Chapter 1.  Charles Fort and the Forteans

There are many things that happen in this world that defy a reasonable explanation. For example, it does seem to happen sometimes that people glimpse the future in their dreams; it does seem to be a fact that a disturbing number of level-headed people can claim to have seen a ghost; and it does seem to be a fact that from time to time a “coincidence” happens that is altogether too extraordinary for words.

But are such things to be dismissed as the delusions of superstitious imaginations? Unfortunately, in their haste to explain away these phenomena as quickly as possible, many scientists put forward explanations which fall well short of the phenomena themselves. Of course, they don’t call the witnesses of these events “weak minded” in quite so many words, but the ‘explanation’ almost inevitably implies that the witness was at best grossly mistaken as to the precise nature and correct interpretation of what he thought he saw. The future hasn’t happened yet, the experts reason, so how can one possibly see into it, either in a dream or in a crystal ball? Again, when the brain dies, so too does the personality – ipso facto, there can be no such things as ghosts – merely misinterpreted tricks of the light. Finally, in a world as complicated as ours, coincidences are bound to happen somewhere, even extraordinary ones. Those who mumble of queer goings-on and the paranormal are merely ignorant of the laws of statistics.

The trouble is, of course, that scientists are like everyone else – they do make mistakes and they are not particularly keen on admitting it.

For example, it is not all that long ago that many astronomers dismissed the idea of meteorites as popular fancy, with no basis in fact. They “knew” there were no stones in the sky, and therefore no stones could possibly fall from the sky.

Again, when Edison’s phonograph was demonstrated to the Paris Academy of Sciences in March 1878, one middle-aged scholar leapt to his feet and accused the demonstrator of ventriloquism. To the end of his days, that particular scientist believed that Edison and his phonographic followers were charlatans, one and all.

Charles Fort was a man who saw the explanationism of dogmatic science – the emphasis here is on the word “dogmatic” – as a distasteful cover-up job in the face of a riotously amazing universe. He reacted to all forms of dogma with anger and a fiery pen. He set out on an unparalleled crusade to amass a huge collection of case histories of unexplained events, and to fling them in the face of Dogmatic Science.

Fort was born in Albany, New York State, in 1874. After a tempestuous childhood, he left school without graduating and became a journalist in New York City. In 1909 he wrote of himself:

I’ve been a tramp and an editor; reporter, joke writer, fireman, cattleman, book agent, stoker, dishwasher – and what of it? Read the literary notices of other writers, and see how conventional and quite the ordinary thing that is.

In 1916, Fort inherited some money and became financially independent. It was this inheritance which left him free to amass his fantastic collection of unexplained phenomena. For twenty-six years, both in London and New York, he scoured the world’s books, journals, magazines and newspapers for his data, literally ruining his eyesight in the process.

He collected accounts of lumps of coal or rock with man-made artefacts unaccountably embedded in them. He noted the sightings of sea-monsters, the mysterious disappearances of people, and the discoveries of the bones of giants. He compiled notes on strange objects sighted in the sky, and of mysterious lights seen in the vicinity of the Moon. He collected accounts of strange plagues of darkness, of occasions when the Sun turned blood-red for no apparent reason, or when the Moon really did turn blue. He was especially fond of falls of unusual objects from the sky: coloured rain, resinous substances, blocks of ice, coke, mussels, lizards, toads, black worms, ants, fishes and a host of other things as impossible as meteorites were once held to be. Yet down from the sky they came, nevertheless.

Fort called his precious items of data “The Damned” or “The Excluded”, because they were damned by Dogmatic Science to be excluded from serious consideration. They were little more than superstitious follies.

In 1919 Fort published the first of his four books, The Book of the Damned. It opens dramatically:

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.

As we said earlier, Fort was particularly fond of falls of unlikely objects from the sky. He collected dozens of cases of this type on his travels, and he roared with laughter at the explanations offered for them by Dogmatic Science.

When large numbers of little snails fell from the sky in a thunderstorm in Cornwall in 1886, the experts declared that the snails had been on the ground all the time. When the thunderstorm started, they said, all the little snails in the district crawled out of hiding and went for a stroll in the rain. The yokels saw the rain start, saw the ground littered with itinerant snails, and jumped to the conclusion that they had actually fallen with the rain.

Or when a shower of frogs bombarded Birmingham in 1892, an explanation was readily found by the experts: the frogs had been scooped up from a pond somewhere by a whirlwind, then later released in mid-air.

And when periwinkles fell during a violent thunderstorm over Worcester in 1881, the experts said that someone had seen them there before the storm even started. They’d probably been dropped by a fishmonger.…

Charles Fort was outraged by such explanations. He wrote:

If a red hot stove should drop from a cloud into Broadway, someone would find that at about the time of the occurrence, a moving van had passed, and that the moving men had tired of the stove – or something – that it had not been really red hot, but had been rouged instead of blacked by some absent minded housekeeper. Compared with some of the scientific explanations that we have encountered, there’s considerable restraint, I think, in that one.

