Charles Johnson, 76, Proponent of Flat Earth
Charles Johnson, 76, Proponent of Flat Earth
By DOUGLAS MARTIN - New York Times, 3/25/2001
Charles K. Johnson, president of the International Flat Earth Research Society since 1972, who stubbornly and cheerfully insisted that those who believed the earth was round had been duped, died on Monday at his home in Lancaster, Calif. He was 76.
Jill Fear, secretary of the society, said Mr. Johnson suffered from lung ailments and died in his sleep. She said she would try to carry on his mission of promoting the view that the world was actually a flat disk floating on primordial waters instead of a ball spinning and orbiting in space.
Mr. Johnson, who called himself the last iconoclast, regarded scientists as witch doctors pulling off a gigantic hoax so as to replace religion with science. He based his own ideas on the Old Testament references to a flat earth and the New Testament saying that Jesus ascended into heaven.
"If earth were a ball spinning in space, there would be no up or down," he told Newsweek magazine in 1984.
His essential suggestion was that people should just look around and trust their own eyes. "Reasonable, intelligent people have always recognized that the earth is flat," he said.
In quarterly newsletters, Mr. Johnson seemed to have an answer for almost everything. Sunrises and sunsets? An optical illusion. The moon landing? An elaborate hoax with a script by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, staged in a hangar in Arizona. (And Mr. Johnson was not alone; a Washington Post poll in 1994 found that 9 percent of Americans thought the landing was faked.)
Eclipses of the sun? "We really don't have to go into all that," he told The New York Times in 1979. "The Bible tells us the heavens are a mystery."
Some, but hardly all, opponents of the theory of evolution used Mr. Johnson's arguments as part of their arsenal. Newsweek suggested that the flat earth society was more "a mystical entity than an organization." In Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), John Mitchell lumped Mr. Johnson's society with U.F.O. believers and modern-day druids.
But people remained fascinated with someone who believed what Adam and Eve assumed, and Mr. Johnson was frequently interviewed and asked to speak. Once he did a commercial for Dreyer's ice cream.
Charles Kenneth Johnson was born in San Angelo, Tex., on July 24, 1924. Before moving to the Mojave Desert, he was an airplane mechanic in San Francisco for 25 years.
He corresponded with Samuel Shenton, an Englishman, who led the small society. Mr. Shenton specified before his death in 1972 that leadership of the society be passed on to Mr. Johnson, who was not a member but had doubted that the earth was round since an elementary school teacher unsuccessfully tried to teach him about gravity.
The group's roots, Mr. Johnson maintained, were planted 6,000 years ago in Greece, by the Society of Zetetics, meaning investigators. Samuel Birley Rowbotham founded the Universal Zetetic Society in America and Great Britain in 1832. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, George Bernard Shaw first rose to participate in a debate at the Zetetic Society, which might have been the same organization, in 1879.
The Universal Zetetic Society became the International Flat Earth Research Society, though it is unclear when the name was changed.
By the mid-1990's, according to Mr. Johnson, the group's membership had grown to 3,500 members, each paying $25; membership included a map of the flat world. Mr. Johnson ran the operation from a spare bedroom of his house.
He liked to smoke a cigar at sunset and gaze out at the desert, which was flat as a pancake except for the occasional tumbleweed. Then, in 1995, the house burned to the ground. He managed to rescue his wife, Marjory, who could not walk and needed an oxygen tank to breathe. But the society's records and literature were destroyed.
Mrs. Johnson, who believed in a flat earth because she did not hang from her toes in her native Australia, died the next year. Local authorities evicted Mr. Johnson from the trailer into which he had moved, next to the ruins of his house. Legally, the trailer was required to be on a foundation, and to have wood rather than metal siding, standards it did not meet.
So he moved into the home of his brother Jackie, his only survivor, on the outskirts of Lancaster. With the help of Ms. Fear, he was trying to rebuild the society, which now has about 100 members, all of whom have joined since the fire.
Science Digest said in a 1980 article that Mr. Johnson had "a wry sense of humor and a booming laugh." He called Copernicus, who first theorized that a round earth revolved around the sun, "Co-pernicious."