Charles Fort (1874-1932) the famed collector of anomalies was the centre of one himself….
By Alan Murdie
“I was reading last night, in the kitchen, when I heard a thump,”
So might begin many personal accounts of poltergeist activity. But this one was different. The words are those of Charles Fort himself, published in his last book Wild Talents (1932). Curiously, although long acknowledged as a pioneering collector of poltergeist cases (1) little attention has been given to Fort’s own claim of witnessing phenomena himself. The events he observed and wrote about were nowhere near as dramatic as the cases detailed in his books. But they deserve attention since they led to Fort posing a theory about the causes of poltergeist activity which was well ahead of its time, certainly as regards what was being published by the psychical researchers of his day.
Fort’s poltergeist – if that’s what it was – occurred between March 1924 and November 1925. Like the majority of poltergeists, it invaded a domestic situation, beginning in the rooms in London where Fort was living with his wife. These were at 39 Marchmont Street, not far from the British Museum where Fort was busily engaged in his research. Also living in the building were the Forts’ landlady and her daughter, and another family who lived upstairs.
In Wild Talents Fort introduces his own story in typically idiosyncratic style, conscious that as a personal experience it stands out from others in his collections:
“London Times, October— Oh, well, just as an exception of our own—never mind the data, this time—take my word for it…. I have had what I think is about the average experience with magic. “
After some asides, he states: “From records of my own experiences, I take an account of a series of small occurrences, several particulars of which are of importance to our general argument.”
Fort describes how he was researching a variety of topics, including psychic phenomena, but with the emphasis upon “physical subjects, such as earthquakes and auroral beams and lights on dark parts of the moon [which] were about five to one, as compared with numbers of data upon matters of psychic research….. The subject of pictures falling from walls was in my mind, but it was much submerged by other subjects and aspects of subjects. It was so inactive in my mind that, when I was told of several pictures that had fallen from walls in our house, I put that down to household insecurities, and paid no more attention.”
However, matters were forced into his consciousness on March 1st, 1924, as recorded in his own, “Notes, Letter E, Box 27 “I was reading last night, in the kitchen, when I heard a thump. Sometimes I am not easily startled, and I looked around in a leisurely manner, seeing that a picture had fallen, glass not breaking, having fallen upon a pile of magazines in a corner. Two lace curtains at sides of window. Picture fell at foot of left curtain. Now, according to my impression, the bottom of the right-hand curtain was vigorously shaken, for several seconds, an appreciable length of time after the fall of the picture.”
Another picture fell on March 12th, with Fort finding one of the brass rings on the back of the picture frame had been broken in two places, noting “The look is that there had been a sharp, strong pull on the picture cord, so doubly to break this ring.” Mrs Fort was also impressed, reminding him that two pictures had fallen recently in the room occupied by their neighbours.
On March 18th 1924 at about 5pm, Fort was sitting in the corner where the picture fell when he heard “a startling, crackling sound, as if of window glass breaking.” But nothing was had broken. Inspecting the windowpane, he found one small crack in a corner, “but the edges were grimy, indicating that it had been made long before”. This incident seems to have been one which unnerved Fort. “It was so sharp and loud that for hours afterward I had a sense of alertness to dodge missiles.” The noise was also heard by neighbours upstairs.
On March 28, 1924 Fort recorded “This morning, I found a second picture—or the fourth, including the falls in the rooms upstairs—on the floor, in the same corner. It had fallen from a place about three feet above a bureau, upon which are piled my boxes of notes. It seems clear that the picture did not ordinarily fall, or it would have hit the notes…”. In fact, Fort expresses relief at finding the picture had missed the boxes, thus “avoiding a heartbreaking mess of notes all over the floor…. Sometimes I knock over a box of notes, and it’s a job of hours to get them back in their places.” Interestingly, he observed, “….the accounts of pictures falling from walls, which were among these notes.” This time the picture cord was found to have broken, not the ring. Fort hastily re-tied the cord and put the picture back, resolving not to tell his wife. “Partly I did not want to alarm her, and partly I did not want her to tell, and start a ghost-scare centering around me.”
But less than a month later his wife had direct experience herself with the troublesome pictures. On April 18th 1924 she set about taking a picture off the kitchen wall, to wash the glass which had been dirtied by “London smoke”. Fort wrote, “…the picture seemed to fall from the wall into her hands”. Mrs Fort remarked: “’Another picture cord rotten.’ Then: ‘No: the nail came out.’ But the cord had not broken, and the nail was in the wall. Later, that day, [she] said: ‘I don’t understand how that picture came down.'”
