Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings
A Brazilian town is promoting its werewolves as a sightseeing attraction.
Joanopolis, in Brazil's south-eastern state of Sao Paulo, was once home to rich coffee growers.
Now the town is organising midnight 'werewolf patrols' taking tourists on jeep trips around the countryside.
Local artists are cultivating a 'friendly werewolf' image that sells hand-made models, T-shirts and even bottles of wine.
Joanopolis' tourism secretary Fernando Franco has been scouring the countryside around the town for three years, visiting areas with frequent werewolf sightings.
The most recent in Joanopolis was two months ago, when the town's nightwatchman, 45-year-old Eargeu de Lima Nogueira, saw a huge, dog-like beast leap across a road in a single bound.
He said: "I tried following it, but it kept getting away. I saw it another two times that night - whenever I saw it there was this awful smell of rotting flesh.
"The last time, it looked straight at me, raising its head on a long neck.
I decided it was time to go then. I've been doing the night shift for 17
years and after this I spent three days thinking very hard about
giving it up."
For more on the science and politics behind Erin Brokavich see the following links:
In case the term "Hudson Institute" comes up, check out this link:
See you at the Oscars.
CALL FOR SKEPTICAL BUMPER STICKERS
The Skeptics Society is going to produce some fun bumper stickers to show that skeptics are cool, skeptics have a sense of humor, etc. We are also looking for a short and catchy phrase we can use on our literature. Brill's Content uses "Skepticism is a Virtue" which I really like. But the ethic of originality dictates that we cannot use it, but there must be others just as clever. I thought I'd ask this e-Skeptic readership for some suggestions, such as:
Skeptic slogan ideas:
Because Skepticism is Essential
Because Skepticism is a Necessity
Because Skepticism is a Virtue
Bumper sticker ideas:
When in Doubt . . . Think Skeptically!
When in Doubt . . . Think Science!
Tune in - Turn on - Drop Out
Tune in to skepticism - Turn on to science - Drop out of nonsense
Nothing is certain . . . but I'm not sure about that!
Be All Your Brain Can Be
Skeptics Are Very Much in Evidence
That's Nice - Prove it! (National Capital Area Skeptics' pin)
Skeptics do it naturally
Skepticism Bears Close Scrutiny
Please send suggestions to subject line: BUMPER STICKERS
PSYCHICS AND TOOTH FAIRIES
In response to Marc Berard's commentary that Gary Schwartz's theory predicts the reality of the tooth fairy (because everything becomes "real" in some sense as soon as it is spoken or transmitted in some manner by which it becomes part of the universe), Schwartz responds:
"Marc's comment about systemic memory predicting that our theory predicts that people's false beliefs can take on a "life of their own" is correct. I hadn't thought about that as applied to the toothfairy....Marc would say I also believe in the Easter Bunny and even the Energizer Bunny, using this logic. And in that sense, he would be correct that THE THEORY MAKES THE PREDICTIONS... However, he would be FALSE when he claims that I BELIEVE in the claims....I do not KNOW if these claims are correct - that is for future research to decide....But I am a logician, as well as a laboratory scientist, and the logic points in that direction...."
No additional commentary needed from me on this.
JOHN EDWARD PRODUCER RESPONDS TO SKEPTICS
This week's Time magazine includes the following letter to the editor from the producer of psychic medium John Edward's show "Crossing Over."
THE STAFF OF THE TV SHOW CROSSING Over with John Edward aims to present a truthful and accurate representation of John's work as a psychic medium. We wish that TIME, in Leon Jaroffs article about the program [BEHAVIOR, March 5], had done the same for the magazine's readers. Jaroffs piece was a mix of erroneous observations and baseless theories. Your readers should know the following: No information is given to John Edward about the members of the audience with whom he talks. There is no eavesdropping on gallery conversations, and there are no "tricks" to feed information to John.
