Update of an earlier post:
Another name that was mentioned but with no sign of active membership: Claire P. Beck. Only the context makes it possible to figure out who this was.
Beck was noted in The Fortean Society Magazine number 7 (before the name switched to Doubt). This was from June 1943. On page 5, Thayer was proclaiming the rising prominence of science fiction--or scientifiction, as it was then sometimes styled:
“Before Fort, any fiction making more or less free with ‘Science’ was classified always, as of the Jules Verne school. And there wasn’t a great deal of it, but in the past twenty years, what its exponents and admirers call Scientifiction, has grown like something in a dream. Millions of fans prefer these tales to either whodunits or horror, and the number of publications devoted to the imaginative extension of ‘scientific laws’ and the enlargement of human attributes (Wild Talents, so to speak) has become legion.
“The band is almost unanimously Fortean and some of our most prized members come from its ranks, all whooping up Charles Fort’s fame.”
Among those Thayer name-checked was Claire P. Beck. Presumably, he means Claire P. Beck the science fiction fan. (The ‘P,’ by the way, was pseudonymous, standing for poor.)
Beck was born in California in 1919. His father, a contractor, died when he was very young, and his mother was left to raise four children. Life had to have been hard for the family. (In 1930, Claire’s eldest brother William was the only breadwinner in the family, working as a newspaper printer.) Within a few years, while still a teenager, Beck became involved with science fiction fandom—he especially liked Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith—and took over publication of The Science Fiction Review, renaming it The Science Fiction Critic. By 1940, his mother had become a tax collector, and had enough money to own her home; that year, Claire attended a year of college while also working as a census taker. His education was interrupted World War II—he joined the army in 1941.
Claire Beck died in Lakeport, California, where he had lived most of his life, in March 1999.
Beck was affiliated with other science fiction groups, too, notably San Francisco’s Science Fiction Advancement Association and Sam Moskowitz’s New Fandom.
This is the sum total of material on Donald J. Snively in “The Fortean Society Magazine”:
“Thanks to Members
Donald J. Snively
It comes from the 3rd issue, dated January 1940—a list of members who have sent in material. That’s it. The name never appears again, and there are no distinguishing characteristics.
Except that the name is unusual. I Googled it. And there was a batch of correspondence between a Donald J. Snively and a Howard D. Snively—engineer with GE—at the Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science. To my amazement, the correspondence was indeed from the same Donald J. Snively. And it allowed me to find a bit more information on him—not a lot, to be sure, but more than I could have hoped. I assumed he was just going to be another Fortean I know only by name, but that isn’t the case.
Donald J. Snively was born 25 October 1906 to Pius D. Snively and Elizabeth Mary (Karrer). He was the family’s third son, coming some two decades after the north of his brother Homer in 1887 and sister Carrie in 1888. (They had been married about 1886.) Pius’s parents both came from Ohio; Lizzie—as she was known—was first generation, her parents having come from Germany and Switzerland. Pius was a tinner and Lizzie a seamstress; they also had a number of boarders over the years.
Exactly why there was such a gap between the first two children and the third is unknown. But it had the effect of making Donald close to his nephew, Howard, son of Homer and only four years his junior, having been born 30 January 1911. Howard’s middle name was Donald, which seems to have been a family name, but also would have connected uncle and nephew.
There is some evidence that, in 1913, when Donald was seven, the family’s situation was disrupted. A Pius D. Snively is recorded as marrying one Adeline Schwing in West Virginia. And the 1915 city directory for Canton, Ohio, has a listing for both Adeline Snively and Pius D. Snively. But oddly, that same directory lists Lizzie as widowed. I can find no record of another Pius D. Snively, though, so it seems unlikely that Lizzie’s husband had died while Adeline’s husband moved into town. And I can find no records definitively tied to this Adeline (Schwing) Snively.
Then, in 1917, Pius D. Snively died. The city directory that year listed both Adilene and Lizzy as widow of Pius D. Snively. Perhaps there had been two Pius D. Snivelys in town, and Lizzie's faithful husband died around 1913. It's possible. Regardless, Donald lost his father when he was no older than eleven.
By 1920, Donald was living with his grandmother—Lizzie’s mom—his own mother and five boarders. Apparently, the boarders provided all of the family’s income, as none are listed as having jobs. (Donald was only 11.) Of course, there’s always the possibility that they did little projects—Lizzy, after all, had been a seamstress before.
The 1920s and early 1930s saw the further withering away of Donald’s immediate family. His sister died in 1927. And his grandmother, who had been born in 1843, seems to have died sometime before 1930. He was living with his mother in 1930, working as a printer, and there was only a single boarder. On 28 February 1934, Lizzie passed. That same year, Howard suddenly packed up and left for Schenectady and a job with G.E.—so quickly that Donald was surprised.
That year began the correspondence between Uncle and Nephew. Nine letters are preserved in the Schenectady Museum, all from Donald to Howard, written between October and November 1937. They are chatty and revealing of Donald’s interests—particularly those he shares with Howard. There is very little family gossip and, going by these letters, Donald, who would never marry, spent most of his free time alone.
He loved music, and was very interested in radios as technologies, studying their specs, and helping others by rebuilding theirs. Many of the letters include Donald’s advice to Howard on which radio to purchase, which is especially striking because Howard was an engineer. He collected thousands of records. Donald was also a movie aficionado, and spent a great deal of space discussing new movies and the actors in them. He and two of Howard’s cousins, Glenn and Rich, spent a lot of time arguing over which actress she play the title role in H. Rider Haggard’s “She,” if ever a movie was made. There’s also some commentary on Donald’s business, which was very slow in 1934 but picked up enough over the next three years that he took on Glenn as an assistant and, later, Rich, too.
But, as the discussion over “She” indicated, first and foremost Donald comes across in these letters as a reader—a reader of eccentric tastes. He collected all sorts of books: ethnographic descriptions of sex in other culture, Greek plays, poetry anthologies, ancient history, mysticism, Theosophy, and Polynesian myths. He was compiling a vocabulary of dirty words, tracing their etymology to Greek and Latin. When he read The Marquis de Sade, he was not shocked. Donald became a fan of James Cabell Branch. (Jurgen was his favorite.) He studied popular literary criticism, taking the New York Times to keep up with new books but switching to the Herald Tribune because he found its judgments more in accord with his.
And he read pulp fiction. He was a fan of Tiffany Thayer’s and wondered why Thayer did not get more critical support—his language was as pungent as Dashiell Hammett’s, he noted, and far better than Erle Stanley Gardner’s. Over the years, he subscribed to Adventure and Detective Fiction and Weird Tales and Argosy and Blue Book, but also wondered why—many of the magazines had suffered in quality, he thought, and books were becoming the better method for reading: wait for the inevitable reprint and get the story all at once (without having to pay for Gardner’s terrible stuff). He collected Abe Merritt’s work. He liked Henry Kuttner—much more than Robert Bloch, who he dismissed as another Lovecraft imitator—and thought Stanley Weinbaum was pretty good. Donald was dismayed when he caught that C.L. Moore was a woman: “What are things coming to anyway?” (What would he have thought had he known that Moore and Kuttner would marry in 1940?) He watched, too, as the writers moved about, noting that the Weird Tales writer Frank Owen went to work for Claude Kendall and followed Theda Kenyon from that magazine’s pages to the book “Witches Still Live.” Fortunately, Canton had an excellent bookstore:
“Our bookstore is about as good as they come. Every now and then they buy out some bankrupt store somewhere and they get some good bargains.”
He was especially enthusiastic about James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”:
“‘Lost Horizon’ in spite of a lot of high-brow praise is a just a darn good yarn which has been compared with the work of every one except the author whose works it most nearly resembles—Rider Haggard. It’s my idea of how a story should be written.”
The connections between Donald Snively and Forteanism thus become obvious: his interest in Thayer, his general intellectual tendencies, and that Fort was a well-known part of weird literature in the 1930s.
Thayer’s “Kings and Numbers” appeared in September 1934, and Donald Snively was recommending it by October. For all the enthusiasm, though—and it is genuine—Snively seemed to note that Thayer had a basic unseriousness about him. He wrote Howard:
“If you haven’t read ‘Kings and Numbers’ yet, be sure and get it. It’s certainly different. It’s mostly annotations from reference books with the language in Thayer’s best modern style. I don’t see how the book reviews can make such a fuss over Hammett and Gardner etc and ignore Thayer. And wait till you see the partial list of reference books he gives in the back of the book. Everything from the Bible to ‘Wild Talents’ by Charles Fort. Thayer claims its the first of a series of who knows how many books dealing with the descendants of Pericles. He even gives the chapter heads of the next book In case he does bring it up to date he’ll probably prove that hes [sic] the last member of the family. The book contains a lot of short stories in all styles including a story of the traveling salesman and the farmers daughter which is real good. The story picked as the oldest one in the world is the one used in the plot of ‘Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back’ in the movies.”
By the following month, he had acquainted himself with Thayer’s oeuvre, enough that he could compare The Greek, from three years before, to the rest of his output: ““I think ‘The Greek’ is about Thayers best. It comes nearer to the spirit of ‘Kings and Numbers’ than the others.”
And then there is Snively’s general intellectual inclinations as revealed in these letters. He liked rescuing lost things—creating an etymology of profanity, for example—“Its more interesting than it sounds because, as you can imagine, there’s not much written on the subject. I got hold of Andrews’ Latin Lexicon second-hand and if you think the Greeks had a word for it, the Romans had three,” he said. And he reveled in odd interpretations, recommending a book on ancient pyramids to Howard: “I bought Davidsons “Great Pyramid”—and theres a book for an engineer. All prophecy, religious, etc aside, thats an interesting subject. And are the textbooks mixed up!” On the contrary, he did not like it when “Astounding Stories” became too scientific. (And would later worry that Howard was too scientific-minded to appreciate Fort.) Finally, while one doesn’t want to put too much weight on such connections, there is the fact that Snively rated Burton Rascoe his favorite book reviewer—Burton Rascoe who sung Fort’s praises in the New York Herald Tribune and was a founding member of the Society—and that Alexander Woollcott, from his perch in The New Yorker and as a member of the Algonquin Table, encouraged his readers to pick up James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon”—Woollcott, who was another founding member of the Society and gave Fort a boost in McCall’s.
Given Donald Snively’s interest in Weird Fiction, the occult and mystical, it is no surprise that in September 1936 he announced he was collecting Fort’s four books—certainly h had come across references to them often enough, including in Thayer’s writings. He was twenty-nine at the time, young enough he missed the enthusiasm that greeted Fort’s first book and probably, as well, the hullabaloo made about “Lo!.” He told Howard:
“I’m also getting Fort’s stuff. I only need “New Lands,” but I need it Bad. It cost me $4.50 for “The Book of the Damned” but its worth it. “Lo!” is still in print and more complete than the abridgement [sic] in Astounding Stories. I got Wild Talents at remainder prices.”
He recognized that Fort’s writings were a kind of intellectual play, and not to everyone’s tastes:
“I wonder if you’re too much a scientist, these days to get a kick out of Fort. If you want to read any, just say so and I’ll send em. Personally I think the guy is good.”
A year later, he had completed his collection, and encouraged Howard to be on the look-out for any more copies of Fort’s books. “Buy any Fort books, especially ‘New Lands.’ They are all out of print and cant help but go up. I paid $4.00 for ‘New Lands’ and it took me a year to get it.”
By that point, as well, the Fortean Society had relaunched, and Snively joined. He wrote Thayer praising his books—and Thayer’s answer confirmed that interest in the Society (and Thayer) was subversive, which is what Snively seemed to be looking for in much of his reading:
“I told Thayer I liked [Geek and] Kings and Numbers best of his books and he wrote that it was a penitentiary offense in some states to like those two. And how about Ohio?”
