Who made the little green spacemen, well, green? Long before the midcentury Space Race set the standard for collective extraterrestrial clichés, people were having out-of-this-world experiences that chilled them down to their frilly, 1850s pantaloons. The snag being, of course, that no one had any evidence. In 1919, American author Charles Hoy Fort came forth with The Book of the Damned, one of the first comprehensive guides to the anomalous phenomena that kept so many scientists awake at night, and shed light on our own long-burning questions: what were aliens sightings like before the UFO mania that gripped the U.S. in the early ’50s?
Published in 1919, this little book on the paranormal solidified Fort’s place as Science’s enfant terrible and the world’s first ufologist. “For every five people who read it,” reviewed The Chicago Sun Times, “four will go insane.” There are 28 chapters, covering everything from “thunderstones” to poltergeists; floating turtles and snakes that fall from the sky. And we reiterate: this anthology is presented as non-fiction. “Some of [these subjects] are corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching…” writes Fort, “There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows […] the naive and the pedantic and the bizarre and the grotesque…” Fort spun his “damned data” into prose, to create a book was as delicious in its style as it was divisive.
“A procession of the damned.By the damned, I mean the excluded.We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.”– Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned
In 1931, Fort founded his “Fortean Society,” founded in New York in 1931. Notable members included Frank Loyd Wright, and Dorothy Parker. He went in search of UFO sightings, (which wouldn’t be called “UFOs” until 1953, when the US Air Force coined the term).
Fort was breaking new ground as a ufologist, and examining earth bound phenomena in a way that resonates with us today; consider his broaching of the mysterious “Esperanza Stone”…
When it was discovered in Yaqui, Mexico in 1909, not even the Smithsonian knew what to make of it. Were these Mayan symbols on the igneous meteorite? Ancient petroglyphs? Small-scale ‘crop circles’? One of Fort’s proposed “fallen” objects from another planetary dimension? It wasn’t really decipherable, and perhaps we’ll never know. The Mexican government took possession of it immediately, and that was the end of that.
As time went on, Fort’s writings were forgotten or brushed to the side; science advanced, and some explanations were found for the previously improbable. When we look at the legacy of The Book of the Damned, we realise its most important contribution wasn’t just its contents, but the fact that it assembled and published these cases in a call to action for serious study.
Fort’s anthology came hot off the heals of a rising trend of “mystery airship” sightings at the end of the 19th century – unexplained reports of “UFOs” that looked more like dirigibles than flying saucers. Pictured above is one of the first claimed photographs of a UFO from 1870 – which turned out to be a cropped image of an elaborate frost formation.
The mystery airship sightings began on the West Coast in 1896, and made it to the East Coast a year later. By the 1900s, sightings were happening on an international scale. Reports claimed the airships – which looked rather blimp-y – were piloted by “humanoid” beings. Of course, this was an era in which “Yellow Journalism,” AKA sensationalist, non-fact checked pieces, thrived (sound familiar?).
Airships made headlines so big, that even Thomas Edison had to deny rumours that he was sending them into the sky, or else in league with aliens. But before Fort, before the mystery Airship craze, such unexplained phenomena was usually a product of, and embedded into spirituality and folklore. Like the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit…
The 12th century story tells of two foreign, green-coloured children who arrived at the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England, perplexing the residents with their unknown language and penchant for eating only raw broad beans. They were mainly seen as evidence of otherworldly fairy life (ex. there are sprinklings of Celtic beliefs, like the tradition of green spirits being “sinless” in the tale), but there were whispers that perhaps the children were of another world. In any case, they inspired the “Babes in the Wood” expression we have today.
And if we turn the clock back even further? The biblical story of the birth of Jesus starts off with three wise men spotting something mysterious in the sky. That’s the thing about ye olde UFOs hovering in the sky. Before the Enlightenment (and the rise of science) unexplained sightings were often interpreted as religious phenomena. A sharp eye can sometimes observe a hovering, glowing mass in historical paintings with religious themes that look surprisingly like flying saucers and modern interpretations of UFOs. Spirituality and religion were integral.
In the 1960s, computer scientist Jacques Vallee’s UFO research was recommended by the US Air Force to cadets in training. In 1978, he spoke at the only major United Nations UFO presentation in history.
On the subject of historical paintings and curious objects depicted in them, he said, “We’re not saying it’s proof of alien anything. We’re saying there is a phenomenon and it has some of the characteristics of the modern phenomenon… You still have to account for differential descriptions because of the changes in the cultures and the changes in the media, through which the data has arrived to us…“The value of it, scientifically, is that now we can anchor the beginning of the UFO phenomenon into real, documented history”.
A 14th century painting, “The Crucifixion,” depicts what looks like two spaceships appear. In truth, they artists was alluding to the Sun and Moon, and how the day suddenly turned to night when Christ was born. Even Taoist texts allude to flying vehicles of sorts that descend from the heavens.
“I think the skeptics are right in saying that many of the reports have to do with things that, today, we recognize as comets and meteors and other natural phenomenal” says Vallee.
If you’re curious to know more about these “damned” subjects, the Fortean Society still lives on today. In 1965 it became the “The International Fortean Organization (INFO)” and convenes annually at the “FortFest” festival (whose details you can track on their Facebook). In anticipation of FortFest 2020, read The Book of the Damned yourself – and check out the fresh trailer for the next season “Project Blue Book,” the TV show about Area 51’s mysteries…