While time constraints mandate that we edit gallery sessions for
broadcast, we cut both hits and misses to honestly reflect John's true level
accuracy; we don't edit out of sequence. And while Crossing Over is a
hit and one of the Sci Fi Channers stronger shows, it is not the "highest
show," as Jaroff claimed. Our aim is not to persuade anyone to believe
in psychic phenomenon. We encourage viewers and guests to approach Crossing
Over with a healthy sense of skepticism and then make up their own minds
about what they see.
--CHARLES NORDLANDER EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Crossing Over with John Edward
New York City
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Director of the Skeptics Society, the host of the Skeptics Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. Go to www.skeptic.com to join the Skeptics Society and subscribe to Skeptic magazine.
Representative Holt of the Great State of Arkansas wants to dictate the truth, but exposes his ignorance instead. The creationists are back in business in Arkansas. Are you surprised?
See the new creationist bill HERE.
Here is a news story.
See Bill Bennetta's take on the issue here.
Is this a great time to be alive or what?
Voodoo Science, The road from foolishness to fraud
by Robert L. Park
Oxford University Press, 2000
Hb 18.99 English Pounds, 240pp illus, bib,
index ISBN: 0-1985-0745-3
Park is a physicist who relishes his role as scientific adviser to government and press in Washington, DC. He identifies these flaws: pathological science --- scientists fooling themselves by getting the results they expect, rather than seeing what is really there, or by placing too much faith in reputation; junk science (obfuscation and spurious claims which convince journalists and legal minds with no scientific training); pseudoscience (faith in things spiritual, magical, ET visitations without any evidence); and fraudulent science.
Many of the usual suspects are here --- cold fusion, homeopathy, Rhine's ESP experiments, and perpetual motion. It may surprise technophiles to find manned space missions included, but machine exploration is vastly cheaper and has produced a huge volume of data that human flight has not. Fans of military hardware will be even more upset to find SDI and Edward Teller severely dissed. At times, Park seems to set up straw men to blow them away, but this is a serious, well-indexed and valuable book about problems assessing "extraordinary claims". It has an anecdotal style and is entertaining and enjoyable. However, its author sometimes comes across as smug and too eager to belittle the naïve, gullible plain folks of Normaltown, USA. Thus it could be off-putting to the people who most need it --- those who swallow fantastic notions of supposedly scientific advances rather than holding the scepticism which scientists and forteans cherish.
There have always been crackpots and crackpot ideas. Embarrassingly (or hilariously), some of the wackiest notions turn out to be good science after all, once the theory and/or experimentation appears. History is full of such reversals. It is only with hindsight that we can tell which cracked pots can be glued back together. Scientists argue and disagree as much as anyone. Einstein spent decades developing thought experiments which would dismiss quantum mechanics. After his death, as technology grew, these were performed, and in every case matched quantum theory. Great minds can be sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and often somewhere in between.
I should mention that Park does show a healthy scepticism about new claims and about the so-called "experts", and his insistence that well-proven principles such as Newton's laws are unlikely to be overturned by a new, fantastic "free energy" news item is not misplaced. This is an admirable book and I recommend it. However, lurking in the back rooms of fortean minds is the danger of being blinkered. Posterity may spot the egg on your face.
Fortean verdict: A readable dig at science and pseudoscience
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON March 21 (Reuters) - Debunking a popular type of alternative
medicine, Canadian researchers said on Wednesday they found no evidence
that so-called chelation therapy benefited patients with coronary heart
Swansea are inviting a group of Kenyans to the Vetch Field to perform a voodoo dance after psychic Uri Geller said there were "black spirits" at the football ground.
The club believe there may be a more sinister reason for their position in the Second Division than just a combination of bad luck, injuries and some below-par performances.
The Kenyan Boys, who tour with the Cottle & Austen circus, have asked if they can help with the club's apparent spiritual malaise.
Swansea communications manager Peter Owen said: "They've asked to help out and so we invited them to come along.
"When Uri Geller visited us a while ago he said there were black spirits at the club.
