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The Man Who Believed in Fairies

For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, the proof was in the pictures

Doyle's great sleuth, Holmes, was super-rational, but the famous author himself was the world's best-known advocate of Spiritualism, the belief that human personality survives death and that the living can communicate with the dead. Spiritualism was all the rage around the turn of the century. Séances, rapping, table turning, automatic writing and other occult methods of contacting the spirit world attracted thousands. Doyle was the antithesis of a man who would try communicating with the dead, but after converting to Spiritualism he set about trying to convert others.

Eventually Doyle's obsession seriously compromised his reputation and strained his friendships, most notably with the escape artist Harry Houdini, who had once been a fake medium and whose training in the "artifices of conjuring" led him to approach Spiritualism with great skepticism. Perhaps the most damaging blow to Doyle's good name resulted from his outspoken advocacy of the existence of fairies, a matter somewhat fancifully retold in the film Fairytale: A True Story, starring Peter O'Toole as Doyle, which is scheduled to be released by Paramount Pictures in October.

In 1917, two girls from the Yorkshire village of Cottingley made photographs of themselves cavorting with fairies. Few took the pictures seriously, but Doyle did. He wrote a book defending their authenticity. "And what a joy," he enthused, "is in the complete abandon of [the fairies'] little graceful figures as they let themselves go in the dance! They may have their shadows and trials [but] there is a great gladness manifest in this demonstration of their life."

The girls did not confess their hoax until 1983. Doyle died in 1930, still a believer.

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