Anyhow, all of this is meant to underscore the fact that I've read a lot of supposedly true paranormal stories. So it always is with a bit of pleasant surprise that I run into one I've never heard before -- something that happened yesterday, when a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link telling the tale of Gil Pérez, the 16th century Spanish soldier who supposedly teleported from the Philippines to Mexico City.
The story goes like this. In October of 1593, a man showed up in the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City, disheveled and disoriented. He was questioned by authorities, and said that moments before, he'd been on guard duty, had felt dizzy, and leaned against a wall and closed his eyes. He opened them to find himself in Plaza Mayor...
... but moments earlier, he'd been in Manila.
Plaza Mayor in Mexico City, where Gil Pérez appeared out of nowhere [Image is in the Public Domain]
The authorities at the time were deeply Roman Catholic, and anything like this smacked of witchcraft, so they locked him up, charging him with desertion and consorting with the devil. Pérez said that he had no idea how he'd gotten there, but it had nothing to do with Satan -- and as proof, he said that they had just gotten word that day of the assassination of Philippine Governor Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas by Chinese pirates, and that proved that he'd just been in Manila.
Of course, back then, there was no way to verify such information quickly, so poor Pérez was confined to the jail for two months until a group that had come from Manila showed up in Mexico City. Sure enough, one of the people in the group not only recognized Pérez, but said his uniform was the correct one for the Philippine guard -- and Pérez had indeed been there, on duty, when Dasmariñas was murdered two months earlier, but had disappeared without a trace and had not been seen since.
At that point, the authorities let Pérez go, he joined the Philippine delegation, and eventually found his way back home. Why the charges of black magic were dropped is unknown; after all, even if he hadn't deserted, there was still the problem that he seemed to have gone halfway around the globe in seconds. But maybe they were just as happy to make him someone else's problem. In any case, what happened to Pérez afterwards is not recorded.
The problem, of course, is that these sort of folk legends usually have a rather unfortunate genealogy, and that certainly is true here. The version of the story I've related above comes from a 1908 issue of Harper's Magazine, written by American folklorist Thomas Allibone Janvier. Janvier said he got the story from a 1900 collection of Mexican tales by Luis Gonzáles Obregón, and Obregón said that he learned of it from the 1609 writings of Philippine Governor Antonio de Morga, who said that "Dasmariñas's death was known in Mexico the day it happened," although he didn't know how that could possibly be.
Others have noticed similarities between the tale and Washington Irving's story "Governor Manco and the Soldier" which appeared in Tales of the Alhambra in 1832. So it's entirely possible that an offhand, and unsubstantiated, comment by de Morga was picked up and elaborated by Obregón, then picked up and elaborated further by Janvier, with some help along the way from Irving's (fictional) tale.
In any case, it's an intriguing story. I'm always more fond of these open-ended tales -- the ones where everything gets tied up neatly in the end always seem to me to be too pat even to consider accepting them as real. But this one -- Pérez's mysterious disappearance and reappearance were never explained, he vanished into obscurity afterwards, and nothing more came of it -- those are the ones that captivate interest, because that's usually the way reality works. It's why my all-time favorite "true tale of the supernatural," the story of Nurse Black, still gives me the shudders every time I think about it.
Not, of course, that I think that the story of Pérez is true; it's simply that the more realistic a tale is, the more likely I am to be interested in it. And after all of these years steeped in the paranormal, to find one I'd never heard of before was a lot of fun.
This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: Arik Kershenbaum's The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens and Ourselves. Kershenbaum tackles a question that has fascinated me for quite some time; is evolution constrained? By which I mean, are the patterns you see in most animals on Earth -- aerobic cellular respiration, bilateral symmetry, a central information processing system/brain, sensory organs sensitive to light, sound, and chemicals, and sexual reproduction -- such strong evolutionary drivers that they are likely to be found in alien organisms?
Kershenbaum, who is a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, looks at how our environment (and the changes thereof over geological history) shaped our physiology, and which of those features would likely appear in species on different alien worlds. In this fantastically entertaining book, he considers what we know about animals on Earth -- including some extremely odd ones -- and uses that to speculate about what we might find when we finally do make contact (or, at the very least, detect signs of life on an exoplanet using our earthbound telescopes).
It's a wonderfully fun read, and if you're fascinated with the idea that we might not be alone in the universe but still think of aliens as the Star Trek-style humans with body paint, rubber noses, and funny accents, this book is for you. You'll never look at the night sky the same way again.
[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]