jacob’s description. Jacob was so shaken up that Whysong decided to ease his mind by taking him there. On May 8, they began their search. They found the fallen tree, they found the dead deer, they found the small shoe. They ran for the stony ridge and down into the ravine, towards the roots of that birch tree with the shattered top. They found the two small boys, lying in each others’ arms, dead from exposure.
The boys were buried in Mt. Union Cemetery. In 1906 on the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, the people of Pavia erected a monument. In 2002, it was vandalized, but the good folks from Culp Monumental Works of Schellsburg restored it. C. B. Culp, who founded the company, made the original chiseled marble stone. You can still visit the monument. It’s quite a hike, I understand, and there’s even a geocache there for people who are interested in geocaches. It is rumored to be a place of strange lights and odd occurrences, even to this day.
Sources for this story:
*Another irregular series that I will probably keep up with irregularly.
Mirrored from Better Than Dead.