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Vindication for the Damned: Why Fort’s Strange Philosophy Has Endured

“VAST AND BLACK. The thing that was poised, like a crow over the moon. “Round and smooth. Cannon balls. Things that have fallen from the s...

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“VAST AND BLACK. The thing that was poised, like a crow over the moon.

“Round and smooth. Cannon balls. Things that have fallen from the sky to this earth.

“Our slippery brains.”

The unusually-worded passages above, at once both eerie and oddly poetic—are from the beginning of the second-to-last chapter in Charles Fort’s 1919 magnum opus, The Book of the Damned. At the time of its publication, the book was met with mixed reviews; Ben Hecht, writing for the prestigious Wednesday Book Page, wrote that “Charles Fort has made a terrible onslaught upon the accumulated lunacy of fifty centuries. The onslaught will perish. The lunacy will survive, intrenching itself being the derisive laughter of all good citizens.”

Fort’s strange philosophy—one which espoused that there is more to the world around us than scientific dogma recognizes—would indeed live on, albeit somewhat underground (as Hecht, despite his dismissive tone, had predicted). Within years of the publication of The Book of the Damned, a group of friends and devotees of his work had founded The Fortean Society, and Fort himself published several more books that catalogued various anomalies he had recovered from science publications, periodicals, and other publications.

In the continuation of the excerpt from earlier, Fort presents us with one of my absolute favorite passages from any of his writings, wherein the author invokes repetition (a staple of Fort’s peculiar prose) in references to odd things falling from the sky; here, in particular, he emphasizes reddish, bloody liquid recorded having fallen from the sky in a number of locales:

“Things like cannon balls have fallen, in storms, upon this earth. Like cannon balls are things that, in storms, have fallen to this earth.

Showers of blood.

Showers of blood.

Showers of blood.

Whatever it may have been, something like red-brick dust, or a red substance in a dried state, fell at Piedmont, Italy,October 27, 1814… A red powder fell, in Switzerland, winter of 1867–

That something, far from this earth, had bled–super-dragon that had rammed a comet.”

This “super-egotist” Fort describes, which he imagined refusing to remove itself from the page of a comet, was one of the many super-entities he envisioned in his writing. Whether “super dragons,” the idea of a “super-sargasso sea”, “super-Zeppelins,” an extraterrestrial “super-Rome,” or even super-checkers (Fort actually did take a stab at creating a more elaborate version of the famous board game), Charles Fort was fascinated with those things which were greater, far above, or far beyond anything deemed normal.

As charming as ideas of “super dragons” and other humorously odd explanations for the world’s mysteries may have been, few would take them seriously today. The question remains, then, as to what it is about Fort’s contributions that have caused his ideas to endure for so long?

More than anything, it was Fort’s philosophy, rather than any specific ideas themselves, that many found so attractive. Flawed though Fort’s reasoning might have been at times (admittedly, it is difficult to imagine that he had been entirely serious about his “super” entities all the time), the general premise that there is more to nature than that which can be reliably observed or easily determined struck a chord with many like-minded heretics of his day.

Martin Shough, writing with Wim van Utrecht in their excellent Redemption of the Damned: Vol. 1: Aerial Phenomena: A Centennial Re-evaluation of Charles Fort’s ‘Book of the Damned’, describes Fort’s mindset thusly:

“Fort had a certain vision and a conscientious worldview, but was no great theorist and in truth did not well understand many aspects of science’s results and methods. His approach was to compile an avalanche of factoids stitched together with flourishes of wry fancy and a little ad hoc guesswork, more picturesque than scientific. Nevertheless scientific mysteries and confusions did of course exist, and some of Fort’s phenomena — like ball lightning, earthquake lights and strange rains — hovered on the fringes of scientific respectability; and these facts, powered by Fort’s remorseless piling of datum upon datum, question upon question, his generally accurate reporting, and his meticulous noting of sources, were enough to keep his catalogues of wonders in print for decades, providing a niche in which the flame of a scientist supernature could continue to burn long after the decline of the great era of popular spiritualism.”

In many ways, his contributions to the field that eventually became known as Forteana (a discipline some prefer to call Forteanism, or more simply anomalistics) would be seen by his admirers as comparable to that of the intrepid world explorers and antiquarians of 19th and early 20th centuries.

Plaque at the building at Charles Fort – 39 Marchmont Street, London, where Charles Fort once resided. The majority of his research was conducted in London and New York (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

UFO historian Loren Gross summarized this view of Fort as a sort of “explorer” of the unknown,  whose contributions not only defined a genre, but foreshadowed the arrival of even weightier topics well after his time, the likes of flying saucers:

“Fort… is still looked upon by some as another Ripley, while others interpret him as the archenemy of dogma, and then there are a few who prefer to remember him as a kind of philosopher who proposed wild theories using an entertaining writing style. However Fort has gained immortality more as a prophet, because of his investigations into what many erroneously consider a modern riddle, the mystery of unidentified flying objects.”

In light of Fort’s chronicling of data pertaining to wonders seen in the skies, many have looked to him as a sort of “father of ufology”, or even more broadly, as Fort’s biographer Jim Steinmeyer dubbed him in the title of his own book on the life and times of Charles Fort, “The Man Who Invented the Supernatural.”

Fort’s perspectives on the unusual side of nature were far from complete, but it was his own perception of modern science as being an essentially incomplete picture that spurred his interest in pursuing otherwise heretical “anomalistics.” In doing so, he not only created a genre: he inspired many others to pursue answers to the unexplained, both within the sciences, as well as outside of conventional paradigms.

It might be a stretch to say Fort “invented” the supernatural, but no one can debate the profound impact he had on the way people would pursue and study it for decades to come; in fact, it is a tradition that continues today.

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