A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book
Edited and Annotated by Mr. X
SCIENCE is very much like the Civil War, in the U.S.A. No matter which side won, it would have been an American victory. By Science, I mean conventionalisation of alleged knowledge. It, or maybe she, acts to maintain itself, or whatever, against further enlightenment, or alleged enlightenment but when giving in, there is not surrender, but partnership, and something that had been bitterly fought then becomes another factor in its, or her, prestige. So, seventy years ago, no matter whether evolutionists or anti-evolutionists had won, it would have been a big, scientific victory anyway. No wonder so many of us are humbled by a reputation that can't lose any way.
Science is a maw, or a headless and limbless stomach, an amoeba-like gut that maintains itself by incorporat- [129/130] ing the assimilable and rejecting the indigestible. There are whirlwinds and waterspouts, and it seems acceptable that there have been rare occurrences of faintly luminous owls. Then by a process of sorting over data, rejecting the objectionable, and taking in the desirable, Science saves itself great pains, because a bellyache is something that is only a gut in torment. So, with alimentary treatments, a shower of living things can always be made to assimilate with the whirlwind-explanation, and a brilliant, electric thing can be toned down digestibly. In extreme cases there is a secretion of fishmongers or gamekeepers.
In some cases of obstinate unassimilableness, it is supposed to be necessary to swat a little girl. But I doubt the necessity, because there is in human beings such a fondness, or sometimes such a passion, for confessing, that sooner or later somebody will come forward with almost any desired confession. Sometimes, from time to time, half a dozen persons confess to having committed the same murder. The police pay scarcely any attention any more to a new confession, in the matter of the Hall murder, in New Jersey. There was a case, in an English police court, of a man who had given himself up, as a deserter from the army. But a policeman testified that this was his fifth or sixth confession, and that he had never been in the army. The man admitted the charge. "But," said he, "I have something else that I wish to confess." "I'll hear no more of your confessions. Six months!" said the magistrate. In some cases the incentive for false confessions is not obvious, but in others it is obviously to come out of one's pale, yellow glow, and be brilliant in limelight. There have been cases not quite of confessions, but of somebody attributing to himself unexplained occurrences, or taking advantage of them for various kinds of profit. I accept that, if explorers from [130/131] somewhere else should visit the earth, and if their vessels, or the lights of their vessels, should be seen by millions of the inhabitants of this earth, the data would soon be conventionalised. If beings, like human beings, from somewhere else, should land upon this earth, near New York, and parade up Broadway, and then sail away, somebody, a year or so later, would "confess" that it had been a hoax by him and some companions, who had dressed up for their parts, and had jabbered, as they thought extra-mundanians should jabber. New Yorkers would say that from the first they had suspected something wrong. Who ever heard of distinguished foreigners coming to New York, and not trying to borrow something? Or not coinciding with propaganda in newspapers?
Probably in August, 1929, an aeroplane from somewhere in Europe passed over a jungle, and was reported, in a village, by a native. Savages are highly scientific. They reason upon generalisations that are so exclusive as to be nothing short of academic. They are as keen as any Newton, or Einstein, in understanding that, in order to arrive at what is said to be the known, they must start with something that they don't know about. We'd have a pretty good idea of what the wisemen said, when they heard the story of a vessel, probably occupied by passengers, that had been seen in the sky, if we could accept that they could be so undignified as to say anything --
New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 29, 1929 -- a travelling light in the sky -- about 400 miles off the coast of Virginia.(1) It was reported by Thomas Stuart, third mate of the steamship Coldwater, of the South Atlantic Steamship Line. "There was something that gave the impression that it was a large, passenger craft." It was travelling at an estimated speed of 100 miles an hour, in the direction of Bermuda. There was an in- [131/132] vestigation that "failed to reveal any trans-Atlantic or Bermuda flight."
We shall have an expression upon luminous appearances that may have been of a kind with the seeming creatures of the preceding chapter, or that may belong in another category.
