Wild Talents

A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book

Edited and Annotated by Mr. X

Chapter Three



IN DAYS of yore, when I was an especially bad young one, my punishment was having to go to the store, Saturdays, and work. I had to scrape off labels of other dealers' canned goods, and paste on my parent's label. Theoretically, I was so forced to labor to teach me the errors of deceitful ways. A good many brats are brought up, in the straight and narrow, somewhat deviously.

One time I had pyramids of canned goods, containing a variety of fruits and vegetables. But I had used all except peach labels. I pasted peach labels on peach cans, and then came to apricots. Well, aren't apricots peaches? And there are plums that are virtually apricots. I went on, either mischievously, or scientifically, pasting the peach labels on cans of plums, cherries, string beans, and succotash. I can't quite define my motive, because to this day it has not been decided whether I am a humorist or a scientist. I think that it was mischief, but, as we go along, there will come a more respectful recognition that also it was scientific procedure. [24/25]

In the town of Derby, England -- see the Derby Mercury, May 15, and following issues, 1905 -- there were occurrences that, to the undiscerning, will seem to have nothing to do with either peaches or succotash.(1) In a girls' school, girls screamed and dropped to the floor, unconscious. There are readers who will think over well-known ways of peaches and succotash, and won't know what I am writing about. There are others, who will see "symbolism" in it, and will send me appreciations, and I won't know what they're writing about.

In five days, there were forty-five instances of girls, who screamed and dropped unconscious. "The girls were exceedingly weak, and had to be carried home. One child had lost strength so that she could not even sit up." It was thought that some unknown, noxious gas, or vapor, was present: but mice were placed in the schoolrooms, and they were unaffected. Then the scientific explanation was "mass psychology." Having no more data to work on, it seems to me that this explanation is a fitting description. If a girl fainted, and, if, sympathetically, another girl fainted, it is well in accord with our impressions of human nature, which sees, eats, smells, thinks, loves, hates, talks, dresses, reads, and undergoes surgical operations, contagiously, to think of forty-three other girls losing consciousness, in involuntary imitativeness. There are mature persons who may feel superior to such hysteria, but so many of them haven't much consciousness.

In the Brooklyn Eagle, Aug. 1, 1894, there is a story of "mass psychology."(2) In this case, too, it seems to me [25/26] that the description fits -- maybe. Considering the way people live, it is natural to them to die imitatively. There was, in July, 1894, a panic in a large vineyard, at Collis, near Fresno, California. Somebody in this vineyard had dropped dead of "heart failure." Somebody else dropped dead. A third victim had dropped and was dying. There wasn't a scientist, with a good and sticky explanation, on the place. It will be thought amusing: but the people in this vineyard believed that something uncanny was occurring, and they fled. "Everybody has left the place, and the authorities are preparing to begin a searching investigation. Anything more upon this subject is not findable. That is the usual experience after an announcement of a "searching investigation."

If something can't be described any other way, it's "mass psychology." In the town of Bradford, England, in a house, in Columbia Street, 1st of March, 1923, there was one of those occasions of the congratulations, hates, malices, and gaieties, and more or less venomous jealousies that combine in the state that is said to be merry, of a wedding party. The babble of this wedding party suddenly turned to delirium. There were screams, and guests dropped to the floor, unconscious. Wedding bells -- the gongs of ambulances -- four persons were taken to hospitals.

This occurrence was told of in the London newspapers, and, though strange, it seemed that the conventional explanation fitted it.

Yorkshire Evening Argus -- published in Bradford -- March 3, 1923 -- particulars that make for restiveness [26/27] against any conventional explanation -- people in adjoining houses had been affected by this "mysterious malady."(3) Several names of families, members of which had been overcome, unaccountably, were published -- Downing, Blakey, Ingram.