But that didn’t mean he took seriously Thayer, or even the Society—not anymore than he had ever taken Thayer, or, it seems, Fort. He wrote Howard:
“I am now a member in good standing in the Fortean Society—if thats [sic] anything to brag about. Tiffany Thayer is secretary, editor [sic] chief heckler etc. Dues are $2.00 a year including a magazine, bulletins, etc. You would make a good member. Even if you dont [sic] go for Fort Thayer is screwy enough. The address is “The Fortean Society”—444 Madison Ave., N.Y.—and ask for the first two copies of “The Fortean.”
That was from the last letter in the Museum of Innovation and Science’s archives. Why did not more survive? (Was there emote to survive?) What did Snively think of the Society as it developed? Why was he mentioned only once in the Society’s magazine? Did he drop out? None of these questions have answers.
Howard stayed with GE, dying in 1992. Donald stayed in Canton, a printer, and died early, in September 1954, just a month before his 48th birthday.
There are some interesting affinities between Riesenberg and Fort (and Thayer), but mostly seems to have been a member of the Society because of his friendship with Thayer.
Reisenberg lived a full life, and most of it does not need to be recited here. Born in 1879, he became a maritime officer and sailed the seas from 1897 to 1907, including an unsuccessful attempt to reach the north pole. (And thus it remained a place about which Forteans could speculate.) He returned to school, learned engineering, and worked at that profession, interleaving that job with time spent at sea.
In the late 1910s, he started writing, first about the sea, and naval history, but expanded out to include fiction, his 1927 novel “East Side, West Side,” was made into a movie that same year. In the early 1930s, he wrote for Hollywood, which is where he met Thayer. In his 1937 autobiography “Living Again,” at the very end, he has this to say about the Secretary of the Fortean Society:
“Tiffany Thayer, then in the height of his fame as the author of Thirteen Men, had Call Her Savage and Thirteen Women running on the screen. Tiffany, grandest of men—Elmer Ellsworth he once was—had just written Three Sheet, a saga of venerial [sic] adventures before the days of preventive and antiseptic practices.”
Thayer obviously had great affection for Riesenberg. The older man died in 1939, and the following January Thayer wrote, under the title “Our Loss”:
“At the moment of going to press, the Secretary sorrows to report the loss of still another member of the Society, and a well-beloved personal friend, Felix Riesenberg. He wrote many books but he should be known to Forteans as the author of Endless River.”
Thayer also included a selection from Riesenberg in his 1946 edited compilation “33 Sardonics Tiffany Thayer Can’t Forget.”
The formal links between Riesenberg and the Fortean Society are few, and vague. The only mention he received in the official magazine was notice of his death. Posthumously, though, he was elevated to the Society’s masthead, along with other “honored dead” who were Forteans. It is really hard to understand what this phrase meant, though, for the rest of the list included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lincoln Steffens, Clarence Darrow, Havelock Ellis, and Harry Leon Wilson.
There’s no doubt that Harry Leon Wilson was a Fortean, as he signed up to be one of the founders, even as the Society left him behind. In the case of the other men, though, I have found no connection to the Fortean Society. They were all of an age that they could have read Fort, and they ran in social circles that overlapped with Thayer’s, but the connection—if there is one—is small.
It is tempting, therefore, to dismiss Riesenberg as another in a long list of men Thayer knew and got to say something positive about Charles Fort. But the connection between Riesenberg, Fort, and Thayer seems stronger—even if it is hard to pin down. There was what Max Weber would have called an elective affinity between them.
First, there is the friendship, which is notable. Thayer did not often receive such glowing commendations, even from close friends; he was a difficult man. That Riesenberg gave him such praise suggests they were especially well linked. And it is possible to see this in the book that Thayer recommended Forteans read—Endless River (in addition to some of Riesenberg’s other novels).
Riesenberg was was experimental with the structure of “Endless River.” The title refers to life and its unfolding. In recognition of the vagaries of life, the book has no chapters. There is a narrator, unnamed to the end of the book, and then a wealth of stories and anecdotes and vignettes, mostly unrelated to each other and unrepeated. The book culminates in two science fiction-style endings, one about Polfly, who becomes a hero by submerging Japan and destroying Florida, thus making Europe terribly cold, though he is soon forgotten. The final episode is about a rich, eccentric man who recruits a series of helpmates—each of whom he calls Opp, and each of whom fails until the last one—and together they assemble vagrants and killers and weirdos and normal people—not unlike the reality TV shows of our day—and set down what happens in the greatest naturalistic novel of all time. As it turns out, Opps is the one who has been writing Endless River.
In its experimentation, in its quick dash into the heads of characters and then just as quickly leaving them, in the final chapter’s revelation that the whole story has been something put on by a man who desperately wants to prove his worth by writing his own story against the world’s—the book resembles Thayer’s “Thirteen Men,” which came out the year before. The style is also similar: for all that Thayer lionized Harry Leon Wilson as a writer, he never aped his style. The prose is prosaic—indeed, that is what keeps Risenberg’s novel from being truly great—and it seems to have been written without much control. One wonders how much the two men influenced each other’s writings.
There are also thematic similarities, both between what Riesenberg wrote and Thayer, as well as Fort. For instance, Riesenberg mentions the thirteen-month calendar, which became the object of one of Thayer’s crusades:
“We are in an age of reformers. The clock is moved back and forth, to the detriment and health of small children, who prefer to play by natural light and are roused out an hour too early for school. But it’s a reform, a cause. Another changer wants to cut the calendar into thirteen months, to make the rent come around oftener.”
Also, in the story of Polfly, the destroyer is honored by having his name linked to a knew time system—everything after humanity’s great awakening will be numbered A.P. “Endless River” came out in September 1931. Two months later, Thayer started the Fortean Society, and would come to invent a new system of time, as well, not only with the 13-month calendar but with dating the founding of the Society as year 1, and all subsequent years being re-numbered. Again, the connection is not air-tight, only suggestive.
The thematic connections between Risenberg and Fort might be better termed a sensibility. It is not clear that Risenberg ever read Fort, and in nothing of his I have seen did he cite Fort. But he approached life from a vaguely Fortean perspective, a wry sense of humor at the foibles of humans in their quest to better their lives, the world. He suggests that he was following a Fortean method in writing “Endless River”:
“I have looked around in places, often because others felt that I needed information. And as we work here together, we drag out shredded documents and scan them, much as learned searches dig through ancient kitchen middens.”
And he had a Fortean sense of humor. From page 197:
“It now becomes the duty of this judge to render a dissenting opinion. Two and two seldom make four, or anything approximating the answers set down by arithmetic. Certainly two pounds and two tons make something, but something quite different from a simple total. And two damn fools and two more, when they get together and add their doubt to a proposition, actually diminish things. Engineers, if any one can say what is an engineer and what is not, seldom if ever agree on anything not already accomplished by persons of lesser importance than themselves.”
Harry Leon Wilson, Jr.,—or Leon, as he went by—was, like his father, more co-opted into the Fortean movement than a committed member.
Born in Carmel in 1913, Leon came of age in a beautiful environment, although under trying circumstances. His parents failing marriage and divorce when he has fourteen left him hardly ever seeing either Harry Wilson or Helen Cook Wilson. If he showed any interest in the Fortean Society, which assembled when he was around 18, there is no record of it. Likely he knew of Fort, though, if not from his father, but just because Fort was often referred to among the literati of the area. Ed Ricketts, sometimes collaborator with John Steinbeck, noted in late 1943:
“Charles Fort makes my tired ache, altho I realize I am one of a minority. Many people whose minds I respect admire him: Janko; at one time John [Steinbeck]; Toni. Most of the writers whose work appears not to be circumscribed by form are those who have got to use it familiarly as a person uses his senses. And I suppose most of of them went thru a conscious struggle on that score before finally getting into their own peculiarly characteristic and individual form, or becoming free of it altogether.”
In 1938, Leon went to Hollywood to make his living as a writer. His father had been there for a time, as had Thayer, but both were gone elsewhere when Leon arrived. After three years, he moved to Tennessee and joined the Highlander Folk School. It had been founded in 1932 as a cradle of industrial and union activism in the South. He only stayed for a year, though, his job as librarian interrupted by World War II—although not as one would expect it.
Leon did not approve of the war—although I am not sure why. He resigned from Highlander to keep the school free from his issues: the school supported the war and, probably more importantly, was already seen as a front for communism, and his stance could have hurt its image. Leon did not register for the draft, and was thus arrested in March 1943. In October he was sentenced to two years imprisonment. Two months later, Thayer wrote his encomium to Harry Leon Wilson, and appended to it a description of Leon’s plight—Thayer was agains the war and in full support of all Conscientious Objectors, so Wilson, son of a founder as well as a CO, was a potent symbol. Thayer reamed the New York Times report on Leon’s arrest, attacking it for underplaying how great a writer Senior was, as well as dismissing Junior as a mere librarian in Tennessee:
“The teachers and ‘librarians’—in fact all the unselfish humanitarians who give Monteagle (TN, home of the school) their time and services—serve entirely without pay, The school’s program is financed by contributions from individuals—and unions.
There’s the rub.
That’s why you never heard of the Highlander Folk School of Monteagle, Tenn., where Leon Wilson would rather work without pay, teaching blacks and whites of all ages to read—and to organize—than to participate in pointless mass-murder.
Like Dave Cowan, and his own father, like yourself and Your Secretary, Leon Wilson has ‘set too much copy’ to take the printed word of the Freeprez as ‘sacred authority.” [The last was a quote from Senior’s “The Wrong Twin.”]
As it turned out, Leon was paroled in December 1944. He wrote Tarkington:
I have been meaning to write and let you know of my sudden return to society out ‘of the shadows’ as the convicts affectingly call it when writing for their prison magazines.” . . .
“First, I was released just a month ago, on a type of parole designed for all Selective Service violators, whether by conscience or mere evasion. The parole conditions are that you do work of ‘national importance’ which, interpreted, means work in a hospital--clerical in my particular case--at 50 dollars a month and maintenance, which condition puts us violators on the same pay rating as soldiers. I have no fault to find with the arrangement--in fact would have done the work for much less had I been allowed to do it instead of being sent to prison. That’s water over the dam, now, though.
Prison was a severe, endless experience; I was there a year. Conditions are for the most part all that you imagine: that is the the system is ‘sane’, modern, humane, and all that. But a prison is a prison, no matter how many modern conveniences you have such as radios, chicken on Sunday, and guards that very seldom fall back on brutality.
The poorest feature of prison is that there is no rehabilitation. Same is thoroughly discussed at meetings of the American Prison Association, but even the overlords are too cautious to claim that any man is ever rehabilitated by being kept in a pen. Some of the men grow less social while there; many come out unchanged--of the hundreds I knew well, I didn’t see one go out improved. (End of free glimpse behind the walls--I would say, winding up, that I found a great deal in the experience that was valuable in the way any intensive experience of your life is valuable.)
I particularly chose to come hear for my parole because my mother is living here. My job is interesting--after a year of prison I am to have a year in a big, rushed hospital--another new world for me. The story of the extreme difficulty in getting parole is too heart breaking and dull to go into now. I am happier not having to think about the rigors of what is past.”
He married—a woman who was serving the war effort, as it turned out, and when his wife went to law school, the couple moved to New York. Thayer, though, never reported any meeting with the younger Wilson. But there was at least one small connection. Wilson sent one letter to Thayer, the post-script of which Thayer published in Doubt 13 (December 1945):
“P.S., I met someone the other day with this idea: that there should be universal time, that is all over the old mud ball it should be 8:15 A.M. Monday at the same time; the hour should be the same as a pice of nomenclature, having nothing to do with amount of darkness in the air. Have you encountered this before? Some striking advantages present themselves: there would be note more of this: ‘It’s 9:30 here in London so it’s now——, etc.’ There are equally obvious disadvantages; such as, you could not call up a party half way round the world at your 8:00 P.M., and the like; however, strikes me it is the very first step one might take to make this ‘global’ world really one community. I pass it on for what it’s worth.”
Leon never appeared in the Fortean Society Magazine again. He died in 1997.
Wilson (left) with James Hopper, George Sterling, and Jack London.