"He even claimed these spirits caused the suicide of one of our players, Tich Evans, who played here in the 1920s."
Last updated: 11:12 Wednesday 21st March 2001
A four-year-old girl has beaten a City expert and a stargazer in a share-dealing contest.
Tia Laverne Roberts took part in a 'fantasy share' experiment and chose her portfolio at random. She was the only one of the three to turn a profit from her imaginary £5,000 investment, making the grand sum of £37.37.
Tia, from south-east London, chose stocks from the Footsie index of 100 leading shares by throwing pieces of paper numbered one to 100 into the air and then making her selection of four.
Professional investor Mark Goodson used his experience to predict the market, while financial astrologer Christeen Skinner examined the movements of the planets to help her select her stocks.
The week-long study was carried out by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to mark National Science Week.
The Daily Mail reports that each of the three was given a fantasy £5,000 to spend on shares. Ms Skinner fared particularly badly, losing £266.46, while Mr Goodson lost £130.32.
Tia's shares were in the Bank of Scotland, Sainsbury's, Diageo and Old Mutual; Miss Skinner chose BOC Group, BAE Systems, Unilever and Pearson, which she said had "a good planetary wind behind them"; and Mr Goodson chose Vodafone, Marconi, Cable & Wirless and Prudential
Two Buddhist ghostbusters have held a ceremony to rid a Hong Kong newspaper's new offices of spirits.
The robed monks chanted, sprinkled water and rang a bell during a cleansing ceremony at the South China Morning Post.
Editor Robert Keatley and some staff bowed at a small altar set up near the reception desk. Mr Keatley's secretary, Winnie Tam, said the half-hour ritual had been organised to allay any fears among staff.
Some women at the Post have been going to the lavatory in pairs after the newspaper's food editor heard a voice calling her name while she was washing her hands on March 8 - but no one was there.
"I just thought that it was really weird," said Susan Jung, who is from Monterey Park, California.
Jung said that, as far as she knows, she is the only person on staff to have experienced a spiritual encounter since the daily newspaper moved into its new office space a few weeks ago.
The voice spoke English, she said.
"I am not normally that superstitious," Jung said. "I didn't tell anybody for a day. I just wanted to know if it actually happened or if I had imagined it. But I really do think that it happened."
Two robed Buddhist monks entered the newspaper office in the afternoon to perform the ritual. They chanted and one dipped a leaf into a cup of water to sprinkle it in all directions around the office.
The newspaper had said previously its reporter had failed to substantiate any of the "increasingly wild stories" about the ghosts.
Two dogs owned by Sylvester Stallone's mum have predicted who will win this year's Oscars.
Jackie Stallone's doberman pinschers have already correctly forecast George W Bush would win the race to the White House.
Now the psychic pooches say Chocolat will win the Best Picture Oscar.
"My dogs said Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would win for Best Foreign Film - and they are never wrong," Stallone told the New York Post.
They also predict Kate Hudson will win Best Supporting Actress for Almost Famous, Julia Roberts will be named Best Actress and Russell Crowe will win the hotly contested Best Actor award.
"Tom Hanks is not gonna get it this year," said Stallone.
According to the dogs, the winner of Best Director will be Steven Soderbergh for Traffic.
Crowds descended on an African hospital after hearing rumours a couple had become stuck together during sex .
They wanted to see the adulterous couple said to have been the victims of a witch doctor employed by the cheated husband.
Katima Mulilo State Hospital in Namibia had to issue an official denial to stop crowds descending on the clinic, dismissing the story as a fabrication.
The hospital's switchboard was also flooded with calls about the story.
One version said a married woman, whose husband is serving with the the Namibia Defence Force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, allegedly had an adulterous relationship with a local man.
When relatives told the soldier he enlisted the services of a witch doctor to "produce medicine" that would make the two lovers get stuck should they try and cheat on him again.