The next incident appears to have been on July 26th 1924, with Fort recording, “Heard a sound downstairs. Then Fannie called up: ‘Mrs. Fort, did you hear that? A picture fell right off the wall.'”
Reviewing his notes, Fort formed the impression that there was “a relation between my thoughts upon falling pictures, and then, later, a falling picture.”
On the evening of October 22nd 1924 Fort wrote “My eyes bad. Unable to read. Was sitting, staring at the kitchen wall, fiddling with a piece of string. Anything to pass away time. I was staring right at a picture above corner of bureau, where the notes are, but having no consciousness of the picture. It fell. It hit boxes of notes, dropped to floor, frame at a corner broken, glass broken.” He recalled that the previous day he had been thinking of falling pictures….
The incidents seem to have become more sporadic afterwards – so much that Fort omitted to diary any incident precisely. In the process of compiling Wild Talents he found another fragmentary note from the time about a picture fastening which disappeared but phenomena seemed to quieten down. But almost a year later, Fort found himself making notes again. “Night of Sept. 28-29, 1925—a picture fell in Mrs. M’s room.” Note the lapse of time.” However, there were gaps in his notes, “a note, dated Nov. 3, 1926, is missing. As I remember it, and according to allusions, in notes of November 4th, it was only a remark of mine that for more than a year no picture had fallen.”
“Nov. 4, 1926—This is worth noting. Last night, I noted about the pictures, because earlier in the evening, talking over psychic experiences with France and others, I had mentioned falling pictures in our house. Tonight, when I came home, [Mrs Fort] told me of a loud sound that had been heard, and how welcome it was to her, because it had interrupted [the landlady], in a long, tiresome account of the plot of a moving picture. Later they found the noise had been accompanied by the fall of a picture in the front room. Fort found the cord broken, with frayed ends. “Reflecting on matters the next day, Fort connected the fall with his wife’s state of mind, considering their landlady’s “long account of a movie had annoyed her almost beyond endurance, and probably her hope for an interruption was keen. Here is an admission that I did not think, or suspect, that it was I, who was the magician, this time.”
Like the best poltergeists, phenomena seem to have followed the Forts when they moved back to New York, to the Bronx where their apartment contained no pictures, “I do not have pictures on walls, in places of my own” emphasised Fort. However, October 15, 1929—I was looking over these notes, and I called A from the kitchen to discuss them. I note that A had been doing nothing in the kitchen…. While discussing those falling pictures, we heard a loud sound. Ran back, and found on the kitchen floor a pan that had fallen from a pile of utensils in a closet.”
Almost exactly a year later on the anniversary of the event, on October 18th 1930, Fort made an experiment, to try and provoke the phenomena “I read these notes aloud to A, to see whether there would be a repetition of the experience of Oct. 15, 1929. Nothing fell.”
His last entry reads: “Nov. 19, 1931—tried that again. Nothing moved. Well, then, if I’m not a wizard, I’m not going to let anybody else tell me that he’s a wizard.”
Reviewing his experiences he perceptively remarked: “I would have it that, in some unknown way, I was the one who was doing this”.
It is difficult to appreciate today just how radical this idea was at the time, and how alone Fort was in proposing it. Since the 1890s, arguments over poltergeist manifestations had been dogmatically split between two opposed camps. Sceptics averred that poltergeists were all explained as frauds by naughty children (particularly girls) whilst believers attributed them to the agency of spirits, sometimes channelled through mediums. (3) Reports were hotly disputed, with first-hand observations being ultimately taken as confirming either one entrenched view or the other.
As Fort himself clearly realised, it is one thing to be engaged in writing about anomalies but quite another (as a fair few researchers will testify!) to have them going off around you, in your home. “Just so long as I gave the New York Something or Another, or the Tasmanian Whatever, for reference, that was all very well. But now I tell a story of my own, and everybody who hasn’t had pictures drop from walls, in his presence, will resent pictures falling from walls”.
For his part, Fort disavowed spiritual explanations (nowhere does he attribute the incident to a poltergeist as a discarnate entity) and in keeping with the argument in Wild Talents, he proposed that he and his wife were unconsciously the causing phenomena. This was despite their trivial and seemingly responsive nature, which did not the fit models of poltergeist activity prevalent at the time.
