Charles Fort

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Charles Fort, 1920

Charles Hoy Fort (August 6, 1874 - May 3, 1932), writer and researcher into anomalous phenomena. (According to some sources he was born on August 9.)

Fort is best known for his books, in which he compiled—with his characteristic wry, tongue in cheek sense of humor—many accounts of odd, inexplicable or strange events, usually taken from newspapers or scientific journals.

Fort's books sold well, and remain in print. The term Forteana is sometimes used to describe various anomalous phenomena.



Charles Hoy Fort was born in 1874 in Albany, New York, of Dutch ancestry. His grocer father was something of an authoritarian, and instilled a sense of independence into the young Fort. In his youth, Fort was a budding naturalist who would collect sea shells, minerals, and birds. Curious and intelligent, the young Fort did not excel at school, though he was quite a wit and full of knowledge about the world — yet this was only a world he had read of.

So, at age 18, Fort left New York on a worldwide tour to "put some capital in the bank of experience". He travelled through the western United States, Scotland, and England, until finally falling ill in South Africa. Returning home he was nursed by and later married Anna Filing, a girl he had known from his childhood. Success as a short story writer was intermittent between periods of terrible poverty and depression.

Fort wrote ten novels, though only one, The Outcast Manufacturers (1906), was published — critics said it was ahead of its time but it was commercially unsuccessful. In 1915, Fort began to write two books, entitled X and Y, the first dealing with the idea that beings on Mars were controlling events on Earth, and the second with the postulation of a sinister civilization extant at the South Pole. These books caught the attention of writer Theodore Dreiser, who attempted to get them published, but to no avail. Disheartened by this failure, Fort burnt the manuscripts, but was soon renewed to begin work on the book that would change the course of his life, The Book of the Damned. The title referred to "damned data" that Fort collected, phenomena for which science could not account and was thus rejected or ignored.

Fort's experience as a journalist coupled with a contrarian nature prepared him for his real-life work, mocking at the pretensions of scientific positivism and the tendency of journalists and editors of newspapers and scientific journals to rationalize away the scientifically incorrect.

Fort and the unexplained

Fort's relationship with the study of anomalous phenomena is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. For over thirty years Charles Fort sat in the libraries of New York and London, assiduously reading scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines, collecting notes upon phenomena that lay outside the accepted theories and beliefs of the time.

Examples of these phenomena include many of what are variously referred to as occult, supernatural, and paranormal — for instance, teleportation — a term Fort is generally credited with coining — poltergeist events, falls of frogs, fishes, inorganic materials of an amazing range, crop circles, unaccountable noises and explosions, spontaneous fires, levitation, mysterious appearances and disappearances, giant wheels of light in the oceans, and animals found outside their normal ranges (see phantom cats). Many of these phenomena are now collectively and conveniently referred to as 'Fortean' phenomena (or 'Forteana'), whilst others have developed into their own schools of thought, for example, UFOs into ufology.

Fort in his lifetime must have taken tens of thousands of notes — he is said to have compiled as many as 40,000 notes, though there were no doubt many more than this. The notes were kept on cards in shoeboxes. They were taken on small squares of paper, in a cramped shorthand of Fort's own invention, and some of them survive today in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania. More than once, depressed and discouraged, Fort destroyed his work, but always began again. Some of the notes were published, little by little, by the Fortean Society until its dissolution.

From these researches Fort wrote seven books, though only four survive. These are: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932); one book was written between New Lands and Lo! but it was abandoned and absorbed into Lo!. Understanding Fort's books takes time and effort: his style is complex, violent and poetic, satirical and subtle, profound and puzzling. Ideas are abandoned and then recalled a few pages on; examples and data are offered, compared and contrasted, conclusions made and broken, as Fort holds up the unorthodox to the scrutiny of the orthodoxy that continually fails to account for them. Pressing on his attacks, Fort shows the ridiculousness of the conventional explanations and then interjects with his own theories.

Fort suggests that there is, for example, a Super-Sargasso Sea into which all lost things go — and justifies his theories by noting that they fit the data as well as the conventional explanations. As to whether Fort believes this theory, or any of his other proposals, he gives us the answer: "I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written." (in other words, facts are 'underdetermined': for any given collection of facts, more than one theory will explain them adequately...this is widely accepted now, but was extremely controversial at the time Fort was writing).

In the face of these examples, skeptics and critics have frequently called Fort credulous and naïve, a charge his supporters deny strongly. Over and over again in his writing, Fort rams home a few basic points that are frequently forgotten in discussions of 'what is science': the boundaries between science and pseudoscience are 'fuzzy' (see fuzzy logic), not binary, these boundaries change over time, and there is a strong sociological influence on what is considered 'acceptable' or 'damned' (see strong program in the sociology of scientific knowledge). He also points out that whereas facts are objective, how facts are interpreted depends on who is doing the interpreting and in what context. These are viewpoints that would not be widely accepted until the early 21st century.

There are many phenomena in Fort's works which have now been partially or entirely "recuperated" by mainstream science, but many of Fort's ideas are on the very borderlines of science, or beyond, in the fields of paranormalism and the bizarre. Fort resolutely refused to abandon the territory between science and the absurd. Among Fort's contributions to the thought of the 20th century was the invention of the word "teleportation" to denote the strange disappearances and appearances of anomalies, which, tongue-in-cheek, he suggested may be connected. He also is perhaps the first person to explain strange human teleportations by the hypothesis of alien abduction.