Other versions had it that the woman "died" after the couple was "unstuck"
by doctors, reports The Namibian newspaper.
From the Fortean Times at
Dr Hal Puthoff has been conducting serious scientific research at the frontiers of knowledge for over a quarter of a century.
In 1972, he and colleague Russell Targ, while researching lasers at the Stanford Research Institute, were asked by Edgar Mitchell to test the alleged psychic abilities of Uri Geller. Their paper caused something of a storm when it was published in the science journal Nature. The paper and relevant articles are linked to the bottom of this page.
This message is from Independent Argument. It was forwarded to you by KALMISTO.
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Forum: the Independent Argument Forum
Subject: The weird astronomy of the Hare Krishnas
DateTime: 14/03/01 01:12:16
Has anyone of you read the fifth book of Srimad-Bhagawatam? The book is published by the Hare-Krishna movement and it contains a lot of information on astronomy,some of it very specific. The founder of this movement Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada(died 1977) claimed that this book and all Vedic scriptures are faultless because they come from the Supreme Being. Read the chapters on astronomy and you will not believe your eyes! The moon is twice as big as the sun and it lies at the distance of 2 560 000 km (1 381 406 miles) from the Earth.(I hope I made the conversion from km to miles correctly) The sun lies much closer to the Earth: The distance is 1 280 000 km(approximately 690 703 miles). The stars in this universe have no light of their own, they only reflect the light that comes from the sun, which is the only heavenly body that emits light in this universe. These are not the only mistakes in the book. The book is full of them. The chapters on astronomy are very easy to find. You do not have to read the whole book, it is rather thick. The founder of the Hare Krishna movement always taught that all the astronomical information in this book must be taken literally. Read the purports(commentaries to the verses) written by Prabhupada and you will see how this man considers this "information" superior to the information we get from modern astronomy. It is amazing that this movement is able to attract members in the West. This movement also rejects the scientific explanations to the eclipses of the sun and the moon. The 5th book of S-M knows nothing about the rotation of the Earth on it´s axis. The change from day to night is caused by the movements of the sun,which moves all around the universe.(It is the only sun, the only source of light in the universe). The Hare Krishna movement is not famous for it´s weird astronomy. Very few eople( not even all members)have knowledge of these things. I apologize for my English. It could be better. Write to me if you want more information. I also welcome critical comments. You can also contact the nearest Hare Krishna center if you doubt my honesty. The Krishnas will tell you that I have misunderstood the astronomical information in S-M but I have not. Read Prabhupad´s words in S-M! All the purports are written by him and this man was a real fundamentalist, which you will see with your own eyes.
LITTLE ROCK -- A bill by Rep. Jim Holt, R-Springdale, would place restrictions on public school teachings of evolution and outlaw teaching false scientific findings.
House Bill 2548 seeks to remove false scientific conclusions from the state's textbooks. It also would require that teachers tell students to note in their textbook margins that certain teachings are theories.
"We want the truth," Holt said. "Let's get the truth in the textbooks and let's get the fraudulent information out."
To list members who are interested in science education in America's public schools: I recommend that you read this new article, if you haven't already done so --
"Errant Texts," by Janet Raloff, in the new edition of Science News, at http://www.sciencenews.org/20010317/bob1.asp
See AP on-line listings for the rest of the story.
Dime-sized dollops of dung rained from the sky over Sevier County this week, spattering a home and leaving health officials knee-deep in befuddlement over its origin.
The mess dropped Monday over a home on the outskirts of Richfield, covering two sides of the house and showering over the back yard and a hot tub, which was covered.
The homeowners were gone at the time, and discovered the mess just before 6 p.m. By then the spots appeared to be at least three hours old.
Health officials tested the splotches and found coliform bacteria, including E. coli, verifying the mess was fecal matter from an unknown source. The homeowner was advised to wash the mess away with disinfectant.
"It could be very risky. Feces can carry viruses and other things that cause serious health problems," said Guy Dansie, environmental scientist with the Central Utah Public Health Department.
