Secrets of Charles Fort

447px-Fort_charles_1920

by Jim Steinmeyer

Charles Hoy Fort, a pudgy, quiet, introspective little boy with wire-rimmed glasses, was haunted.

He had not yet developed his infamous obsession with the supernatural — those annoying, mysterious parts of our natural world that pull apart the fabric of traditional belief systems. He had not discovered the things that fall from the sky, or are found beneath the earth, or observed in the heavens, that wreak havoc with how we think about traditional science.

Young Charles Fort, born in 1874 to a family of wholesale grocers in Albany, New York, should have grown up with all the comforts of the Victorian Age. Instead, Charles was haunted by worry, self-doubt, and the cruel punishments of an impatient father.

“Why do you do these bad things,” [Father asked.]

“Just for fun.” [He] struck us savagely. Blood gushed from our nose. Running up the stairs, blood all over. A dirty, groveling little beast, crazed to get even, and doing damage was the only way to get even. Rubbing our nose on the lace curtains. Making the room a horror room. Leaning over banister, letting blood drip into the lower hall to do damage. Just then we were a little beast.

Fort’s childhood made him look at the world with a unique mixture of cynicism and wonder. Some 20 years later, at the oak tables of the New York Public Library, the adult Charles Fort studiously collected accounts of rains of blood from the sky.

During my research for the recent biography Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, I found that Fort had decided that the world was a very strange place. Remarkably, he managed to capture this notion, sweeping together bits of a journalism career, an interest in fiction, an obsessive passion for research, and his fascination for the world around him. He pioneered a new sort of book that haunted the readers of the 1920s. Charles Fort “invented” the supernatural, in the sense that he redefined it for our modern sensibilities. After Fort, our view of the paranormal would never be the same.

A Sense of Adventure

Unfortunately, our modern view of Charles Fort has suffered from several clichés. According to friends who knew him at the end of his life, he was painfully shy and led a hermit-like existence, leaving his rented apartment in the Bronx only to spend his life sitting at library research tables looking for oddities.

But those friends hadn’t known Charles Fort at the start of his career. After leaving home and turning his back on his father’s business, Fort found work writing for a Brooklyn newspaper, and then adventurously took a job as an editor for an upstart Long Island paper. Feeling a sense of wanderlust, Fort quit his newspaper work and scraped together money to tour the world, searching for experiences, personalities, and far-away places that would be of use to his career as a writer.

After two years of travel, Fort had described a haphazard and improvised circle on the map. Through the South, he traveled on freight trains and avoided lawmen; across the Atlantic, he worked on a cattle ship; through Europe he took on odd jobs or slept under viaducts with the hobos; down to South Africa, he was in time to watch the Boer War; and then, stricken with malaria, he returned to New York City.

Fort married Anna Filing, an Irish immigrant whom he had known in Albany. It’s easy to imagine that his long attempt to escape his family was finally satisfied with a quiet, stable relationship.

Curiously, Fort’s exotic travels were of little use for his short stories. He turned his attention to more mundane subjects, penning amusing tales of the New York dockyards or tenement life for the various pulp monthlies.

Fort came to the attention of Theodore Dreiser, an editor at Street and Smith who was just starting his own career as a novelist. Dreiser was intrigued by Fort’s funny, gritty little tales. He was even more captivated when he met the author at the Street and Smith offices.

To this day, when I see Hardy [Oliver Hardy, the fat comedian of the team Laurel and Hardy] I see Fort as he was then—that unctuous, ingratiating mood, those unwieldly, deferential, twittery mannerisms were Fort’s then. I knew that I liked him, and that somehow he was the embodiment of the charming things that I had read.

40,000 Notes

After years of toil, Fort gave up on fiction. He began researching in the reading room of the New York Public Library, in the new white marble palace at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. His work at the library began like his world travels, an improvised tour with no specific purpose. Fort bounced from science to art, philosophy to economics. In scientific journals, shipping reports, and newspapers, he found reports of odd things. Comets were predicted, but did not reappear. Mysterious flashes of light in the sky seemed to synchronize with earthquakes or volcanoes. Illuminated airships, years before the invention of the airplane, were seen in the skies.

Even stranger: Fish fell from the sky, or frogs. Stones rained down from the heavens—not meteors, but stones. Sometimes they were seen to fall in slow motion.

Fort began taking notes. He scrawled references to these phenomena on small rectangles of scrap paper, about one by two inches. If he needed a larger note, he would fold a sheet down to this size, securing it with a paper clip. These notes were then taken back to this apartment and sorted into cardboard boxes. Soon Fort found a knack for sniffing out these odd, annoying facts. He reported to have collected nearly 40,000 paper notes on oddities.

