Looking through Edwin Morgan’s series of 16 Scrapbooks, it is apparent that he had a keen eye for unusual news stories. The cuttings include reports of UFO, ghost and Loch Ness Monster sightings as well as quirky tales of all kinds. For example, Scrapbook 9 includes stories about a man growing a horn out of his arm, a brutal wrestling match where men kick each other in the shins with clogs, an unusual blue moon seen over Glasgow and a toad reportedly living inside a block of chalk for over 30 years.
Across the Scrapbooks, Morgan also presents handwritten accounts of uncanny events from his own experience, such as striking dreams and strange coincidences. He was a member of the Fortean Society, which was dedicated to exploring all kinds of strange phenomena. Cuttings from their periodical Doubt can be found in the Scrapbooks, with the magazine’s font and shiny white paper easy to recognise, as is the bizarre subject matter and American slant to the stories.
It is difficult to find much information about Doubt, but it appears to have been published from the 1930s until the late 1950s. It was edited by Tiffany Thayer, an actor and science fiction author who founded the Fortean Society to continue occult investigations in the manner of Charles Fort (1874-1932). Amongst items from Morgan’s personal library in The Mitchell Library’s Special Collections Department are 9 copies of Doubt Magazine, dating to the 1940s and 1950s. Having identified many cuttings from Doubt as part of a copyright audit carried out for the Edwin Morgan Scrapbooks project, I was keen to see the magazines that belonged to Morgan. My hope was that they would contain lots of gaps where stories had been cut out to be used in the scrapbooks, thus making a due diligence search much easier.
Unfortunately the magazines were not particularly helpful in my search to confirm the source of uncredited stories in the scrapbooks, with only one having a small cut out area. However, they are a fascinating insight into a world where unexplained phenomena are collated and a wide range of theories espoused. In issue 56, Thayer lists 71 categories of phenomena which could researched by new contributors. These include subjects as diverse as police brutality, sea serpents, medical bloopers, UFOs and ballisterics (bullets from nowhere). Thayer was accused of using the periodical to push his own agenda, which came to be at odds with Charles Fort’s views. Sceptical about some of the Society’s traditional interests, like the existence of flying saucers, Thayer was also anti-War, dismissing the Atomic Bomb as a “hoax”, much to the fury of other Society founding members.
Although initially registered as a conscientious objector, Morgan served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War and was appalled by atomic warfare, as evidenced by many cuttings in the Scrapbooks. It is unlikely that he would have agreed with Thayer’s extreme views despite sharing an interest in Fortean topics. However, he no doubt would have been interested in the unusual language used to describe some of the phenomena, which seems to have been developed by Thayer or the Society. Examples can be seen on the bold cover of the issue “All About Sputs” and the periodical’s use of words like “wonets” (unexplained fires where little girls live).
Looking for confirmation of Morgan’s membership of the Society, I turned to the series MS Morgan T Correspondence: Miscellaneous. I was surprised to discover personal correspondence between Morgan and Tiffany Thayer as well as UK secretary of the Society Eric Frank Russell, showing an unanticipated level of engagement with the Society. In Box 1 were two letters from Tiffany Thayer to Morgan dated 1953 and 1954, which mention the Scrapbooks.
The main body of the letter reads:
Dear Edwin Morgan
Sure would like to have a print of that fairy foto, no?
Your scrap-book sounds highly exciting. Would you like to lend it to us?
We should be happy to enter you on the rolls.
How well are Fort and Drayson represented in your University Library? Do they have DOUBT on file?
Unfortunately Morgan’s side of the correspondence is not present, so we do not know the background to the fairy photograph. The letter makes clear the level of interest Morgan had in Fortean topics, and also suggests that he considered one aspect of the Scrapbooks to be a record of strange incidents. Thayer’s question about the presence of Doubt in the University Library would have been met with a negative by Morgan, although contemporary library users are able to consult The Books of Charles Fort as edited by Thayer. It is interesting to note the date format used in the letter – the date according to the Fortean Society (FS) is 28th December 1923 and the so-called ‘old style’ (OS) date is 28th November 1953. In the Fortean Calendar, the year the Society was founded (1931) is equivalent to 1 FS.
Two months later Morgan receives another letter from Thayer:
“Dear Edwin Morgan
The requested stickers and book-marks are enclosed. More may be had for the asking.
Since your scrapbooks are too cumbersome and too valuable to trust on the ocean wave, perhaps you would pick out the oldest high spot and send on a photstat of it?
This letter ends the correspondence between Morgan and Thayer, and sadly we do not know if Morgan ever sent any copies of the Scrapbooks to America. Morgan’s 1954 correspondence file also includes his membership certificate for the Fortean Society. The 1958 file contains a letter from Eric Frank Russell dated 12th March. Like Thayer, Russell was a science fiction writer. His letter is in response to an outgoing letter of Morgan’s (not present), querying a doubling of the cost of Society subscription fees. The price increase does not seem to have affected Morgan’s interest in the Fortean Society, as evidenced by a further letter from Russell dated 11th August 1962.
Russell’s 1962 letter is in response to Morgan’s desire to pay subscription fees, and marks the end of Morgan’s association with the Society. Tiffany Thayer died in 1959, and as explained by Russell, “It looks to me very much as if the Society expired along with its Secretary.” Attached to the letter is a leaflet about the Society, complete with cut out sections that likely appear as cuttings in the Scrapbooks, plus Morgan’s membership card dated “29 FS” (1960). Morgan continued to include cuttings of strange news stories in the Scrapbooks until he stopped making them in 1966. Despite his proven interest in the Fortean Society and his correspondence with Thayer and Russell, there is no record of Morgan having made a written contribution to Doubt.
The Fortean Society was later revived as the International Fortean Organisation (INFO), and the Fortean Times magazine is still active, although this is a separate operation from the original Fortean Society and from INFO. Tiffany Thayer’s papers were donated to the New York Public Library after his death, as were the papers of fellow Fortean Society founding member Donald Beaty Bloch.
Thanks to Sam Maddra and Sarah Hepworth for their assistance with MS Morgan T, and to the Mitchell Library Special Collections department for access to Doubt Magazine.
Categories: Special Collections