Harry Leon Wilson is another founder who became disenchanted with the Fortean Society—though he was never much of a member at all.
Like a number of the other founders—Dreiser, Hecht, Rascoe, and Tarkington—Wilson was a Midwesterner who found his way into artistic circles. He was born in Oregon, Illinois on the first of May, 1867, and grew up disliking the restrictive religion of the day. His father owned a newspaper, and Wilson learned to set type at a young age. Turning sixteen, he left home and used his stenography skills working for the Union Pacific and also for interviewing pioneers for the Bancroft History Company. Over the next several years, he moved about the west, dabbling in Spiritualism and starting to write his own material—he sent a piece to Puck, which ran in the December 1886 issue. Puck was a satirical paper, something like The Onion of its day, and Wilson continued to send in stories over the year,s including a burlesque of H. Rider Haggard’s “She” he titled “Her.” In 1886, he moved to New York and took a job as assistant to the editor. Six years later, when the then-editor died, Wilson assumed his position until 1902.
In New York, Wilson shed his Midwestern values and replaced them with Bohemian ones. In 1899, he married for the first time, but apparently continued having affairs and drinking a lot. The marriage ended the following year. He tired of New York City, though, and decided the best way out was to make money from a novel—and so he wrote and published The Spenders in 1902. The advance allowed him to move and to marry Rose O’Neill, whom he had met at Puck and who had illustrated his book. They settled in the Ozarks. That same year he likely met Booth Tarkington. Wilson’s next two books reflected his disenchantment with American religion: Lions of the Lord mocked Mormon religion, and The Seeker went after the hypocrisy of mainstream faith which, in the age of science, no longer had a firm place. The novel—part well-observed story, part polemic—told of two brothers, and their fates, an honorable atheist and a conniving Christian. It was well received by H. G. Wells, who was one of Wilson’s early influences, along with Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. (All were contemporaries.)
Wilson’s second marriage only lasted until 1907, but in the meantime he teamed up with Booth Tarkington to write a series of plays for the provincial theater circle, often called “The Road.” They had a hit in 1908 with “The Man From Home,” about a provincial character, which set the framework for their subsequent plays. Wilson’s existence was peripatetic at the time. The playwriting came to an end in 1910, for both personal and structural reasons. Both Wilson and Tarkington were drinking heavily, and Tarkington was having marital problems, which interfered with their collaboration. Plus, tastes were changing, from the melodrama in which they specialized to a more realist style identified with Ibsen and Shaw. The Road was closing, pushed out by movie theaters and radios and Broadway: plays that went on tour increasingly needed to make it on Broadway first, and Wilson did not know how to write those kinds of plays.
In the fall of 1910, Wilson settled into a Bohemian community centered around Carmel, California. (This community would become important to the later development of Forteanism in the San Francisco Bay Area.) Forty-five and financially stable, he befriended Mary Austin, George Sterling, and Jack London, among others. (Ambrose Bierce, who had connections here, had gone missing in 1906, disappeared in Mexico.) He courted a young woman named Helen Cook, who had also attracted the attention of Sinclair Lewis, the future Nobel Prize winner and habitué of the Carmel social circle. Helen chose to marry Wilson. They wed in 1912. She was 17.
Over the next decades, Wilson settled more firmly ingot he community and experienced his greatest literary success. He had two children, Henry Leon Wilson Jr. in 1913, Helen Charis Wilson in 1914. He published two books that brought him great acclaim, Bunker Bean, which owed a great debt to H. G. Wells’s Kipps, and Ruggles of Red Gap, which had an English butler suddenly forced to serve American parvenus and introduced his most enduring character, Ma Pettengill. . Both were serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, which became Wilson’s authorial home more than a decade before it hosted that other great Fortean Alexander Woollcott. Wilson’s style was developing—it continued to be closely observed, but now found humor and appreciation in its rural characters, even when it did not agree with them. Ma Pettengill offered homespun wisdom as a counterpoint to the new ideas associated with a modernizing America. As was the case with his playwriting, Wilson’s novel writing also followed a pattern, according to his biographer George Kummer, who said most stories featured a struggling little man eventually rescued by a mother figure. While Dreiser’s writing, with its sex, was championed by new-style realists such as H. L. Mencken, and Tarkington, with its sex muted but realism still there, won plaudits from the older realists such as William Dean Howells, Wilson’s affectionate but clear-eyed portrayal of American rurals received acclaim from both. Kummer again: In 1918, Wilson “was probably the only popular writer to pleas both Howells and Mencken, critics who represented opposite poles of American taste. Between these extremes were thousands of readers who enjoyed the doings of Bunker Bean, Ruggles and Ma Pettengill.” Wilson himself remained allergic to the writings of Sinclair Lewis. He asked Tarkington:
“Why can’t I read Sinclair Lewis with any comfort? Is it merely because a few days’ personal encounter left me disliking him?”
Wilson thought Lewis’s 1920 Main Street filled with the author’s “contemptuous smarty superiority.” When Lewis won the Novel Prize in 1930, neither Wilson nor Dreiser—whom Lewis accused of plagiarism—were very happy.
On the success of Ruggles of Red Gap, Wilson took a year—1917—off writing and indulged a budding interest in philosophy and solidified his thinking on general matters. Like Dreiser and Mencken, he was strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer (a philosophical favorite because his writing had heft without being unreadable). Competition, he felt, was the method through which the ‘unknowable’ (that thing behind all life) worked, pitting people against people, races against races. Like Dreiser, he thought that free will was an illusion—a perfect one, making people feel they were in charge, so they kept going, even as they weren’t. A Malthusian, too, he assumed the Chinese would inherit the earth as they could handle the stresses of an overpopulated planet. He rejected imperialism—as too bureaucratic—and celebrated the virtues of unconstrained capitalism.
This new philosophical bent infected his writing, as he return dot his craft. At the end of the decade he wrote a few war stories, and also injected philosophy into his Ma Pettengill stories. “The Porch Wren,” for instance, had Ma waxing eloquent on the age of the earth and the study of evolution—as well as on matters of the heart (and pocketbook). Kummer reads this short story as something new in American letters, a burlesque of scientific thought different in kind from that offered by Twain and others. I’m not so sure it is as unique as he says, but it does give an idea of the drift in Wilson’s thought. In 1919, Wilson also wrote a play for the Bohemian Club (in San Francisco) called “Life,” which made the point—a point he would come to repeatedly—that life is a card game we are all destined to lose. (But from a cosmic perspective everything was copacetic; even if humans scotch up life on earth, it would continue on other planets.) That same year he started serializing “The Wrong Twin” in The Saturday Evening Post, which featured a tramp printer, Dave Cowan, who was a Spencerian. And the following year he published in the same magazine an article mocking spiritualism. But done lightly enough that The Order of Christian Mystics enjoyed it. Wilson had a deft touch for pointing out the absurdities of America’s metaphysical religions. He started a chapter in his novel The Wrong Twin thusly:
“Archeologists of a future age will doubtless, in their minute explorations of this region, come upon the petrified remains of golf balls in such number as will occasion learned dispute. Found so profusely and yet so far from any known course, they will perhaps give rise to wholly erroneous surmises. Prefacing his paper with a reference to lost secrets once possessed by other ancients, citing without doubt that the old Egyptians knew how to temper the soft metal of copper, a certain scientist will profoundly deduce from this deposit of balls, far from the vestiges of the nearest course, that people of this remote day possessed the secret of driving a golf ball three and a half miles, and he will perhaps moralize upon the degeneracy of his own times, when the longest drive will doubtless not exceed a scant mile.” (180).
Of course, the joke could be seen at the expense of scientists, too.
It was around this time that Wilson first encountered Fort’s writings, though exactly when and how is not known—even as it is subject of firm declamations. Sam Moskowitz, the science fiction fan and critic of Forteanism, wrote,
“Booth Tarkington induced Henry [sic] Leon Wilson, famed author of the Ruggles of Red Gap (with whom he collaborated on the play The Man from Home, produced in 1907, which ran for six years), to read Fort. The result was explosive. Wilson’s subsequent novel, The Wrong Twin, found a philosophic tramp printer spouting Fort’s wildest theories at the drop of a hat throughout. Perhaps Wilson should have been suspect when he wrote Bunker Bean in 1912, a book in which the lead character buys a mummy which he claims was himself in a previous incarnation.” [Sam Moskowitz, Strange Horizons, 1976, p. 239]
But this description makes no sense chronologically. Wilson’s “The Wrong Twin” was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post for ten issues starting in November 1919. Fort’s Book of The Damned was not published until 1 December 1919. What’s more, Cowan never spouts Fort’s theories. His vision of life is purely Spencerian—although he is skeptical enough to admit there’s a catch he has not quite figured out.
“There’s life for you,” Cowan says to one of his twin sons. “Life has to live on life, humans same as dogs. Life is something that keeps tearing itself down and building itself up again; everybody killing something else and eating it. … Humans are the best killers of all,” he continued, “That’s the reason they came up from monkeys, and got civilized so they were neckties and have religion and post offices and all such.”
He rhapsodizes about the age of the universe and the vast distances between suns. These are not Fortean thoughts at all! Either Moskowitz could not tell the difference between Herbert Spencer and Charles Fort, or he never read “The Wrong Twin” at all.
Nonetheless, there is a shadow of truth in what he has to say. It is likely that Tarkington turned on Wilson to Fort’s writings. Tarkington noted (in the introduction he wrote to New Lands), “A few years ago I had one of those pleasant illnesses that permit the patient to read in bed for several days without self-reproach; and I sent down to a bookstore for whatever might be available upon criminals, crimes and criminology. Among the books brought me in response to this morbid yearning was one with the title, The Book of the Damned.” We can date this illness with some degree of accuracy, thanks to Tarkington’s correspondence with Wilson. On 8 February 1920, Tarkington wrote Wilson to say that he had suffered the flu and was forced to bed for a few days of reading. He did not mention Fort, but this is likely when he read The Book of the Damned—early February 1920. (By this point, the tenth and final part of Wilson’s ‘The Wrong Twin’ had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.)
Unfortunately, very soon after this letter there’s a long break in the correspondence between the two men, lasting until 1923, just before Tarkington wrote the introduction to Fort’s second book—and so there is no way of saying for certain that Tarkington introduced Wilson to Fort’s writings. But there was one bit of correspondence that came through during the hiatus. In October 1920 Tarkington sent a short note to Wilson advising he was sending him “some stuff.” This package may very well have included The Book of the Damned. At any rate, even if Wilson did not read Fort this early, he was surely introduced to him by Tarkington’s introduction to New Lands—so likely sometime between October 1920 and October 1923.
By the mid-1920s, though, Wilson had other matters on his mind. His marriage fell apart, resulting in a divorce in 1927. He fled to to Portland, Oregon, for two years. His children, Leon and Charis (both dropped their parental first names) saw very little of either Harry or Helen. He returned o Carmel in 1929, while Charis spent much of her time with her grandmother and an aunt, part of the San Francisco arts community. She followed in her father’s Bohemian footsteps, experimenting sexually before meeting and coupling with the photographer Edward Weston. Leon eventually drifted to Hollywood to try to become a writer.
In November 1930, Tiffany Thayer began preparing for the publication of Fort’s third book, Lo!, by starting—at the suggestion of J. David Stern—the Fortean Society. Harry Leon Wilson was not on the original list of members. But in January, as momentum—and publicity—increased, his name became attached to the project. A letter dated 22 January from Thayer drumming attention for the Society noted that Wilson wanted to join. Whether this was at his instigation, Thayer’s, or even Booth Tarkington’s is not known. The first meeting of the Fortean Society was held four days later; Wilson wasn’t there, but Thayer announced that he had joined the Society. After reading Lo!, he wrote Thayer:
“I am today returning New Lands and am sending my copy of Lo! to an inquiring friend. Also I enclose a small contribution to the Cause.
Fort is highly exciting to me. I cannot share, as fellow host, quite all of what he somewhere speaks of as his ‘bizarre hospitalities,’ but I do greatly enjoy going to his parties.