If people, in different houses, and out of contact with one another -- or not so circumstanced as to "mass" their psychologies -- and all narrowly localized in one small neighborhood, were similarly affected, it seemed clear that here was a case of common exposure to something that was poisonous, or otherwise injurious. Of course and escape of gas was thought of; but there was no odor of gas. No leakage of gas was found. There was the usual searching investigation that precedes forgetfulness. It was somebody's suggestion that the "mysterious malady" had been caused by fumes from a nearby factory chimney. I think that the wedding party was the central circumstance, but I don't think of a factory chimney, which had never so expressed itself before, suddenly fuming at a wedding party. An Argus reporter wrote that the Health Officers had rejected this suggestion, and that he had investigated, and had detected no unusual odor in the neighborhood.

In this occurrence at Bradford, there was no odor of gas. I have noted a case in London, in which there was an odor of gas; nevertheless this case is no less mysterious. In the Weekly Dispatch (London) June 12, 1910, it is called "one of the most remarkable and mysterious cases of gas poisoning that have occurred in London in recent years."(4) Early in the morning of June 10th, a woman telephoned to a police station, telling of what she thought was an [27/28] escape of gas. A policeman went to the house, which was in Neale Street (Holborn). He considered the supposed leakage alarming, and rapped on doors of another floor in the house. There was no response, and he broke down a door, finding the occupants unconscious. In two neighboring houses, four unconscious persons were found. A circumstance that was considered extraordinary was that between these two houses was one in which nobody was affected, and in which there was no odor of gas. The gas company sent men, who searched for a leak, but in vain. Fumes, as if from an uncommon and easily discoverable escape of gas, had overcome occupants of three houses, but according to the local newspaper (the Holburn Guardian) the gas company a week later, had been unable to discover its origin.(5)

In December, 1921, there was an occurrence in the village of Zetel, Germany (London Daily News, Jan. 2, 1922).(6) This was in the streets of a town. Somebody dropped unconscious: and, whether in an epidemic of fright, accounted for in terms of "mass psychology," or not, other persons dropped unconscious. "So far no light has been thrown on the mystery." It was thought that a "current of some kind" had passed over the village. This resembles the occurrence at El Paso, Texas, June 19, 1929 (New York Sun, Dec. 6, 1930).(7) Scores of persons, in the streets, dropped unconscious, and several of them died. Whatever appeared here was called a "deadly miasma." And the linkage goes on to the scores of deaths in a fog, in the Meuse Valley, Belgium, Dec. 5, 1930 -- so that one could smoothly and logically start with affairs [28/29] in a girls' school, and end up with a meteorological discussion.

Lloyd's Weekly News (London) Jan. 17, 1909 -- story from the Caucasian city of Baku.(8) M. Krassilrukoff, and two companions, had gone upon a hunting trip, to Sand Island, in the Caspian Sea. Nothing had been heard from them, and there was an investigation. The searchers came upon the bodies of the three men, lying in positions that indicated that they had died without a struggle. No marks of injuries; no disarrangement of clothes. At the autopsy, no trace of poison was found. "The doctors, though they would not commit themselves to an explanation, thought the men had been stifled."

The Observer (London), Aug. 23, 1925 -- "A mysterious tragedy is reported from the Polish Tatra mountains, near the health-resort of Zakopane.(9) A party, composed of Mr. Kasznica, the Judge of the Supreme Court, his wife, a twelve-year-old son, and a young student of Cracow University, started in fine weather for a short excursion in the neighboring mountains. Two days later, three of them were found dead."

Mrs. Kasznica was alive. She told that all were climbing, and were in good condition, when suffocation came upon them. "A stifling wind" she thought. One after another they had dropped unconscious. The post-mortem examinations revealed nothing that indicated deaths by suffocation, nor anything else that could be definitely settled upon. "Some newspapers suggest a crime, but so far the case remains a mystery."

There have been cases that have been called mysterious, [29/30] though they seem explicable enough in known circumstances of human affairs. See a story in the New York World-Telegram, March 9, 1931 -- about thirty men and women at work in the Howard Clothes Company factory, Nassau Street, Brooklyn -- sudden terror and a panic of these people, to get to the street.(10) The place was filled with a pungent, sickening odor. In the street, men and women collapsed, or reeled, and wandered away, in a semi-conscious condition. Several dozen of them were carried into stores, where they were given first-aid treatment, until ambulances arrived.

