Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932)

Charles Fort

Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) was a collector of anomalies–of data that he referred to as "damned" or "excluded." He assembled accounts of unusual and unexplained phenomena, which he published in four books: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). Fort is noteworthy not for advocating any particular supernatural or paranormal theory, but for his skepticism of all theories and his voluminous collections of the unusual and bizarre now often referred to by his name as "forteana." Any system of explanation, according to Fort, necessarily excludes some of the data of experience. All categorization involves drawing lines between black and white where there are in reality shades of gray. While Fort apparently took great pleasure in pointing out flaws and weaknesses of science, he was an opponent of dogma of all stripes. In a 1926 letter to science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, Fort wrote in opposition to the idea of forming a society to study "Fortean phenomena":

This did not stop Fort's ardent admirer, Tiffany Thayer, from founding the Fortean Society on January 26, 1931, at a public dinner to which Fort himself had to be lured by subterfuge. (Fort had written just two months before to his friend Theodore Dreiser that he wanted nothing to do with Thayer's efforts to found such a society, and "wouldn't join it, any more than I'd be an Elk" (Knight 1974, p. 181).)

Fort's Life

Charles Fort was born to Charles Nelson and Agnes Fort on August 6, 1874. Charles was the second of three sons; his brothers were named Raymond and Clarence. His mother, Agnes, died shortly after Clarence's birth in 1878 and the children were raised by their father, Charles Nelson Fort, and the family housekeeper, Mrs. Lawson. Mr. Fort was a strict disciplinarian, and punishments ranged from beatings to imprisonment in a dark room for days at a time.

In school Charles did poorly and was something of a class clown. On his own, however, he was an avid reader and aspired to be a naturalist. As part of those aspirations, he collected eggs, birds' wings, shells, starfish, and animal skeletons, with the assistance of his brothers. In his teens he began keeping a diary and collecting stories. By the age of seventeen he had written features for both the Albany Democrat and the Brooklyn World. He then embarked on two years and thirty thousand miles of travel, supporting himself by writing newspaper travelogues. He toured the American South, Scotland, England, and South Africa. At the age of 21, he returned to New York with an illness contracted during his journey, where he met up with Anna Filing, whom he had known in Albany since nearly a decade before. They married on October 26, 1896.

Charles and Anna Fort lived on the edge of poverty in New York City on income derived from renting out a house in Albany Charles inherited from his grandfather and short-term jobs such as eight months working in the kitchen of the Metropolitan Hotel. He continued to write newspaper stories and began to write fiction. Theodore Dreiser published several of Fort's short stories in Smith's Magazine and encouraged him in his writing. Although Fort wrote several novels, only one (The Outcast Manufacturers, 1909) was ever published and Fort destroyed the rest. Two of these destroyed novels, X and Y, were about strange civilizations controlling human life, a theme echoed in his later books. They caught the attention of Dreiser, who offered to act as Fort's agent but was unable to sell the works.

In 1916, Charles Fort's uncle died, leaving his share of Fort's grandfather's estate to Charles and his brothers. This inheritance made Fort financially independent, and he pursued a career of research which lasted the rest of his life. While he had already collected numerous notes about oddities, he began his research in earnest by going through the indexes of all English and French scientific periodicals in the New York Public Library beginning with the year 1880. This research led to his four nonfiction (a term Fort rejected) books, the first of which was published at the urging of Theodore Dreiser. (Dreiser was quite influenced by Fort, as recounted by Dash (1988/89).)

Fort's second book, New Lands, was read by Tiffany Thayer, a writer who was so taken by Fort's work that he founded the aforementioned Fortean Society and edited its journal, The Fortean Society Magazine (later renamed Doubt), which began publication in September 1937. Other early Forteans of note included Ben Hecht, who favorably reviewed The Book of the Damned in the Chicago Daily News, Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser, and science fiction writer Eric Frank Russell.

In 1932, Fort's health began to fail. He managed to complete Wild Talents, but died on May 3, 1932, two days before its publication (Chorvinsky 1990; contrary to the account given by Knight 1974, p. 184). His wife survived him by five years, and left funds for grants in her husband's name to students at Harvard and New York University.

Fort's Work

While Fort's four books are mainly a compendium of anomalies, they are also filled with witty, amusing, and wild speculations and commentary. Fort doesn't just give lists of phenomena, he puts forth a philosophy about the "damned" data and why they are "excluded" from orthodox scientific theory. While his views may be found throughout his work, the most sustained description is found in the first chapter of The Book of the Damned (as noted by Michell 1994). In this chapter, Fort writes that everything is continuous with everything else and that what we speak of ("absurdly") as "existence" is but a slice of what there is, erroneously excluding things. He refers to himself not as a realist or idealist, but as an "intermediatist," holding that "nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal: that all phenomena are approximations one way or the other between realness and unrealness" (p. 14). Fort held that one should take the skeptical position of believing nothing at all, since to believe something is to take a position on one side or the other regarding existence of things, and not to take the "intermediatist" position. He wrote that "I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written" (Gardner 1957, p. 49; Michell 1994, p. 53), for "I can not accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs." He complains that "admirers of my good works write to me, and try to convert me into believing things that I say" (p. 641). Fort did, however, maintain views in virtue of taking a stance of "acceptance," though he did not clearly distinguish this from belief (an objection commonly raised against philosophers who make such a distinction, such as Lehrer 1990).

