When an FT reader found a letter from one 'Charles Fort' in an old newspaper at a local boot sale, and posted it on the message board of forteantimes.com, much discussion ensued. How could we be sure this was 'our' Charles Fort? Andrew Hopcroft offers some thoughts on the matter.
TP's and Cassell's Weekly was founded in 1902 by TP O'Connor, the Irish Nationalist Member of Parliament for Galway, and a journalist of longstanding (he had also founded the radical newspapers The Star and The Sun). Each week, TP's would offer a prize of one guinea for the best letter sent in by a reader. In the 6th June 1925 edition, the prize-winning letter was entitled "Explorers from other Worlds?" and was written by a Charles Fort of London. The brief letter sets out a theory that the Earth is visited from time to time by explorers from other worlds and gives two examples of anomalous objects seen in the sky: the first, a fleet of lights witnessed at sea between Japan and Shanghai, and the second a "torpedo-shaped body" seen over Burlington, Vermont.
Forteans being forteans, our message board was soon filled with questions about the letter - particularly whether or not it had been written by 'our' Charles Fort. After all, neither 'Charles' nor 'Fort' is a particularly uncommon name; a brief look through my local telephone directory yielded three Forts all at three different addresses - although all sharing the initial 'R', which seemed a fortean event in its own right.
Nevertheless, we know that 'our' Fort was indeed living in London during 1925, in a flat above a grocers at 39 Marchmont Street, and pulling together much of the data for what would become Lo! His routine at the time was to spend half the day working at home on his notes and the other half deep in a pile of books, periodicals and newspapers at the British Museum Library. Four or five evenings a week, he and his wife, Anna, would visit the cinema (Fort having an especial liking for Lillian Gish and the adventure films of Jack Holt). On the other evenings, Fort would go to Hyde Park where he had found "a congenial group of loungers to argue with."
The TP's Weekly letter is signed simply 'Charles Fort', as was Fort's usual practice (see FT175:56). It must be admitted that in correspondence to Theodore Dreiser (FT41:48-51;51:40-48) he would sign letters a 'C Fort', 'CF', 'F', 'Fort', and, at least once, 'Saint Charles'! But, on the whole, these are informal communications, Fort appears never to have used 'Hoy', his middle name and his mother's maiden name.
The two examples of aerial phenomena given in the letter both appear in Fort's The Book of The Damned, where the cases are dealt with in greater detail; sadly, the letter offers no new information or further insights. The original source material from Nature and the Monthly Weather Review has been traced and verified by Mr X in his online edition of The Book of The Damned:
"Nature, May 25, 1893:
A letter from Capt. Charles J. Norcock, of the H. M. S. Caroline:
That, upon the 24th of February, 1893, at 10 p. m., between Shanghai and Japan, the officer of the watch had reported "some unusual lights."
They were between the ship and a mountain. The mountain was about 6,000 feet [1,800m] high. The lights seemed to be globular. They moved sometimes massed, but sometimes strung out in an irregular line. They bore "northward," until lost to sight. Duration two hours.
The next night the lights were seen again.
They were, for a time, eclipsed by a small island. They bore north at about the same speed and in about the same direction as the speed and direction of the Caroline. But they were lights that cast a reflection: there was a glare upon the horizon under them. A telescope brought out but few details: that they were reddish, and seemed to emit a faint smoke. This time the duration was seven and a half hours.
Then Capt. Norcock says that, in the same general locality, and at about the same time, Capt. Castle, of the H. M. S. Leander, had seen lights. He altered his course and had made toward them. The lights had fled from him. At least, they had moved higher in the sky."
(The Book of The Damned, JBP 1995, p283. In the notes to his online edition, Mr X adds: Chas. J. Norcock. "An atmospheric phenomenon in the North China Sea." Nature, 48 (May 25, 1893): 76-7. The observation was made on February 24, 1893, at 32 58' N., 126 33' E., south of Cheju Do (Quelpart Island); and, the mountain was Halla San (Mount Auckland).)
