In 1947, a Diffusionist Writer Sicced the FBI on the Fortean Society for Rejecting His Anti-Columbus Book
While skimming through some of the FBI paranormal files presented in The Black Vault, I came across a fascinating letter sent from Tiffany Thayer, the secretary of the Fortean Society, to Jennings C. Wise, a soldier and lawyer, regarding their shared belief that the New World had been colonized from Europe before Columbus. This letter ended up in the FBI files not because they cared in the least about diffusionism but rather because Thayer was being investigated for sedition due to his controversial publications in the Forteans’ official journal denouncing World War II as “World Fraud II” and alleging that the Great Powers conspired to foment war. Thayer would be investigated several more times, including once for claiming that “FBI men outnumber the Communists on our rolls by 2 to 1,” prompting an outraged Hoover to send agents to demand Thayer prove that Bureau men were subscribes to Doubt. (Thayer eventually withdrew the claim.)
Thayer has a mixed legacy among Forteans, praised for his advocacy of Fortean investigation, and criticized for the iron fist with which he controlled early Forteanism in the two decades after he helped found the Fortean Society in 1931. The FBI files preserve several issues of Thayer’s Doubt magazine, and frankly they suck. The issues—admittedly preserved because various informants found them seditious—contain a deeply uninspiring mix of leftist politics, rehashed Fort, and summarizing news stories about everything from weird rain to the FBI’s role in the development of a police state. Thayer’s politically oriented Fortean Society collapsed after his death in 1959, and it was replaced with the less political International Fortean Organization (INFO).
Before we get to Jennings Wise, I did want to point out a fascinating paragraph from a 1951 edition of Doubt (vol. 2, no. 3), authored almost certainly by Thayer, bemoaning the rise of the flying saucer:
Forteans have a legitimate gripe at the usurpation of our long-time franchise upon lights and objects in the sky by the military and its lackey freeprez. In a field where competent witnesses have ever been a rarity, the propaganda machinations have so conditioned the public that “saucer” comes to mind first, no matter what is seen, and if the witness does not use the word, the reporters put it in their accounts anyway.
Thayer didn’t like flying saucers and seemed to find the scientific orientation of early nuts-and-bolts ufology anathema to his preferred Gothic Grand Guignol of anti-science, anti-government, and anti-elite propaganda.
Anyway, our story concerns Jennings C. Wise. Wise, an Army lieutenant colonel and one-time assistant federal attorney-general, wrote a series of books in the 1940s advocating fringe conspiracy views about Columbus and making the case for European colonization of America prior to Columbus. He was, like so many of his era, partially correct: He trusted that the Icelandic sagas correctly identified Viking routes to Canada, for example. He was also largely wrong, accepting, for example, the Kensington Rune Stone as proof of Vikings in Minnesota. He was a Freemason, and the Masons eagerly embraced his books, praising them loudly in publications like the 1948 volume of the Scottish Rite News Bulletin and the 1947 volume of The New Age Magazine. However, scholars thought little of his work. The Handbook of Latin American Studies for 1959 said it possessed “little or no historical merit.” It will probably surprise no one that he also theorized about how “large, blond, red-haired Aryans” civilized the world and carried the secret of the New World from ancient times down to the age of Columbus.
I’m not sure what set Wise off on this path. In his early books from the 1910s, he displays no hint of it, in fact chiding Columbus in 1911 for foolishly imagining America to be Asia. He was but a lad of thirty then. When he turned fifty, he published The Red Man in the New World Drama (1931), in which he asserted that “the two principle traditions” of human history were (a) the drowning of Atlantis and (b) the migration of the northern European peoples “from Iceland to Greenland and from Greenland to Labrador, as far as Mexico, traversing the countries which today bear the names of Canada and Louisiana,” a claim he cited in 1931 to the eighteenth century lost white race occult speculation of Antoine Fabre d’Olivet. His argument for Irish and Norse in Mexico followed that of Eugène de Beauvois from 35 years earlier almost point for point, adding that the Norse colonized the United States and Mexico in order to mine gold. The reason for the similarity is because both accepted the Zeno Narrative uncritically, and Wise argued that Henry Sinclair learned about Florida from the Natives of Nova Scotia! Like Beauvois and other fringe writers, he too argued that the Aryan invaders interbred with the natives and thus raised the “intelligence” of those tribes so favored with European seed, though Wise preferred to imagine that the Norse, by dint of their racial superiority, had reduced whole cultures to “laborers” (i.e. slaves) for the mines. (He also attributed the “peculiar” Iroquois cosmology to Norse ancestry.)
Wise, in publishing such volumes, seems to have thought that the Fortean Society, purveyors of unconventional thinking, would be open to his ideas, seeing as how they challenged the status quo and the academics who refused to accept the “truth.” He contacted Thayer and became a member of the organization. He then made the mistake of asking Thayer to promote his book. Thayer’s response was spectacular, and it would have been a great example of refuting any number of slipshod fringe books, except that Thayer’s real objection was to the book’s politics, not its poor premise. Since the letter is so long, rather than quote it here, I will link you to the full text, which I posted in my Library. Note that Thayer compares the book to Nicholas Notovitch’s hoax about Jesus in India! Most importantly, after bashing Wise for poor scholarship, bias, and a political agenda, Thayer says a very true thing: “Those were my honest impressions. The more nearly accurate they are, the firmer will be your denial of each point.”
Of course, Thayer was also a slipshod scholar, biased, and possessed of a political agenda, and there is no little irony that the clarity of his analysis derived not from a fair reading but his political disagreements with the biases of the author.
But Thayer overplayed his hand. Instead of simply rejecting Wise’s request on the merits, he went on to attack Wise’s person, berating him for being a conservative, a Republican, a military man, a “patriot,” an anti-Semite, and a racist. And, as the last straw, he complained that Wise was not sufficiently anti-Catholic to be an effective Fortean! (He did concede that this final point was more of a personal preference than an official quality of Forteanism.)
Wise was duly insulted, and being a conservative patriot, he did the patriotic thing: Immediately upon receipt of the June 17, 1947 letter from Thayer, he returned his Fortean Society membership card and reported Thayer to the FBI for sedition, prompting the Bureau to file a report on Monday, June 23 based on an interview with Wise that occurred in Virginia on Thursday, June 19.
It’s really hard to root for anyone in this situation. Thayer was a leftist jackass hijacking Fortean research to push an anti-government agenda. Wise was a probably racist, apparently quite conservative jackass whose first thought at not getting his way was to sic the government on Thayer. And the FBI were jackasses who wasted their time and Americans’ tax dollars throwing a hissy fit for 15 years (!) over Thayer’s right to free speech, and his right to insult the government as he pleased.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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