The phenomena occurred in the second floor of the Cary Building, occupied by the clothing company. Nobody in any other part of the building was affected. All gas fixtures in the factory were intact. No gas bomb was found. Nothing was found out. But, considering many crimes of this period, the suspicion is strong that in some way, as an expression of human hatred, of origin in industrial troubles, a volume of poisonous gas had been discharged into this factory.

And it may be that, in terms of revenges, we are on the track of a general expression, even if we think of a hate that could pursue people far up on a mountain side.

In hosts of minds, today, are impressions that the word "eerie" means nothing except convenience to makers of crossword puzzles. There are gulfs of the unaccountable, but they are bridged by terminology. Four persons were taken from a wedding party to hospitals. Well, if not another case of such jocularity as mixing brickbats with confetti, it was ice cream again, and ptomaine poisoning. [30/31] There is such satisfaction in so explaining, and showing that one knows better than to sound the p in ptomaine, that probably vast holes of ignorance always will be bridged by very slender pedantries. Asphyxiation has seduced hosts of suspicions that would be resolute against such a common explanation as "gas poisoning."

New York Sun, May 22, 1928 -- story from the town of Newton, Mass.(11) In this town, a physician was, by telephone, called to the home of William M. Duncan. There was nobody to meet him at the front door, but he got into the house. He called, but nobody answered. There seemed to be nobody at home, but he went through the house. He came to a room, upon the floor of which were lying four bodies. There was no odor of gas, but the doctor worker over the four, as if upon cases of asphyxiation, and they revived, and tried to explain.(12) Duncan had gone to his room, and, upon entering it, had dropped, unconscious. Wondering at what was delaying him, his wife had followed, and down she had fallen. One of his sons came next, and, upon entering this room, had fallen to the floor. The other son, by chance, went to this room, and felt something overcoming him. Before losing consciousness, he had staggered to the telephone.

The doctor's explanation was "mass psychology."

It is likely that the readers of the Sun were puzzled, until they came to this explanation, and then -- "Oh, of course! mass psychology."

There is a continuity of all things that makes classifications fictions. But all human knowledge depends upon arrangements. Then all books -- scientific, theological, [31/32] philosophical -- are only literary. In Scotland, in the month of September, 1903, there was an occurrence that can as reasonably be considered a case of "mass psychology," as can be some of the foregoing instances: but now we are emerging into data that seem to be of physical attacks. There will be more emerging. One can't, unless one be hopelessly, if not brutally, a scientist, or a logician, tie to any classification. The story is told in the Daily Messenger (Paris) Sept. 13, 1903.(13)

In a coal mine, near Coalbridge, Scotland, miners came upon the bodies of three men, There was no coal gas. There was no sign of violence of any kind. Two of these men were dead, but one of them revived. He could tell, enlighteningly, no more than could any other survivor in the stories of this group. He told that his name was Robert Bell, and that, with his two cousins, he had been walking in the mine, when he felt what he described as a "shock." No disturbance had been felt by anyone else in the mine. Though other parts of this mine were lighted by electricity, there was not a wire in this part. There was, at this point, a deadly discharge of an unknown force, just when, by coincidence, three men happened to be passing, or something more purposeful is suggested.

Down in a dark coal mine -- and there is a seeming of the congruous between mysterious attacks and surroundings. Now I have a story of a similar occurrence at a point that was one of this earth's most crowded thoroughfares. See the New York Herald, Jan. 23, 1909.(14) John Harding, who was the head of a department in John Wanamaker's store, was crossing Fifth Avenue, at [32/33] Thirty-third Street, when he felt a stinging sensation upon his chest. There was no sign of a missile of any kind. Then he saw, near by, a man, who was rubbing his arm, looking around angrily. The other man told Harding that something unseen had struck him.