Laboratory research into psychokinetic effects was in its infancy and sporadic or one-off incidents such as picture falls were invariably dismissed as coincidence or mistaken observation, although just a few months after Fort’s death in May 1932, a Greek researcher Dr A. Tanagra holding sittings with a medium reported pictures falling from the wall in the medium’s presence.(4)
Despite publication in Wild Talents, Fort’s ideas of poltergeist disturbances being generated by living minds went unremarked. Not for another decade did psychical researchers begin openly discussing the notion that poltergeists might originate from the human subconscious. In 1943, a Jungian analyst, Dr John Layard, published a paper in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, suggesting sporadic poltergeist disturbances were telekinetic expressions of an unconscious conflict in the mind of a living person. The resulting controversy was such that editor Dr Robert Thouless was forced to defend the decision to publish Layard’s paper, identifying it as “a valuable and original idea, which it would be stupid to suppress because the paper gives no rigid scientific proof of its truth and because its author’s methods of thought seem to me to be obscure and unfamiliar.” (5)He might have been writing of Charles Fort.
Former spiritualist turned Freudian analyst, Dr Nandor Fodor reached similar conclusions following his investigation into a poltergeist case in Thornton Heath in 1938, but again such was the controversy he suppressed his views until after World War II (6). Even the famous Harry Price, who was clearly influenced by Wild Talents and was criticised for lacing his book Poltergeist Over England (1945) with snippets of Forteana, nonetheless preferred to postulate poltergeists as invisible, elemental-like entities.(7)
Indeed, scepticism amongst psychical researchers regarding poltergeists endured well into the 1960s until a number of outbreaks were observed by competent observers. In hindsight, Fort had independently postulated notions of ‘recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis’ (RSPK) long before it became a fashionable term for explaining poltergeists in the late 1960s. Even then, the sporadic and small scale nature of Fort’s mysterious events would not have fitted the accepted ideas of what constituted poltergeist activity. Indeed, only in 1991 was a new category of minor physical incidents postulated as an identifiable class of phenomena in its own right. Dubbed ‘Jotts’ (an acronym for ‘Just-One-Of-Those-Things’) the category was proposed by veteran psychical research Mary Rose Barrington. ‘Jotts’ cover “maddening little episodes – nearly always unwitnessed” – being the “things that do not fit into any prevailing paradigm…. the moment a jott happens it is almost immediately discounted, discarded, in most cases forgotten and ultimately repudiated.” Could one wish for a better description of much Forteana as a whole?
( 1) Fort, Charles in Wild Talents (1932);
(2) Price, Harry. Poltergeist Over England (1945) Country Life Books, London
(3) Podmore, Frank Poltergeists Journal of the SPR (1895); Lang, Andrew
(4)Zeitschrift for Parapsycholgie, Germany August 1932, cited at 12 Journal of Society for Psychical Research January 1933 Volume 28, 1933-1934 p.13
(5) Layard, John. ‘Psi Phenomena and Poltergeists’ in Proceedings 47,1942-45, pp. 237-48 describing two cases in which neurotic symptoms lead to apparently psychokinetic disturbances. Members complained about the poor standards of this article which they argued was based on opinion more than on solid research and should not have been published in the Proceedings. Some of these letters were reprinted in Proceedings 47, pp. 267-74 and in correspondence in the Journal of the SPR Vol 33, 1943-6, pp. 79-84, 94-6, 113-6, 206. One contributor, Dr Eric Dingwall claimed such ideas had been “discussed verbally by the very few serious and experienced students of the physical phenomena” for 15 years but made no mention of Fort’s ideas.
(6) Fodor, Nandor, ‘Haunted People‘ (Dutton 1951) and reprinted from Journal of Clinical Psychopathology, July 1945. On the Trail of the Poltergeist (1958).
(7) Price, op cit; Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo JSPR Nov-Dec 1945 Vol 33 181 criticised Price’s inclusion in Poltergeist Over England of the disappearance of ships and their “without trace”, and “the spontaneous disappearance out of doors of various objects sometimes accompanied by mysterious detonations”. For his part, Price also made mention of the mysterious miniature coffins found in 1836 at Arthur’s Seat, near Edinburgh, whimsically wondering whether witches or poltergeists might be responsible.
(8) Barrington, Mary Rose, ‘Jott – ‘Just one of those things’’ in Paranormal Review October 1991.
First published in Fortean Times August 2012