Charles Fort, Chronicler of Unexplained Phenomena
In 1873 the sky rained frogs over Kansas City, Missouri. The Scientific American later reported that the amphibian shower “which darkened the air and covered the ground for a long distance” was the result of a recent rainstorm that swept through the area. It’s possible that the incident would have been left to collect dust in the annals of history if not for another event that took place a year later: the birth of Charles Fort.
Prior to his career as a researcher of unexplained phenomena, Charles was a curious kid growing up in Albany, New York. He felt socially anxious in school and had a poor grasp of math—which came through in his grades. But while he struggled academically, he found ways to satisfy his cravings for knowledge outside the classroom. He maintained a catalog of natural items that included minerals, nests, eggs, feathers, and organs from small animals pickled in jars of formaldehyde. He even went so far as to learn taxidermy so he could stuff and mount bird specimens at home. When his grandfather, a grocer and the father of a grocer, asked Charles what the boy wanted to be when he grew up, he was chagrined to hear the child respond: “a naturalist.”
Fort's life took a different path when he entered the journalism business at age 16. As a reporter for the Albany newspaper the Argus, he found an outlet for his inquisitive behavior. A few years later, he moved on to covering New York City news for the Brooklyn World. When two of his reporter friends left the paper to form the Woodhaven Independent, they appointed an 18-year-old Fort to be their editor.
Despite his rapid rise to success in his field, he still felt unfulfilled. As he wrote in his unpublished autobiography Many Parts, “I became a newspaper reporter [and] I arranged my experiences. I pottered over them quite as I had over birds’ eggs and minerals and insects.” But by limiting his experiences to a few sections of New York City, he feared he was trapping himself as a writer. Determined to “get together a vast capital of impressions of life,” he set off to travel the world alone after turning 19.
Fort imposed a few guidelines for his journey: He would wander spontaneously and refrain from looking for work, keeping a notebook, or anything else that might distract him from living in the moment. After visiting England, Scotland, South Africa, and the southern U.S., he returned home to New York ready to begin the next chapter of his life. He married Anna Filing, a friend he had known since childhood. She found comfort in domestic life as he pursued work as a fiction writer and took odd jobs.
Writing short stories for pulp magazines was a way for Fort to bring in supplemental income. Though he penned several novels during his lifetime, only one was ever published. The Outcast Manufacturers was a commercial failure and once again he blamed his struggles on lack of experience. Fort reflected on this period of his life years later by saying, “I was a realist, but knew few people; had few experiences for my material.” This time, instead of seeking enrichment abroad, he turned to the New York Public Library for inspiration.
What started as a search for story ideas eventually morphed into an obsession with the research itself. The old newspapers and scientific journals he sifted through contained gems too remarkable to fictionalize: On March 6, 1888, a blood-like substance dripped from the sky over the Mediterranean; in 1855 kangaroo-like tracks appeared in southern England; in 1872 a London house was bombarded with stones that came from no apparent source. Anomalous patterns appeared in every subject Fort explored, and he began collecting the stories like they were trinkets from his youth. By age 39 he was making daily trips to the library equipped with pocketfuls of blank sheets of paper for note-taking.
The cardboard boxes of notes he stored at home became the basis for a new project: a compilation of unexplained phenomena titled The Book of the Damned. When the book was released in 1919 there was nothing else on the shelves quite like it. A blurb on the dust jackets teased its contents: “In this amazing book—the result of twelve years of patient research—the author presents a mass of evidence that has hitherto been ignored or distorted by scientists.”
The book opens by introducing “the damned,” as in the damned “data that Science has excluded." As the work progresses, Fort presents evidence for dozens of oddities he encountered in his research, including strange weather patterns, poltergeists, cryptids (creatures that may or may not exist, like the Loch Ness Monster), and UFOs. A significant portion of the book is devoted to unusual objects raining from the heavens. In addition to frogs (which he cited as falling over Wigan, England and Toulouse, France, as well as Kansas City), Fort mentions showers of fish, eels, and insects.
He was quick to dismiss any theories that suggested the critters had been swept up from the ground by strong winds, instead positing the existence of a “Super-Sargasso Sea.” According to Fort, this place acted as a celestial dumping ground of sorts for “derelicts, rubbish, [and] old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks” that sometimes leaked back down to Earth. The phrase has since stuck around as a place where lost things go, but Fort himself didn’t seem overly attached it. He followed up his explanation by writing, “Or still simpler. Here are the data. Make what you will, yourself, of them.”
Written in clipped and sometimes scatterbrained prose, the purpose of The Book of the Damned wasn’t to convince the reader of any concrete set of facts. Rather, Fort aimed to tear down the black-and-white thinking that prevailed among scientists of the time. Critics didn't buy it. The New York Times panned the book, saying it was “so obscured in the mass of words and quagmire of pseudo-science and queer speculation that the average reader will himself either be buried alive or insane before he reaches the end.” Science fiction writer H.G. Wells described it as beneath his attention, calling Fort “one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers.”
Readers, on the other hand, were hooked. The Book of the Damned sold well and it garnered enough interest in weird phenomena for Fort to publish three more non-fiction books on similar subjects—New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents.
When Charles Fort succumbed to leukemia on May 3, 1932 at age 57, he left behind a complicated legacy. He had inspired a cult following of self-described “Forteans” similarly interested in anomalous phenomena and skeptical of scientific dogma. The group is still going strong today, as anyone who attends The International Fortean Organization’s annual “Fortfest” or subscribes to The Fortean Times can see.
The media remembered him as less of an influencer than a crackpot, with both The New York Times and the The New York Herald Tribune painting him as a “Foe of Science” in their obituaries. But considering Fort viewed science as “established preposterousness,” that’s a characterization he likely wouldn’t have objected to.
Additional Source: Charles Fort, The Man Who Invented the Supernatural