If this occurrence had been late at night, and, if only two persons were crossing Fifth Avenue, at Thirty-third Street; and if a force of intensity enough to kill had struck them, the explanation, upon the finding of the bodies, would probably be that two men had, by coincidence, died in one place, of heart failure. At any rate, see back to the case of the bodies on benches of a Harlem park. No reporter of the finding of these bodies questioned the explanation that two men, sitting near each other, had died, virtually simultaneously, of heart failure, by coincidence.

We emerge from seeming attacks upon more than one person at a time, into seeming definitely directed attacks upon single persons. New York Herald Tribune, Dec. 4, 1931 -- Ann Harding, film actress, accompanied by her secretary, on her way, by train, to Venice, Florida.(15) There came an intense pain in her shoulder. Miss Harding could not continue travelling, and left the train, at Jacksonville. A physician examined her, and found that her shoulder was dislocated. The secretary was mystified, because she had seen the occurrence of nothing by which to explain, and Miss Harding could offer no explanation of her injury.

Upon Dec. 7, 1931 -- see the New York Times, Dec. 8, 1931 -- the German steamship Brechsee arrived at [33/34] Horsens, Jutland.(16) Captain Ahrenkield told of one of his sailors, who had been unaccountably wounded. The man had been injured during a storm, but he seemed to have been singled out by something other than stormy conditions. The captain had seen him, wounded by nothing that was visible, falling to the deck, unconscious. It was a serious wound, four inches long, that had appeared upon the sailor's head, and the captain had sewed it with an ordinary needle and thread.

In this case, unaccountable wounds did not appear upon several other sailors. Suppose, later, I tell of instances in which a number of persons were so injured. Mass psychology? [34]

1. "A mysterious epidemic." Drewry's Derby Mercury, May 31, 1905, p.7 c.5. This is the only report following May 15th that I have found.

2. "Mysterious fatality about a vineyard." Brooklyn Eagle, August 1, 1894, p.3 c.7.

3. The Bradford Daily Argus, (Bradford), or the "Yorkshire Evening Argus," of March 3, 1923: (Could not find here.)

4. "Gas poisoning mystery." London Weekly Dispatch, June 12, 1910, p.1 c.3.

5. "Mysterious fumes in Long Acre." Holborn Guardian (London), June 17, 1910 p.5 c.5. The conclusion of workmen "engaged for some hours in tracing the escape of gas" was that it had come from a sewer.

6. "Poison gas mystery." London Daily News, January 2, 1922, p.5 c.5.

7. "Scientists here also puzzled." New York Sun, December 6, 1930, p.2 c.6-7.

8. "Island mystery." Lloyd's Weekly News, January 17, 1909, p.21 c.6. The three bodies were found lying close to one another with their arms folded over their chests, "as if reverently prepared for the tomb." Correct quote: "No trace of poison was, however, found, and the physicians could arrive at no other conclusion than that the trio had been in some way stifled. The doctors would, however, not absolutely commit themselves to this view...."

9. "A mountain mystery." Observer (London), August 23, 1925, p.6 c.6. Correct quotes: "...a suffocating wind...," and, "...a crime. So far, the case remains a mystery."

10. "Mystery fumes rout 30." New York World Telegram, March 9, 1931, p. 3 c. 3-4. The incident occurred on March 9, 1931.

11. New York Sun, (May 22, 1928; could not find here).

12. Sic, worked.

13. "Miners electrocuted." Galigani's Daily Messenger (Paris), September 13, 1903, p. 2 c. 3. The location of the mine was Coatbridge, Scotland, (not at Coalbridge).

14. New York Herald, (January 23, 1909; could not find here).

15. "Dislocated shoulder mystifies Ann Harding." New York Herald Tribune, December 4, 1931, p.16 c.1.

16. "Sailor gets mysterious wound; falls unconscious...." New York Times, December 8, 1931, p.2 c.2.

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