The major work missing from the bibliography is Jim Steinmeyer, Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural (NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008), which is now the definitive biography of Fort.
I gave a talk entitled "What Skeptics Can Learn from Forteans" in 2003.
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The great trouble is that the majority of persons who are attracted are the ones that we do not want; Spiritualists, Fundamentalists, persons who are revolting against Science, not in the least because they are affronted by the myth-stuff of the sciences, but because scientists either oppose or do not encourage them. (Knight 1974, p. 172)This did not stop Fort's ardent admirer, Tiffany Thayer, from founding the Fortean Society on January 26, 1931, at a public dinner to which Fort himself had to be lured by subterfuge. (Fort had written just two months before to his friend Theodore Dreiser that he wanted nothing to do with Thayer's efforts to found such a society, and "wouldn't join it, any more than I'd be an Elk" (Knight 1974, p. 181).)
In school Charles did poorly and was something of a class clown. On his own, however, he was an avid reader and aspired to be a naturalist. As part of those aspirations, he collected eggs, birds' wings, shells, starfish, and animal skeletons, with the assistance of his brothers. In his teens he began keeping a diary and collecting stories. By the age of seventeen he had written features for both the Albany Democrat and the Brooklyn World. He then embarked on two years and thirty thousand miles of travel, supporting himself by writing newspaper travelogues. He toured the American South, Scotland, England, and South Africa. At the age of 21, he returned to New York with an illness contracted during his journey, where he met up with Anna Filing, whom he had known in Albany since nearly a decade before. They married on October 26, 1896.
Charles and Anna Fort lived on the edge of poverty in New York City on income derived from renting out a house in Albany Charles inherited from his grandfather and short-term jobs such as eight months working in the kitchen of the Metropolitan Hotel. He continued to write newspaper stories and began to write fiction. Theodore Dreiser published several of Fort's short stories in Smith's Magazine and encouraged him in his writing. Although Fort wrote several novels, only one (The Outcast Manufacturers, 1909) was ever published and Fort destroyed the rest. Two of these destroyed novels, X and Y, were about strange civilizations controlling human life, a theme echoed in his later books. They caught the attention of Dreiser, who offered to act as Fort's agent but was unable to sell the works.
In 1916, Charles Fort's uncle died, leaving his share of Fort's grandfather's estate to Charles and his brothers. This inheritance made Fort financially independent, and he pursued a career of research which lasted the rest of his life. While he had already collected numerous notes about oddities, he began his research in earnest by going through the indexes of all English and French scientific periodicals in the New York Public Library beginning with the year 1880. This research led to his four nonfiction (a term Fort rejected) books, the first of which was published at the urging of Theodore Dreiser. (Dreiser was quite influenced by Fort, as recounted by Dash (1988/89).)
Fort's second book, New Lands, was read by Tiffany Thayer, a writer who was so taken by Fort's work that he founded the aforementioned Fortean Society and edited its journal, The Fortean Society Magazine (later renamed Doubt), which began publication in September 1937. Other early Forteans of note included Ben Hecht, who favorably reviewed The Book of the Damned in the Chicago Daily News, Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser, and science fiction writer Eric Frank Russell.
In 1932, Fort's health began to fail. He managed to complete Wild Talents, but died on May 3, 1932, two days before its publication (Chorvinsky 1990; contrary to the account given by Knight 1974, p. 184). His wife survived him by five years, and left funds for grants in her husband's name to students at Harvard and New York University.
Fort's notion of acceptance has a corresponding notion of rejection, and Fort openly admitted that he excluded things from his work. In the fifth chapter of Wild Talents, he wrote of a story of a talking dog which vanished in a green puff of smoke, and explains that such a story is not of the type he is presenting in his book (ironically, since the story and the reference to its source is included in the book). The reason he gives is that it is a one-of-a-kind event, while the oddities he collects are supposedly commonplace (insofar as they are found in multiple instances throughout the scientific literature). (Fort goes on to note that what is odd about the talking dog story is not the dog's speaking--he recounts other examples--but its vanishing in a puff of green smoke afterwards.)