No one can say for sure where the mess originated.
When similar gooey globs hit homes in Salt Lake County in spring 1999, homeowners blamed aircraft for dumping septic tanks in flight. But the mess was devoid of tell-tale blue chemicals used in jetliner toilets, and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration maintain that aircraft do not have the ability to void their tanks while flying.
Monday's muck appeared to have come straight down from the sky, Dansie said.
"There was a spatter mark every three or four inches. It was quite a mess."
-- Kevin Cantera
Experiments have backed what was once a scientific 'heresy', says Lionel Milgrom
Thursday March 15, 2001
About homeopathy, Professor Madeleine Ennis of Queen's University Belfast is, like most scientists, deeply sceptical. That a medicinal compound diluted out of existence should still exert a therapeutic effect is an affront to conventional biochemistry and pharmacology, based as they are on direct and palpable molecular events. The same goes for a possible explanation of how homoeopathy works: that water somehow retains a "memory" of things once dissolved in it.
1) Until today, trying to find the citation for an article from Skeptical Inquirer back issues had been a difficult, hit-and-miss project.
But now, the Skeptical Inquirer Index has come to the rescue of SI readers and anyone trying to research paranormal and pseudoscience topics. The index is now online at http://www.csicop.org/si/index/. The Subject Index--with the complete listing of articles and columns from Vol. 1, Issue 1., 1976, through January/February 2001--is currently available. In addition, an authors index will be available online by the end of this month.
Public Relations Director
2) Articles of Note
Publisher drops Irving trial book
by John Ezard
"The UK publisher Heinemann has pulled out at the last minute from publishing a leading British historian's study of the Holocaust denial libel case, it was disclosed yesterday."
FBI debates using more polygraphs
By Dan Eggen
"It seemed like a routine polygraph screening. Mark Mallah and his colleagues, members of an FBI counterintelligence unit in New York, were hooked up to lie detector machines and quizzed about drug use, contacts with foreigners and other subjects deemed vital to their roles in protecting national security."
Psychic balances feeling, observations during a reading
By GARRET MATHEWS
Evansville Courier & Press
"This is the second of two columns about Madame Faye who reads palms and gazes into a crystal ball from her office next to a consignment shop."
Overlawyered & Overgoverned
By Walter Olson
"How were we governed, regulated, policed, lawyered, and judged in 2000? Sadly, much the same as in 1999. Here are some of last year's month-by-month "highlights":"
Spring Myths Die Hard
byLarry D. Hatfield
San Francisco Chronicle
"The weather outside is delightful and the vernal equinox is only eight days away, so it's probably time to dispel two perpetual spring myths."
Under the fairy influence
By LAURENCE CHOLLET
"In March 1895, Bridget Cleary, a 28-year-old woman, vanished from her County Tipperay cottage. Her husband, Michael, a successful cooper, reported she was kidnapped by fairies living in the nearby hills."
Bill 602P 5-cent e-mail charge both big bunk
By PHIL MULKINS
"I have received this e-mail twice and disregarded it originally as being just another e-mail hoax. But if it IS really true, we need to start bending our congressmen's ears. What do you know about it?"
Prospecting for Truth Amid the Distortions of Oral History
By ALEXANDER STILLE
New York Times
"When Alessandro Portelli was doing an oral history of a small working-class Italian city in the 1970's, he became puzzled when his subjects repeatedly made factual errors or even related events that had never happened. For instance, when talking about the death of a worker named Luigi Trastulli, who had been killed in a clash with the police in 1949, the people Mr. Portelli interviewed all insisted that the event had occurred during demonstrations in 1953."
WHAT'S INSIDE THE JIM RHODES STATUE?
by Aaron Marshall
The Other Paper
"In the long, full career of Jim Rhodes, there is one incident that remains a raw wound to an aging Baby Boomer generation. It is the former governor's decision to send Ohio National Guard troops to confront Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University."