In early infancy he seems to have been bitten by a rabid astronomer--and more venom to him.
As I go down into the vale of years I grow more and more suspicious of all certainties. Perhaps in another dozen years some one will be attacking Fort’s certainties and I’ll be for that guy, too.
A note from Milliken the other day--’99/100 of what is written on four dimensions is merely nonsense.’ It’s up to C.F. to take care of that minute reminder [sic]. With Einstein as the North Pole and Fort as the South, maybe we can get somewhere. I shall look forward to the next assault on old walls.” (The Fortean Society Magazine 8 (Dec. 1943): 12.”
The letter is interesting because it suggests that Wilson had not—or did not remember having—read New Lands, which suggests that his enthusiasm for Fort, whatever he says in the letter, was relatively subdued. It is also worth noting that Wilson yoked Fort and Einstein, a pairing that Thayer resisted for many years.
But however serious Wilson’s interest in Fort was after the founding of the Society, he soon had other, more serious matters with which to contend. In June 1932—a month after Fort died—he was in a serious car accident, which set off a series of medical problems that were to consume the next seven years until he died 28 June 1939. He had high blood pressure. He had a series of strokes. Wilson thought of writing one final work, to be called “The Stranger,” a kind of science fiction story in which an alien comes to earth and contrasts his civilization with that of earth’s, to point out the absurdities of our lives. He couldn’t pull it off, though, no longer able to concentrate well enough to write. Leon and Charis begged Tarkington for financial help—Wilson had been profligate with his fortune and ended up in debt—which Tarkington gladly supplied. Wilson’s mind turned to reflections on his literary past. He no longer though much of philosophy, telling H. L. Mencken,
“I loathe the words metaphysics and mysticism and am adding ‘philosophy’ to my proscribed list. To hell with ‘Philosophy!’ obscuring the obvious with noisy words.”
He appreciated that Twain could be great, but also that he had many weaknesses, as did H. G. Wells, telling Leon,
“And so different in his faults and failing from another man I once thought pretty big--H.G. Wells. To me now this man is pretty pathetic. A lower-middle-class Briton showing off before his social superiors. See his God-awful tripe in the June Harpers. If you can read one paragraph of it with understanding I shall ask you to return all my keepsakes and to avoid speaking when we meet. My dirty, low-down suspicion is that Wells, with his Cockney posing as one with a gift for putting the world right, is hoping for nothing less than a knighthood, than which a Briton of his class can imagine nothing more sublime. And at least old man Clemens couldn’t have been bought with anything tawdry.”
Only Ambrose Bierce continued to inspire him—and may have been a spark for “The Stranger.” He told Leon Bierce’s
“short stories are superb. I really believe no better ones were ever written. And I couldn’t name any as good. He is remarkable for his polished economy of words.”
(It is worth noting that in the same letter Wilson mentioned Bierce’s disappearances, but not Fort’s writing about that disappearance.)
If life was a card game, he was losing—but not without taking a little satisfaction. He wrote Tarkington:
“And I haven’t had a drink for a year. That slap sort of incited my blood pressure and two M.D’s, close-herding me, struck out all alcohol, after I’d been imbibing fluently for forty-five years. Funny, but I let the hard liquor go with never a yearning. I handle it, serve it, almost every day, make cocktails and such, and probably will never again want even a sip. But I do miss the wine. I’d just acquired the tail end of the wine cellar of a famous old restaurant in S.F. and I often go into the basement to stand wistful in the presence of a couple hundred quarts of authentic Burgundy, Chablis, Moselle and so on, but all I can do is give it away to people so unappreciative I know they’d rather have the current Scotch or even gin with a bar sinister. And I’m not even let to have coffee. But once a week I debauch myself with the real stuff. Drink two cups and am inebriated perfectly, as by four stiff high-balls, joyous, approachable, ready to grant any favor. So far the M.D’s haven’t found me out.”
In September, Harry Leon Wilson received a letter from Tiffany Thayer, along with a copy of the first issue of the Fortean Society Magazine. Wilson had not been involved with the legal wrangling around the ownership of Fort’s notes, so had no idea that a Society was in the works, and it seems that he wrote to Tarkington asking him what the deal was. Tarkington responded in October. His penmanship by this—never great to begin with—was horrid, and some of the words are indecipherable, but the gist is clear:
“Gold--I’d just written you & sent you a book when there came your letter. Hasten to dispense any suspicions you may have about my friendship for, or with, Mr. Tiffany T. Never see the bird. Years ago some people, no acquaintances of mine and  this T.T. formed the “Fortean Soc.” and I signed up by mail, as understood the purpose was to be of use to that extraordinary man, Charles Fort, attract notice to his writings by giving a dinner for him, etc. (Fort was a great fellow--disappointed in me because it was a more literary than scientific interest in his works, he wrote me he’d discovered a terrific gulf in some constellation, a trillion mile vacuum, and had named it ‘Tarkington Gulf.’) I never saw [a]live; he used to live with Dreiser. Well, this summer Mrs. Fort’s lawyer (Fort’s widow’s) wrote me T.T, withheld all of Fort’s papers--said they belonged to the Fortean Soc. and wouldn’t turn ‘em in--and asked me (the lawyer did) to make a statement that the Soc. was extinct and the widow should have the papers. I did. Heard nothing more until rec’d copy of the 1st number of the mag, which brought me some letters from . No correspondence with T.T., who seems to be using me pretty freely. He’ll blow up pretty soon, I’d think, Evidently use of the horse [‘s] daughter.”
In short, Wilson had no interest in Thayer or the Fortean Society.
The feeling was not reciprocated, though: Thayer loved Wilson’s writings. Thayer’s 1938 novel “Little Dog Lost” was his most autobiographical: about a Hollywood script writer who, longing for a life lived by one’s own wits and strength, experiences an identity crisis. He wonders if he could ever find a “good loose trade” like Dave Cowan. He cannot, but comes up with a compromise: he’ll publish a magazine. This was Merle’s solutions, and shown to be bad in “The Wrong Twin,” but John Smith—Thayer’s alter ego—thinks the project will work if he models it on Wilson’s run at “Puck”: a satirical magazine that shows how ridiculous the world has become. Thayer did this in real life with “The Fortean Society Magazine.”
And he insisted that Wilson, however lightly connected to Fort he might be, was an exemplar of Forteanism. Wilson was only twice mentioned in the Fortean Society Magazine, the first being notice of his death, and the second an encomium to him: In the December 1943 issue, Thayer published the letter that Wilson had sent him as well as a long excerpt from “The Wrong Twin” which reflected Dave Cowan’s thoughts on life. (Perhaps this is where Moskowitz got the idea that Dave Cowan was spouting Fortean theories.) Thayer added:
“Harry Leon Wilson towered over all his contemporary writers, the chiefest literary talent this country has produced since Mark Twain. Neither George Ade, nor Frank Norris, nor Sinclair Lewis could touch him; and Forteans who have not read Ma Pettengill, Merton of the Movies, Boss of Little Arcady, Bunker Bean and the Wrong Twin, quoted above, are advised to treat themselves promptly.”
It seems quite clear the Fortean Society wanted Harry Leon Wilson far more than Wilson wanted to be associated with the Society.
Newton Meade Layne was both a Fortean, and founder of a group competing with the Society, inspired to emulate Doubt
and, ultimately, disappointed enough to embark on his own path.
Layne was born in Wisconsin on 8 September 1882 to Peres J. and Elvira Layne. Peres had been born in Kentucky and was a court clerk; Elvira was a native of the Badger State and Newtown was the third other children, after Malcolm and Gladys. By 1900, the family had relocated to San Diego, and only Newton was still living with his parents. His dad was then a machinist, which seems to have been a temporary blip in a career of public service. Four years later the city directory had Peres as a public administrator and Newton as attending San Diego Commercial College: this was a pragmatic institution which taught bookkeeping, stenography, typing, and commercial law, among other subjects. By 1907, Layne had married Gladys Hosler, seven years his junior and another Midwestern transplant, having come from Ohio.
Layne’s life was peripatetic over the next couple of decades. He worked for an in-law as the manager of a gas and oil company, dealt in real estate, sold office supplies, did stenography, and taught at the high school and college levels. He said that he received a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and published a couple volumes of poetry. Layne lived in Calexico, California; Tucson, Arizona; Sinaloa Mexico; and Lakeland, Florida. His parents died, Peres in 1913, Elvira at the end of 1916; he and Gladys had two children, Newton, Jr., born in 1918 and Margaret in 1922. Layne was thin and not particularly tall at five-foot seven-and-a-half, with an oval face, dark hair, and dark eyes.
By 1940, the family was back in San Diego. The census for that year has no occupation for N. Meade Layne or his wife; the two kids were clerks at something called the NVA. (Junior’s World War II draft registration listed him as a metal smith.) They were renting a home for twenty dollars a month—none of Layne’s jobs to this point had been lucrative. January 1940 was also Layne’s first mention in The Fortean Society Magazine. He was listed among those who had sent in clippings which had not been used. Layne was 58 at the time.
His interest in the outré long predates his appearance in The Fortean Society Magazine, though. As early as 1931, he was publishing on matters of psychic research (and likely his connection is longer than even this.) But he became a dedicated psychic researcher in 1945. That was the year he started “Round Robin,” a mimeographed—printing prices were otherwise too high—collection of reports, mostly written and edited by him at first, on all manner of occult, psychic, and Fortean events. He wrote in the inaugural issue,
“We want to print short articles, data, items of various kinds supplied by our ‘members’, and addresses and references and other helpful material. And perhaps a few notes, each time, of the Fortean variety. Nobody expects to make any money out of the Bulletin, but we shall have to have some help on the expense if we go ahead with the idea.”
It is clear that he was influenced by Thayer’s editorship of the Fortean Society Magazine. He requested the same type of information, for example:
“And WE WANT CLIPS of the Tares and Thistles variety—the kind of thing CORONET used to print for its Dark File, and which Charles Fort and his collaborators (genuflect here!) collected by the book-full, to the amusement, contempt, annoyance, and downright rage of ORTHODOXY, both ‘scientific’ and ‘religious.’ (Quotes, because we reverence both Science and Religion, sub aspectu spiritus Veritatis). —If or when you send them in, your clips, be sure to give name and date of publication.” (Round Robin vol. 1, no. 3, 1945, p. 14).
Layne also later opened the pages of Round Robin to other members of the Fortean Society: Harold Chibbett, Vincent Gaddis, H. T. Wilkinson. And Layne had something of Thayer’s sense of the absurd. When he heard there were reports of a cigar-shaped balloon hovering over Mexico, likely of Japanese origin, according to official sources, he quipped:
“Our guess, in a Fortean spirit, is that the Japs heard about the cigar shortage, sent the ‘cigar-shaped’ balloon in a spirit of derision, only it drifted too far south.”
Also in 1945, Layne met with trance medium Mark Probert. Layne had been involved with seances in San Diego for years, so it is no surprise that he came across Probert who, according to Probert’s own account, was naive about his powers until he met Layne. On their second meeting Layne—along with Probert’s wife—arranged a seance, during which time Probert met the first of what he was to call the Inner Plane, or the Inner Circle (a name itself that hearkens back to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor). The spirit’s (or discarnate’s) name was Martin Latamore Lingfor and he was a New York showman who had lived around the turn of the century. This was in September 1945. Over the next three years or so, on a weekly basis, Layne and Irene Probert would witness Mark’s trances, meeting the fifteen other members of the Inner Circle who had been preparing Mark as a medium for years. The Inner Circle included Lao Tzu.
All of this might seem strange to those unacquainted with modern esotericism, but it was pretty mainline stuff within that community. Madame Blavatsky had already authorized the use of seances to communicate with teachers. And it is clear that Layne was familiar with both her Theosophy as well as other off-shoots of modern occultism. He considered himself a student of modern esoteric qabbalism, which had informed The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as well as its most famous member, Aleister Crowley.
