The Hermit of the Bronx

The late Victorian era was a time of smug certainty in the scientific world. The Darwinian revolution had the God of the Gaps on the run, technological innovation was accelerating briskly, and the great intellectual cataclysms of the 20th century — relativity, quantum mechanics, and Gödel’s theorem, foremost among many — were still nothing more than dim smudges on the horizon.

In 1894, Albert Michelson gave a speech, at the dedication of the Ryerson Physics Lab of the University of Chicago, in which he said:

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science
have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that
the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new
discoveries is exceedingly remote . . . Our future discoveries must be
looked for in the sixth place of decimals.

And here is the great Lord Kelvin, from 1900:

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that
remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Astronomer Simon Newcomb, 1888:

“We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”

Into this cozy and complacent soirée wandered one of the most colorful and eccentric writers of all time, a zaftig and whimsical gadfly from the Bronx by the name of Charles Hoy Fort.

Fort’s forte was pricking this balloon of scientific conceit. To this end, he spent decades in the libraries of New York and London, collecting tens of thousands of notes, culled from newspapers from all over the world, of abnormal and unexplained phenomena, and the often ludicrous explanations given by local civil and scientific “authorities” as to what might have caused them. These accounts were presented to the public in a series of volumes that survive today as four books. The first is called The Book of the Damned, and the title refers to those facts and observations that, not fitting comfortably into the tidy picture that scientists of his day had of the world, were simply cast into the darkness. But here’s how Fort himself introduces them, on page one of the book, in his own extraordinary style:

A procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.
Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march. You’ll read them — or they’ll march.
Some of them livid and some of them fiery and some of them rotten.
Some of them are corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching, tottering, animated by companions that have been damned alive. There are giants that will walk by, though sound asleep. There are things that are theorems and things that are rags: they’ll go by like Euclid arm in arm with the spirit of anarchy. Here and there will flit little harlots. Many are clowns. But many are of the highest respectability. Some are assassins. There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices: whims and amiabilities. The naive and the pedantic and the bizarre and the grotesque and the sincere and the insincere, the profound and the puerile. A stab and a laugh and the patiently folded hands of hopeless propriety.

The ultra-respectable, but the condemned, anyway.

The aggregate appearance is of dignity and dissoluteness: the aggregate voice is a defiant prayer: but the spirit of the whole is processional.

The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.

But they’ll march.

Fort goes on to present us with accounts of some very strange happenings, the sorts of things that one might indeed dismiss as the overheated ravings of deluded witnesses — but there are just so many of them. They do indeed march, and march and march, for over 300 pages, and the cumulative effect of encountering such an army — a horde — of the damned on the patient reader is really quite difficult to describe. This first volume focuses mainly on atmospheric phenomena: strange sightings in the sky, rains of frogs, fish, sheets of ice, blood, and other things the like of which nobody had ever seen. For example:

In Philosophical Transactions, 19-224, is an extract from a letter by Mr. Robert Vans, of Kilkenny, Ireland, dated Nov. 15, 1695: that there had been “of late,” in the counties of Limerick and Tipperary, showers of a sort of matter like butter or grease…having “a very stinking smell.”

There follows an extract from a letter by the Bishop of Cloyne, upon “a very odd phenomenon,” which was observed in Munster and Leinster: that for a good part of the spring of 1695 there fell a substance which the country people called “butter” — “soft, clammy, and of a dark yellow”–that cattle fed “indifferently” in fields where this substance lay.

“It fell in lumps as big as the end of one’s finger.” It had a “strong ill scent.” His Grace calls it a “stinking dew.”

In Mr. Vans’ letter, it is said that the “butter” was supposed to have medicinal properties, and “was gathered in pots and other vessels by some of the inhabitants of this place.”

And:

In all the following volumes of Philosophical Transactions there is no speculation upon this extraordinary subject. Ostracism. The fate of this datum is a good instance of damnation, not by denial, and not by explaining away, but by simple disregard. The fall is listed by Chladni, and is mentioned in other catalogs, but, from the absence of all inquiry, and of all but formal mention, we see that it has been under excommunication as much as was ever anything by the preceding system. The datum has been buried alive. It is as irreconcilable with the modern system of dogmas as ever were geologic strata and vermiform appendix with the preceding system…

Fort has no misgivings about positing the wildest sorts of explanations for such things: great ships in the sky, entire floating continents. When pressed, he declared “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.”

In the other books in this series — Lo!, Wild Talents, and New Lands, Fort takes up a variety of other excommunicated phenomena: poltergeists, spontaneous combustion, disruptions of gravity, mysterious disappearances in full view of witnesses, sightings on the Moon, and on and on and on. The reader’s own skepticism about these exotic accounts, sturdy and cheerful at first, soon begins to sag, and perhaps finally to collapse, under the sustained bludgeoning of Fort’s thousands of little reports. And through it all, Fort offers, with blithe unconcern as to their prima facie preposterousness, a fantastic assortment of explanatory hypotheses. The books are unlike anything you have ever read, I can promise you, and you will be a different person after spending some time in the company of this curious and quite extraordinary mind.

Fort’s books have inspired generations of skeptics, and there are several organizations, including the Fortean Society, that are dedicated to his life and work.

A parting thought from the man himself [Book of the Damned, p. 4]

But it is our expression that there are no positive differences: that all things are like a mouse and a bug in the heart of a cheese. Mouse and a bug: no two things could seem more unlike. They’re there a week, or they stay there a month: both are then only transmutations of cheese. I think we’re all bugs and mice, and are only different expressions of an all-inclusive cheese.

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