Before I could find out the date, and look the matter up, I came upon several humorous allusions, in English newspapers, to a time when there was a scare in England, because of moving lights in the sky. And all the excitement was about the advertising scheme of an automobile manufacturer, who had sent up an imitation-airship with lanterns tied to it. There was a lesson in this: presumably other alleged mysteries could be explained in similar, commonplace terms.
I was doing one of my relatively minor jobs, which was going through the London Daily Mail, for a period of about twenty-five years, when I came upon this --
March 25, 1909 -- that, upon the 23rd of March, at 5.10 o'clock in the morning, two constables, in different parts of the city of Peterborough, had reported having seen an object, carrying a light, moving over the city, with sounds like the sounds of a motor.(2) In the Peterborough Advertiser, March 27th, is published an interview with one of these constables, who described "an object, somewhat oblong and narrow in shape, carrying a powerful light."(3) To suit whatever anybody should prefer, I could give data to show that only lights and no object were seen, and that no sound was heard; or that a vessel, carrying lights, was seen, and that sounds, like sounds of a motor, were heard.
It is said, in the Daily Mail, May 17th, that many other stories of unaccountable objects and lights in the sky had reached the office of the Mail.(4) If so, these stories were not published. The newspapers are sup- [132/133] posed to be avid for sensational news, but they have their conventions, and unaccountable lights and objects in the sky are not supposed to have sex, and it is likely that hosts of strange, but sexless, occurrences have been reported, but have not been told of in the newspapers. In the Daily Mail, it is said that no attention had been paid to the letters, because everything that was mentioned in them, as evidence, was unsatisfactory. It is said that the object reported at Peterborough was probably a kite with a lantern tied to it. On the 15th of May, a constable at Northampton had sent to headquarters a written report upon lights that he had seen in the sky at 9 p.m.; but Chief Constable Madlin had learned that a practical joker had sent up a fire balloon.
The practical joker of Northampton, amusing himself at 9 o'clock in the evening, is an understandable representative of his species; but some other representative of his species, flying a kite and lanterns, at Peterborough, at 5 o'clock in the morning, limiting his audience mostly to milkmen, though maybe a joker, could not have been a very practical joker. He must have been fond of travel. There were other reports from various places in England and in Wales. There were reports from places far apart.
Daily Mail, May 20 -- that a man, named Lithbridge, of 4 Roland Street, Cardiff, Wales, had, in the office of the Cardiff Evening Express, told a marvellous story.(5) This story was that, upon the 18th of May, about 11 p.m., while walking along a road, near the Caerphilly Mountains, Wales, he had seen, on the grass, at a side of the road, a large, tube-shaped construction. In it were two men, in heavy fur-overcoats. When they saw Mr. Lithbridge, they spoke excitedly to each other, in a foreign language, and sailed away. Newspaper men visited the place, and found the grass [133/134] trampled, and found a scattering of torn newspapers and other debris.
If anybody else wants to think that these foreigners were explorers from Mars or the moon, here is a story that of course can be reasoned out quite, or almost, satisfactorily.
At any rate, still more satisfactorily it may be said that no foreigners of this earth were sailing in the sky of Great Britain. In the Western Mail (Cardiff), May 21st, is published an interview with Mr. C.S. Rolls, the motorist, and the founder of the Aero Club, who gave his opinion that some of the stories of a strange object in the sky were hoaxes, but that not all of them could be explained so.(6) Chiefly for the reason that there was no known airship of this earth, with such powers of flight, the reported observations were discredited, at least sometimes, in all newspapers that I have looked at. In the London Weekly Dispatch, May 23rd, the stories are so discredited, and it is argued that to be seen so often, without having been seen to cross the Channel, an airship would have to have a base in England, to which, in view of the general excitement, it would certainly have been traced: a base where it would be seen, "especially during the tedious preliminaries of ascent."(7) Then, in the Weekly Dispatch, are listed reports from 22 places, in the week preceding the 23rd of May, and 19 reports earlier in May and in March.
