Words David Sutton
Illustrations Ross Becker
“…he was determined to unlock whatever weird secrets the British Museum hid behind its imposing neo-classical façade.”
As editor of Fortean Times magazine there are two questions I tend to get asked. The first, unsurprisingly, is: why is it called the ‘Fortean’ Times? I explain that the magazine is named after the American writer Charles Fort. The second question: Who was Charles Fort? Despite being something of a cult figure, Fort remains little known to the wider public, even though he coined the word ‘teleportation’, imagined alien invasions long before the dawn of the UFO age and inspired hit TV shows like The X-Files. Flying saucers and ancient astronauts; mysterious animals and troublesome poltergeists; psychic powers and strange disappearances; rains of blood and spontaneous human combustion; pick these or any other sufficiently weird subjects and the chances are that Charles Fort wrote about them nearly a century ago. Those famous falling frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia? A homage to Fort, of course.
So, who was Charles Hoy Fort? And what connects this visionary American writer to Bloomsbury? Fort was born in Albany, upstate New York, in 1874. Rebelling against his domineering businessman father, the young Charles became a writer, starting out as a reporter on the Albany Argus and the Brooklyn World. Having married and moved to New York City, he tried his hand at novels and short stories, holding down jobs as a joke writer or a dish washer to pay the rent. Many of the results are lost to history – burned manuscripts, abandoned novels – but, in the end, he found his own unique voice in four books, published between 1919 and his death in 1932, that pretty much set the template for the study of ‘strange phenomena’. The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents were dense, difficult and funny by turns, full of bizarre facts, mind-blowing philosophical speculations and humorous assaults on stuffy scientific orthodoxy. They were like nothing before or since, although every subsequent work on the paranormal owes a huge debt to Fort’s pioneering efforts.
He’d started off reading old newspapers in public libraries, in search of ideas for stories, but found something far more interesting: real-life events so unusual they made fiction seem redundant and suggested our world was far stranger than anything dreamt of by novelists. He became fascinated by what he called “damned data”: the unexplained and often inconvenient facts that the high priests of mainstream science – who preferred to chop reality into reassuring artificial categories – sought to exclude or ignore. He pored over collections of scientific journals in reading rooms and libraries, marshalling his army of anomalies, recording thousands of notes on cards stuffed in shoeboxes. Once in a while, he’d destroy them and start, obsessively, all over again.
It was this search for “damned data” that brought Fort and his wife Anna to Bloomsbury. He had already ransacked the New York Public Library; now he was determined to unlock whatever weird secrets the British Museum hid behind its imposing neo-classical façade. Arriving in early December 1920, the Forts took a small furnished flat at 15 Marchmont Street for six months so that Fort could conduct his researches. It was to prove nowhere near long enough, so they returned to Bloomsbury in the December of 1921, this time taking a longer lease on a flat above a greengrocer’s at 39A Marchmont Street. Here, they quickly settled into a pleasant routine. Charles would rise at eight each day, “knock around the rooms” and work on his notes all morning; after Anna had prepared a midday meal, he’d go out at two, walking the short distance to the British Museum. Here, in the great domed reading room, he would continue his “grand tour” of old newspapers, astronomical journals and scientific periodicals. He’d return home around five, and after a modest supper he and Anna would either go to the cinema to enjoy the silent features and newsreels or for an evening stroll in Hyde Park. Fort enjoyed listening to the men who held forth at Speaker’s Corner, usually finding a group to argue with about the future prospects of space travel or other unlikely topics. Anna later recalled that her husband would often stop in their evening walks and stare up at the night sky, pointing out the planets and constellations above their heads. Once back at the Marchmont Street flat, “he would throw open the windows and stand gazing at the stars. That was his delight for a long, long time”.
As Fort’s daily researches in the British Museum continued to yield more anomalous data and throw up new avenues of explanation, his notes grew apace, the shoeboxes overflowing with gathered weirdness. Unsuspected correlations between phenomena revealed themselves. Some of them were close to home: “There is a triangular region in England, three points of which appear so often in our data that the region should be specially known to us, and I know it myself as the London Triangle…” Sometimes, oddities would crowd even closer, as when, between 1924 and 1925, the Forts were subjected to a spate of apparent poltergeist activity in their flat – pictures would fall from walls with loud bangs but no obvious explanations. Charles suspected that he and Anna were somehow unconsciously causing the phenomena themselves.
In the end, their London sojourn lasted far longer than the couple had ever envisaged: it wasn’t until early 1928 that they finally boarded a transatlantic steamer bound for New York and home. By then, Fort’s eyesight was failing – worn out by years of squinting at yellowing papers – and his health in decline. He died on 3 May 1932 at the Royal Hospital in the Bronx, aged 57.
Fort’s London adventure had yielded much in the way of material for his books, but the years he spent here left no discernible mark on London. He was a shy man, neither overly find of company nor remotely fashionable or well connected. It’s strange to think of him carrying on his obsessive quest and dining on beer and strong cheese through the 1920s, while just around the corner the self-styled and rather better-fed Bohemians of the Bloomsbury set held court. There’s no record that either was aware of the other, but it’s hard to imagine Fort finding much of interest in Mrs Dalloway; and Virginia Woolf or Lytton Strachey would have thought The Book of the Damned the ravings of a madman.
Belated recognition of Fort’s time in Bloomsbury came eventually. In 1997, Fortean Times founder Bob Rickard got an unofficial plaque put up at 39 Marchmont Street. Now, a more permanent blue plaque commemorates Fort’s years at the address. Commissioned by the Marchmont Association, it was largely financed by Brij Parmar, the owner of Bloomsbury Building Supplies, the business that now occupies No 39. and unveiled on 28 March 2015 by the Mayor of Camden and FT’s co-founding editor, Paul Sieveking.
The plaque calls Fort the “founder of Forteanism”, which he would have hated, being mistrustful of all ideologies and -isms; when a Fortean Society was founded in New York the year before his death, Fort refused to join it. Nonetheless, it was a sign that his influence would be a lasting one, and Society members included Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Buckminster Fuller. Rechristened the International Fortean Society, it continues to this day. Meanwhile, here in the UK Fortean Times has been publishing continuously for nearly half a century. We continue to pursue Fort’s search for anomalies and can count among our subscribers over the years writers like Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Jack Womack and Phil Rickman; film-makers such as Guillermo del Toro and Paul Giamatti; and musicians including Jerry Garcia, Rat Scabies and Kate Bush. So, next time you’re walking down Marchmont Street, look up when you pass No. 39 and remember the weird and wonderful legacy of Charles Fort: you’ll be among very good company.