A writer, a thinker, a humourist and an investigator, Fort is the man who gave his name to the term for inexplicable phenomena (Forteana) and who sought to prompt the scientific investigation of the paranormal.
Fort was born on 6 August, 1874, in Albany, New York. His family were Dutch, owners of a grocery business and fairly prosperous. Charles was the eldest of three brothers and therefore stood to inherit the family business; Fort had no particular love for his family. His father, a man characterised as 'tyrannical', handed out beatings to the young Charles and helped his son turn very thoroughly against both establishment and dogma.
Charles escaped the family house at 18, working in New York City as a reporter. At 22, however, he hitch-hiked his way across Europe in order to see a little of the world. By 1896 he had seen as far as South Africa, where he fell victim to Malaria and was forced to return home.
On his return, Fort courted and married Anna Filan. She was a servant in his father's house and Fort was reportedly utterly devoted to her, as she was to him. The couple did not have an easy life. Fort sold stories to newspapers and magazines, but they were never wealthy and moved regularly, living in the Bronx and Hell's Kitchen areas of New York.
The Forts moved to London in 1921, taking up residence near The British Museum where Charles would spend the majority of his time chasing down interesting data. This habit, which led Fort to become a virtual recluse, was the foundation of his eventual fame. He particularly loved the kind of thing that scientists could not or would not explain, and collected these incidents, which he referred to as 'data', in an almost obsessive fashion. The results of this work could be found stored in a mountain of shoe boxes, along with Fort's collection of objects said to have fallen from the skies.
Despite Fort's reclusive lifestyle - he had few friends and seemed to lack the desire to make many more - his writing reveals a playful and lively intellect at work. He enjoyed challenging the prejudices of the scientific community and engaging in speculation of a sort that might then have been considered Science Fiction. During his stay in England, Fort became convinced that space travel was not only possible but inevitable and made this view public, probably at Speaker's Corner1.
Fort returned to New York in 1929, where he continued to work on his notes. He also struck up friendships with the novelist Tiffany Thayer and Aaron Sussman; in 1931 these two formed The Fortean Society in honour of their friend. Fort's health began to decline around this time; his eyesight became worse and in 1932 he died of 'an unspecified weakness' which was probably leukemia. However, this was not the last that the world heard from Charles Fort. Anna Fort described an incident that took place after a visit from an Aunt that ended in an argument about money. Distressed, she took to bed and...
... in the night I thought he was sitting on a little bench or couch [...] He said: 'Hello, Momma,' and I was never so glad to see anybody in my whole life.
The works of Charles Fort are still available and are recommended reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal.
- The Book of the Damned (1919)
- New Lands (1923)
- Lo! (1931)
- Wild Talents (1932)
All of the above are available through The Fortean Times/John Brown Publishing, in new editions produced in the 1990s.
Reading Fort's books provides a fascinating insight into his restless mind. Although often seen as antisocial in life, we can see his delight in the subject matter he found so fascinating. For example, Fort notes that although the power of steam had been observed and understood by the Romans (among others), the steam engine wasn't invented until centuries later. He speculated that inventions are only possible when the time is right, noting simply that 'it's steam engines when it is steam-engining time'.
Another maxim of Fort's (written initially to bring a manuscript up to the required line count) was, 'One measures a circle starting anywhere'. This seems to neatly encapsulate his belief that all strange phenomena are related and that if only mainstream science would stop ignoring them there might be a rational explanation for everything, including the possibility that some events or phenomena are truly inexplicable.
Perhaps the word 'Fortean' itself, often used to describe happenings that seemingly defy explanation, is the greatest legacy he could have left. Fort's writings, the activities of The Fortean Society and the publication of The Fortean Times all serve to continue the work he began. Independent researchers collating and collecting data from events around the globe continue to build a picture of our world's weirdness.