The lodgings of the damned

Actually, that should be "The lodgings of the compiler of the damned", but it's more dramatic this way.

39 Marchmont St, Bloomsbury, WC1

39 Marchmont St, Bloomsbury, WC1, just a few blocks from my own lodgings. The word "unprepossessing" could have been coined in honour of this building,1 and there are certainly many far more pleasing buildings too look at around here, so why does it warrant a post of its own? The not-actually-blue plaque attached to it explains further:

39 Marchmont St, Bloomsbury, WC1

So, Charles Fort, 'American founder of Forteanism, the study of anomalous phenomena', lived here between 1921 and 1928. By 'anomalous phenomena', one should think things like UFOs, falls of frogs, poltergeists, sea serpents, spontaneous human combustion, ball lightning, out-of-place artifacts -- and so on, all manner of strange and rather dubious events. Collectively, these were 'damned data' -- as Fort termed them in The Book of the Damned (1919) -- ignored by scientists because they didn't know what to do with them. Forteanism2 proposes something of an agnostic position: collect and collate the data, even speculate about it, but withhold judgment as to what it all means. Probably nine-hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, this approach is a waste of time; the other one time might not be, but it's impossible to know which one in advance. And so though somewhat sympathetic to forteanism I'm always likely to go with the scientific consensus on a particular topic until there's no doubt that it's wrong, at which time the consensus will of course change in adjustment ...

But whether vampires, phantom black dogs or Spring-heeled Jack actually existed or not, at some point in time, somebody believed they did (and probably still does). And those beliefs, and the way societies react to them, should be of interest to historians for the light they can shed upon the innermost workings of the human mind (singular and collective).3 Which brings me to my own pet obsession, the British phantom airship scares of 1909 and 1913. Fort was, to my knowledge, the first writer after 1918 to discuss them, in New Lands (1923) and Lo! (1931). In the former, he quite rightly (and amusingly) dismissed the contemporary view that German airships were responsible for the lights in the sky:

If German airships were manoeuvring over England, without being seen either approaching or departing, appearing sometimes far inland in England without being seen to cross the well-guarded coasts, it was secret manoeuvring, inasmuch as the accusation was denied in Germany (Times, Feb. 26 and 27). It was then one of the most brilliantly proclaimed of secrets, or it was concealment under one of the most powerful searchlights ever seen. Possibly an airship from Germany could appear over such a city as Hull, upon the east coast of England, without being seen to arrive or to depart, but so far from Germany is Portsmouth, for instance, that one does feel that something else will have to be thought of. The appearances over Liverpool and over towns in Wales might be attributed to German airships by someone who had not seen a map since he left school.4

But Fort goes astray in seeking another explanation for the sightings, namely that there were actually intelligently-controlled objects flying over Britain, but of extraterrestrial, rather than merely extraterritorial, origin. He ascribes great significance to the fact that there was a hiatus in reports for a two-week period in mid-February:

Between the 5th and the 21st of February, nothing like an airship was seen in the sky of England and Wales. If we can find that somewhere else something similar was seen in the sky, in this period, one supposes that it was the same object, exploring or manoeuvring somewhere else. It seems however that there were several of these objects, because of simultaneous observations at places far apart. If we can find that, during the absence from England and Wales, similar objects were seen somewhere else, a great deal of what we try to think upon the subject will depend upon how far from Great Britain they were seen. It seems incredible that the planet Venus should deceive thousands of Britons, up to the 5th of February, and stop her deceptions abruptly upon that date, and then abruptly resume deceptions upon the 21st, in places at a distance apart. These circumstances oppose the idea of collective hallucinations, by which some writers in the newspapers tried to explain. If they were hallucinations, the hallucinations renewed collectively, upon the 21st, in towns one hundred miles apart. One extraordinary association is that all appearances, except the first, were in hours of visibility of Venus, then an "evening star."5

Firstly, this is what collective hallucinations do: they stop and start quite suddenly, for no apparent reason. The revival of the scare in late February largely began with a cluster of sightings in Yorkshire on the night of 21 February -- when something strange may well have been going on -- and then spread around the country as the press picked up on the story again. It may even be that during the so-called hiatus there were sightings made which were not reported until later (or even at all) -- such as the sighting at Hunstanton in Norfolk on the night of 19 February. Secondly, the weather was probably not conducive to skywatching. (Looking at the weather reports in the Times, I see that London had about 11 hours total of bright sunshine in the period 5-21 February, which isn't conclusive -- since the scareships generally came out at night -- but does suggest a prolonged period of overcast skies.) Thirdly, I don't see what's so 'extraordinary' about the association of Venus with the sightings, since it's a central part of the misperception case, which Fort has already dismissed. The fact is that many (but not all) of the people who thought they saw a phantom airship in early 1913 thought they saw one in the early evening, low in the western sky, with a very bright searchlight attached, but somehow failed to notice Venus at the same time of night, in the same area of sky, at a startlingly bright magnitude. Nobody seems to have reported seeing Venus as well as the airship. This is just so improbable that I, for one, am forced to conclude that many 1913 phantom airship sightings were of Venus, and if Fort hadn't been so keen to find a mystery (or if he hadn't thought so little of astronomers, against whom New Lands is largely directed), he might have come to this conclusion too.

Still, all honour to Fort for his trailblazing and indefatigable research. After all, not only was he researching some of the same things I am now, and living very close to where I am at the moment, he was using the same resource as myself: the newspaper collection of the British Museum (which later passed to the British Library). Although I presume he didn't have to put up with shoddy microfilm printers or outrageous photocopying charges, if he survived the experience, so can I!

Forteana may well be mostly rubbish, but it's vastly amusing rubbish. Some good fortean links: The Anomalist, Damn Data, Damn Interesting, Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, and of course, Fortean Times.

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  1. Though it does look a bit more inviting when the shop is open. []
  2. Is Fort the only anti-dogmatist to have an "ism" named after him? []
  3. Luise White's Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), is a fantastic example of what can be achieved by taking strange beliefs seriously. []
  4. Charles Fort, New Lands, (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923), 225. []
  5. Ibid., 223-4. []

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