Saturday, July 08, 2006

Doubly Damned: Dorothy's Disappearance

During the course of the publications of his Book of the Damned, Lo!, Wild Talents and New Lands, Fort wrote and received many letters. These letters became scattered after his death in 1932. Fortean researcher Mr. X managed to locate several collections of Fort’s letters, and today we can find a number of these transcribed on his website.

Fort made efforts to probe deeper into some reported odd events by writing letters to newspapers or principle witnesses. As the result of this, Fort concluded that often these witnesses did not exist: ‘I have had an extensive, though one-sided, correspondence, with people who may not be, about things that probably aren’t.’ Who very much did exist, but would vanish completely off the earth, was Dorothy Arnold.

Fort wrote in his Lo!: "Upon Dec. 12th, 1910, a handsome, healthy girl disappeared somewhere in New York City. The only known man in her affairs lived in Italy. It looks as if she had no intention of disappearing: she was arranging for a party, a tea, whatever those things are, for about sixty of her former schoolmates, to be held upon the 17th of the month. When last seen, in Fifth Avenue, she said that she intended to walk through Central Park, on her way to her home, near the 79th Street entrance of the park. It may be that somewhere in the eastern part of the park, between 59th Street and the 79th Street entrances, she disappeared. No more is known of Dorothy Arnold."

A few years ago, two of Fort's letters surfaced, pasted in a first US edition of Lo!. One letter was written by the owner of the book, the other the reply by Fort. The owner, H.J. Barrett from Norwalk, Connecticut, wrote to Fort care of the publisher, dated April 10th, 1925. The publisher dutifully sent the letter to London, where Fort was living at that time. Fort’s reply is dated April 26th, 1925. It is not known if Barrett sent Fort more letters. References in Barrett’s letter to obscure esoterical publications as Revue Cosmique and Pistis Sofia, and occultists as Peter Davidson and Mary Baker Eddy point towards a more than cursory interest in the occult with a penchant for ritual magic. The exchange between Barrett and Fort offers interesting materials such as vitrified forts and Barrett’s thoughts on the existence of a secret "Black Occult Order" and the correlation between it and earthquakes elsewhere.

There remains one sinister aspect to the whole case to be told. In the margin of page 90 of Lo!, where Fort writes of Arnold's disappearance is scribbled in pencil, in all probability by Barrett: ‘she took a train for (to? From? Illegible) Philadelphia. I was asked to party!’ Throughout the book, it is the only annotation. What had happened some 21 years before Barrett scribbled that cryptic annotation in the book? Was it a case of murder most foul? Are Barrett’s occult interests of any relevance, is there any occult clue as to Arnold’s disappearance? Or is this a case of tragic Fortean coincidence? Did Barrett send more letters to Fort? Perhaps we may never know.

A longer version of this article, with notes, was published in Gazette Forteenne Vol. 2, 2003 and Fortean Times issue 175.

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