Fittingly, I suppose, I am not sure of Henry C. Robert’s family history: after all, he would later claim to be the reincarnation of Nostradamus, which was surely the more important fact. I do know he died 24 January 1966 of a heart attack—that was widely reported in the press. And his age was given as 76. Reportedly, he died in New York, and definitely he was a public figure in Brooklyn during the second half of the forties and the early fifties, all of which give clues to his personal and social standing, but, still, that name: Henry C. Roberts. It’s so darn common.
The story, though, is completely speculative and, troublingly, doesn’t match up with other information. In the mid-1990s, Roberts’s one and only book—the one book about which his whole story revolves—was reprinted with the help of a grandson, Robert Lawrence, a Hollywood producer. The problem is that Lawrence was born in Houston (1969) to a mother named Carolyn Williams. It is just possible that the Roberts’s had a second daughter, some fifteen years after the first, who married, divorced, then carrie again in time to birth Robert: but it is extremely unlikely. Something isn’t adding up here. Henry C. Roberts’s early life is a cipher. Not unlike his idol, all things considering. Or his earlier self, if you’re open to the idea of reincarnation and not willing to Take Roberts as balancing the silly and the sublime.
As far as intellectual history goes, it seems fair to start Henry C. Roberts’s story in late 1945 or early 1946, when he started to reach the public consciousness, or at least get his name in the papers. He ran a bric-a-brac store in New York, selling lots of books, bits of junk, and pieces of WPA art he picked up for a song—not the usual entree to fame and fortune. But he also billed himself as a scholar of that revered prophet Nostradamus, which was a key to fame, if not fortune. The end of World War II had seemed to prophecy the end of American interest in Nostradamus, even among the esoterically-inclined. The Fortean R. DeWitt Miller thought that time had become too distant for the French soothsayer, and his predictions about World War II, as conventionally interpreted, wrong. But reports of Nostradamus’s death, like Twain’s, were premature, and Roberts’s was quick to bring Nostradamus back to an America anxious about the new world and the possibility of another war. Roberts presented himself not just as an interpreter of Nostradamus for the modern age, but (in time) the seer himself, reincarnated—or, at the very least, someone in communion with Nostradamus’s spirit. That he came across as a showman—well, that seems to have been just fine, too. Years earlier, Barnum—who did balance the silly and the sublime in a perfectly American way—had noticed “The public appears to be disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.”
The first mention I find of Roberts in the press is an announcement in a late 1945 newspaper that Roberts would be on a radio talk show as a Nostradamus expert, no doubt predicting the coming year. He would later claim to have been studying Nostradamus for decades, and perhaps he had been; he was cashing in now, when the world faced a new year without war. I don’t know what he said on that broadcast, but if N. Meade Layne’s Round Robin is to be believed, he did not have good tidings for the new year. Roberts’s supposedly told the San Diego Union, right around this time, “I’m scared silly, I’d take off like a fan-tail if I knew where to hide.” He was predicting civil war, atomic bombs exploding in New York, “things too terrible for one man to know.” As bona fides, he claimed to have affidavits claiming his interpretations of Nostradamus accurately predicted VE Day and the end of the War.
His predictions were no happier later in 1946: this was the Age of Anxiety, as it has been called, and Roberts was there to feed the insatiable maw. The atomic tests on the Bikini atoll would destroy a ship, he predicted, perhaps all the ships in the area, depending upon exactly how on interpreted Nostradamus’s poetic quatrains. (Wasn’t that his job?) He also reported that Nostradamus had come to a dream and advised him to make his prophecies less optimistic. Apparently, Roberts had said the next World War would not come until 1999, but Nostradamus’s revenant told him to divide that number by two, which he took to mean dividing 99 by two, giving a new date: 1 July 1949. That would be the date of the next war. According to his reading of Nostradamus’s cryptic predictions, New York would “vanish in an instantaneous conflagration.” The Nebraska State Journal bid adieu: “Goodbye, New York,” the Lincoln-based paper titled its story on Roberts’s predictions. There it is again: the sublime and the silly.