Fort’s boxes of notes are now housed at the New York Public Library. They are fascinating artifacts from the history of the supernatural. His notes were torn from bits of cheap paper or any handy scrap; some are on the backs of letters. With his distinctive pencil scrawl, a pointy script written on a severe diagonal, Fort categorized a wide range of accounts: “Astronomy, sociology, psychology, volcanoes, religion, earthworms…” He began by looking for relationships between subjects, and his books are filled with speculation about the harmonies among the different phenomena of our world. Over the years, his note taking evolved to reflect his growing interests, like the latest astronomical predictions, Einstein’s theories, poltergeists, spontaneous human combustion, or people who disappeared suddenly and unexpectedly.

Around 1915, Fort began organizing these notes into a projected book he called X, in which he theorized that we were being controlled by a race of beings on Mars. The premise sounds like a grand bit of crank literature, but it perfectly complimented Fort’s time: newspapers were filled with reports of radio signals from Mars and diagrams of canals that had been dug on the red planet. Theodore Dreiser attempted to sell X to publishing houses in New York, along with Fort’s next manuscript, titled Y, which speculated about a mysterious race of beings at the North Pole. But the publishers weren’t interested. Fort, depressed about his failed research, soldiered on.

[My] book expressed very little of what I was trying to do. I cut it down; I put it away. It was not what I wanted. But the force of the 40,000 notes had been modified by this book…the power, or the hypnosis of them.

Dreiser always loved X and Y, thinking they were some of Fort’s best work. But Fort became tired of these early efforts. Unfortunately, modern researchers can’t evaluate them. Despite Dreiser’s urgings, Fort destroyed both manuscripts later in his career.

Enter The Damned

In many ways, the failure of X and Y was the best thing that ever happened to Fort. If they had been published, he would have joined the swollen ranks of crank authors, assembling earth-shattering theories on tiny bits of evidence. Instead, he went back and invented a new kind of book.

Fort realized that his oddities were the core of his research and that no explanation was worthy of consideration. In fact, he doubted whether the standard scientific theories were of any value, or if, indeed, there were anything that could ever be proved or disproved.

For a while he titled his third manuscript Z.  But eventually he settled on a brilliant new title: The Book of the Damned.

A procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded. Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march. You’ll read them, or they’ll march. The aggregate appearance is of dignity and dissoluteness; the aggregate voice is a defiant prayer; but the spirit of the whole is processional. The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.

Remarkable as the book was, it faced the same problems with publishers. Dreiser finally took The Book of the Damned to his own publisher, Horace Liveright. Liveright returned the manuscript, telling him, “If we publish this, we’ll lose money.” Dreiser responded, “If you don’t publish it, you’ll lose me.”

In fact, The Book of the Damned was revolutionary enough to make headlines and attract readers. Through the 1920s, it was reprinted several times, and since Fort’s death it has almost never been out of print.

An Unusual Friendship

Theodore Dreiser was fascinated with metaphysical subjects and took Fort’s theories, even his most teasing, outlandish suggestions, more seriously than Fort himself did. They had an interesting friendship, and a number of Dreiser’s interests, like Hegel’s philosophy, Social Darwinism, and orthogenetic evolution, worked their way directly into Fort’s books.

Dreiser was Fort’s best friend for over 25 years. For most of those years, they lived in the same city. But after Fort’s death, Dreiser noted that he might have seen Fort fewer than 20 times through all those years. Instead, their friendship was carried out in letters. (Fort was old-fashioned and avoided using a telephone.) A number of those letters survive in various Dreiser collections.

Fort had several psychic experiences in his lifetime. He recounted two of these to Dreiser, who recorded them in his own manuscripts. Most telling was Fort’s experience when he was destitute, living in a small tenement in Hell’s Kitchen and trying to write something that would sell. He was feeding scavenged bits of wood and coal into their small stove one day when he became aware of an odd, golden color in a different corner of the room. He described it to Dreiser as “a soft, golden yellow mist or glow.” It had a positive effect on him, offering hope when he was at his most pessimistic. The glow “caused the mode that was enveloping him to disappear completely.”

After Fort’s death, Anna Fort told Dreiser how the spirit of Fort’s father haunted the couple for years. They heard his voice calling for Charles, or his distinctive knocking on their apartment door. Odd rapping noises overcame their rooms, and on one occasion the pots and pans in the kitchen were mysteriously tipped onto the floor.

Fort never wrote about these experiences, preferring to base his writings on objective accounts from other journals or newspapers. More than likely, the publicity-shy Fort was reluctant to write of his own personal trage­dies — his bouts with poverty and the emotionally charged relationship with his father.

Lo! And Behold

The success of The Book of the Damned, and a modest inheritance from Fort’s uncle, meant that he could live comfortably and continue his research. Charles and Anna Fort took a flat in London, where he spent each day at the British Library adding thousands of notes on oddities to his collection. These notes resulted in three additional books, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents.