'70, '97 data bolster greenhouse theory
A comparison of satellite data from 1970 and 1997 has yielded what scientists say is the first direct evidence that "greenhouse gases" are building up in Earth's atmosphere and allowing less heat to escape into space.
Captured on South Beach, Satan later escaped. His
demons and the horrible Bloody Mary are now killing
people. God has fled. Avenging angels hide out in the
Everglades. And other tales from children in Dade's
By Lynda Edwards
On behalf of our russian colleague Vladimir Azhazha from the Moscow UFO Center MUFON-CES publishes his paper "Main discovery of the outgoing century - The humanity as intellect-carrier is not alone in the universe"
According to Azhazha the search for extraterrestrial civilizations by call-signs and astronomical characteristics, including technological wastes, failed. However, UFO science had proven direct contact between mankind and at least one extraterrestrial civilization. This is what he calls the main discovery of the last century.
Vladímir Azhazha (1927), Philosophy Doctor, taught at the Moscow University. He is member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences and since the beginning of the 80s president of the Moscow UFO Center, a ufological association of 180 research groups from the former USSR.
The paper gives a short overview on the russian state of UFO research.
Hannes la Rue
News & Web Master
Gesellschaft zur Untersuchung von anomalen atmosphärischen und Radar-Erscheinungen
MUTUAL UFO NETWORK - CENTRAL EUROPEAN SECTION
Arthur Clarke is known for spinning elaborate, visionary tales of futures that might be, none more famous than 2001: A Space Odyssey. But according to Clarke, the real 2001 has some pretty unbelievable things to offer.
"I'm fairly convinced that we have discovered life on Mars," Clarke told SPACE.com Sunday as Buzz Aldrin listened. "There are some incredible photographs from [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory], which to me are pretty convincing proof of the existence of large forms of life on Mars! Have a look at them. I don't see any other interpretation."
Aldrin did not comment, but responded by referring to another remarkable topic, so-called zero-point energy, theorized by some physicists as being a powerful energy source that exists in the vacuum of space. Aldrin said, "To put this into a perspective where Arthur and I agree: It may take 200, 300 or 400 years, but it's going to take zero-point energy to get us to Alpha Centauri." Turning to Clarke, he added, "Correct?"
"I'm glad that Buzz has raised this rather controversial question," Clarke said. "A lot of my scientist friends are crazy to believe there's anything in this. It started with this so-called cold fusion business, which everybody laughed out of court. But I'm now convinced that there are new forms of energy, which we are tapping, and they make even nuclear energy look trivial in comparison. And when we control those energy sources, the universe will open up."
And then Clarke took an opportunity to rebut those who refuse to believe even well documented events, specifically, the Apollo moon missions. Responding to a recent television program claiming the Apollo landings were faked, Clarke said, "I can't imagine anybody being stupid enough to think that a program involving hundreds of thousands of people, carried out over a period of [more than a decade], in a blaze of publicity, could possibly be faked. Ben Franklin said, 'A conspiracy of three people can be kept secret, if two of them are dead!'"
A Ghanaian man has reportedly been shot dead while testing whether a magic spell has made him bulletproof.
A Ghanaian news agency reported that the man, Aleobiga Aberima, from the village of Lambu in northeastern Ghana, had asked a jujuman -- a local witchdoctor -- to make him invincible to bullets.
After smearing his body with a concoction of herbs every day for two weeks, a fellow villager volunteered to shoot him to check whether the spell had actually worked.
He died instantly from a single bullet.
The news agency said angry villagers then attacked the witchdoctor, and beat him severely until he was rescued by a villager elder.
From the newsroom of the BBC World Service
The Ring of Fire and DHEA: A Theory for Energetic Restoration of Adrenal Reserves. C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D., & Caroline M. Myss, M.A., Ph.D. A pilot study is presented to make available to others an opportunity to study DHEA restoration through needle or electrical activation of 12 acupuncture points we have called The Ring of Fire. DHEA deficiency is present in every major illness. Thus DHEA restoration offers major potential for improving health and longevity.