Mr. Lithbridge was a Punch and Judy man. Perhaps his story was of some profit to him. Not much attention was paid to it. But then came another explanation.
Upon May 26th, it was told in the newspapers that the mystery of the lights in the sky had been solved. A large imitation-airship had "come down" in Dunstable, and the lights had been upon that. It was an advertising scheme. An automobile manufacturer had [134/135] been dragging the thing around in England and Wales. There had been reports from Ireland, but Ireland was omitted in this explanation. We are told that this object, roped to an automobile, had been dragged along the roads, amusingly exciting persons who were not very far advanced mentally. With whatever degree of advancement mine may be, I suppose that such a thing could be dragged slowly, and for a short time, perhaps only a few minutes, because it was of hot-air-inflation, along a road, and conceivably through a city or two, with a policeman, who reported lights in the sky, not seeing a rope going up from an automobile: but, with whatever degree of advancement that of mine may be, I do not think of any such successful imposition in about forty large cities, some of them several hundred miles apart. No one at Dunstable saw or heard the imitation-airship come down from the sky. An object, to which was tied a card, upon which was a request to communicate with a London automobile manufacturer, "in case of accident," was found in a field, morning of May 26th.
The explanation, as I want to see it, is that probably the automobile manufacturer took advantage of the interest in lights in the sky, and at night dumped a contrivance into a field, having tied his card to it. If so this was only one of many occurrences that have been exploited by persons who had a liking, or a use, for publicity. Probably Mr. Cannell and his dead owl can be so explained; and, though I should very much like to accept Mr. Lithbridge's story, I fear me that we shall have to consider him one of these exploiters. Also, there was the case of the Press agent, who, taking advantage of stories of a prowling animal, tied tin wings and green whiskers to a kangaroo.
The range of the reported observations was from Ipswich, on the east coast of England, to Belfast, [135/136] Ireland, a distance of 350 miles; and, in Great Britain, from Hull to Swansea, a distance of 200 miles. Perhaps a gas bag could be dragged around a little, but the imitation-airship that was found at Dunstable, was a flimsy contrivance, consisting of two hot-air balloons, and a frame about 20 feet long, connecting them.
The lights in the sky were frequently reported, upon the same night, from places far apart. Upon the night of May 9th, reports came from Northampton, Wisbech, Stamford, and Southend. In the Weekly Dispatch, May 23rd, it is pointed out that to be seen at Southend about 11 p.m., and then twenty minutes later, at Stamford, seventy miles away, the object in the sky must have travelled at a rate of 210 miles an hour.
The question that comes up is whether, after the finding of the object at Dunstable, or after a commonplace ending of a mystery, lights continued to be seen travelling in the sky.
The stoppage was abrupt. Or the stoppage of publication of reports was
1. New York Herald Tribune, (August 29, 1929), (Not found here).
2. "Mysterious airship." London Daily Mail, March 25, 1909, p.3 c.6.
3. "Quite a sensation!" Peterborough Advertiser, March 27, 1909, p.7 c.1-2.
4. "Night airship." London Daily Mail, May 17, 1909, p.7 c.4. At 9:15 PM, not 9 PM; Chief Constable Mardlin, not Madlin.
5. "The phantom airship." London Daily Mail, May 20, 1909, p.5 c.1-2. For the local newspaper article: "Airship scare." Cardiff Evening Express and Evening Mail, May 21, 1909, p.3 c.3-4. C. Lithbridge. Caerphilly Mountain, not mountains. The two men were "busily engaged with something nearby" and later "jumped into a kind of little carriage suspended" from the construction; and, they spoke "a strange lingo -- Welsh or something else; it was certainly not English."
6. "The airship mystery." Cardiff Western Mail, May 21, 1909, p.5 c.1-2.
7. "Aerial hoax." London Weekly Dispatch, May 23, 1909, p.1 c.7, p.2 c.1-2. Correct quote: "...preliminaries to an ascent...."
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