Not for Charles Fort all this nonsense about whirlwinds and fishmongers. Instead he postulated the existence of a Super-Sargasso Sea, a region in which gravity did not operate, high above the Earth’s surface. Fort’s hypotheses were rarely anything but bold and colourful. He wrote:

I think that things raised from this earth’s surface to that region have been held there until shaken by storms. The Super-Sargasso Sea. Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from interplanetary wrecks; … things raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas and pterodactyls.

Fort was a pioneer UFO researcher who believed that the world was governed, almost invisibly, by beings from other worlds. “I think we’re property,” he wrote, “I should say we belong to something.” The welter of UFO books so readily available today owes a great deal to the ideas of Charles Fort.

Fort was at his most venomous when it came to astronomical dogma. His scorn for orthodox astronomers knew no bounds: “the astronomers are led by a cloud of rubbish by day and a pillar of bosh by night,” he declared.

He pointed out that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many astronomers reported seeing a satellite of Venus, but that today it is generally thought that there is no such satellite.

Again, in the 1850s, some astronomers claimed to have observed a planet which orbited closer to the sun than Mercury. It was given the name Vulcan, and yet today, this mysterious planet is declared non-existent.

Then came the third moon of Mars – that didn’t exist either; and nor did the Martian canals. Charles Fort would have had a whale of a time over the way Comet Kohoutek, in 1973, refused to co-operate with the predictions of some astronomers who had reckoned that it was to have been a singularly spectacular event. (As it turned out, it wasn’t only the astronomers who came out of the Kohoutek affair with red faces. More than one astrologer was caught with his pants down as well – but more of that later in the book.)

Of course, astronomers are like everyone else – they do make mistakes from time to time. Equally, they are very often right in their observations and predictions, so that we personally feel that Charles Fort takes his wholesale condemnation of modern astronomy just a little too far at times. But then Fort was never entirely serious in what he wrote. Here, for example, is his parody of astronomical prediction and its fulfilment:

I predict that next Wednesday, a large Chinaman, in evening clothes, will cross Broadway, at 42nd street, at 9 p.m. He doesn’t, but a tubercular Jap, in a sailor’s uniform, does cross Broadway, at 35th Street, Friday, at noon. Well, a Jap is a perturbed Chinaman, and clothes are clothes.

In fact, not only was Fort’s tongue lodged very firmly in his cheek throughout his books, but the actor and author Tiffany Thayer wrote of him that he believed “not one hair’s breadth” of his own imaginative hypotheses!

Thayer himself was an interesting character. It was he who was responsible for the foundation of the Fortean Society in 1931. Its aims were to promote Fort’s books (The Book of the Damned was followed by New Lands in 1923; Lo! in 1931; and Wild Talents in 1932), and to follow up his lead by continuing to gather and publish “damned” data. Ironically, Fort declined to join the society: “I wouldn’t join it any more than I’d be an Elk”, he wrote.

One of Fort’s early patrons and closest friends, the novelist Theodore Dreiser, became the first president of the Fortean Society, fittingly so, as it was he who had been responsible for the initial publication of The Book of the Damned back in 1919. This he accomplished by threatening to leave the publishers of his own work unless they published Fort’s book as well! The Book of the Damned was accordingly published.

Fort died in 1932, but the Fortean Society laboured on until 1959, when, with the death of Thayer, it ceased to function.

However, in 1965, it re-emerged in modified form as the International Fortean Organisation (INFO), publishing its own journal with the latest news on falls from the sky, UFOs, sea-serpents, Bigfoot (the American equivalent of the Abominable Snowman), and indeed news of anything “odd”, from anomalous electrical phenomena to wolf-children. The journal has also carried articles on any Fortean hypothesis from Ancient Astronauts, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle, to the mysteries of the pyramids, the Moon’s influence on earthquakes and the detection of ghostly voices. It still operates from P.O. Box 50088, Baltimore, Maryland 21211, and has its own web-site at

Here in England in 1973 a sister magazine of the INFO Journal was founded by an avid follower of Fort’s called Robert J.M. Rickard. In 1977, co-authoring with John Michell, Bob Rickard published a fine collection of damned data and Fortean hypotheses called Phenomena – a Book of Wonders.

INFO’s sister magazine ran for several issues under the quiet unassuming title of The News, but later changed this to Fortean Times, under which name it is now quite widely known as a commercially available monthly publication with its own web-site: Over the years, it has published accounts of a wide variety of anomalous phenomena which seem to defy a scientific explanation.

Of course, many of its readers are like Charles Fort himself – they are rarely in deadly earnest and they don’t believe much of what they read about in their own journal, but they believe even less in the pontifications of Dogmatic Science. There’s more to this world, they reckon, than most scientific Horatios dream about.

We chose to open our book with an account of Charles Fort and his followers because there is something refreshing about the way they rebel against the tenets of orthodoxy. There is nothing at all wrong in challenging orthodoxy, and in the history of the world, some good has actually come of such conflicts. (Rather more often, of course, nothing at all has come of them, but that is quite another matter!)

In the present book we take a look at a wide range of challenges to orthodox science. Like Charles Fort and the Forteans, though, we do so not entirely in earnest, and certainly with the reserved right to challenge anything and everything we write about!