I am a little unsure of this biography; the chronology works out, but the details are hard to reconcile. Still.
It seems that John Philip Bessor was born 15 January 1914 in Pennsylvania to George W. lessor and the former Martha Blymer. George’s parents were both from Pennsylvania, as was Martha’s mother, though her father was a Swedish immigrant. They were older parents, George about 46 and Martha 41 when John was born; they had already had two daughters and a son, all four or more years older than John. I cannot find the family in the 1920 census; in 1930, George worked as a clerk for the sanitary works, and had done well, owning his home, then worth about $5,000. Also living with George, Martha, and John, was Elizabeth, one of John’s older sisters, who was married.
In 1940, John was still living with his parents in the Pittsburgh area, as was another sister, Alberta. (She was a music teacher.) The family may have suffered some misfortune during the thirties, as they had moved houses and now owned one worth $1,800. John had just gone out on the job market—he was classified as a “new worker”—after completing his third year of college. According to his obituary, he took sculpture and design courses at Carnegie Institute of Technology and also studied at Edinboro University, majoring in art—Edinboro is a Pennsylvania college.
I do not know why Bessor returned to Pennsylvania, but the timing suggests that it may have been an inheritance. His father had died in 1941, his mother in 1948, and the first evidence I have of him in the area is in 1948. But there may also be some confusion here; in 1949, Bessor presented himself, in a letter to a newspaper, as “a psychical researcher and student of the mysterious.” It may be that the Bessor who was the son of George and Martha, an artist and possible engineer is a different person from the Bessor who had an interest in Fortean mysteries; I have no evidence directly tying them together, beyond the facts that they are active at the same time, lived in the same area, and had the same name—but I also do not have evidence that there were two John P. Bessors in the area, either, so I think—strongly suspect—they were the same person.
Assuming there was only one John P. Bessor—some times written as J. P. Bessor, some times John Philip Bessor—I figure that he continued to work for Aetna Standard, while living most of the time in the Pittsburgh area—some times in the city itself, some times in Zelionople—and also, perhaps, in Miami Beach. He also developed an intense interest in Fortean topics, not later than the mid-1940s. In 1945 and 1946 there was come correspondence between Bessor and the psychical researcher (and Fortean) Harry Price; Bessor would go on to write for “Fate magazine” as well as N. Meade Layne’s “Round Robin.” In the mid-1950s, flying saucers were much on his mind and he sent letters to various newspapers on this topic (as well as other issues), and became associated with the UFOlogist Morris K. Jessup. He also had an interest in archeology, anthropology, psychology, and sex research, taking up the cause of Kinsey against the moral scolds. He may also have continued his art—there’s a 1951 ad from J. P. Bessor, in the Pittsburgh area, selling painting.
And he may have maintained some southern California connections. At least, there’s a letter to the L.A. Times that ran in 1950, credited to John P. Bessor of Zelionople. (Far from the usual subscription area for the paper, no doubt!) It was a contentious and irascible letter, complaining about the label “sex offender.” From other writings, it is obvious that Bessor was not supportive of homosexuality, and thought marital rape was a tool for wife’s to attack their husbands. But male attraction to females was strictly normal—including pedophilia. He pointed out that ancient Egyptian girls married as young as 8, and some states allowed matrimony with girls as young as 12. “It is our deviation from the norm of nature which is a perversion. So the term ‘pedophilia’ is meaningless and is no longer employed by the truly educated psychologist or psychiatrist. Likewise is the term ‘pervert’ in respect to male-female attraction.”
I do not know that Bessor ever married or had children. He continued to write harping letters to newspapers in the Pennsylvania throughout the seventies and eighties, on all matter of subjects.
John Philip Bessor died 2 February 1989 in Butler Memorial Hospital, survived by his sister Elizabeth. He was 75
As is usually the case, I do not know when Bessor came across Fort or the Fortean Society. If I have his biography correct, he may have made the acquaintance of Fort or Forteanism in southern California, which had a burgeoning metaphysical community at the time, which included N. Meade Layne. He never did appear in “Doubt,” but he was aware of the Society at least since March 1948, and perhaps as early as October 1947. The earlier date is when Doubt 19 appeared; it focused on flying saucers. The later date is when Bessor wrote to Eric Frank Russell praising the issue.