In January 1947, Crown published The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus, which was billed as the first English translation of the prophet since the 1600s, and his sensibility did not become any more positive. But he was focused on the ling view. War, he said, would come in May of that year, while he attended to the mundane. Roberts had purchased a historically important bust of Abraham Lincoln in 1929, and donated it to the Department of the Interior for the Abraham Lincoln monument. He also claimed—here’s the silly, raised to the sublime—that he was going to sue the creators of the Superman comic for their libelous depiction of Nostradamus. Suing Superman, in 1947!
Nostradamus found a home in the science fiction community, which was broad enough to include arch-rationalists and starry-eyed mystics. Fantastic Adventures spent time exploring the popular response to Nostradamus in 1947; Roberts was among those surveyed, reporting—more in sadness than anger—that there would be an “eventual destruction of our civilization by means of the release of atomic energy.” That is, unless there was some kind of spiritual renewal. An ad appeared in Weird Tales, which was among those publications on the occultish-side of the continuum. Another in Popular Science, where it was sold as “MORE amazing and starling than Science-Fiction” (February 1952). Roberts was featured in Ray Palmer’s Amazing Stories in 1949 and Nostradamus would become a staple of Palmer’s subsequent publication, after the Shaver Mystery had run its course, Fate magazine. L. Sprague de Camp, a science fiction more on the rationalist end of the spectrum, though clearly fascinated by the other side, would spend lots of time filleting the French prophet—as obscure and as not a single individual but a number, the various translators adding additional prophecies (Esquire 1942; which informed Bergen Evans, seminal skeptic, Spoor of Spooks). Roberts fulfilled the tradition’s obligations.
By the early 1950s, Roberts had become a pundit on matters occult, although not one of wide appeal in the way Hereward Carrington or Nandor Fodor had been. But for a modern mass media looking for provocative quotes, he was helpful, and he started to become a go-to for some some columnists. And he started to play the part of the celebrity, too. Of course, his concentration on Nostradamus was important. In 1950, he could be tapped as an expert on ghostly actions supposedly shown on television—one of Thayer’s occasional bête noirs, the science journalist John J. O’Neil was the skeptical counter-balance—or to explain that the BBC did not capture a ghost on film because there were not enough believers in the crew. He was the voice for the occult. And so the columnist Bob Considine—who was open to Fortean speculation, including that by Francis Giannini, even though he wasn’t necessarily sympathetic to the claims—repeatedly turned to Roberts for fodder: There will be a war between the U.S and Russia in 1952, the same year that Hitler reappeared; an explosion of “cosmic nature” will occur on the 48th parallel; the war will end in 1999, after which the world will be ruled by a world government that is neither capitalist nor communist; the end will come in 3797. Roberts went on to explain very specific prophecies: Tennessee's Estes Kefauver would challenge Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential contest, with Kefauver winning, blessed with the stature, will, and intelligence of Abraham Lincoln. And someone named “Henry C.” would became the preeminent interpreter of Nostradamus.
Carl Payne Tobey was another Fortean making the news with predictions of the future based on his astrological skills; Roberts took it a step further. As late as 1951, he claimed to be the reincarnation of Nostradamus—five years before The Search for Bridey Murphy made reincarnation a popular topic and a contentious subject among American esotericists. He continued to appear on radio. And he provided public commentary on UFOs. In August 1952, he spoke with Houdini’s spirit, who explained the meaning of flying saucers. Roberts called Joseph Dunninger, a mentalist, magician, and one-time associate of Houdini—and Dunninger then relayed the story to the press via the International News Service. According to Houdini, flying saucers were a warning to humankind to end wars, step exploding atomic bombs and quiet the ‘general dissension that exists on the earth plane.” (Dunninger possessed a code that Houdini gave him when alive that he would use to prove it was really him talking from the grave; no one so far had provided the code, including Roberts.) Roberts went on to say that Nostradamus had predicted the coming of the saucers. Flashes from the atomic bombs had alerted Martians to humanity’s new activities, and they had come to investigate. A standard story, then, at least in science fiction circles—with the added dollop of spirits and Nostradamus.
