Called the "patron saint of cranks", Charles Hoy Fort was a satirist, a scholar and a relentless collector of weirdities and factoids that did not fit in with the scientific dogma of his day. He picked up oddities and orphans "damned" by conventional science and brought them into the light. In doing so he inspired generations of occultists, parapsychologists, cryptozoologists, ufologists, creationists, von Dänikenists and other visionaries on the fringes of science. And oddly enough, some of his phenomena, such as ball lightning, wound up being quietly reclaimed by the science that once had damned them.
He was born on August 6, 1874 in Albany, New York. In his youth, he was an amateur naturalist, collecting sea shells, rock samples and birds. Although did poorly in school, he had a quick wit and had accumulated a wide range of knowledge from his reading. At the age of 18 he left home and traveled widely before settling down to marry on October 26, 1896. He worked at a variety of jobs, including as a journalist, and attempted to support himself writing short stories.
In 1916, he received an inheritance from a rich uncle, which allowed him to write full-time. He was unsuccessful as a novelist, only publishing one novel to meager sales, but came to the attention of the celebrated author Theodore Dreiser, who became a life-long friend. Dreiser helped him publish his first real success and his first "fortean" work, The Book of the Damned in 1919. The "damned" of the title referred to phenomena which science could not explain and which therefore science ignored. In Fort's view, science had become its own orthodoxy, as rigid and inflexible as any religion and just as intolerant of heresy. He needled the pretensions of scientific positivism with a satiric wit.
He never claimed to believe in any of the strange phenomena or oddball theories he brought forth in his books. He insisted that the ideal is to be neither a "True Believer" nor a total "Skeptic" but "that the truth lies somewhere in between".
He and his wife moved to London where they lived from 1924-1926, to give him convenient access to the files of the British Museum; but he lived most of his life in the Bronx of New York City. He could often be seen sitting in the park, going over his myriad notes, or at the New York Public Library, making more.
His later books discussed teleportation, a term he invented, and psychic phenomena. He postulated that there was a "Super-Sargasso Sea" into which all lost things go. Whether or not he actually believed this theory himself is doubtful. "I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written," he once stated.
Fort's skepticism towards science extended to medicine as well, and did not seek medical attention as his health worsened, preferring to concentrate on his writing. On May 3, 1932, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He died later that day, possibly of leukemia.
Of course, that's what they want you to believe…
Game and Story Use
- In a historical or time travel campaign set in the early 20th Century, particularly one focusing on the occult or other weird phenomena, Charles Fort could be an interesting NPC encounter, source or patron.
- He left over 60,000 notes to the New York City Library. A good place for your PCs to go to do research on the unexplained.
- His works themselves are treasure troves of plot devices for games.