More Options

Charles Fort: Purveyor of the Unprobed

Book Review

Joe Nickell

Volume 18.3, September 2008

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural. By Jim Steinmeyer. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, New York, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-58542-640-9. 352 pp. Hardcover, $24.95.

Charles Fort delighted in taunting “orthodox” scientists with things they seemed unable, or unwilling, to explain—for example, rains of frogs or fish (Fort 1974). Today’s paranormal mystery mongerers—the tireless touters of “the unexplained” who are typically merely cynical writers and broadcasters of the uninvestigated—are following in the deeply imprinted footsteps of Charles Fort.

Now, magic historian Jim Steinmeyer has conjured forth a stimulating—if perhaps overly sympathetic—recounting of the life of Fort. Following his previous brilliant successes Hiding the Elephant (a history of illusionists and their secrets) and The Glorious Deception (the story of Billy Robinson who transformed himself into a famous “Chinese” magician), Stein­meyer examines the strange world of a very different type of master mystifier. Although his subtitle labels Fort The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, he is much more correct in saying (given the usual definitions of the terms involved) that “What Fort invented was our modern view of the paranormal” (Stein­meyer 2008, xv). (The paranormal includes not only all of the supernatural but such other things as extraterrestrials and Bigfoot, which—if they exist—might be entirely natural entities. Damon Knight [1970] was on target when he dubbed Fort “Prophet of the Unexplained.”)

Charles Hoy Fort (1874–1932) was born in Albany, New York, the first of three sons of a “vain” little grocer and his wife—the latter dying when Charles was four. In his twenties, Charles Fort recorded some autobiographical “perceptions” that were “written with an odd, childish literary swagger” (19). He referred to himself as “we,” his brothers as “the Other Kid” and “the Little Kid,” and his father as “They”; their housekeeper and others were given fictitious names. These anecdotal writings reveal a troubled child who bullied others for attention:

We taking a sleigh away from a little girl, just to be acquainted. Trouble. Pushing another little girl into a snow pile; perhaps she’d speak to us. More trouble. Knocking a little boy’s hat off; that might lead to acquaintance. Little boy beating us fearfully. Oh, we’d just have to go away and be a hermit somewhere. (75)

Fort fell behind in school then dropped out entirely, meanwhile beginning to do newspaper work and to pen some little tales set in a newspaper office. The stories’ narrator sounds like Fort himself: asked to do a review, “we would not bother to go to a performance, but would just make a list of the participants and write our criticisms at home” (51). With a little money left by his grandfather, Fort spent two years traveling the world—at least part of it—and concluded grandiosely:

I had thirty-thousand, many colored, vividly diversified miles hoarded; experiences, impressions, hundreds of characters, the world’s scenery. Noth­ing more to see; everything in life known; only twenty-one years old, but now for the work of a master! (67)

Curiously, Fort kept no travel journal—apparently, says Steinmeyer (60), in­tend­ing to allow his experiences “to mix and mingle in his imagination to form vivid memories.”

After he married, Fort began to crank out stories, sitting at the kitchen table. One of his wry tales, “A Cattleship Mystery Solved,” presents a case in which cattle were inexplicably spooked on occasion with “bullocks gored and . . . leaping and crazy scrambling.” Then, with a twist ending, all is revealed: one cowhand had brought aboard a bright red shirt. Fort’s narrator concludes, “For a red shirt ain’t no article wanted on no cattleship.”

However, for someone who loved to disparage the “scientific” explanations of others and allegedly worked his way to England aboard a cattle ship (61, 83), Fort was misinformed: cattle are in fact color-blind; the notion that they (mostly bulls) are provoked by the color red comes mainly from the fact that matadors traditionally use capes of that color. It is actually the movement of the cape that attracts the bulls, not its hue (“Bullfight” 1960; “Beef Cattle” 2008), as has been shown by experiment (Stratton 1923). Fort’s carelessness here (not noted by Steinmeyer) foreshadows more to come.

Fort went on to write books and to engage in research to that end. A further inheritance permitted him to sit comfortably in the New York Public Library and indulge himself. He spent the remainder of his life scouring old newspapers and other periodicals for reports of mysterious occurrences. This was the limit of his investigations, a deficiency that magnified his bruised ego and bullying temperament.

Fort had soon completed two book manuscripts, known as X and Y. The first set forth his concept of an external force, X, that controlled society from its residence on the planet Mars. Unfortunately, Fort’s friend, famed novelist and occult dabbler Theodore Dreiser, sent the manuscript off to Popular Science Monthly, whose editor replied, “A vast amount of reading has been done which has not been correctly applied,” and again to Scientific American, which found it utterly nonsensical (147, 154). Y, a treatise on a supposed civilization at the North Pole, was similarly dismissed and too went unpublished.