In his years of thinking on the subject, Layne had come up with his own gloss on the subject. He did not necessarily see the discarnate as ‘ascended masters’: they knew somethings, but not everything, and their afterlife selves were shaped by psychology as much as their lived selves were. He also insisted upon a distinction between spiritualism and spiritism. Spiritualism was the religious veneer that was applied to psychic, occult, and spiritual facts—and he was sympathetic to that veneer—but it was different than spiritism, which was the dispassionate study of those facts.
Round Robin, he said, was not interested in re-hashing debates over the reality of spiritual communication, the afterlife, teleportation, and other such subjects. He accepted them as certain, and based his studies on their existence. This was the ‘New Realism,’ he called it, or the “Higher Realism.” He had no doubt about these other planes of existence—he experienced them himself: when he wrote poetry, he felt as though he were receiving a message from someone else, rather than creating. Accepting the existence of the occult and psychic offered a plan of research, and Layne saw himself as trying to answer those questions: how do we understand human psychology when humans are alive? How does that understanding translate to dead humans? How do we help the newly dead? And what is the role of Huna in all of this (The last was a question prompted by his friend Max Freedom Long, a student of the Hawaiian religion.) The tests and tools for answering these questions were not those of conventional science, but came, also, form the occult: from intuition, from channeling, from seances.
In 1946, Layne formed what he called the Borderland Sciences Research Association to more formally adopt a program of research into these areas of science—but science he acknowledged was on the borderland of respectability and likely to meet with ridicule. Layne’s understanding of the universe’s physical make up was somewhat akin to Albert Page
’s (another Fortean) in that he insisted, against contemporary physics, that there was an ether, and that it was out of this ether that everything emerged. Layne take on the subject, though, seems to have owed more to his background in Theosophy, and made the case that the ether was not homogenous, but instead composed of varying levels of reality:
“Space? Space is not nothing. Space is stuff, is matter. What kind of matter? The matter which makes up ethers. More dense—not less, but more dense by far than the rarefactions of our world. The matter of the Etheric world!”
In support of this contention, he cited yet another maverick physicist and Fortean Member, Albert Crehore, as well as an old Theosophical analogy: imagine a bucket. It can be filled with large stones. But it sill isn’t full: pebbles can also be added, and then there is room for sand, and even after the sand has percolated through, one can still add water before the bucket is full. Layne’s ideas caught the attention of another Fortean publisher, Raymond A. Palmer, who had promoted the Shaver mystery, and there was some back-and-forth between them; as well, in the second volume of Palmer’s Fate
Layne published a story on Probert and his communications. Later Palmer productions continued to report on Probert—even offering readers a chance to send in their own questions that Probert could then pose to his Inner Circle.
This train of thought could also be applied, easily, to the biggest media sensation of the 1940s, both in the popular press and the occult: the coming of the flying saucers. When, on June 26 1947, radio news programs reported that Kenneth Arnold had seen nine flying disks near Mount Rainier, Layne knew exactly
what they were. After all, Probert had already been in communication with such a craft.
Eight months before, on the evening of 9 October 1946, a bulletish, winged structure appeared over San Diego for an hour-and-a-half. It had two red lights but was otherwise dark, moving at different speeds and strafing the ground with a light. Among those who witnessed this mysterious object was Mark Probert. He called Layne, and Layne suggested Probert establish telepathic communication—which he did. He learned:
“The strange machine is called the Kareeta. . . . It is attracted at this time because the earth is emitting a column of light which makes it easier to approach. The machine is powered by people possessing a very advanced knowledge of anti-gravity forces. It has 10,000 parts, a small but very powerful motor operating by electricity, and moving the wings, and an outer structure of light balsam wood, coated with an alloy. The people are nonagressive and have been trying to contact the earth for many years. They have very light bodies. They fear to land, but would be willing to meet a committee of scientists at an isolated spot, or on a mountain top.”
Without contradicting Probert—Layne insisted there were no contradictions among the material Probert collected, only refinements—Layne finessed this description into something more akin with his own Theosophical theories. The flying saucers and their inhabitants came from another plane of existence, a denser one, and only reached our own world by changing their vibrations. (Like Page, Layne sought to redefine the meaning of geography and space.) To avoid connotations with science fiction, he renamed the things “lokas,” a word he had picked up from his readings in Theosophy that meant place, or location. They were not crafts from outer space—or delusions, but the interpenetration of planes of existence. He wrote in 1950:
“They are NOT delusions, fantasy, or lies. They are not constructed by any foreign government, or by our own. They do not come from the depths of the sea—though some of them may enter the sea at times. They do not come from the Polar regions, or from Tibet or Java—though it is conceivable that some temporary base on our earth may be utilized. They are not contracted in the earth’s interior—though they may have some connection with underground races or be interested in them. They are not constructions of Atlanteans or other ancient peoples, preserved in caverns against a coming day of need.”
So how could the crafts be understood? Using the tools of the occult, of course. He offered a self-deprecating description of his method in Red Robin:
Having said this much, and taunted all learned men with their ignorance (ear-wig to our betters), we now present the only intelligent and intelligible comment on the saucer party so far offered by anybody. That doesn’t mean we ‘guarantee’ it in any sense; we wouldn’t ‘guarantee’ Tuesday after Monday. But it’s a point of view, and coherent end possible and probably interesting to everybody with a smattering of esoteric knowledge – which leaves most of our intelligentsia out of it, but happily lets in about fifty million lesser folk of this Pilgrims’ Pride. The commentator is our friend “Lingford”, a familiar control at the Mark P. seances. If nobody on our own plane has anything intelligent to say about saucers, why not interrogate the ghosties – get an astral viewpoint anyway, even if you don’t believe a word of it. Of course, if you think Lingford is a dissociated complex, a subconscious invention, a personalized memory, or a wholly fictional character invented the medium and the RR editor for ye sheckels sake (as RR has been credibly informed), your interest will be “O” with the rim left off. But having spent many hours in converse with this oeuf dur of the Invisibles, we consider him a very real person, and quite smart and well-posted and worth listening to."
In short, the Inner Circle confirmed his Theological speculations: The ships were from Etheria. Again from 1950:
“Etheria is here—if we know what here means! Along-side, inside, outside our world. Because our world, that is, the so-called dense matter of the objects in our world, is a rarefaction. It is spaced out like a vast net—a net with enormous meshes. Imagine, if you will, a net of wire with meshes a mile wide. Would not wind and water flow through that net as if it did not exist? A little friction, very little! On the strands of those meshes we live. That is the so-called dense matter of our world. We look out across the mesh and do not see anything in it, or hear or feel anything in it, and so call it empty space. ‘Meaningless words in the abyss of folly!”
By all accounts, Layne was sincere in his convictions. (And he was certainly a clearer writer than Page.) He published a number of pamphlets on the matter, and continued to feature discussion of his ideas in Round Robin, but it is unlikely that he ever made any real money; he dealt with doubters—including the editor of Doubt
—but mostly sloughed them off, intent on his own theories. He did, though, make amends with Palmer and the Shaver mystery, arguing that underground dwellers—deros and teros—were a certainty, and some of them may have been involved with etherians, while others were ignorant of these other planes of reality. He also conceded that some of the airships may not have been etherians but cargo ships of the underground dwellers: if nothing else, Layne remained flexible and pluralistic in his outlook, willing to accommodate new occult and psychic facts.
It was imperative that everyone deal with this new higher realism—it was the only way to save the world, he thought:
“There is already apprehension in the minds of many, and if (as we expect) many more striking events should occur, there is some danger of panic. If these visiting craft are attributed to some foreign and unfriendly government, hostility and fear might develop; and if they are believed to come from some other planet of our solar system, unreasoning and superstitious fear is to be reckoned with, perhaps with a considerable degree of social disintegration.”
Layne continued to trumpet this message until 1959, when illness forced him to retire from the Borderlands Science Research Association. (Coincidentally, the same year Thayer died and the Fortean Society folded). He passed from this plane of existence in 1961, while his wife survived until 1984. Whether she ever heard from him again is not known.
Layne belonged to that group of Forteans offering new scientific laws—like Isaac Newton Vail
or Albert Page
—and also to those interested in questions of psychic research and Theosophy—like Vincent Gaddis, Harold Chibbet, and Frederick G. Hehr. These related interested made for a number of points of contact between his own work and the work of Thayer, sometimes congenial, sometimes not so much.
Layne sent in material on one of Thayer’s perennial fascinations, for example, the speed of light, and when he learned that fellow Fortean Don Bloch was a spelunker who had published a booklet called “Sightseeing Underground,” he ordered one from Thayer—and this was before the Shaver Mystery took off. In the first issue of Round Robin, he praised Doubt, even as he distanced himself from its politics. (His son, after all, was in the war.):
“We want to say a word for the Fortean Magazine, now called DOUBT, and for the Fortean Society and its able secretary Mr Tiffany Thayer. The Society, of course, carries on the work of Charles Fort and his collaborators (he wrote the Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! Wild Talents). It is committed to no cult or propaganda, is the implacable enemy of the smugness and complacency of official and ‘orthodox’ science.
"By this last we mean the pronouncements (very often) of scientific bodies, learned societies and publications, university departments, their bland ignoring of a thousand strange happenings not explainable in terms of current theories—and of their own stupidities and failures.
"These are the ‘damned facts’ of which Charles Fort wrote, scattering tares in snug fields of science with a kind of wild contemptuous joy, but yet verifying and documenting with a careful hand.
"Those of us who are interested in psychical research and its allied subjects, also have a long reckoning with this ‘scientific’ ignorance and intolerance. Of course, there are now many hundreds of workers in the sciences, some of them very distinguished, who are well informed and open-minded on these matters. But as for ‘official’ science—well, the remark of Dr. Carlson, quoted on page vi of this bulletin, is sufficient commentary.
"As to the Fortean, then, we think it is doing an admirable piece of work. We’re not so much interested, personally, in its social and political iconoclasm, tho others may find it worth while. But the effort to salvage the ‘damned’ facts, hold them up for all to see and for the confusion of all orthodoxies, is a matter of very great importance.
"And once again, as to the in-and-out of the Round Robin; it’s the facts we’re after. We believe every fact is a child of God. We don’t care where it was born, or who nourished and cherished it; but we’re interested in your reasons for accepting it, and for thinking it maybe means this-or-that. We quote Gregory, that ‘in science there is no finality, there should therefore be no dogmatism’—and also Strindberg, who wrote that the whole business of man is ‘not to turn his back upon the Light.’ This Light may be a poor thing, but our business is to make the best of it, try to feed and brighten it, to make it shine into dark corners.
"We have a few copies of the last issue of the Fortean magazine DOUBT. Does anyone want one of them gratis? Or address the Fortean Society, Box 192, Grand Central Annex, New York City. Single copies .25, or $2.00 a year for DOUBT plus membership.”
Thayer reciprocated in the pages of Doubt, noting of Round Robin:
“It speaks highly of us. It also speaks highly of ‘the Creator,’ asserting that ‘we believe every fact is a child of god.’ Don’t let that scare you away. There’s meat on that Robin.”
But there was also more than a little tension. Thayer printed a letter by Fortean Jack Campbell which lightly poked fun at Layne’s theories Thayer also ignored the Kareeta incident before gently mocking it:
“Probably the busiest observer of all that night, was MFS Layne of San Diego, publisher of the spiritualist paper Round Robin
, but he was not watching meteors. Beginning at 7:45 that evening, Round Robin
subscribers began seeing a ‘spaceship’ silhouetted against the moon. Thirteen eye-witnesses are named. All in San Diego. Each describes the object differently. One man, called a psychic sensitive (which is current lingo for what we used to mean by ‘medium’ in the days of Anna Eva Fay), gave Layne a message purporting to have been received ‘clairaudiently,’ in which the object was identified as ‘a mechanical bird called Careeta.’ It came from a planet a considerable way off and the folks in it were afraid to land . . . If you want any more of that, send 35 cents to Round Robin
, 3615 Alexia Place, San Diego, Calif. The story is given in detail in issue No. 10 of volume 2.