By this time, though, Roberts’s own past was catching up with him. He was quoted in another paper that very month explaining that Nostradamus had indeed predicted the election of Eisenhower, talking about the Man of Steel would rule the East and the Man of Iron the West: and Eisenhower’s name could be translated as iron carrier, while Stalin could be interpreted as steel. All of this was in direct contradiction of his earlier prophecies. (One also wonders what the creators of Superman—The Man of Steel—thought of this turn of events.) Roberts had also forecast the beginning of World War II as May 1949, which had passed, so now reinterpreted his vision: that was the month Russia and communist China had declared solidarity, setting the stage for the Korean War, which was the World War unfolding.
His forecasting misses did not tame Roberts’s boldness, or lessen the anxiety he would spread. In November 1952—for reasons of his own, Roberts chose to make his prophecies around Armistice Day—he promised that the following year would see the fall of Britain to the Soviets and an attack on the U.S. Roman Catholics would be persecuted. But Eisenhower would rise to the challenge. In April 1953, he told Considine that the following month would see a coup in the Soviet Union.
The problem for Roberts was that others began to notice his lapses. The Brooklyn Eagle pointed out the discrepancy in his prediction of the presidential election. In 1957, one of Considine’s fans sent him a clipping of his own syndicated column from years before, when Roberts had it that there would be full-on war between the US and the USSR precipitated by a cosmic explosion on the 48th parallel. None of which actually happened, and Considine—who had obviously been doing his coverage of Nostradamus with tongue firmly planted in cheek—crowed, “Always happy to catch Nostradamus in a boo-boo,” while calling Roberts “the foremost interpreter of the gobbledegook.” Roberts and his predictions continued to appear in newspapers—albeit much more sporadically, at least from what I have found—but not with any degree of credulity on the part of the press. It was classified under the heading “Information That’s New but Useless” in a 1961 Kansas paper.
In 1964, columnist Ellis L. Spackman mocked Roberts’ newest round of predictions: “Gather around because this is really hot stuff!,” Spaceman deadpanned. And then recounted a whole variety of predictions that would turn out to be wrong, really wrong: Henry Cabot Lodge would win the Republican presidential nomination, and with his running mate Nelson A. Rockefeller beat-out President Johnson. The civil rights bill would not pass. The new Miss America would be a French-Canadian woman whose name started with an M. (Why Nostradamus would care about the Miss America pageant is not revealed, but Roberts mentioned it a few times.) Elizabeth Taylor would not get another divorce. Hitler was alive and living in Colombia, still controlling some political events. A tremendous world revolution would come in 1999. And, finally—although, admittedly, the jury is still out on this one—3 October 3797, 2:30 a.m., the world would end.
The other part of the problem for Roberts in gaining any credibility was that he wore his mysticism so lightly—so cavalierly. He came across in some of the press as such a showman, it was impossible to take him seriously: the silly overwhelmed whatever of the apocalyptic sublime he could find in Nostradamus. In October 1954 and again in January 1955, Leslie Hanscom, a columnist for Roberts’s hometown paper The Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted a piece to Roberts. Perhaps there was a thumb on the scale—always possible with the press—but if they were even partially correct, Roberts comes across as anything but reliable:
“Henry C. Roberts, the Bedford Avenue scholar who claims to be the reincarnation of Nostradamus and whom I believe to the the reincarnation of [comedian] Willie Howard—showed me his place of business in Manhattan yesterday.
He told me he was 400 years old but was feeling well except for the heat.
Before squiring me around the interior of the cluttered and fascinating grotto over which he presides at 380 Canal St., he took me out to the sidewalk and made me look at his display window.
The place of honor here was given to an open copy of ‘The True Prophecies or Prognostications of Michael Nostradamus, Physician to Henry II, Francis II and Charles IX and One of the Best Astronomers that Ever Were.”