Fort wisely destroyed both manuscripts, except for portions he would recycle, and reinvented his approach. Instead of advocating crank ideas that could make him a laughingstock, Fort would instead try to turn the tables on the laughers, putting “Dogmatic Science” on the defensive. He began by writing The Book of the Damned, explaining in the introduction, “By the damned, I mean the excluded.” He promised, “We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.” Pub­lished at the end of 1919, it bore on its dust jacket a blurb by Dreiser: “In this amazing book—the result of twelve years of patient research—the author presents a mass of evidence that has hitherto been ignored or distorted by scientists. . . . Things that [seem] incredible support the author’s argument, which he develops with strong touches of sardonic humor and flashes of sheer poetic insight.”

As evidence of Fort’s approach, consider the case that he saved for the final chapter of The Book of the Damned. Now known as “the devil’s footprints,” it is a mystery that transpired overnight in early February 1855 in Devonshire, England. Peculiar tracks reportedly led for a hundred miles through snowy countryside in an unwavering line that even crossed haystacks and roofs. As the occurrence was eagerly discussed in the newspaper, residents and outside biologists attempted to explain the tracks as those, if not of the devil, then perhaps of a badger or even a creature escaped from a traveling menagerie. From his armchair, looking over dubious and conflicting published accounts, Fort wrote satirically, “My own acceptance is that not less than a thousand one-legged kangaroos, each shod with a very small horseshoe, could have marked that snow of Devonshire” (Fort 1974, 307).

Of course, Fort had done no real investigating, and instead of attempting to resolve conflicting evidence, he had simply re­sponded in his juvenile, jack-in-the-box manner. In fact, we know that the trail in question was only straight in relatively short lengths and actually zig-zagged wildly as shown by lines plotted on a map that connect the reporting villages. The best evidence clearly demonstrates that multiple creatures were involved. In one village, for instance, the tracks proved to be merely those of cats, expanded and distorted by the snow having melted and refrozen (Nickell 2001, 10–17).

Fort followed The Book of the Damned with others: New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). In the latter, Fort reports on a “mystery of many deaths of human beings and cattle” in Trinidad in 1931. Although a local scientist had attributed the deaths to vampire bats with “a new form of insidious hydrophobia,” Fort challenges the solution—not with counter scientific opinion, not with his own on-site or in-depth research, but by merely stating without a single reference that “the existence of hydrophobia is so questionable, or of such rare occurrence, even in dogs, that the story of the ‘mad bats of Trinidad’ looks like some more of the sensationalism in science that is so obtrusive today . . .” (1974, 931). Never mind the froth on the bats’ bloody mouths that is symptomatic of rabies.

In fact, Fort was obviously unaware that vampire bats are common carriers of the rabies virus, which annually causes the deaths of many humans and farm animals in Trinidad and other tropical and subtropical climes (“Vampire bat” 2008). And so the “rabid vampires” theory may at least deserve less laughter than does Fort’s own inept opinings.

Fort does little better with other cases in his books. His brief mystifications about poltergeists, spontaneous human combustion, Bermuda-Triangle type vanishings, and similar reputed phenomena have largely been overshadowed by much more comprehensive, specialized efforts (e.g., Rogo 1979; Arnold 1995; Berlitz 1974), and they in turn have been generally trumped by investigative works (e.g., Christopher 1970, 142–163; Nickell 2001, 28–36; Kusche 1975).

Yet Fort was a major figure in establishing the genre of the “unexplained.” To the question of whether he was a genius or a crank, Steinmeyer (298) lets Fort have the last word:

Why this everlasting attempt to solve something? Whereas it is our acceptance that all problems are soluble-insoluble. Or that most of the problems we have were at one time conceived of as solutions of preceding problems. That every Moses leads his people out of Egypt into perhaps a damn sight worse: Promised Lands of watered milk and much adulterated honey.

So why these attempts to solve something?

There, I think, Fort reveals his major failing. Explains Martin Gardner (1957, 49):

Fort doubted everything—including his own speculations. When his more astute admirers insist that he was not the arch-enemy of science he was reputed to be, but only the enemy of scientists who forget the ephemeral character of all knowledge, they are emphasizing the sound and healthy aspect of Forteanism. It is true that no scientific theory is above doubt. It is true that all scientific “facts” are subject to endless revision as new “data” are uncovered. No scientist worthy of the name thinks otherwise. But it is also true that scientific theories can be given high or low degrees of confirmation. Fort was blind to this elementary fact—or pretended to be blind to it—and it is this blindness which is the spurious and unhealthy side of Forteanism. If a Baker Street Irregular began to think Sherlock Holmes actually did exist, all the good clean fun would vanish. Similarly, when a Fortean seriously believes that all scientific theories are equally absurd, all the rich humor of the Society gives way to an ignorant sneer.

Fort never got far beyond mystery mongering and whimsical fantasizing. Only on the rare occasion did he pursue an enigma with a letter seeking more information. Like many of today’s Forteans, while decrying debunking by others, Fort was himself a would-be debunker of any explanation that could be called mundane that did not stimulate his childlike imagination.

In short, Fort was not an investigator—that is, one who seeks neither to foster nor dismiss mysteries but attempts to solve them. The power of science is its unmatched ability to provide explanations, and indeed the progress of civilization can be seen as a series of solved mysteries, a concept Charles Fort could scarcely comprehend.

References:

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.