Cottingley Fairy Photos That Fooled Arthur Conan Doyle Sold for More Than $26,000

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Decades before the advent of Photoshop, two girls from England fooled the world with images that appeared to depict fairies dancing in their garden. The story they told has since been debunked, but the Cottingley Fairies photographs remain famous for being one of the most successful hoaxes in history. Interest in the photos is still so strong today that The Guardian reports two of them were just sold at auction for $26,000—more than 10 times their projected value.

Nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year-old cousin Elsie Wright took the photographs at Wright's mother's house in the village of Cottingley, England in 1917. Wright's father, the owner of the camera and an amateur photographer, suspected they were fakes, but his wife Polly was convinced they were the real thing.

After attending a lecture on fairy life at the Theosophical Society, Polly shared the pictures with the speaker and they were made public for the first time. The photographs might have stayed within spiritualist circles if they hadn't caught the eye of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1920. The Sherlock Holmes author was writing an article about fairies for Strand Magazine, and he featured the photos in his piece as proof of their existence. The story of the Cottingley Fairies quickly made global headlines.

Wright and Griffiths maintained that the pictures were authentic until 1983, when they confessed that they had faked them by copying images from a children's book and propping up the cut-outs with hatpins. The two cousins disagreed on the story behind the fifth photograph, however, with Wright saying it was a hoax like the rest of them and Griffiths insisting it was genuine until her death.

When the first two of the original photographs recently hit the auction block at Dominic Winter Auctioneers in Gloucestershire, England, they were expected to sell for between $900 and $1300. The price the UK-based buyers paid for the images far exceeded the auction house's expectations.

Despite the auctioneers' low estimates, this isn't the first time that Cottingley Fairy artifacts have sold big at auction. In 1998, prints of the photographs and a first edition copy of Doyle's book on the subject, The Coming of the Fairies, were auctioned off for £21,620, or about $28,300.

[h/t The Guardian]

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER