You are probably familiar with the famous Cottingley fairy photography hoax (there’s even a movie about it starring Peter O’Toole) in which two young British girls fooled much of the world—and credulous believer in the supernatural Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—into thinking that they had captured photographic proof that the fairy folk of legend existed. That hoax, however, was a mere bagatelle compared to this one.
In the early 1930s, a Mrs. Gladys Maud Cockburne-Lange said she was the widow of a Royal Flying Corps pilot. She presented stunning photographs of scenes of aerial combat during World War I, apparently taken in the air from a combat biplane. Her late husband, she said, had defied the RFC’s regulations and mounted a camera on his plane, tying its shutter action to his machine gun. The resulting photos were the first visual representation of British and German planes fighting each other taken from the air. They showed bi-panes crashing into each other, being shot to pieces, catching on fire, and even pilots falling from the sky.
All previous photos of WWI aerial “dogfights” had been taken from the ground, so this unexpected trove of photographs caused a sensation. The images were rapidly sold to newspapers, galleries, and publishers. Mrs. Cockburne-Langes sold 34 of the photos to one publisher for $20,000, a huge sum during the Great Depression, and they were later published in a popular book, “Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot.” by an anonymous author.
Unlike the fairy photo hoax, however, the truth about these photos took hald a century to uncover. In 1984, the Smithsonian Institute received a donation of materials from Wesley David Archer, an American pilot who had served with the RFC and then…wait for it… became a special-effects technician in Hollywood. Air and Space Museum curator Karl S. Schneide and Peter M. Grosz, an aviation expert, investigated the materials, and discovered that in some of the photographs, the wires holding up the model airplanes used to create the illusion of mid-air dogfights had yet to be airbrushed out. The materials also contained a diary entry that revealed the entire scheme.
“Gladys Maud Cockburne-Lange” was actually Betty Archer, Wesley’s wife. The couple decided during the Depression to use Wesley’s special effects skills to acquire some much needed cash, and succeeded spectacularly. After selling the faked photos, the two escaped to Cuba with the equivalent of about $350,000 in today’s currency, and lived out their lives in relative comfort. This explained the mystery of what had become of Mrs. Cockburne-Lange, who vanished shortly after pulling off the scam.
In retrospect, one can argue that the fake photos should have been exposed long before. Some skeptics had questioned the apparent shininess of the wheels of the planes—a small detail Archer had missed—and the photos including British planes suggested that Archer was attacking his own comrades. Human beings, however, are wired by evolution to trust, because without trust, civilization is impossible. Con artists take advantage of that important feature of humanity, to the detriment of us all. As mutual trust declines, so do the prospects for a productive, ethical, functioning society.
Here are some of the photos:
Pointer: “Mysteries of the Museum”