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Fort, Charles

Category: Scientist

Charles Hoy Fort (August 6, 1874 – May 3, 1932) was an American writer and researcher into ‘anomalous phenomena’. Today, the terms Fortean and Forteana are sometimes used with reference to such phenomena in recognition of his work.

Fort wrote ten fiction novels, although only one, The Outcast Manufacturers (1909), was published. But the book for which he will be most remembered is non-fiction and is called The Book of the Damned (1919). The title referred to "damned" data that Fort collected, phenomena for which science could not account and was thus rejected or ignored.  In effect, Fort collected as many observations as he was able, of events that ‘science’ chose to ignore because it inconveniently did not fit any hypothesis ‘science’ wished to promote.

When we hear about the scientific establishment, we hear constantly about how science seeks out the truth, is the only rational way forward, is the new religion.  But what we don’t hear about is how poor is the observational and inquiring mind of scientists and how biased and narrow minded they can be.  This arbitrary narrowing of focus and rejection of past wisdom leads to either a great deal of reinvention of the wheel or far worse rejection of facts - things that happened.

It seems to me that the exclusionists are still more emphatically conservators. It is not so much that they are inimical to all data of externally derived substances that fall upon this earth, as that they are inimical to all data discordant with a system that does not include such phenomena--  Or the spirit or hope or ambition of the cosmos, which we call attempted positivism: not to find out the new; not to add to what is called knowledge, but to systematize.

In other words scientific belief systems are a huge block to progress.

Charles Fort is an antidote to this and his work is an example of far better science than those who classify themselves as scientists today.

What was key to Fort’s success was that he didn’t believe anything.  Fort was described as "hugely sceptical of human beings' – especially scientists' – claims to ultimate knowledge".  Running through Fort's work is "the feeling that no matter how honest scientists think they are, they are still influenced by various unconscious assumptions that prevent them from attaining true objectivity. Expressed in a sentence, Fort's principle goes something like this: People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels."

For over thirty years, Charles Fort sat in the libraries of New York City and London, assiduously reading scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines, collecting notes on phenomena that lay outside the accepted theories and beliefs of the time.  Fort and his wife lived in London from 1924 to 1926, for example, having moved there so Fort could peruse the files of the British Museum.  Later, when his books were published, he obtained additional information from his readers, some of whom had taken to investigating reports of anomalous phenomena and sending their findings to him.

He discovered cases of teleportation (a term Fort is generally credited with coining); poltergeist events; falls of frogs, fishes, inorganic materials of an amazing range; unaccountable noises and explosions; spontaneous fires; levitation; ball lightning (a term explicitly used by Fort); unidentified flying objects; unexplained disappearances; giant wheels of light in the oceans; and animals found outside their normal ranges. He found many reports of out-of-place artifacts (OOPArts), strange items found in unlikely locations.

Fort took thousands of notes in his lifetime. The notes were kept on cards and scraps of paper in shoe boxes, in a cramped shorthand of Fort's own invention, and some of them survive today in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania. More than once, depressed and discouraged, Fort destroyed his work, but always began anew. Some of the notes were published, little by little, by the Fortean Society magazine "Doubt" and, upon the death of its editor Tiffany Thayer in 1959, most were donated to the New York Public Library where they are still available to researchers of the unknown.

From this research, Fort actually wrote four books. These are The Book of the Damned (1919), probably the best known, New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932); one book was written between New Lands and Lo! but was abandoned and absorbed into Lo!

So from where did he get his inspiration?

Charles Hoy Fort was born in 1874 in Albany, New York, of Dutch ancestry. His father was an abusive bully.   Many Parts, Fort's unpublished autobiography, relates several instances of both harsh treatment and physical abuse by his father.  Charles did not excel at school, but was considered intelligent with a naturally inquiring mind.  It would appear that he effectively taught himself through books and being observant.  As a young man, Fort was a budding naturalist, collecting sea shells, minerals, and birds.

At the age of 18, Fort left New York on a world tour to "put some capital in the bank of experience". He travelled through the western United States, Scotland, and England, until falling ill in Southern Africa. Returning home, he was nursed by Anna Filing, a girl he had known from his childhood. They were later married on October 26, 1896. Anna was four years older than Fort and “was non-literary, a lover of films and of parakeets”.  In 1916, an inheritance from an uncle gave Fort enough money to quit his various day jobs, one of which was a journalist, and to write full-time.

Fort was never a well man and towards the end of his life, he suffered from increasingly poor health and failing eyesight; distrusting doctors, he did not seek medical help.  He collapsed on May 3, 1932 and was rushed to Royal Hospital in The Bronx. Fort died only hours afterward.

Fort’s legacy, apart from the archives of research he left and the books he wrote, is the magazine Fortean Times, first published in November 1973 after he died.  It attempts to continue research into the same areas he pursued and combines humour, scepticism, and serious research into subjects which scientists continue to ignore or disdain.

The International Fortean Organization (INFO) , formed in the early 1960s, acquired much of the material of the original Fortean Society which had begun in 1932. INFO publishes the "INFO Journal: Science and the Unknown" and organizes the FortFest, a conference on anomalous phenomena. Other Fortean societies are also active, notably Fortean Societies in Edinburgh and the Isle of Wight.

The Book of the Damned - Charles Fort
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. Some of them livid and some of them fiery and some of them rotten.
Some of them are corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching, tottering, animated by companions that have been damned alive. There are giants that will walk by, though sound asleep. There are things that are theorems and things that are rags: they'll go by like Euclid arm in arm with the spirit of anarchy. Here and there will flit little harlots.
Many are clowns. But many are of the highest respectability. Some are assassins. There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices: whims and amiabilities. The naïve and the pedantic and the bizarre and the grotesque and the sincere and the insincere, the profound and the puerile.
A stab and a laugh and the patiently folded hands of hopeless propriety.
The ultra-respectable, but the condemned, anyway.
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.

But they'll march.

The little harlots will caper, and freaks will distract attention, and the clowns will break the rhythm of the whole with their buffooneries--but the solidity of the procession as a whole: the  impressiveness of things that pass and pass and pass, and keep on and keep on and keep on coming.
The irresistibleness of things that neither threaten nor jeer nor defy, but arrange themselves in mass-formations that pass and pass and keep on passing.
So, by the damned, I mean the excluded.
But by the excluded I mean that which will some day be the excluding.
Or everything that is, won't be.  And everything that isn't, will be--

 

References

The Book of the Damned is over 400 pages.  Observations are interspersed with Charles's comments and analysis.  In order to get the essence of the observations he collected onto the site, I have thus edited the book by extracting the observations without comment. I have also grouped them roughly within subject areas.  Some observations are grouped in the book, but on the whole the general theme can be very difficult to follow.  There has been no editing of the observations themselves.

Any useful or profound comments from Charles have been separated and made into separate entries based on their subject matter.  What has largely been edited out is the criticism and scorn Charles pours on so called scientists, who have dismissed out of hand such valuable evidence.

 

Observations

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