Bessor liked that particular issue of the magazine; but was not otherwise thrilled with Doubt: “I’m going to keep right ahead requesting Mr. Thayer to make DOUBT far more complete, consisting of far more pages, carry reputable advertising to help defray publication costs, AND APPEAR ON THE NEWSSTAND EVERY MONTH. Can’t you possibly influence Mr. Thayer to adopt the ‘new look’? Why in the world can’t you edit an English DOUBT? I’ll wager you would give us Forteans what we want,—‘all meat and no potatoes’ as it were. I think the ‘dirty Jap’ type of remarks could be dispensed with. After all, DOUBT should be a lady’s magazine as well as a man’s.” (Bessor would continue complaining about cursing in his letters to the editor over the decades.)
Bessor clearly had no idea that Thayer was paying the cost of Doubt out of his own pocket, floating a number of insolvent members, and taking time away from his real work. But that didn’t stop him from continuing to carp: “I know Fort would edit DOUBT almost as he wrote his Books, and he most certainly would NOT have passed up the ‘flaming red cone, trailing green mist, seen over Ohio, by thousands, for 35 minutes, hanging motionless, at intervals, and gaining and losing altitude at incredible bursts of speed,’ seen Jan. 9th, 1948, after sundown. Boy, oh boy, wouldn’t Fort have loved to hear of THAT? Looks like an extra-mundane ‘construction’ to me,—or a manifestation of paranormal phenomenon.”
It seems, from the evidence of this letter and his contemporaneous writing, that Bessor was familiar with esoteric, occult, and metaphysical writing. He called Harry Price his “good friend” (and fellow complainant against Thayer’s editorship). Like Price, Bessor had a developed interest in ghosts, hauntings, and poltergeist. He wrote to Russell, “Incidentally, I’ll bet you subscribe to PSYCHIC NEWS, do you not? I have it sent to me, and I rather like it. I’m very keen on ‘ghosties.’” He was also keeping tabs on flying saucer reports, as his criticism of Thayer and Doubt suggested. He had a letter to the Saturday Evening Post, in regards to the flying saucer article in published—his piece ran 2 July 1949. He concluded his to letter Russell, “You’ll be interested to learn that Kenneth Ehlers of LandingAids [sic] Experiment Station, Arcata, California, has DISCOVERED an apparently 4th dimensional flying object in his radarscope. They consistently travel at 30 miles per hour, up and down wind. as low as 800 feet, singly and in groups up to 5, exactly duplicating the ‘pip’ of an airliner. I’ve corresponded with Kenneth, and he absolutely assures me that birds or insects or io[n]ization or dust ARE NOT responsible for the echo. They travel, usually in a souther eagerly direction. I rather have a hunch they are ‘discs’ travelling [sic] in the 4th dimension, or ghost planes. THE SATURDAY EVENING POST had a nice write-up about Kenneth and his newly discovered ‘objects X’. in the March 6th 1948 issue.” (Punctuation as in original.)
There may have been other aspects of Doubt that drew Bessor, despite his criticism of it: he had a cranky view of American society. He complained to Russell about the baleful effects of Catholics on his country, for example: Over here there is NO mention of hauntings. The ‘Hail Marys’ have us all sewed up. They tell us what NOT to read or see, and our U.S. police are Catholic,—almost to a bloomin’ man, and the greater portion of THEM are of ‘fighting Irish’ descent, who convert their damned repression into (legitimate?) overt oppression and downright SADISM. Our papers headline the Pope’s having a little cold, right on the front page, but deem it ‘sacreligious’ [sic] to even mention the word ‘psychic.’ Harry Edwards is NEVER mentioned and neither is psychic healing. 95% of the people on the street wouldn’t have the faintest idea what ‘psychical researcher’ or ‘poltergeist’ means.
“Americans have a morbid interest in the materialistic, the earthy, the sordid. Everything is ‘murders’, ‘crime’, politics, labor disputes and strikes. Our police are awarded medals ‘for heroism’ in shooting down a fellow man. Many an innocent boy or man has been shot in the back, when not heeding the call to halt, ‘shoot first and ask questions afterward’ is the police code. I’m awfully ASHAMED of this terrible set-up, yet I can do little about it. Criticize the rabid ‘Hail Marys’ and you get flung in a filthy, vermin ridded jail by a couple of fat hipped, beefy, meeting ‘cops’.”
In addition to writing letters, Bessor was stretching his literary and esoteric muscles in other ways. He had become intrigued by mysterious lights seen around Brown Mountain and Chimney Rock, both in North Carolina. In September 1949, the Asheville (North Carolina) “Citizen Times” ran a missive by him explaining some of the evidence he had collected on the events, and asking for additional information. He briefly had a column in N. Meade Layne’s “Round Robin” called “Current Mysteries and Phenomena” that ran in April and May 1949. And he continued to bitch to Russell about Thayer and the Society.