Fort's notion of acceptance has a corresponding notion of rejection, and Fort openly admitted that he excluded things from his work. In the fifth chapter of Wild Talents, he wrote of a story of a talking dog which vanished in a green puff of smoke, and explains that such a story is not of the type he is presenting in his book (ironically, since the story and the reference to its source is included in the book). The reason he gives is that it is a one-of-a-kind event, while the oddities he collects are supposedly commonplace (insofar as they are found in multiple instances throughout the scientific literature). (Fort goes on to note that what is odd about the talking dog story is not the dog's speaking–he recounts other examples–but its vanishing in a puff of green smoke afterwards.)

The most common anomaly described in The Book of the Damned is the inexplicable falling object: rains of unusual color (red, black, yellow), fish falls, falls of flesh and gelatinous masses, coins, fossils, strange hailstones, frogs, and blocks of ice. Fort observes that the most common explanation offered for these odd falls is that the objects in question were either "already there" and didn't fall at all, or were carried by whirlwinds. He proceeds to enumerate example after example in refutation of these explanations, chiding scientists for their acceptance of material as meteoritic even without witnesses to the fall and rejecting the extraterrestrial origin of strange objects which are observed falling (pp. 126ff). He offers in their stead the speculation that there is a "Super-Sargasso Sea" above the earth where "gravitation is inoperative" (p. 90) where objects from the earth (or other planets) sometimes are carried and end up in a collection of refuse drifting about, to fall again to the earth at a later time and another place. In the Super-Sargasso Sea, says Fort (making him an early advocate of the theory of panspermia), is a place (or planet) he calls Genesistrine where living things originate and are periodically dumped to the earth. He further elaborates this thesis with the proposal that some intelligent beings are in control of these falls and in communication with secret societies on earth (p. 136). The Book of the Damned contains an early appearance of the tautology objection against Darwinian natural selection–that "survival of the fittest" is devoid of content because fitness is determined only by survival (pp. 23-24)–an argument now common in creationist publications.

In New Lands, Fort delights in poking fun at astronomers' errors of prediction of the movement of objects in the heavens (especially planets and comets). The book also features further examples of strange things falling from the sky, but is primarily concerned with anomalous visual and audible phenomena in the skies rather than objects recovered from the ground. Earthquakes, flashing lights, strange airships, explosive sounds, and mirages of strange cities are the main topics of the book. Fort theorizes that the solar system is "an egg-like organism … [with] this central and stationary earth as its nucleus" around which is "a revolving shell, in which the stars are pores … through some of which spray irradiating fountains said to be 'meteoric,' but perhaps electric" (p. 386). Fort rejects the theory of evolution in favor of "Super-embryonic development," which maintains that there is "dynamic design"–a predetermined pattern of development of complex functions, according to which early stages of things have certain features in order to fulfill functions they will need to have in the future. Darwinism, according to Fort, fails to account for "the influence of the future upon the present" (p. 529). Super-embryonic development is not just a Fortean theory of biology, but of all change over time. Fort would perhaps have approved of the anthropic principle.

The theme of Lo! is the mysterious appearances of objects and, in particular, their teleportation (a word coined by Fort) from one place to another. In this book is Fort's description of the "conventional explanation" of a mysterious appearance of crabs and periwinkles near Worcester, England in 1881:

Other oddities described in the book include blood flowing from holy images; appearances of mice, small crocodiles, fish, eels, snakes, and other creatures; poltergeist phenomena associated with adolescent children; lake and sea monsters; "mysterious burns" (which Fort considers distinct from spontaneous human combustion); and the appearance of Kaspar Hauser and the disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst. In Wild Talents, Fort describes the disappearance of Ambrose Small and Ambrose Bierce and asks, "Was somebody collecting Ambroses?" (p. 847). In addition to mysterious kidnappings, he enumerates cases of mysterious thefts, arsons, and murders in the first part of the book. Later, other "wild talents" are recounted, including dowsing, witchcraft, stigmata, and male lactation.

Fort tends not to evaluate any particular event or datum he describes in any detail, but rather to assemble numerous examples of kinds of events and speculate on the basis of apparent patterns. This invites the typical response of conventional scientists, which is to find specific data which are bogus or unfounded, and reject the collection on that basis. Martin Gardner (1957) argues that Fort's basic error is his assumption that a basic continuity in nature means that all theories are on equal footing (nothing is deserving of belief). The unattainability of absolute certainty does not mean that no conclusions can be drawn, for there are still relative weights of evidence sufficient to count some theories as well confirmed and some as unsupported.

Fortean Organizations

Charles Fort has inspired the formation of a number of organizations and periodicals, beginning with Tiffany Thayer's Fortean Society and its journal, the Fortean Society Magazine (later Doubt). The magazine began by publishing Fort's notes, though was also frequently used as a soapbox for Thayer's political views. The Fortean Society ceased activity with Thayer's death in 1959. Other organizations and publications have taken up the Fortean cause–the International Fortean Organization (INFO) and the INFO JournalFortean Times, the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained (SITU) and its magazine Pursuit, the Society for Scientific Exploration, Strange magazine, The Anomalist, and, perhaps most notably, William Corliss's Sourcebook Project. More than anyone else, Corliss has extended Fort's research by scouring the scientific literature for anomalies, which he has catalogued and categorized in numerous volumes.


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