Posted by: jmacd32 | September 29, 2010

Holmes, Doyle, Photographs, and Fairies

In “A Scandal in Bohemia” a photograph is the driving force behind the actions contained in the story. The photograph of Irene Adler and the King of Bohemia presented physical proof of their relationship and threatened the king’s upcoming nuptials. In fact, when hearing of the photograph Holmes stated that it was “an indiscretion” on the king’s part (16). Holmes’ reasoning behind his statement is interesting. He reminds the king that if Adler only had letters signed by the king, even with the official seal, he could just accuse her of dishonesty and forgery. If she had a photograph of the king, Holmes said he could claim she bought it. However, once the king revealed that the photograph depicted the images of the two together, is when he noted the king’s “indiscretion.” Here, technology is proof. While searching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on google I found several references to a photograph Doyle took to be “proof” of something.

Teenage cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths took this picture and several others in the summer of 1917 claiming proof of the existence of fairies. Although an obvious hoax to those who see it today and also to several who saw it in the early twentieth century Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took the picture as proof or evidence towards the existence of fairies. The similar notion of truth in photography that Holmes’ presents in “A Scandal in Bohemia” brings to question the reliability of technology. Although these “fairy” photographs appeared years after Doyle had written this particular Sherlock Holmes story, a belief in technology to provide answers to the unknown still connects the two very different situations. While Holmes would not take part in the beliefs of Spiritualism that Doyle did later in his life, the character and the author both used photography as evidence of that which could otherwise not be recorded.  The Sherlock Holmes stories foreshadow the technological advances of crime solving. In “The Man With the Twisted Lip” the blood that is left spattered on the windowsill is noticed and recorded by Holmes in a scene which immediately made me think of CSI and other crime shows which take Holmes’ actions to the next step by using such evidence to prove identity through DNA. However, Wright and Griffiths’ pictures of fairies remind me of the fallibility of technology as well. That photography could breathe life into paper cut-outs of fairies can parallel the fact that crime labs can mess up DNA testing in cases. Technology is not always reliable. Even though fairies and Sherlock Holmes do not entirely mesh well together, as a group they call into question the advent of technology and what it can really prove.



  1. What I found interesting about a Scandal in Bohemia was the way in which Photography and indeed modern technology act as evidence. It seems to suggest that in that time a person’s word was no longer enough. Instead like Lady Dedlock’s portrait photography and paintings are used as evidence of hidden secrets and personal relationships. It also links to some of the assigned reading that we’ve been doing in that once you have your photography taking you loose control over your image which gives people the power to make assumptions about you. Moreover, I liked how in a Scandal of Bohemia Sherlock Holmes was able to meet his match and be outwitted which allows the reader to emphasise with him more as it shows that he’s not completely infallible.

  2. Thank you for this post! I had completely forgotten about this side of Doyle, but it was something that fascinated me in my youth so it was great to revisit it.

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