In January 1949, he told Russell, “Tiffany sent me the DOUBT for the Autumn of 1948, but I was so darn provoked at such a poor excuse of a magazine supposed to be FORTEAN that I returned it. Who-in-ell cares WHO discovered America, let alone buy a stack of books to find out? Tiffany returned the DOUBT to me. I returned it to him again saying I wished it exchanged for a DOUBT carrying material on the ‘rocket’ lights in Sweden in ’46. No answer. Thayer says NO DOUBTS are sent to non-member, so I had to send in the extra dollar for membership. Would you possibly be able to send me the DOUBT containing the lights seen in Sweden? The society owes me one magazine.
“Thayer, frankly, is NOT doing the Society one iota of good. I can tell you that. Harry Price agreed with me 100%. So does Vincent H. Gaddis, our American writer of the Fortean. How Fort would have made a REAL GO of it. . . . , —a magazine EVERY month, CHUCK FULL OF COMPLETE STORIES. I still think you fellows in England could do a far better job than Tiffany does, and it is my HOPE that you’ll be able to edit a Fortean paper over there, if the shortages lift.
“Thayer’s attitude is definitely ‘exclusionist’. He’s sore at the ‘saucers’ because he still thinks they are what the ‘wypers’ want us to believe. I, after much research, am CONVINCED of their ‘etheric’ origin. I am convinced they are ‘ghost-ships’ from etheric or material worlds outside our own. I am NOT an esotericist.”
Bessor’s concluding line seems a bit overstated—that he was not an esotericist. He had already complained that America was too materialistic; had professed an interest in ghosts; was associated with N. Meade Layne; and thought of flying saucers in etheric terms—this would seem to mark him an esotericist of a certain kind, at least. But I think that he was trying to draw a distinction with the more Theosophically inclined saucer enthusiasts. What does seem almost certain is that he never joined the Society. Irritated as he was at Thayer’s editing, there would have been no advantage. And there are no more letters from him in Russell’s archives, which suggests that he drifted away from the Society, both its New York office and its English one.
Which is not to say he stopped paying attention to Fortean phenomena or indulging in Fortean speculations. he had an article in the January 1950 “Fate” magazine on Harry Price and the investigation of the Borley Rectory haunting. He wrote up his North Carolina investigations, too for the same magazine, which appeared in the March 1951 issue. “The Battle of the Clouds” ran in “Fate” from March 1953, as did “Restless Spirits.” The August 1953 issue contained his story “Mysterious Lights of Australia” (as well as a letter on flying saucers). “A Dead Man Returned to Life” appeared in the July 1955 issue. Another letter showed up on March 1956’s “Fate.” (He mostly disappeared from its pages for the better part of a decade and a half, before showing up again sporadically in the 70s.; an exception is a 1967 letter.)
As early as 1949, when he sent a letter to the Saturday Evening Post in response to Sidney Shalett’s “What You Can Believe about Flying Saucers,” Bessor speculated that flying saucers may not be space craft, but some kind of atmospheric or space animal—though at that time he said “they portend no calamity.” The letter also points to the distinction he made in his letter to Russell, that he was not an esotericist. He concluded, “the chatter of the cultists who talk of ‘masters’ and ‘older races’ can be reasonably dismissed as abstract conjecture.” He continued staking out this more materialistic—though certainly conjectural!—theory of flying saucers through the early 1950s. There was a letter in Fate from May-June 1951; and a 1955 article (December): “Are the Saucers Space Animals?,” which mentioned that he had presented his ideas before the Air Force in 1947. This idea combined his interests in UFOs and ghosts, as the saucers were defined as poltergeist-like animals: Fortean falls as wild talents.
He summarized his ideas in a 1952 letter to “Life” magazine, responding to the article “Have We Visitors from Space?” Bessor wrote, “For five years I have held the theory that these aerial objects represent a highly attenuated form of intelligent ‘animal’ life of extra-terrestrial origin—possibly stratospheric or ionospheric; propulsion apparently akin to teleportation, possibly flight by sheer will or thought. The frequent undulating motion in flight is analogous to the weaving trajectory of observed poltergeist-projected objects. Strange, luminous creatures inhabit the depths of our seas, why not similar creatures of highly rarefied matter in the heights of our heavens, and as diverse in size and shape as living things on earth?”
Others of his writing was not quite as sanguine about these atmospheric creatures. He thought them carnivorous, and their behavior could then be used to explain another Fortean phenomena: strange rains. He said, “Many falls of flesh and blood from the sky in times past” are evidence of these carnivorous space animals. Their diet explained, as well, mysterious disappearances. No one was collecting Ambroses, but we were, indeed, fished for: by atmospheric fish, no less, with a taste for human flesh.