The most common anomaly described in The Book of the Damned is the inexplicable falling object: rains of unusual color (red, black, yellow), fish falls, falls of flesh and gelatinous masses, coins, fossils, strange hailstones, frogs, and blocks of ice. Fort observes that the most common explanation offered for these odd falls is that the objects in question were either "already there" and didn't fall at all, or were carried by whirlwinds. He proceeds to enumerate example after example in refutation of these explanations, chiding scientists for their acceptance of material as meteoritic even without witnesses to the fall and rejecting the extraterrestrial origin of strange objects which are observed falling (pp. 126ff). He offers in their stead the speculation that there is a "Super-Sargasso Sea" above the earth where "gravitation is inoperative" (p. 90) where objects from the earth (or other planets) sometimes are carried and end up in a collection of refuse drifting about, to fall again to the earth at a later time and another place. In the Super-Sargasso Sea, says Fort (making him an early advocate of the theory of panspermia), is a place (or planet) he calls Genesistrine where living things originate and are periodically dumped to the earth. He further elaborates this thesis with the proposal that some intelligent beings are in control of these falls and in communication with secret societies on earth (p. 136). The Book of the Damned contains an early appearance of the tautology objection against Darwinian natural selection--that "survival of the fittest" is devoid of content because fitness is determined only by survival (pp. 23-24)--an argument now common in creationist publications.
In New Lands, Fort delights in poking fun at astronomers' errors of prediction of the movement of objects in the heavens (especially planets and comets). The book also features further examples of strange things falling from the sky, but is primarily concerned with anomalous visual and audible phenomena in the skies rather than objects recovered from the ground. Earthquakes, flashing lights, strange airships, explosive sounds, and mirages of strange cities are the main topics of the book. Fort theorizes that the solar system is "an egg-like organism ... [with] this central and stationary earth as its nucleus" around which is "a revolving shell, in which the stars are pores ... through some of which spray irradiating fountains said to be 'meteoric,' but perhaps electric" (p. 386). Fort rejects the theory of evolution in favor of "Super-embryonic development," which maintains that there is "dynamic design"--a predetermined pattern of development of complex functions, according to which early stages of things have certain features in order to fulfill functions they will need to have in the future. Darwinism, according to Fort, fails to account for "the influence of the future upon the present" (p. 529). Super-embryonic development is not just a Fortean theory of biology, but of all change over time. Fort would perhaps have approved of the anthropic principle.
The theme of Lo! is the mysterious appearances of objects and, in particular, their teleportation (a word coined by Fort) from one place to another. In this book is Fort's description of the "conventional explanation" of a mysterious appearance of crabs and periwinkles near Worcester, England in 1881:
a fishmonger, with a procession of carts, and with a dozen energetic assistants, appeared at a time when nobody on a busy road was looking. The fishmonger and his assistants grabbed sacks of periwinkles, and ran in a frenzy, slinging the things into fields on both sides of the road. They raced to gardens, and some assistants, standing on the shoulders of other assistants, had sacks lifted to them, and dumped sacks over the high walls. Meanwhile other assistants, in a dozen carts, were furiously shoveling out periwinkles, about a mile along the road. Also, meanwhile, several boys were busily mixing in crabs. They were not advertising anything. Above all there was secrecy. The cost must have been hundreds of dollars. They appeared without having been seen on the way, and they melted away equally mysteriously. There were houses all around, but nobody saw them. (pp. 548-549)Other oddities described in the book include blood flowing from holy images; appearances of mice, small crocodiles, fish, eels, snakes, and other creatures; poltergeist phenomena associated with adolescent children; lake and sea monsters; "mysterious burns" (which Fort considers distinct from spontaneous human combustion); and the appearance of Kaspar Hauser and the disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst. In Wild Talents, Fort describes the disappearance of Ambrose Small and Ambrose Bierce and asks, "Was somebody collecting Ambroses?" (p. 847). In addition to mysterious kidnappings, he enumerates cases of mysterious thefts, arsons, and murders in the first part of the book. Later, other "wild talents" are recounted, including dowsing, witchcraft, stigmata, and male lactation.
Fort tends not to evaluate any particular event or datum he describes in any detail, but rather to assemble numerous examples of kinds of events and speculate on the basis of apparent patterns. This invites the typical response of conventional scientists, which is to find specific data which are bogus or unfounded, and reject the collection on that basis. Martin Gardner (1957) argues that Fort's basic error is his assumption that a basic continuity in nature means that all theories are on equal footing (nothing is deserving of belief). The unattainability of absolute certainty does not mean that no conclusions can be drawn, for there are still relative weights of evidence sufficient to count some theories as well confirmed and some as unsupported.