The Bizarre Life and Horrible Death of Charles Fort

by Pat Anders

Charles Fort (1874-1932) was the 20th century's greatest chronicler of bizarre phenomena. In four books written between 1919 and 1932, Fort wrote of events that occur so infrequently, science has damned them by writing them off, slandering their observers or ignoring them. Fort's books now languish in obscurity, but whenever the media report on uncanny events, from UFOs to mysterious cattle mutilations, you can be sure he was there first.

At age 42, Fort came into an inheritance that allowed him to drop unrewarding work as a journalist and do what he wanted -- sit in the New York Public Library reading newspapers and scientific journals. Whenever Fort spotted something unusual and inexplicable by conventional means, he made a note of it and filed it away. When he had enough notes, Fort wrote books: The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents.

Fort's writing is definitely an acquired taste. He was searching for patterns, repeating occurrences of things that science teaches are impossible. As he goes along trying to convince the reader that, impossible or not, dozens of sober observers have seen fish fall from the sky, it often appears Fort is trying to drown the reader in data. But Fort's commentary is laced with venomous good humor, and his often outrageous explanations make acquiring the taste richly rewarding work.

A sample:

In Autumn 1883, and for years afterward, occurred brilliant colored sunsets, such as had never been seen before within memory of all observers. Also, there were blue moons. I think that one is likely to smile incredulously at the notion of blue moons. Nevertheless, they were as common as green sunsets in 1883. Science had to account for these unconventionalities. Such publications as Nature and Knowledge were besieged with inquiries. I suppose, in Alaska and the South Sea, all the medicine men were similarly upon trial. Something had to be thought of. On August 28, 1883, the volcano Krakatoa had blown up. Terrific. It was said that these phenomena were caused by volcanic dust cast high in the air by Krakatoa. This is the explanation agreed upon in 1883. For seven years the phenomena continued, except that in the seven, there was a lapse of several years. Also, the effects attributed to Krakatoa were seen in Trinidad and South Africa six months before the eruption. Where was the volcanic dust all that time? You'd think that such a question would make trouble? Then you haven't studied hypnosis. Try to demonstrate to a hypnotic that a table is not a hippopotamus. Point to 100 reasons for saying a hippopotamus is not a table. You'll have to agree that neither is a table a table -- it only seems to be a table. Well, that is what the hippopotamus seems to be. You can only oppose absurdity with other absurdity. Science is established preposterousness. We divide all intellection: the obviously preposterous and the established. But Krakatoa: that's the explanation that scientists gave. I don't know what whopper the medicine men told." -- The Book of the Damned
Two themes pervade Fort's writing. First, that we live in a prankster universe governed by laws we can't begin to guess. After reading of at least 300 instances of animals raining from the sky, one may be inclined to agree. Second, our secular priesthood of scientists isn't much closer to the Truth than the religious one they're supplanting. Unless a new phenomenon slaps science in the face with its obviousness, it will never make the holy writ of the textbooks. Until the mid-1800s orthodox science held that meteors didn't exist. If a stone was seen to fall from the sky, its observer was mistaken. The astronomers reasoned: there are no stones in the sky. Therefore stones do not fall from the sky.

Fort's books may be tough to read, but they are eminently re-readable. The reader can skip around to form new connections, and there are revelations and biting humor on every page.

So if you suspect the Weekly World News is making it all up but hunger for the inside dope on the Brown Mountain Lights or pre-Wright brothers UFO-s, you've got to go to the source. Fort's books regularly turn up in used book stores in the new age section -- pretty ironic considering Fort casually dismissed like spiritualist movements of the 1920s. For him, such movements were no better than the scientific establishement in that they all claimed to have the Answers. If Fort didn't waste much time venting spleen upon them, it was only because they presented a less challenging target.

The only current printing is Dover Press's mammoth Complete Books of Charles Fort, which can be ordered at better bookstores everywhere. College libraries are also a good bet. The best source for modern Fortean studies is a classy publication called Fortean Times (write 96 Mansfield Rd, London NW 32HX, England).