"MFS Hehr (who knows people from Venus) told Layne his space-ship was a condor, and broke up a beautiful friendship.” “Sizzling Zinner, Doubt 17 (March 1947): 251-252.)"
About the snub, Layne first wrote in Round Robin:
"DOUBT, official organ of the Fortean Society (to which this editor is proud to belong), didn’t give Kareeta a single line. RR refrains from complaint, but its readers do not—for example:
‘“I’m not surprised at Thayer’s attitude on the spaceship. He would have given two pages to some big bear tracks, however. And if you could prove there wasn’t a God he would bring out a special issue and a book, It’s damned funny to me, that some people think that to be a Fortean you have to be an atheist.’
And ‘J. T.,’ well known to many RR readers is comparatively mild in his comment; the postoffice wouldn’t let us print the other letters about this. J.T.’s last point is well taken, too, tho we have no concern with it at this moment.” (Abominable Snowman, Round Robin, Volum 3, no. 2 (February 1947): 5; JT was likely Jack Tate.)
Layne responded in Round Robin
’s April 1947 issue (p. 10):
“Fortean magazine DOUBT, current issue, gibes at RR as a ‘spiritualist magazine’—to which we reply, Yes, No, and Maybe. The editor is a spiritualist in the sense of regarding survival and communication as verifiable facts, but does not belong to any religious organization—and spiritualism is a religion, spiritism is not. Gibe number 2 was at the ‘Kareeta’ (Corrida?) story, which was merely a factual reporting of accounts of some 35 observers (slightly better verification the 3-ft. rats and similar Doubt items ever had, and conceivably more important). Gibe No. 3 was at Mark Probert, an honest and unpaid medium, who likewise merely reported an experience in this connection . . . The RR editor belongs to the Fortean Society, thinks it does a fine service by undermining scientific pretenses. But it never seems to dawn on most Forteans, that psychic and spiritistic methods reveal facts as startling as anything in the Book of the Damned, including ‘explanation’ which can at least be used as hypotheses//11//and points of departure. Strange as it may seem, we actually find these more worthwhile than columns devoted to fire balls, fish impaled on telegraph poles, and mysterious rumblings within the earth. Fortean data are certainly disturbing and important, but just how to turn them to account remains unsolved. Apart from saying Oh my Gawd! most of the Forteans seem to make very little progress. DOUBT is published by the Fortean Society, Box 192 Grand Central Annex, N.Y.C.”
But the issue still clearly bothered him, as in an article from the July-August issue he drops in the following paragraph, which really does not fit the flow of the piece:
"The Fortean Society (to which this writer belongs) is undergoing a most painful parturition, under the midwifery of Secretary Tiffany Thayer; so far the only issue has been an apparition of Charles Fort (to whom be honor), gabbling “I told you so” . Fort was a mighty hunter-out and collector of weird and science-damned happenings, of which strange sky-craft were not the least. The problem is right up the avenue for Vincent Gaddis also, who lately sent us some 20 instances of similar mysteries of the skies. The most incredible and outrageous things happen, and always have been happening, and students of such matters know about them; the most incredible fact of all is that there actually are people who think we live in a sane, orderly, intelligible and well-understood world, where “science” has explained everything or is about to do so,, and that these ignoramuses include about nine-tenths of our so-called intellectuals… Recurring to Secretary T.T. mentioned above, and while we think of it, it was he who gibed more than once at the Round Robin Corrida (Kareeta) story of last November, not because of its extraordinary nature but because it “stinked” of the “occult”. The “occult” got into because we printed a statement, for what it was worth, received clairaudiently by a most honest and non-professional medium. “Let Austin have his swink (or stink) to him reserved!” — We’re all for the Forteans, be it understood, in their war on scientism and smugism, but otherwise they get no forwarder with their hunting simply because most of them are nauseated by the mere mention of anything occult or spiritualistic."
But despite the rift, Layne continued sending in clippings, the last one appearing in June 1957.
During the Society’s early years, one of the brightest lights in the Fortean firmament was Frederick S. Hammett. And he continued to shine among Forteans, even after his passing.
Like Tiffany Thayer, Hammett could trace his ancestry back to early colonial settling of North America—in his case a paternal relative settled in Newport, Rhode Island around 1685. His father was a businessman. Hammett loved his mother—indeed, he confessed Oedipal tendencies—but also recognized that she had “the disposition of all the cats rolled into one person with all their meanness distilled and triple distilled into one essence.”
Hammett was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on 18 November 1885. The first of a number of serious health problems started when he was ten. e was infected with strep while undergoing tooth surgery, developed painful abscesses and suffered neuralgia for many years. Nonetheless, he graduated from Tufts in 1908. Bachelor of Arts in hand, he moved to Detroit that year, where he married Lena Lewis and met the future Fortean T. Swann Harding. Both worked at Difco, the Digestive Ferments Company, which produced media for bacteria culture. The two young men were very unsettled. As Hammett later remembered,
“Conditions at Detroit were quite entirely different with us. We were both in the beaker of experience being assayed from the impurities of mind engendered by our natural emotional reactions to disillusionment. We both of us said and did what we thought without regard to the proprieties at times and at other times attempted to cover over the stink-hole of the past by showing we could be perfect gentlemen if we wished. We were whisked hither and thither willy-nilly by the fire of our turbulent emotions and we had a bully time of it at that. Pathetic, lonely, but withal having a bully time of it.” (Hammett to Harding, 15 March 1924, Harding papers.)
Eventually, Hammett made his way back east, taking a MS from the Rhode Island State College (now the University of Rhode Island) in 1911, a master’s of art from Harvard in 1914, and a Ph.D. from that same school in 1915. After two years teaching at USC, he returned to Harvard in 1917, first as a teacher and then, during World War I, as Secretary of Harvard’s graduate school of medicine. It was during this period that Hammett, just entering his thirties, endured a number of changes. He and his first wife divorced; he had all of his teeth pulled, ending the chronic neuralgia that had plagued him; he moved to Philadelphia and remarried; he went to work at the Wistar Institute for Anatomy, near the University of Pennsylvania, and met Stanley Reimann, who would, in time, become a patron.
Hammett had interests beyond the laboratory. He was a Republican, and strong supporter of Calvin Coolidge. He practiced Episcopalianism. He studied ancient Hindu science and medicine, which influenced his religion. In 1927, he published an essay in “Open Court” (publishing home of another Fortean: Roy Petran Lingle) arguing that religion—as currently conceived—and science—by definition—could not define ultimate reality, so he advocated the grounding of identity in the Hindu ideal of a universal self. Hammett was also a great fan of the modern literature. He waxed eloquent over Joyce’s Ulysses and when Harding introduced him to James Branch Cabell (favorite of another Fortean: Burton Rascoe). “Ah mi. After reading him all else is dust and ashes in my furnace,” he sighed. Harding wanted to write literature in the same vein, and Hammett was a constant critic and admirer.
In 1927, his life again underwent a dramatic upheaval, although at the time he only knew half of it. Reimann invited him to be director of research at the Lankenau Hospital Research Institute in Philadelphia, an affiliation he maintained for the next twenty years. Hammett brought a rigorous and unusual approach to his research. The Institute was concerned with studying cancer but Hammett insisted rather than just studying the pathological processes researchers should investigate all phases of growth. In particular, he asked what were the chemical factors that control cell division. As a model organism, he used peas and onions, which caused many cancer specialists to scoff. The approach was prescient, though, and would underwrite what later became developmental biology—at the time studies in development were out of favor for research into transmission genetics.
Reimann protected Hammett, though Hammett still had trouble fitting in. He could be unctuous, he admitted:
“I have realized in the past two or three years that what I have meant as courtesy and liking for individuals in my approach to them has been construed as an attempt to ingratiate myself in their good graces. This conturing has been due to my mannerism which in turn is an hereditary taint from my probably semitic ancestry; prehaps [sic] through the spanish jew or, as I rather like to prefer it, through the moorish gametes.” (Hammett to Harding, 13 March 1924).
He also did not have a whole lot of respect for Reimann, telling Harding,
“The Director to be is a perfectly corking chap; he has a fine social presence; can play the pianerr to beat the band; can get up a playlet for the nurses; and is deservedly well liked by everybody. But—as a researcher he is a fliv. He has absolutely no conception whatsoever of what research is and of course no conception of how to do it. Yet—he gets the Directorship of this Institute (the new one) with a whale of a salary; and a trip to Europe with all expenses paid. Yet I who am a pretty decent researcher get nothing of this type at all.” (Hammett to Harding, 18 May 1925).
He and Harding shared a disdain for the institution of science, which they saw as relatively corrupt. Hammett told Harding that he had inherited his mother’s disposition, but was keeping it in check with humor—a trait he thought he and Harding shared:
“It seems to me that our egotism is tinged with a certain amused realization of our fallibility; with the idea that we are tremendously pleased with our ideas because they appear to be ours; but that back of it all we don’t take ourselves so very goddamned seriously. We admit that the other fellow has a perfect right to have that particular set of ideas which best suits his temperamental demands; and moreover we keep for ourselves the right to change our ideas as the mood hits. We may at the moment rant and swear and affirm and deny and expostulate the correctness of a particular conception; and the next week be ready to uphold the opposite. We recognize that all is change; that we, wise as we are, can never be sure of what is so and what is not so, and so we play with ideas, holding to them as long as they amuse us; and discarding them when more amusing ones crop up. We know that ideas change with change in circumstance, that trends flow on surge up and die away, to give place to other trends; this we know from the wide range of our reading, both of philosophy and of customs; we who scrabble in our interests from THE GOLDEN BOUGH and Havelock Ellis to Veblen and Mencken; from Cabell to Chesterton—and from Dos Passos to Strunsky can not but help be non serious as to our own. Wand shows himself the circumscribed ass of ignorance.” [Hammett to Harding, n.d., 1920s].
“He was a hard taskmaster, continually preaching to his associates and assistants on the necessity of employing only chemicals of utmost purity; on the use of many more control than experimental animals; on rigid cleanliness of laboratories and apparatus. He generalized rapidly; he loved arguments and often went out of his way to stir up controversy. Sometimes he was vitriolic and as can be imagined, some with whom he disputed took a long time to forget him when he showed that they were wrong.” (78)
In the early 1930s, Hammett divorced for the second (and final) time, and married for the third (and final) time. This time it was to Dorothy Wall, a physician whom he had met at her experimental lab. He also opened a marine experimental station in North Truro, on Cape Cod, near Provincetown. A flu he had contracted in 1927 had infected him with tuberculosis, which now became patent. He lost a lot of weight, became week, and could work no more than four hours a day, yet felt that he was forced to stay on at the Institute by Reimann, who warned that if he quit the Institute would lose funding from the International Cancer Foundation. [Harding to Hammett, 10 May 1934.] Hammett set up shop in Provincetown, at 493 Commercial Street, building a lab in his backyard. He did not see the researchers in Philadelphia, but insisted that all research being sent out for publication first be checked by him.
The tuberculosis cost him his battle over his own disposition. He confided to Harding,
“Ever since I have been afflicted with my present disorder I have felt pressed for time; terribly in a hurry to get things done; to get them finished; for I do not know how long I will have before the old man comes to take me away; as a result I have developed a real impatience; and from that impatience has sprung an irascibility which is not pleasing. I am not a pleasant person any more and it is too bad.” [Hammett to Harding, 12 December 1937].
And it is true that the mid-1930s saw Hammett working hard, despite his illness. He self-published a pamphlet “The Nature of Growth: A Logistic Inquiry,” which argued that growth should be studied as a singular phenomenon from four different directions: physics, chemistry, genetics, and anatomy. (The booklet had neither punctuation nor capital letters, which may have represented the speed with which he wrote it, or been an experiment in modernist literature.) He founded The Society for the Study of Growth and oversaw publication of its journal Growth, which tried to approach the topic as a unified problem, neither divided by taxonomic categories nor physiological ones. In 1938, he published an article on his vision for the future of biological research, which he suggested should be conducted by independent research institutes based around what he saw as the four essential areas of biology: physics, chemistry, genetics, and anatomy. (Later, he would condemn the National Science Foundation for restricting biological research.)