Fort and Anna returned to New York permanently in 1929 and took an apartment in the Bronx. Lo!, published in 1931, might well be Fort’s best book, a perfect blend of his research and writing style. When it was published, friends of the author organized the Fortean Society to further his work and promote his books. Members of the society read like a “Who’s Who” list: Theodore Dreiser, of course, but also Ben Hecht, Booth Tarkington, John Cowper Powys, and Alexander Woolcott. Fort himself, ever the contrarian, refused to join.

Fort’s last book, Wild Talents, was written when his health was in decline. In this, Fort turned his spotlight on personal stories: disappearing people, a talking dog, and accounts of apparent witchcraft in modern dress. Wild Talents is filled with self-effacing humor and enigmatic mysteries. It was published just before Fort’s death of leukemia in 1932.

I still remember the chill I experienced when I visited the Fort family grave in Albany, New York. The monument is a grand pedestal with a goddess poised on the top; it was erected when Charles Fort was a small boy on the death of his grandfather, Albany’s successful wholesale grocer. The goddess’s pose, lost in thought, holding the laurel wreath of victory against her chest, is perfectly suited to Charles Fort’s own philosophy: the perfect embodiment of knowing and not knowing. I wondered if the little boy from Albany carried the memory of this sullen goddess throughout his life.

Part Humorist, Part Scientist

Fort’s obituaries remarked on his status as the “foe of science.” His books never hesitated pointing out the foibles and mistakes of scientists, and he was often criticized for this attitude. Part of Fort’s goal was to question whether scientists actually understood the world, or whether these inconvenient facts were being ignored because they challenged conventional wisdom.

More than 75 years after his death, readers are still debating whether Fort was a crank or a genius. “To this day, it has not been determined whether I am a humorist or a scientist,” Fort wrote. “I believe nothing. I have shut myself away from the rocks and wisdom of ages, and from the so-called great teachers of all time, and perhaps because of that isolation I am given to bizarre hospitalities. I shut the front door upon Christ and Einstein, and at the back door hold out a welcoming hand to little frogs and periwinkles. I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written. I cannot accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs.”

But scarcely a decade after his death, writers used Fort’s pioneering work as inspiration. His research into mysterious airships was linked to the UFO phenomena of 1950s. His account of “The London Triangle” provided the inspiration for Fortean Society member Vincent Gaddis when he christened a patch of ocean “The Bermuda Triangle.” And Fort’s research, pried out of scientific journals and newspapers, has formed the canon for many later accounts: the Mary Celeste, Kaspar Hauser, cryptozoology, the Devil in Devonshire, spontaneous human combustion, disappearing people, or teleportation (a word that Fort coined). Although he’s not always given credit, Fort had a profound influence on these subjects and the way we look at the paranormal.

Reading Charles Fort

Why bother with Fort, now that many of his phenomena have been researched and revised for other books?

Fort is still the gold standard of supernatural writing. He’s often imitated, but his unique mixture of dry humor, chilling mysteries, and cold, hard research has never been matched. Many have found passages in Fort’s books tough sledding. When Fort races through his lists of phenomena, the citations can addle a casual reader: “Many instances of frogs that were seen to fall from the sky. (Notes and Queries, 8-6-104); accounts of such falls, signed by witnesses (Notes and Queries, 8-6-190).”

But Fort’s books invite exploration. There’s a kind of poetry to his odd prose, and a sense of celebration of these oddities. He saw the mysteries of our world, and the world as a whole, in insightful ways that were truly decades ahead of his time. In Wild Talents, Fort wrote:

Not a bottle of catsup can fall from a tenement-house fire escape in Harlem, without being noted—not only by the indignant people downstairs, but even though infinitesimally, universally, maybe… Affecting the price of pajamas in Jersey City, the temper of somebody’s mother-in-law in Greenland, the demand, in China, for rhinoceros horns for the cure of rheumatism—maybe. Because all things are inter-related, continuous, of an underlying oneness.

Buckminster Fuller, the author and inventor, may have met Charles Fort at Dreiser’s apartment, and he later became a fan of his works. “Charles Fort fell in love with the world that jilted him,” Fuller explained. I think that simple assessment may provide the most interesting aspect of Fort’s work, and Fort’s life story: how the little boy from Albany, attempting to make sense of a puzzling, haunting world, managed to seduce generations of readers. He makes us marvel at the little questions, and contemplate the larger ones. Through­out his books, Fort reminds us how good it feels to stop and scratch our head. This is the redemptive power of genuine wonder.

Read this and other great stories in the June 2008 issue of FATE! Purchase the print edition or e-edition.

Jim Steinmeyer is a historian of stage magic and the author of The Glorious Deception and Hiding the Elephant. He is also a designer of magic illusion who has done work for television, Broadway, and many of the best-known names in modern magic, such as Doug Henning and David Copperfield.

 Image credit: Wikipedia Commons