Charles Fort: Pioneer in the Search for Scientific Anomalies or Anti-dogmatist who Collected Bizarre Stories?
Charles Hoy Fort was an American “self-educated newspaperman, modestly-successful short story writer, unsuccessful novelist and inventor, and eccentric natural philosopher,” regarded by some, especially his devotees, who call themselves ‘Forteans’, as a pioneer of anomalistic.
This is a term coined in 1973 by an anthropologist by the name of Roger W. Wescott, and has been used to describe the “interdisciplinary study of scientific anomalies (alleged extraordinary events unexplained by currently accepted scientific theory)”. Fort was fascinated by such anomalies, and spent much of his adult life collecting accounts of such events.
Charles’ Troubled Early Life
Charles Fort was born on August 6, 1874 in Albany, New York. Fort’s parents were Dutch immigrants who became fairly prosperous in the United States. Fort’s family owned a wholesale grocery business in Albany. Fort had a painful childhood, as it has been said that his father was abusive and often beat him. Some believe that as a result of these experiences, Fort became skeptical and distrustful of authority and dogma.
Charles Fort. (Daniel Moler)
In 1892, at the age of 18, Fort escaped his father’s authoritarian ways by leaving home. He began working as a journalist for a New York newspaper and eventually became an editor of a Long Island paper. He quit his job, however, in 1893, and hitchhiked around the world.
His travels were cut short in 1896 when he contracted malaria in South Africa. After that, Fort returned to New York, and married Anna Filing. One source claims that Anna was “an Irish immigrant whom he had known in Albany”, whilst another says she was “an English servant girl in his father's house”.
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For the next couple of years, Fort lived in the Bronx with his wife. During this time, the couple lived in poverty, and Fort tried to make ends meet by writing stories for newspapers and magazines. Fort eventually gave up on writing fiction. In 1906, he began to collect accounts of anomalies. However, this was not his initial aim. Instead, whilst doing his research in the New York Public Library, he read about a whole range of subjects, including science, art, philosophy, and economics. It was here that he found reports of odd things, and started to collect them by scribbling them on small sheets of paper.
In 1915, Fort had finished writing two books, X and Y. Unfortunately, publishers during that time were not interested in them, and hence they were considered failures. These books were later lost, as Fort destroyed both manuscripts later in his career.
In the same year, Fort was encouraged by Theodore Dreisner (a magazine editor whom Fort met in 1905 and befriended) to compile his reports of anomalies into a book. In the following year, Fort received a modest inheritance from an uncle which allowed him to concentrate on his writing. Thus, in 1919, the Book of the Damned was published.
Theodore Dreiser, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. (Public Domain)
The Emergence of the Fortean Society
Whilst Forteans regard Charles Fort as a pioneer in the study of anomalies, others are less certain about it. For example, one source describes Fort as an “anti-dogmatist who collected weird and bizarre stories.”
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Apart from collecting bizarre reports, it has been claimed that Fort did not actually do much else. For example, it has been pointed out that Fort did not question the veracity of the accounts he collected. Additionally, Fort was not really interested in making any sense out of the accounts he collected either. It has also been argued that Fort’s primary goal of collecting these accounts of anomalies was to embarrass and ridicule scientists with stories that could not be explained or answered by science. For Fort, scientists were on his list of authoritative figures he distrusted.
Charles Fort died at the age of 57 on May 3, 1932 in the Bronx, New York. A year before his death, the Fortean Society was established by one of Fort’s friends, Tiffany Thayer. Fort, who was a skeptic even of his own authority, refused to join this society. Whilst some emphasize his hostility towards science, other regard him as a hero and an inspirational figure whose writings on anomalies has profoundly impacted the way we view and approach this subject.
Fortean Societies can be found in different parts of the world, but Charles Fort also inspired magazines, such as the Fortean Times, and a short-run TV program called Fortean TV. Both the magazine and the show have a focus on anomalous phenomena that probably would have interested Fort.
Featured image: Charles Fort, 1920. (Public Domain), a depiction of a UFO (Public Domain), and an okapi at Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom, symbol of the defunct International Society of Cryptozoology. (CC BY SA 3.0)
By Wu Mingren
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