These were dark years, but there were moments of light. He belonged to a group known as the Beachcombers, which patronized the arts of Provincetown, and was also President of the Provincetown Arts Association. Harding wrote positively about him in Scientific American and got the New York Times’s scientific reporter Walter Kaempffert to do a piece on Hammett. He made friends with a young man across the street—the future Fortean Charles Hapgood. And he became involved with the Fortean Society, warranting his first mention in January 1940. At the time, he was in Florida, doing marine research and trying to recover his health. The rains there, though, drove him back north and as World War II came on he felt “useless” as he told Hapgood. [Hammett to Hapgood, 11 December 1941, Hapgood papers.] For days at a time he was toxemic and short of breath. His Hindu-inspired belief in the universal self meant that he felt he should be helping the betterment of humankind, but he could not, and the world was worse than he could imagine. Less than a month after Pearl Harbor he complained,
“I do not know as I have ever been so conscious of helpessness and uselessness as I am at present. While this sense is contributed to and aroused by the fact my physical state confines me to the bed for but three or four hours a day; it is brought to focus by my realization that the human race has just gone completely haywire. To think that man is killing man all over the world; instead of spending his energy and the products of his work in helping man galls me without end. And here I am impotent to be of use; either physically; mentally; or emotionally. Any word I should write against this wave of insanity to destruction would be more noiseless than a fart in a gale of Provincetown wind. And I am so saddened be [sic] the exhibition of human stupidity that I am incapable of doing anything save immersing myself into my work of computation of the correlations between several stages of Obelia development.”
After the War, Hammett’s research, which had been dwindling, came to an end. The marine lab in North Truro was closed in 1946: buildings and equipment had become run-down, and pollution had killed off much of the animal life. The following year he resigned as director of research at Lankenau and gave up his role with Growth to become fully retired. The reviews of his life’s work in Growth showed that there had been many strains, and it seems clear that both sides were happy that Hammett was finally giving up his positions. But he continued doing some scientific writing as well as indulging his avocations. In 1950, he published in the history of science journal Osiris “Agricultural and Botanic Knowledge of India.” He also became more involved with the Fortean Society.
Hammett’s name appeared in the Fortean Society Magazine throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s. He sent in an article on one of Thayer’s favorite topics—astronomical geography. It pointed out that the distance between the earth and the sun had been recalculated by 100,000 miles. (It is only a small change by percent, but Thayer had great fun given how big the whole numbers were.) Another article told of a hollow maple tree and still another of green rain. He reviewed a book for Thayer that argued the earth was an organism and we humans its mitochondria. Great fun, he said, but fantasy.
Hammett even worked Fort into a couple of his scientific writings. A 1946 article for Scientific Monthly on ‘Integration in Science Teaching’ began with a quote from The Book of the Damned: “Everything in our experience is only a part of something else that in turn is only part of still something else,” asking who could deny such wisdom? His review of The Chemistry and Physiology of Growth referenced Fort, as did an research article that he wrote.
Thayer was impressed with having Hammett on the rolls. Here was a Capital-S scientist who looked skeptically on his own profession and offered to other scientists a chance to consider Fort. In 1946, when Thayer was replacing founders who had passed or quit, he made Hammett an honorary Founder, taking the place of Booth Tarkington (who died in May 1946). Thayer wrote, “In short, Frederick S. Hammett is that singular if not unique anomoly [sic], a Fortean convert in the enemy camp, and as such we are immensely proud of him.” When Hammett himself passed, in April 1953—the victim of cancer—Thayer was insistent that this Honorary Founder position be given to another scientist: it was given to—and accepted by—Anton Julius Carlson.
But Hammett’s Fortean career had not ended. After spending the war working for a predecessor of the CIA, Charles Hapgood became a professor—of history, economics, and anthropology—during which time he became intrigued—like so many Forteans before him—with the North Pole. In 1958 he published “The Earth’s Shifting Crust,” which argued that the Pole had shifted dramatically throughout history, with catastrophic results. Albert Einstein wrote the foreward. In 1966, Hapgood was considering a revised version of the book, and was also working with Elwood Babbitt, a New England medium.
Here, in Hapgood’s words, was Hammett’s final contribution to the Fortean cause:
In my second reading I decided that I would try to renew contact with Dr. Hammett. I hoped that we could have some more of the lively talks I had enjoyed so much in the old days. I therefore handed Babbitt [his medium] a billet with Hammett’s name and a few questions. As in the first reading, he held it in his hand without unfolding it.
Soon Babbitt said a spirit had entered the room and did I know a Frederick Hammett? I replied that I did and was about to ask Hammett the questions I had put in the note when he stopped me and himself repeated the questions. I thought later that he must have gotten the questions from the folded note by a gift of psychometry similar to that of the psychic Peter Hurkos.
I asked Hammett what sort of life he was now leading, He said that he was able to engage in some activities that he had been unable to undertake in his physical lifetime, but did not go into detail. He discussed my personal problems just as he used to do, displaying intimate knowledge of them and showing the same practical wisdom I remembered. I could not doubt for moment that I was indeed talking with my old friend. I continued to consider the possibility that Babbitt was doing this by mind reading. But what is mind reading? And how could mind reading result in the reconstruction of a whole personality and recreate mental capacities peculiar to Hammett and foreign to Elwood Babbitt? I decided that the hypothesis of mind reading would not hold water.
On several later occasions, talks with Hammett profoundly influenced my personal work. I had been associate professor of history at Keene State College, a part of the University of New Hampshire, for ten years. I had had a free life there; no one interfered with my teaching or writing. In 1965, however, a change of administration and new authoritarian policies brought conflict to the campus. In the fall of 1966, I left the college and went to teach at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, where I thought my situation would be better.
Unfortunately, at New England college [sic] I found difficulties of a different kind. Here the faculty, rather than the deans, controlled the curriculum, and group teaching had been introduced. This meant that every detail of a course had to be agreed to by the five or ten instructors who were going to give it. I found that I could not teach the subjects I wanted to teach. I had prepared a course in the History of Science but was not allowed to give it. My interest in psychic research brought positive reaction from the students but negative reactions from the faculty. I found that many masters could be worse then one. In a session with Babbitt on March 12, 1967, I put this problem to Dr. Hammett, and made the following notation in the diary:
I asked Hammett, who came and was very vehement on the necessity of my finding a situation where I can be with people who value me, and where I can do the things I want to do. He suggested lecturing, saying that I was at my best when expounding to an audience on what I really believe. He suggested not only lecture tours but short courses to be offered to colleges////across the country, four to six weeks in length. He urged me to send announcements to hundreds of colleges. He promised I would get a good response and would be successful.
By the time this conversation occurred I had been with Babbitt for six months, during which time I had begun to practice automatic writing. I sat at my typewriter and wrote whatever came into my mind, by what is called free association, keeping my own critical faculties out of it. I frequently got communications in this way that seemed to originate with deceased persons, but up to this time I had not been at all sure that the communications weren’t more or less colored by my own thoughts.
I decided to put this faculty to work with the syllabus. I made a preliminary draft, roughing out the plan of the proposed course. Then I sat at my table with the draft and read it aloud. As I read each clause I listened in my own head for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from Hammett. Every time I got a negative from him I drew a line through the word or the phrase in question. Afterward, when I reread the whole syllabus, I was astonished to find that Hammett had unerringly put his finger on all the weak points of the draft. It could be truthfully said that Hammett had edited it.
This brochure was duly printed and sent out to about two hundred colleges and universities, I received about sixty answers expressing interest. All the educators I discussed it with said the idea was new and good. I have since found that there seems to have been no precedent for it. It was, therefore, an original idea that had come to me through the ind of a psychic who had no experience with education.
Several definite teaching offers also materialized from the brochure, but complications with my health prevented my accepting any of them.
I was now beginning to become more sensitive to the presence of disembodied entities. On one occasion, when I had been reading a book about Marie Antoinette and the famous affair of the diamond necklace, I felt her presence in the room, and I asked Babbitt about it. He advised me how I might increase my sensitivity in spirit communication.”…..////I had a contract to produce a revised edition of my first book, Earth’s Shifting Crust, but the effort had become too much for me. Day by day I felt my strength failing and finally I had to face the fact that I would not be able to finish the book. In this desperate situation I appealed to Dr. Hammett to help me and I had a response from him, He promised to help me with the work.
The next morning I sat at the typewriter and Hammett did in fact take over. I never again had to think about any of the intricate problems of organizing the material of the book. I had done the research, but my notes were scattered in fifty places. Hammett gave me a series of suggestions to take first this group of notes and then that. The material streamed effortlessly onto the pages. When one topic was finished, the next one was suggested. When a whole chapter was finished and I reviewed it, I found the style was astonishingly clear and free of unnecessary material, just as Dr. Hammett’s own writings were. No revision was needed. The book was finished on time and was published with the title The Path of the Pole, and I dedicated it to Dr. Hammett. The publishers did not realize that the dedication ‘To the spirit of Frederick S. Hammett’ was not just an empty phrase.”
Maunderings of a Cold War liberal on the edge of his obsolescence.
Nominally, this is a novel, with a straightforward plot. But really the story just seems to be an excuse for J. David Stern to put out his views on science, religion, and the meaning of life.
The story, such as it is, begins with the discovery of a freak by a careful newspaperman. Apparently, under false names, the same boy who has set the world record in the quarter mile is also the same one who beat chess masters at a New York club. The first couple chapters are set as a kind of mystery, and they almost work, though they are amateurish--Stern knows the newspaper business and brings these chapters to life, although much of it is an info dump and there are way too many characters introduced in a short span, most of whom are of no consequence. And then the mystery is solved before the book is even half done. The newspaper publisher--a thinly-veiled autobiographical character--wants this wunderkind unmasked: the story is supposed to be a hot one. It turns out he's a local college kid, who admits to his subterfuge. The publisher--Wade Powers (subtle!) sends out his best reporter, Sam Rayleigh--who is apparently well-known the world 'round for a story he did on hygiene (!!)--to meet with the prodigy's dad in Santa Monica. He's a psychiatrist. Several chapters are spent telling his life story, most of it unnecessary, as well as giving the background of his phenomenal son, Newt. turns out that Newt was conceived by the world's most amazing women--eidetic memory, prodigious mind, excellent athlete--parthenogenetically. (This is where the story's title come sin: she has an out-of-body experience an thinks of a line from Whitman that includes the word Eidolon.) Tragically, though, she commits suicide, leaving her husband to raise this superman.
With the mystery solved, the story switches to what seems to be its main function: a chance for the four main players--Sam, Wade, Newton, and his father Dan--to discourse on the state of American society. Given the book's structure, and the phase in which it was written in Stern's life--not long after he had been forced out of the newspaper business by strikes--it doesn't seem unfair to take these dialogues as his own thoughts--it is reminiscent of a Platonic or Galilean discourse, although these reek much more of the undergraduate dorm and a lot of marijuana. Turns out that the world's problems can be solved by religion and science uniting behind a program of eugenics: marriages should be arranged, children should be licenses (more or less), births regulated. Education will make all the races equal. Civil liberties should be curtailed to ensure that people do not move to places where they should not be. And the government should undertake massive infrastructure improvements to help the poor. (Full disclosure: the last one sounds like a good idea to me, the rest just Great White Savior complex.)
A couple of subplots bring the novel to its conclusion. Sam weds his long-time love, and allows her to continue his career. Newt is pursued by Wade's mistress, a European artist who despises America as immature; and Newt is also bowled over by poverty--not unlike the Buddha, he led a cloistered life and is surprised to see the realities of the world. And, not unlike Christ, he is killed by one of his converts, while he was trying to rebuild the Puerto Rican housing system in Harlem. The disciple was actually trying to kill the European artist for attempting to spirit Newton away, but got to him instead. Sam Rayleigh is left to tell the story to encourage the world to unite religion and science in the pursuit of Newton's vision.