Mr. Roberts said this was one of the the three surviving copies of the first translation of Nostradamus into English. One was in the British Museum, one was in the Library of Congress and one was here in the helter-skelter window of Mr. Roberts’ bookstore, surrounded by such titles as “The Kabbalah Unveiled,” “The Devil’s Dictionary” and Amy Vanderbilt’s book on etiquette.
Pointing to the ancient engraving of the prophet’s face, Mr. Roberts then directed my attention to the photograph on the dust jacket of the Nostradamus translation he had authored himself.
‘Do you get it?’ he asked.
I DID. There was a certain resemblance between the features of the 17th century wise man and the prominent profile of my host. Mr. Roberts uttered a gratified cackle.
The mission of Nostradamus, said the scholar as I nosed about his wares—noting the half-ton of comic books that filled one corner of the store—was to warn the world what would happen to it if the human race still clung to its recklessly unspiritual idols.
‘So who would listen?’ said Mr. Roberts. ‘So look what happened!’
The message is just as pertinent today, said the merchant-idealist, and it was his own aim to see that the modern world got it.
A dark young man in a short-sleeved sports shirt came in and selected a book of 14 lessons in Yoga. He seemed doubtful about the author, Yogi Ramacharaka and took his troubles to Mr. Roberts.
‘One of the biggest men in the field,’ said the sage. ‘You’ll like it. Two dollars.’
The young man seemed even more dubious about the price. ‘How about giving me a break,’ he said.
‘Look,’ said Mr. Roberts, ‘just to prove to you what’s in this book I’ll use this guy’s method to tell you your name.’ He picked up a comic book and scribbled some initials on the back.
‘Tell me your name,’ he said, ‘and you’ll find I’ve written the initials.’
‘Looks like I’ve got a J in there,’ said Mr. Roberts, ‘you’re not far enough advanced. That’s the trouble.’
‘HOW ABOUT GIVING ME A BREAK?’
‘Quit Chiseling me, will you?’ said the philosopher, ‘I’m losing money already.’
Benjamin Ciano tok the book, but as he left the store, thanked Mr. Roberts sourly for ‘taking my last two bucks.’
‘How do you like that?’ the mystic asked me, ‘a man comes in here seeking knowledge, looking for hope in the midst of life’s confusions; I try to help him and that’s the thanks I get.’
I stopped before a carved wooden mask with one buttoned-up eye and a twisted nose and asked Mr. Roberts if it had a story.
‘I’ll see,’ he answered. ‘There’s a crazy sculptor around here who’s nuts. He’s so balmy nobody will buy his stuff and every time he gets hungry I take pity on the jerk and let him peddle some to me, I’ll show you more of his junk.’
His green smock flapping behind him, Mr. Roberts darted to a counter and burrowed int a litter of unidentifiable objects. He came up with two wood carvings in the African primitive style.
‘Ain’t that gorgeous?,’ he queried. ‘What in the hell do you suppose they are?’
A man in working clothes came in and Mr. Roberts wheeled on him, delivering a sermon which ended with ‘Unless we apply the spiritual revelations of the past, we have no future.’
‘You sound,’ said the man admiringly, ‘just like you did that night on television when you was batting up your gums with Fred Allen.’
‘This is one of my followers,’ said the reincarnation of Nostradamus.
“I can’t stay away from Henry C. Roberts, the reincarnation of Nostradamus, for very long at a time, and the New Year offered a fine excuse to pay the old boy another visit.
‘Sit down,’ said Nostradamus, ‘I’ve got a lulu for you. This’ll kill ‘em in Brooklyn.’
‘The next Pope,’ announced the prophet, ‘is going to be English-speaking. Don’t say claimed the present Pope is going to die. We don’t want that to happen. But his successor will speak English and his name is—. What was that man’s name? I saw it right in front of me the other night when I was taking my astral journey.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Nostradamus,’ I’ll do it in a psychic manner. I’ll put myself back where I was then.’ He rose from the fantastically cluttered desk and leaned his elbow on a bust of Goethe, one hand over his face. ‘H-y,’ he spelled, ‘H-y-p. No, that wasn’t it. Something Greek it sounded like.’
