Where Have All the Fairies Gone?

They were run over by automobiles.

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The Victorians were apparently much plagued by fairies. Accounts suggest that these little creatures flitted around the margins of mid and late 19th century life, all skittish and shy and showing up when one least expected them. Painters such as Richard Dadd made a career of depicting these beings of “a middle nature between man and angels;” in 1894 William Butler Yeats famously implored, “Faeries, come take me out of this dull world.” They were most readily spotted in Europe, but were also intermittently active across the Atlantic, some possibly having arrived on these shores as stowaways with Irish immigrants.

Fairies persisted beyond Queen Victoria and even King Edward VII. The noted Cottingley fairies appeared in grainy black and white photographs shot in 1917, which depicted wee, winged fairies gamboling with two young sisters. These became even more famous after Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle lent his not-inconsiderable credibility to them in 1920. (A surviving sister admitted in the 1980s that the fairies were actually cardboard cutouts, which, not surprisingly, is exactly what they look like in the photos.)

Then, sometime shortly after these photos, fairies seemed to have been brutally, efficiently exterminated. Google Ngram, which tracks how frequently a term appears in millions of books worldwide, reports that fairies were abundant in print until 1926, whereupon they suffered what population ecology types would call an overshoot, followed by a die-off. In other words, we crested “peak fairy.”

So what killed off the little people? No one seems to know for sure, but I’m thinking: it was the automobile.

Not that fairies were run over by careless drivers, then left on the roadsides like limp squirrels. Nor is it that they moved deeper into copses and vales, or wherever it is they flee. (Iron was reputedly their Kryptonite.)

Part of the die-off was no doubt due to the elimination of habitat. Fairies appear to need a quiet landscape, and prefer the sort of terrain for which we have even lost the vocabulary — copse, thicket, holt, boscage.

Additionally, fairies were said to travel along invisible pathways, generally plotted in a straight line, which connected stone outcroppings and mounds and springs. In Great Britain and Germany, country folk made sure not to build structures that would obstruct the way. A story by Dorothy Can

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
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