Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The strange tale of the disappearing soldier

I've been interested in the paranormal for a long time.  It started with my uncle's scary stories about the feu follet and loup-garou, told in French, which were sufficient to scare myself and my cousins into the near pants-wetting stage, and yet which for some reason we demanded again and again.  Later I graduated to books with titles like Twenty Terrifying True Tales of the Supernatural, Real Ghost Stories, and Bigfoot: Legend Come to Life.  I supplemented this with my fiction reading, including Lovecraft and Poe, and watching shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  (With all of this, it's no wonder that I developed serious insomnia as a teenager, an ailment that continues to plague me today, forty-odd years later.)

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 courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

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.

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