Just the the trance was interrupted by a man who came int the disheveled grotto which serves Mr. Roberts for a place of business, and inquired about a book in the window.
‘The Great Key of Solomon’ with all the pentacles?’ responded Nostradamus. ‘Sure, I’ll take it out of the window. For $7.50 I’ll take out anything. I ain’t proud.’
The man said he wanted to know when the next war was going to start. ‘Well, you’ve got it all here,’ said the prophet, slamming the book open in front of him and displaying the pages of magic symbols which he identified as ‘the pentacles.’
‘Nah,’ said the seeker, ‘I’ve got this. It don’t help.’
‘All right,’ said Mr. Roberts, ‘we’ll go to Nostradamus himself.’ He took down his own translation of the master’s complete works and pointed out a verse that indicated great ructions were due in or about the year 1999.
‘But that’s a long way off,’ the man said, as though disappointed.
‘Can I help it?,’ asked Nostradamus.
‘I get these jerks all day,’ the scholar observed as the man left the bookstore.
As for 1955, said Nostradamus, it will be a good year for business and the stock market. Prices and prosperity will remain high. There will be a final break between the East and West, but no war. And a Miss M. will win the Academy Award.
The only sour outlook, he said, is in the weather. We are in for one of the coldest Winters on record and you can expect to start shivering about the end of this week.
He’d had a good year in 1954, Nostradamus said. He forecast the Democratic sweep in the elections and he hit the Miss America contest with another ‘Miss M’ prediction. ‘At this time of year,’ he said, ‘everybody wants me. I’m the most popular man in town. But today I’m boiling mad.
‘Those——at——,’ said the prophet, cussing out some broadcasting officials, ‘caled me up yesterday and wanted me to go on an early morning TV show. I says, what do you want me to do? They say, make a few predictions.
‘So I go over there and I knock myself out like a ——fool hashing it over with a bunch of writers and producers. Then I find out that what they want me to do is dress up in a clown suit and act like a jerk. I’m trying to give ‘em the spiritual message of Nostradamus and they’re trying to sell shaving cream by making a monkey out of me.
‘I says, look, I can only point out some of the teachings of Nostradamus. You can’t put words in my mouth. So today they call up and say the whole thing is off. There’s smellevision for you.’
Mr. Roberts has his store at 380 Canal St. in Manhattan, but does his astral journeying from his home at 2996 Bedford Ave. ‘I go to bed with the chickens,’ he said, ‘and I wake up about 1 0’clock. Between 1 and 3, I project my astral body into space. That’s when the predictions come to me.’
‘Do you have anything to forecast for 1955?’
“Well, let’s give it one last hassle,’ he said, ‘let’s see what Nostradamus himself says.’ He handed me a ceremonial paper cutter with an inscription on the handle which said Clarence O’Brien, Patent Attorney, call Fitzroy 8127.
I put it between the pages and the point indicated the following:
The Nicene fort shall not be fought against,
By shining metal it shall be overcome.
The doing of it shall be a long time debated,
It shall be a strange, fearful thing to the citizens.
I hope that answers your questions.
So, yeah, Roberts wasn’t particularly reliable, and didn't seem to want to appear to be so. There’s a little of Lilith Lorraine in him: he’s holding out Nostradamus’s prophecies as a foreboding view of what might come if humanity does not get its act together: the poet as Cassandra. But he lacked all Lorraine’s earnestness. And maybe that was the point.I am reminded of an episode from Christine Wicker’s excellent investigation of modern occult belief, Not in Kansas Anymore. A ventriloquist worked the gay circuit, but his act didn't seem to be that funny: he kept predicting people would die in horrible accidents. Wicker wondered about the point, until she figured out what was missing: in the ventriloquist’s stories, no one ever died of AIDS, the way they were in the real world, then, all around him. The jokes, dark as they were, were not as dark as the world—and, paradoxically, they provided relief. Same thing, perhaps, for Roberts’s dire predictions: as bad as they were, they kept not coming true. He was playing the fool—the joker—the clown—to express anxiety common to the time and was willing to be wrong so that the world could look better than it was. He was silly so that the world could look past him and see the sublime, in relief.