To provide further resources to skeptic groups and to increase the popularity of the Superstition Bash, CSICOP has set the wheels in motion to create a central Internet location to house all of your superstition bash needs:
The site hopes to develop into a comprehensive resource of ideas, materials and event how-tos to help groups coordinate a superstition bash in their community.
Featured resources will include the Superstition Obstacle Course, Chain Letter Activities, the Limbo Ladder, MisFortune Cookies, and the Failed Prediction Archives of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine! We are also building a Superstition Library, a Publicity and Promotions Resource Area and we have also included a contest for the Best Superstition Essay!
Check it out: http://www.csicop.org/superstition
This year we have two Friday the 13ths, but to make this a regular annual event we will chose only one date per year to act as the National Superstition Bash Day. This year's event will take place on July 13th and will include a major press campaign to all national media outlets. We then hope to farm media inquiries to local groups throughout the country that are holding a Bash of their own.
We encourage your feedback and welcome the participation of all interested skeptics. Please let us know if you are planning, or are interested in planning a Superstition Bash, this Friday July 13th and we will add you to the National Event Calendar.
Groups and individuals can participate, share their ideas and receive further information by contacting:
Program Director Amanda Chesworth at Group Relations Director Bela Scheiber at
Media-related queries should be sent to CSICOP Public Relations Director Kevin Christopher at
Fairies hoax fetches £6,000
Wed. Mar. 14, 2001
PHOTOGRAPHS of the celebrated Cottingley Fairies hoax sold for £6,000 at auction yesterday. The collection was bought at Bonhams & Brooks in London by an anonymous bidder. It was compiled by Edward Gardner who brought the case to the notice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the detective Sherlock Holmes. Both men fell for the hoax perpetrated by Elsie Wright, aged 15, and her 10 year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, in 1917.
Are those fairies real after all? Saturday 18 July 1998
A set of fairy photographs going on sale at Sotheby's is famous for being faked - but June Ducas says that one of them has an air of real mystery and magic about it
"MY favourite place was the willow branch, some little distance upstream from the bottom of the garden . . . There I would sit by myself, still and quiet, observing. The most common appearance was that of small green men. One, I recall, was dressed in all shades of green: long, green stockings, a coat of greyish green and a tiny cap covering all his head . . .
"Then the fairies appeared, some with wings and some without. They were smaller than the little men and had very white faces and arms. They would sit in patches of sunlight on a low bank at the very edges of the beck.
Occasionally they would approach very near to me, but always seemed to be occupied with business of their own . . . I know that I felt a sensation of calm and happiness with the sound of water running over the stones of the beck, and getting glimpses of the fairies from time to time." These words are not from a fairy tale, but an excerpt from the unpublished (and unfinished) memoirs written by a woman in her seventies, Frances Griffiths, in which she recaptures her childhood wonder at seeing "nature spirits". Almost a decade later, in 1986, she died. Aged 10, Frances, together with her 15-year-old cousin Elsie Wright (Mrs Hill), perpetrated one of the most celebrated photographic hoaxes of our time - the case of the Cottingley fairies. In July 1917, in the small village of Cottingley, near Bradford in Yorkshire, the girls took two pictures of themselves beside a brook with little creatures that they claimed to be fairies, dancing elves and gnomes. As far as the family was concerned, it was all a bit of a prank. Had it not been for the bizarre credulity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of that astute scientific detective, Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the pictures would have been forgotten.