Many consider it odd that Fort, a man so skeptical and so willing to question the pronouncements of the scientific mainstream, would be so eager to take old stories — for example, stories about rains of fish falling from the sky — at face value. Fort remarked "I offer the data. Suit yourself." The theories and conclusions Fort presented allegedly came from the same sources as those of what Fort called "the orthodox conventionality of Science." It did not matter to Fort whether his data and theories were accurate: his point was that alternative conclusions and world views can be made from the same data "orthodox" conclusions are made, and that the conventional explanations of Science are only one of a range of explanations, none more justified than another. In this respect, he was ahead of his time. In The Book of the Damned he showed the influence of societal values and what would now be called a "paradigm" on what scientists consider to be "true." This prefigured work by Thomas Kuhn years later. In a similar way the anarchic "anything goes" approach to science of Paul Feyerabend is similar to Fort's.

Fort's great contribution is to the humor of science, for although many of the phenomena which science rejected in his day have since been proven to be objective phenomena, and although Fort was prescient in his collection and preservation of these data despite the scorn they received from his contemporaries, Fort was more of a parodist and a humorist than a scientist.

Nonetheless, he is considered by many as the father of modern paranormalism, not only because of his interest in strange phenomena, but because of his "modern" attitude towards religion, 19th century spiritualism, and scientific dogma.

Fort's collected works are published by Dover Books and individual volumes are available in recent editions.

Fort's work of compilation and commentary on anomalous phenomena reported in scientific journals and press has been carried on very creditably by William R. Corliss, whose self-published books and notes bring Fort's collections up-to-date with a Fortean combination of humor, seriousness and open-mindedness. Mr. Corliss' notes rival those of Fort in volume, while being significantly less cryptic and abbreviated.

Followers and fans of Fort

Fort's work has inspired very many to consider themselves as Forteans. The first of these was the screenwriter Ben Hecht, who in a review of The Book of the Damned declared "I am the first disciple of Charles Fort..henceforth, I am a Fortean.".

Precisely what is encompassed by 'Fortean' is a matter of great debate; the term is widely applied from every position from a Fortean purists dedicated to Fort's methods and interests, to those with open and active belief in paranormal phenomena, a position Fort would not at all have agreed with. Most generally, Forteans have a wide interest in unexplained phenomena in wide-ranging fields, mostly concerned with the natural world, and have a developed 'agnostic scepticism' regarding the anomalies they note and discuss.

The Fortean Society was founded in Fort's lifetime by his friends, and led by fellow writer Tiffany Thayer, half in earnest and half in jest, like the work of Fort himself. Fort, however, rejected the society and refused presidency; he was lured to its inaugural meeting by false telegrams. As a strict non-authoritarian, Fort refused to establish himself as an authority, and further objected on the grounds that those who would be attracted by such a grouping would be spiritualists, zealots, and those opposed to a science that rejected them; it would attract those who believed in their chosen phenomena: an attitude exactly contrary to Forteanism. It is ironic, then, that many such Fortean groups have been established.

Most notable of these is the magazine, Fortean Times (first published in November 1973), which is a worthy proponent of Fortean journalism, combining humor, scepticism, and serious research into subjects which scientists and other respectable authorities often disdain. There is also an International Fortean Organisation (INFO) and other Fortean societies, notably in Edinburgh and the Isle of Wight.

Several modern authors, such as Loren Coleman who has written about the influence of Fort in his Mysterious America, are sincere followers of Charles Fort.

See also


As a writer Fort was highly stylistic, blending passion and poetry, and his books are littered with quotes full of humor and insight.

  • "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."
  • "Now there are so many scientists who believe in dowsing, that the suspicion comes to me that it may be only a myth after all."
  • "One measures a circle, beginning anywhere"
  • "I cannot accept that the products of the mind are subject-matter for belief"
  • "I can conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is anything more than the proper thing to wear, for a while"
  • "But my liveliest interest is not so much in things, as in relations of things. I have spent much time thinking about the alleged pseudo-relations that are called coincidences. What if some of them should not be coincidence?"
  • "In hosts of minds, today, are impressions that the word 'eerie' means nothing except convenience to makers of crossword puzzles. There are gulfs of the unaccountable, but they are bridged by terminology."
  • "Everywhere is the tabooed, or the disregarded. The monks of science dwell in smuggeries that are walled away from event-jungles. Or some of them do. Nowadays a good many of them are going native."
  • "The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open."
  • "If any spiritualistic medium can do stunts, there is no more need for special conditions than there is for a chemist to turn down lights, start operations with a hymn, and ask whether there's any chemical present that has affinity with something named Hydrogen."
  • "Sometimes I am a collector of data, and only a collector, and am likely to be gross and miserly, piling up notes, pleased with merely numerically adding to my stores. Other times I have joys, when unexpectedly coming upon an outrageous story that may not be altogether a lie, or upon a macabre little thing that may make some reviewer of my more or less good works mad. But always there is present a feeling of unexplained relations of events that I note, and it is this far-away, haunting, or often taunting, awareness, or suspicion, that keeps me piling on."
  • "The Earth is a farm. We are someone else's property."

Books by Fort

All of Fort's works are available online. See "External links."

Books about Fort

There are very few books written about Fort. His life and work has been almost completely overlooked by mainstream academia and the books written are mainly biographical expositions relating Fort's life and ideas.

There has been more recent interest in Fort:

External links


The following online editions are on (, the site of a Fortean named Mr. X. Each has been edited and annotated by Mr. X.


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