Henry C. Roberts died 24 January 1966 of a heart attack.
I’m not sure how Roberts came to Fort. Given the material he was selling at his bookstore-cum-junk pile, it seems extremely likely that he would have come across Fort’s individual books and probably the omnibus edition that Thayer had published in 1941. He doesn’t seem to have been very interested in Fort, though, and appears to have viewed the Fortean Society was a market more than a community of skeptics and dissenters—indeed, he himself doesn’t seem to have acted the part of the skeptic, even if his predictions kept not coming true and even if he never believed what he was saying (which is certainly possible).
The first mention of him was in Doubt 15 (summer 1946), before he wrote his book, yet he was already associated with Nostradamus, having made his first set of predictions in November 1945. He sent in a clipping from N. Meade Layne’s Round Robin about a spirit medium that realized the speed of light was even faster than thought: 193,000 mps. The story was in Thayer’s wheelhouse—he loved noting how physicists were constantly tinkering with the exact speed of light, and throwing up the objection that no one could measure anything that fast—so why not believe a medium? The contribution also shows that N. Meade Layne and Roberts had their eye on each other, whether or not they corresponded, and that Roberts was reading in the mystical periodicals. Thayer credited him as MFS ‘Nostradamus’ Roberts, which means that he was paying to be a member of the society as early as the middle of 1946.
Roberts was in Doubt again shortly after he published his translation of Nostradamus, Doubt 18 (summer 1947). He had told Thayer that he thought Forteans should show more interest in Nostradamus and Thayer thought that was fine, as much as anybody showed any interest in anything: “The cult of Nostradamus is an old one, hardy and perennial, and certainly as sensible as the cult of Biblical Revelation, vaccination, the atom, the race track, of the Pyramid of Gizah.” He was not enthused by the book, though, offering only lukewarm praise. “If coming events are not already only too apparent to you, perhaps they will be clarified by the Roberts interpretation of Nostradamus,” Thayer said. He noted that the quatrains did not rhyme but neither were they as ambiguous as they were in other works. The interpretations, though, were too brief, and too scant, to tell of the events discussed by Nostradamus had already happened or would yet come true—so still ambiguous enough, an ambiguity that Roberts would exploit over the next fifteen years or so.
The only other mention of Roberts came a few years later, Doubt 27, timed with a new edition of Roberts’s Nostradamus translation. Thayer again gave it middling praise—he was no fan of fortune-telling—and still saw Nostradamus as only one of many subjects worth looking into; not as exciting as Fort, though:
“For reasons which YS never hopes to understand certain people lust to ‘know the future.’ As if, indeed, it could possibly differ in any material way from the past, and as if their own immateriality had been made a part of Divine Plan by Yahweh, Jupiter and Venus in superior conjunction. Fort himself tried his hand at divining, as shall be related in the sequel, but as a seer his record is something worse than mediocre.
“On the other hand, we have Nostradamus . . . He wants no introduction, and gets none for his cult is a large one, within and without the Society. One Henry C. Roberts--an MFS--has made Nostradamus his own, modernly, and a new edition os his book is now available through the Society. It is The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus, translated, edited and interpreted by Henry C. Roberts. The original old-French text is included. 350 pp. cloth bound, #3.00 from the Society. This is called ‘the only unabridged, definitive edition’ since 1672. It reproduces the text of the Lyons edition, 1568, together with Roberts’ exegesis. For those who are not already only too terribly of what’s coming next the book may be helpful.
“N.B. . . . One Johannes Lang, a German ‘astrologist,’ who claims to be a Nostradamus expert, has fallen down twice on predictions that W.F. III was about to ‘start’ last April.”
Clearly, then, Roberts had very little interest in Fort or the Forteans and seems to have been a member in name only, although he did share a fascination for certain Fortean subjects.