In addition to the poor plotting, there are other problems with the story. Stern cannot handle females--they are virgins or whores, although he tries to make allowances for modern women and modern sexual mores. (Newton's mother commits suicide rather than sleep with Wade Powers, and she is supposed to be admirable.) But his handling of men isn't a whole lot better. Everyone is self-aware and a gifted conversationalist. They all understand their type, are comfortable with it, and can explicate their role in the social structure. (Sam knows he is supposed to offer the words of the common man during the discussion among the very smart; the women know they are women, and the limits of their sex.) Subtlety is not Stern's strong-suit, either: the connection between Newt and Isaac Newton is not left unstated. It is also a bit surprising to see eugenics so blithely promoted only seven years after World War II.
For all the manifest problems, though, the book is not without its charms. It's an easy enough read. And Stern is a smart guy--he won't let you forget that--so the book is studded with a multitude of references to obscure subjects in science as well as the arts. Rephrasing my introduction, I would say it's a period piece--forgotten for good reasons, but worth reading for a glimpse into the thoughts of a prominent, aging liberal in the early 1950s.
I wish I knew more.
Abram Brooks wasn’t as prolific contributor to the Fortean Society as that other, mostly-unknown but highly regarded member Tom Elsender,
but he did do a lot for the Society, and I have found very little information about him. The best I can say is that, like many of the early Forteans, he was a science fiction fan.
Abram Brooks was first mentioned in the seventh issue, dated June 1943—this was 18 months after the previous issue, presumably because of all the flack that Thayer received for that issue. Already, Abrams was a “valued member” who had sent material on “scores of subjects,” including intelligent horses, time lapses, hollow snowballs, and rains of birds. But what really caught Thayer’s attention came from a story Brooks sent in. The story appeared in Unknown
, which was the fantasy companion to the day’s most important science fiction magazine Astounding
. The story, “Death’s Deputy,” was by L. Ron Hubbard and made reference to ‘accident prones.’ Hubbard said, “Not until recently was it completely proved, beyond all shadow of doubt,t hat the elimination of certain men from industrial plants met with a decrease if not a cessation of accidents in that plant.” Thayer wanted Fortean Society members to petition their insurance companies for information on accident prones.
Two other communications by Brooks suggested his interest in science fiction. In 1949 he sent a clipping from the magazine Fantastic Adventures
about stone falls—mentioning in passing that poltergeists or something like them had pictures falling in his house. And in 1956 he had reason to refer, again, to Unknown
, although by that point the magazine was dead. Someone had asked for reference to a story about two English women who went walking in Versailles and found themselves suddenly transported to 1789. While agreeing with Thayer that the theme had been worked hard, Brooks gave reference to a particular essay on the subject, “Time Travel Happens!” by A. M. Phillips in the December 1939 issue. He also pointed out that the two women in question had written a book on their adventures.
Brooks contributed many other clippings. Thayer advertised one in June 1943, teasing it for the next issue, although it did not appear until three issues later, in June 1944. That story was about a man who mysteriously found a bullet in his hand. Another clipping came from Science News.
It told of Yale med school’s professor Harold S. Burr
, who found that he could predict the lunar cycles by hooking delicate recording instruments to a maple tree. Why bother looking at the moon, Thayer jested. As for Science Digest
, Thayer grumped, “and they have their information from Science Service
, which is an outfit in Washington into which millions of tax-free dollars are poured by persons who might have guilty consciences if they kept all the dollars, or heart-burn if they had to pay income tax on so much money.” Through 1956, Brooks’s name appeared in eight other issues of The Fortean Society Magazine.
Probably his most important contribution was attracting Thayer’s attention to the work of John Alden Knight, who would become a member in his own write. Knight correlated the the lunar cycle with animal activity—particularly for hunters and fishermen. It was called “The Solunar Theory
.” Thayer raved (14):
“Mr. Knight may have the comet by the tail! … The text is written in the true Fortean manner—that is, with only ‘temporary acceptance’ of its findings—and the author has confirmed that mental attitude by joining the Society.”
Thayer began selling the solunar tables, and hoped members would test them against their own experience.
As to what happened to Brooks—I have no idea.
Born in 1879, Andrew W. Comrie, mother, stepfather, and siblings emigrated from England to America in 1894. The family settled in Chicago where, in 1900, Andrew was living at home and working as an iron machinist. (His father kept a saloon.) In 1910, he was still in Chicago, but now married with four kids and working as a machinist at a car factory. The on-set of the Great War found him in Tennessee, a farmer. (World War I draft cards.) He was said to be tall.
The family moved to Miami sometime in the 1920s, where Andrew assumed a job as engineer. He and his wife Bertha had another child: in 1930, there were four at home, the eldest daughter gone. He is missing from the 140 census; Bertha was in Michigan, living with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild. Andrew was in the Caribbean, testing out his theories of time and space.
Comrie said that he “spent his entire lifetime in the study of navigation.” [Frances A Squires, 2nd, “Unique Theory of Navigation Advanced,” MoToR BoatinG April 1941: 48-49, 120-124.] In 1936, this avocation culminated with his petition for a patent on a navigational instrument—a chart arranged according to his idiosyncratic re-writing of the earth’s movements through space. [Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, vol. 487 (Feb. 1938): 475.] (Part of this invention can be seen as another response to the movement of the poles that inspired Isaac Newton Vail, Alfred Drayson, and Alfred Barnes.) Comrie asserted that the declination of the sun (its angular distance from the equator) is constant. The year, he said, was exactly 360 days long—and each degree of the earth’s circular motion was equal to one of these days. He advised reforming the calendars so that there were no more Thursdays, and so that each month began on a Monday. In February 1938, Comrie received his patent.
At some point, he read Thayer’s opening screed in the first issue of The Fortean Society Magazine blaming the death of Amelia Earhart on mainstream science—because it promised an understanding of navigation it could not fulfill. The article was widely reported on in the press, which is likely where Comrie came across it. He then tried to track down Thayer, finally making contact through J. David Stern—this was before Thayer’s sedition would cause such an affront. On 11 November 1939, Comrie wrote (in part):
“Your opinion of the present system of Navigation has been a great inspiration to me, as I am quite sure you are the only many in the world who has the courage to say what he thinks, and I am in a position to prove, and have proved before the best professional licensed deep sea and air transport captains, Astronomers etc. Miami (Florida) can produce, that you were more than right, and I have gently told them from now on they are deliberate murders from choice.”
“No one has been able to deny that the new method would be practical for the Aviator, who could read his position at any instant in flight without the use of any mechanical aid whatever, and what is perhaps more important, could change his course at any time and proceed to any desired destination, the new course being automatically shown.
“The present (Orthodox) system is based on a theory that in practice denies its own existence, it is obvious that if the 365 days in our present Calendar were actually used the Sun would arrive back not he equator five days ahead of time. It is also true that our Magic City, Miami, Florida is, according (to) Sextant observations and the Office of Nautical Almanac two or more degrees oath of the North Pole at certain seasons of the year. This I have demonstrated without denial that Captain Noon and Amelia (Earhart) with my method aboard could have given their position at any instant. This demonstration was made by request and then the papers refused to publish it on the grounds that it would be criticising [sic] the Navy. Names, dates, witnesses are available.” [Earhart Eco, The Fortean Society Magazine, 6 (January 1942): 12-13.]
In February and early March 1940, the press picked up on Comrie’s new patented invention, which may have reminded Thayer of the letter he had received. [Invents Navigation Aid, Newcastle News (PA), 2 March 1940: 6.] He responded on 3 March 1940—but Comrie wasn’t there to answer the letter. Two days before, he went sailing with Captain James Huggins, former Lieutenant Commander of the U.S. Navy, visiting eight or nine ports in British and Spanish Honduras, the Caribbean, and Key West. They returned 27 April, with the former Lieutenant Colonel fully convinced that Comrie’s navigational system worked perfectly. Comrie passed on to Thayer Huggins’ endorsement in a letter dated 15 May 1940 that said, in part:
“I was more than delighted to hear from you and to know that you are interested in my invention and experience trying to put it over, which have been many and varied, and still continue. I have met the customary official stupidity, or according to my belief traitorism, also every kind of opposition from petty prejudice to real criminal attempts to beat me out of my invention, for which three men are now serving an apprenticeship in the art of breaking big rocks into little ones in a federal prison, and many more have earned that privilege. I have no scruples personally in sending you all the data in my possession which is considerable. However it must be in some sort of order and notarized which will be done as soon as I possibly can do it, and I sincerely hope you will tear em all apart as you know so well how to do. They like to dish it out but can’t take it.
“Will send you in a few days proof that Amelia Earhart and Captain Noonan were murdered was fully justified, as well as the basis of my invention, which will be followed by the full theory.”
I don’t know if Thayer responded to Comrie but according to Thayer Comrie sent a letter dated 11 September 1940, repeating some of his earlier arguments, including his newly invented chart, as well as a chart of the Earhart-Noonan flight based on best available data—which showed that Earhart and Noonan would have certainly seen some obvious landmarks that they failed to report. He hopes that Thayer could convince someone to study the chart and make a guess as to what happened to the pilots “as to date I have found no one who could explain anything.”
Comrie seems to have formed some kind of partnership with a man named Frances A. Squires—a one-time ad man and newspaper editor, according to the Miami City Directory and 1930 US Census—who was listed as the head of the Miami-based Navigational Research Association. In April 1941, Squires got an article on Comrie’s system published in the magazine “MoToR BoatinG.” Again, much of the language was the same, as were the theoretical claims. The magazine’s editor, though, were clearly worried about the piece. When Squires wrote, “The Comrie system embraces the use of the new calendar, a navigational instrument and the Declinator, and is based on the unvarying declination of the sun, and claims that there never has been, is not now and never could be, one second variation in the declination of the sun in a year or a million years,” the editors interjected “According to all familiar navigational principles, declination is changing constantly.” And the second page of the article contained a lengthy editor’s note:
“Many systems of navigation have made their appearance, but usually these are short cuts based on accepted and established principles. In this article, however, the author discusses a system which, for its application, would uproot many time-honored and traditional ideas. Consequently some of the claims would almost appear to be mis-statements, unless understood from the point of view of the newly proposed principles. Among other things, the Comrie system would involve revision of the calendar, almanac and nautical charts.
“In reading this article, therefore, one must bear in mind that the statements and claims made are those of the author, not necessarily endorsed or advocated by this magazine. No doubt students of conventional methods of navigation will take issue with many of the statements made. However, no complete explanation of the system could be contained in a single brief article, and the author has volunteered to answer any questions that may be addressed to him directly. For the address, see the concluding paragraph of this article.
“MoToR BoatinG publishes Mr. Squires’ description of the Comrie system in the belief that it will arouse a great deal of interest among those who have nay knowledge of navigation in its traditional form.”
The concluding paragraph reads more like proprietary line-marking than ann invitation for questions:
“This article has been released by special permission to the publishers of MoTor BoatinG and is not to be reprinted except by permission of the author, who will be pleased to answer questions pertaining to the matter. Address all mail to F. A. Squires, c/o Navigation Research Association, Suite 417, Security Building, Miami, Florida.”
If there was any commentary from other readers, MoTor BoatinG didn’t print it.
Thayer, however, did publish the correspondence from Comrie. It appeared in the magazine’s notorious sixth issue, which may account for it being overshadowed. Thayer prefaced it:
“Now that the United States Navy is so well represented in the South Pacific Ocean, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan may turn up any day. Your Secretary has never lost hope for the lives of those two people nor lost his confidence that the U.S. Navy navigators would find the Island of Doubt if they kept looking long enough. They might find their way more swiftly if they employed Andrew W. Comrie—I don’t know.”
Thayer didn’t know, again, the next time Comrie was mentioned in The Fortean Society Magazine. In the 20th issue, published March 1948, he included Comrie among the “Lost Sheep.” But by that point Comrie was beyond the reach of any navigational system. He died in 1943. As far as I can tell, his ideas died with him.