Marie P. Sweet was born Mary E. Sweet 15 August 1893 in Philadelphia, New York, to Edward Sweet and Ada Phelps Sweet. She was the eldest of three daughters. Edward, born in 1866, was a railroad brakeman. By 1910, the family had relocated to Sidney, New York, where Edward sold dairy products and Ada did bookkeeping for the same business. The girls were in school, and the family, renting their house, had taken on three boarders.
Ten years on, and the family structure had changed mightily. They were living in Utica, about halfway back toward Philadelphia, New York. Edward was a junk salesman; Ada was no longer working, at least not officially. The younger daughters had moved out, as had the boarders. Now at the family home were Mary’s husband, Chester Smith, and their boy DeWilton. Chester was an office manager for a munitions plant—likely Savage Arms. The marriage would not survive the 1920s.
According to Paul Tabori’s Pioneers of the Unseen, Marie met Hereward Carrington when she went to work for him helping to organize the American Psychical Institute and
Laboratory at 20 W. 58th. Hereward Carrington was a psychic investigator—he studied that other Fortean Eileen Garrett, among others—and became a Fortean himself. Born in England, he had come to America when young and had tried establishing Institute earlier, though it had failed. He was 13 years older than Marie. It is not clear how or why Marie came to work for Carrington. She helped him with his research, though, attending the seances of a medium named Mina "Margery" Stinson Crandon in Boston who had once impressed Carrington as authentic but whom—in large part because of this late session—he came to view with suspicion. It was his views on Margery that helped prompt him to re-establish his institute.
Again, the family structure rearranged dramatically. Edward died in 1931, and Ada, the mother, went to live with Ada, the daughter who went by the name Nancy, and helped her operate the tea room. The middle sister was living in Pennsylvania. And, according to the National Cyclopedia of Biography, Marie and Hereford married 21 July 1932, although she often went by her maiden name, Marie Phelps Sweet. They continued to investigate together, the two, for example, serving as transcribers for a session by Edgar Cayce, the well known medium. (Hereward finally became a naturalized citizen in 1934.) The 1940 census has them still in New York, living on Fifth Avenue, with Carrington giving his job as freelance author, Marie teaching art to adults, and DeWilton living with them, attending college and perhaps working with teachers.
At some point, the Carringtons moved to southern California—perhaps because of the fermenting metaphysical community. There, in addition to other work, the two wrote several books on the relationship between food and health—recommending vegetarianism and regular fasting, for example. According to her own account, Marie would sometimes fast for as much as two weeks at a time. She claimed fasting was one of the keys to long life—and it seems that no later than the 1950s she was developing a strong interest in extending the human lifespan, not unlike other naturopaths who became associated with the Fortean Society. Hereford passed in 1958. He was 78, and the two had enjoyed a 26-year second marriage.
On 3 July 1960, Marie married Russ LeCroix Vannorden in Nevada. They had known each other for a couple of years, at least, working together in helping to stage new homes for sale—she did the colors, he the design. Russ was about a year younger. Although they married in Nevada, they made their home in Santa Monica. The city directory has them listed as retired in 1965. Apparently, they had very little money. During the 1960s, according to newspaper reports, Sweet worked for both civil rights and against the Vietnam War—issues which would have pleased Thayer, who had died in August 1959, and put her in the mainstream of Fortean thought.
Marie wanted to escape death. Not in the spiritualistic way investigated by Hereford and Marie; and not through nutrition, which would eventually still lose out to time. There was a new method, a bit of science fiction made real: cryonics. The freezing of a recently dead body and its preservation until medical science could reverse damages and revivify the body. The early to mid-1960s had seen a burst of interest in cryonics, notably Robert Ettinger’s book The Prospect of Immortality, which wikipedia says was supported by science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl. The various activities led to the 1966 founding of the Cryonics Society of California. Marie and Russ both became members.
But there were grave difficulties with their preservation. The first problem was that Marie died unexpectedly, and alone in a motel room, so could not be immediately tended to; the second problem was that neither Marie nor the Cryonics Society had money. She passed the night of August 26, 1967, aged 74, and wasn’t picked up for hours, it seems. Her body was set on dry ice for several days in the garage of a sympathetic mortuary owner while the Society scrambled for funding. Eventually, the Society obtained a capsule to hold the bodies, but though it was designed for a single body, the Society was forced to put four into it, including Marie’s. Russ, who had not known of Marie’s death at the time, was relieved to hear she might be revived again, and set about raising money to preserve his wife’s remains until science could catch up with science fiction.
It wasn’t enough. The liquid nitrogen capsules stopped working. In 1971, the Society decided to stop repairing the first capsule, and put all its efforts into a second one. Marie had gotten four years beyond the Biblical three-score-and-ten in the first place, and eked out—maybe?—a grotesque four more. But that was the end. Eventually, the Cryonics Society of California went belly up, and all the bodies decomposed.
Russ died in 1975. DeWilton passed in 2011.
Although Marie shared interests with Forteans—civil rights, pacifism, spiritualism, naturopathy—there’s little connection between her and the Fortean Society, or Charles Fort, for that matter. I have found her making no references to Fort, Forteanism, or the Fortean Society in her writings. And her name only appeared once the Fortean Society magazine Doubt, issue 14, spring 1946. Although she was a member—like her husband—her contribution was minor, and her attachment to the Society seemingly more by association than inclination or interest.
Sweet wrote into the Fortean Society to complain about another Fortean, Faber Birren, a color expert and friend of Thayer. She thought that he had not given sufficient credit to the German scientist Wilhelm Ostwald. “Salvo after salvo” came from her pen, Thayer said.
Sweet had been familiar with Ostwald at least since the late 1930s, when she compiled some of his writings as part of a WPA project. Likely, this was an outgrowth of her own artistic interests—she was teaching art around that time, recall. Thayer looked into the matter and decided that Birren had given Ostwald plenty of credit. Nonetheless, he still published her paper—even if, he said, it was as dogmatic about the color spectrum as Birren. And, indeed, the article presented a standard description of the color wheel, while also giving a rudimentary discussion of Ostwald’s particular classification system.
And that was that—a brief encounter in a life more interesting and long.