Monthly Weather Review, 1907-310:
"That, July 2, 1907, in the town of Burlington, Vermont, a terrific explosion had been heard throughout the city. A ball of light, or a luminous object, had been seen to fall from the sky -- or from a torpedo-shaped thing, or construction, in the sky. No one had seen this thing that had exploded fall from a larger body that was in the sky -- but if we accept that at the same time there was a larger body in the sky --
My own acceptance is that a dirigible in the sky, or a construction that showed every sign of disrupting, had barely time to drop -- whatever it did drop -- and to speed away to safety above.
The following story is told, in the Review, by Bishop John S. Michaud:
"I was standing on the corner of Church and College Streets, just in front of the Howard Bank, and facing east, engaged in conversa- [279/280] tion with Ex-Governor Woodbury and Mr. A. A. Buell, when, without the slightest indication, or warning, we were startled by what sounded like a most unusual and terrific explosion, evidently very nearby. Raising my eyes, and looking eastward along College Street, I observed a torpedo-shaped body, some 300 feet [90m] away, stationary in appearance, and suspended in the air, about 50 feet [15m] above the tops of the buildings. In size it was about 6 feet [1.8m] long by 8 inches [20cm] in diameter, the shell, or covering, having a dark appearance, with here and there tongues of fire issuing from spots on the surface, resembling red-hot, unburnished copper. Although stationary when first noticed, this object soon began to move, rather slowly, and disappeared over Dolan Brothers' store, southward. As it moved, the covering seemed rupturing in places, and through these the intensely red flames issued."
Bishop Michaud attempts to correlate it with meteorological observations." (The Book of The Damned, JBP 1995, pp278-279. The original source, as Mr X points out, is William H. Alexander. "A possible case of ball lightning", Monthly Weather Review, 35 (July 1907): 310-311.)
We know that at this time Fort was carrying out correspondence (see FT175:56 for his April 1925 letter to HJ Barrett); A year later he would write letters to the Toronto Daily Star investigating a fall of fish. Also, we can assume that Fort knew of TP's Weekly at this time; it is listed once as a source in Wild Talents, where Fort cites the edition of 11 September 1926 for the spontaneous image on the walls of Christchurch, Oxford, of the likeness of the late Dean Liddell, who died in 1898 (Wild Talents, JBP 1998, p109).
We can conclude, then (with as much certainty as is appropriate for forteans), that the TP's Weekly letter is 'our' Charles Fort. However, the greater question remains: what are we to do with such examples of forteana as this letter? The answer, I think, is to disseminate and scatter them about as widely as possible. keep them out of the hands of people who claim ownership and expertise, make notes upon them, draw your own conclusions, publish where possible on the net, or in magazines - and don't allow such treasures to languish in the abode of the damned.
Sir,— There are recorded indications that this earth has, from time to time, been visited by explorers from other worlds. In Nature (May 25, 1893) is published an account by Captain Charles J. Norcock, of the H.M.S. Caroline, of a fleet of lights in the sky, which he saw, upon the night of February 24, 1893, between Shanghai and Japan. These luminous objects, if not lights upon several vessels from some other world, moved, sometimes in a massed formation, and sometimes in an irregular line. Anything of a meteoric nature is excluded, because the duration was two hours. The next night these appearances were observed again, moving as if exploring, for seven hours and a-half.
Upon July 2, 1907, according to an account by Bishop John S. Michaud, published in the Monthly Weather Review (Washington), 1907, page 310, a "torpedo-shaped body" appeared in the sky, over the city of Burlington, Vermont. For a while it was stationary, and then it slowly moved away. "Tongues of fire" issued from the object. There was a terrific explosion. Because conditions were stormy at the time, an attempt was made to explain the explosion and something that was seen to fall in terms of "ball-lightning," but the account is of a vessel which appeared, seemed to fire a projectile, and sailed away. There was no known airship of this earth that could have appeared in Vermont in July, 1907.— Charles Fort (London).