However, the photographs were brought to Conan Doyle's attention by the theosophist and lecturer on the paranormal, Edward L. Gardner. Having recently become an ardent spiritualist, Conan Doyle asked him to get the girls to take more photographs. A leading dark-room technician, Harold Snelling, supposedly an expert on faked photography, staked his reputation on the validity of the photographs. In the 1921 Christmas issue of The Strand magazine, Conan Doyle wrote an article on "this epoch-making event" and the following year published his book, The Coming of the Fairies. In spite of the public ridicule heaped on him, the story captured the public's imagination and has since been the subject of books, television programmes and films. Sixty years on, in 1983, the cousins owned up, prompted to do so by a thorough technical investigation as published in The British Journal of Photography. Elsie ("who did not have the capacity to see fairies, although she was interested in learning about them," wrote Frances) had made the fairies out of cardboard and painted them on the kitchen table. Sticking them into the ground with long hat-pins, the girls took the famous snapshots, five in all. They then crushed the evidence and threw it into the stream.
Elsie also explained that the joke got rather out of hand when Conan Doyle became involved. He had become increasingly attracted to "unworldly things" after his son had been killed in the War, and the girls felt sorry for him.
But there is one mystery that remains tantalisingly unsolved. Frances insisted that the last picture was not a piece of the same chicanery. "To her dying day, my mother maintained that she had seen real fairies, and that the last photograph, The Fairy Bower, was genuine," says her daughter, Christine Lynch.
This week she is selling at Sotheby's a set of prints (belonging to Frances and understood to have been sent to her by Conan Doyle) and 37 lantern slides taken from the original negatives supplied to Edward Gardner by the cousins, and used for his lectures during the 1920s. Also for sale is a first edition of The Coming of the Fairies given to Frances by the author, with his inscription to her on the flyleaf.
The Fairy Bower is a mysterious, phantasmic image compared to the stilted figures in the other pictures. Conan Doyle thought that it was astonishing, impossible to fake, still less by two inexperienced young girls. In the centre, an ethereal shape like a chrysalis is lightly suspended amid the grasses through which demure-looking sprites with diaphanous wings can be glimpsed. "It is a fantastic picture of fairies," says Lynch, who has researched fairy folklore in Ireland, where she lives. "You can actually see through their bodies."
Clearly both Elsie and Frances felt this picture was important. Even after the hoax was exposed, they argued over who had taken it. Relishing the publicity, Elsie gave numerous explanations of how it had been done. But Frances, deeply ashamed of the deception, guarded her anonymity as much as possible. Yet she never wavered from her version that she had sighted in the glen at Cottingley "a curious nest-like object" from which a small face and shoulders emerged. Quickly pulling out the concertina part of her camera and gauging the approximate distance, she touched the trigger. A letter in Christine Lynch's possession from Elsie's mother, Polly Wright, to Gardner, dated September 5, 1920, states that Frances took it, only she did not focus her camera. "What my mother found most strange about the entire saga", says Lynch, "is the total lack of investigative work by Conan Doyle. He never met Elsie or Frances to question them. He just accepted Gardner's word that the girls came from an honest, straightforward, working-class family and would not have had the wit to make fools of them." According to Lynch, her mother felt that much valuable potential information about fairy folk had been lost. "It was an opportunity that had never before occurred in the history of the occult," says Lynch. "How many people have contact with fairy life on a day-to-day basis, as Frances did?"
Even more mystifying to Frances was the fact that Doyle sent his psychic friend, Geoffrey Hodson, to verify the girls' story and also to sit with them, hoping that his presence would intensify the auric field and encourage stronger forms to materialise. Frances's narrative on his visit makes hilarious reading. "There we sat, Mrs Hodson knitting, Elsie and I bored, when out of desperation I said, 'I saw something over there . . . It might be the top of a fairy's head.' Immediately, Mr Hodson saw it too. I nudged Elsie and she guessed I was having him on. From that time onwards we saw fairies as big as trees, as small as mice. Everything we saw Mr Hodson saw better." But the last word must be with the vulnerable, gullible Conan Doyle, who desperately wanted to believe in what Hodson reported to him. As he wrote in his Strand article: "The recognition of [the little folk's] existence will jolt the material 20th-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."
The sale of the Cottingley Fairy photographs is at Sotheby's on Thursday