Along with his saucer theorizing, Bessor developed a theory of journalism that was like Thayer’s—in seeing the press as ‘wypers’ of inconvenient facts—though he thought the newspapers were erasing mentions of flying saucers, rather than dangling them in front of the public, a shiny object to distract or confuse them. He wrote a Delaware newspaper in July 1954, “We cannot help but wonder why the AP, UP, and INS prefer to adopt the attitude of ‘I see no saucers, I hear no saucers, I speak no saucers.’ Is it true, as has been averred, that they are but puppets, whose strings are pulled by a faction of the Air Force determined to hoodwink the American public? If this be so, can we longer believe that we possess freedom of the press?”
As a real news source, one who was not a puppet, he turned to Frank Edwards, the Fortean writer and radio man (who was dismissed because of a conflict with a union. Bessor wrote the Pittsburgh Press: “It is my opinion that Mr. Edwards was the most accurate and level-headed news reporter on the air. Few others gave the American public such a clear and detailed picture of the inner workings of our government; no other fought so conscientiously for the impoverished and destitute; no other manifested the courage and the intelligence to fearlessly present the latest flying saucer accounts and developments to the public, so long kept in the dark by a faction of the Air Force, the Ap, UP and INS. “
Indeed, even as the press declared the flying saucer phenomena over in 1954, Bessor followed Edwards in marking it as a record-breaking year. He made up a rough map of the United States and marked on it the many reports, dividing them into oval and spherical objects, comet-like objects, and cigar-shaped objects. He noticed that the objects grouped together in certain ways—spherical objects ran up along the West Coast, then made a diagonal across the length of the country, reaching an end around Washington, D.C. His map ran with an article in the Harrisburg Sun-Telegraph in February 1955.
By this point, his ideas were starting to find adherents—or at least sympathetic listeners. Trevor James Constable of New Zealand, for instance, built on Bessor’s theories and convinced himself that flying saucers were organic life forms. He wrote “They Live in the Sky” in 1958. Kenneth Arnold, who had seen the saucers in 1947 that kicked off the entire UFO flap, also came to think the objects were living beings. At some point, Bessor became known to the saucer-investigator (and origin of the Men-in-Black story), Gray Barker, who lived nearby, in West Virginia. He also knew Morris K. Jessup, a fellow Fortean UFOlogist, and he helped put those two men together, in November 1954.
Jessup mentioned Bessor in a couple of his books. These would not have given him any more name-recognition that he was already getting for his newspaper letters and “Fate” articles, but cemented his position within the flying saucer subculture as a theorist who thought the phenomena was extra-terrestrial, but not from other planets: that a sublunar ecology had been discovered. In his first book, 1955’s “The Case for the UFO,” Bessor appeared three times: a reference to his letter in the “Saturday Evening Post,” which ha dentine possible cyclical patterns in the appearance of saucers; his “Fate” article “The Battle of the Clouds,” detailing a mysterious aerial anomaly over Saw Mill Run, Pennsylvania, in 1874; and Bessor’s trip to North Carolina, where he himself saw the lights near Brown Mountain.
I have not seen Jessup’s second book—“UFO and the Bible”—and I did not note his name in my reading of Jessup’s final book, “The Expanding Case for the UFO” from 1957, although I may have missed a mention. Jessup’s third book, “The UFO Annual,” which appeared in 1956, was a digest of events in 1955. It also mentioned Bessor three times. He called attention to Bessor’s work mapping flying saucer reports; and to his ideas about saucers actually being animals of some kind, noting in particular his December 1955 article for “Fate.”
I am not sure why Bessor seems to have drifted away from flying saucer research—or at least why it is so hard to find public pronouncements by him on the subject after the late 1950s. It could be an artefact of material that has been preserved or my search method; it could be that he was satisfied, in his own mind, that he had solved the issue. But I think some speculation is in order. My guess is that two unconnected events conspired to push him in other directions—if not away from the fringe altogether, then perhaps for a while, and more likely away from flying saucer theorizing. First was the suicide of Morris K. Jessup—which put an exclamation point on how little respect flying saucer advocates received after the initial burst of interest in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Second would have been the launching of satellites. These proved beyond a doubt that the upper atmosphere and sublunar region of space was not inhabited by ghostlike, carnivorous animals. If there flying saucers were more than mis-identifications, atmospheric anomalies, and hoaxes, they had to come from much further away. Neither Jessup’s ideas—that there was a civilization living in the sublunar realm, descended from Atlanteans—nor Bessor’s ideas about a whole new ecological environment could be sustained. That bit of Fortean speculation dried up.