With each new case that comes to my hands from the old archives of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), I reaffirm my conviction that the surprises reserved for us by paranormal phenomenology have no limits. I confess that I have doubted whether to expose this case or not, for fear that the reader thinks I’m kidding. I will relate it with the detail with which it is exposed in the documentation…
The Faintness family, formed by a couple of young spouses, had just moved to an elegant neighborhood in London. They were eager to exhibit their new social status acquired as a result of an inheritance. The main concern of the couple was not to be out of place in their new neighborhood. I mention this detail because it explains later events.
Like every working day, Mr. Faintness had risen early that morning leaving his wife asleep in bed. But that morning, Mrs. Faintness woke up suddenly because of a scream coming from the hall. Immediately her husband burst in wildly, babbling incomprehensible things. She asked him to calm down, and then he could clearly express what he wanted to say.
Imagine Mrs. Faintness’s expression of disbelief and wonder when she heard her husband say there was a penguin in the hall! At first she thought it was a joke, but she quickly remembered that her husband was one of the least humorous types in the Western Hemisphere. “It can not be,” she exclaimed, “you must still be dreaming.” But at the insistence and the restlessness of her husband, she changed his mind and, rising hastily, began to preen in front of the mirror. “Then it must be one of our neighbors who has come to do the honors with us dressed in a frock coat”. “Come and see!” her husband urged, seized by convulsions. But, convinced that it was one of their elegant neighbors, she did not want to leave until she had dressed as the occasion required. “Go out and entertain him while I get dressed”, she yelled at him, who left the bedroom bewildered.
A quarter of an hour later, Mrs. Faintness made her entrance in the hall dressed in her best clothes. Quickly Mr. Faintness managed to catch her in his arms before she fell to the ground unconscious. In effect, there was a penguin walking around the room.
That day Mr. Faintness did not come to the office. Both spouses spent the morning discussing what to do. The situation was embarrassing. They could not go out with the penguin: what would the neighbors think? But it could not stay at home either. “Maybe we could take it out in the dark of the night, without anyone noticing,” the husband suggested. “And where do we take it?” “To London Zoo, obviously”, the husband sentenced. “They will want to know where we got it from”, she answered back. “We will tell them the truth.” It was then, for the first time, when the couple wondered, with a shrunken and trembling heart, how the hell the penguin had come to their hall. The door of the street and all the windows had remained closed all night!
Then Mr. Faintness remembered that recently the newspapers had announced the foundation of the SPR, and immediately he knew what had to be done. When that same afternoon Mr. Faintness presented the case before the staff of the SPR, skepticism spread among its members. Despite this, they entrusted Sir Edmund Gurney and Dr. Lodge with the mission of shedding light on the case. They rented a carriage and set course for the Faintness mansion.
The first thing the two experts checked was that it was not a “ghost penguin” but a genuine one. They tried to establish with it some kind of contact, but the penguin did not seem interested in them. Dr. Lodge carefully examined the flightless bird and ruled that it was a normal penguin, with nothing unusual in it. All this did nothing but increase the distrust of the two paranormal experts. Thence, Dr. Lodge’s attention focused on the mental health of Faintness spouses. For greater privacy, he asked his colleague to wait in the hall while he retreated with the Faintness to an adjoining room. A few minutes later they heard an exclamation of amazement, rushed into the hall and saw Sir Edmund open-mouthed and with a stunned face. There was no sign of the penguin. Questioned Sir Edmund, he swore that the bird had simply disappeared before his eyes. “It just vanished”, he said, which cost him the opening of a sanctioning file by the SPR.
The most amazing thing is that this case was only the first of a series of similar cases related to sudden appearances and disappearances of penguins that took place in London in the summer of 1878. Many explanations have been proposed since then, but none of them meets the minimum coherence requirements, so I omit them here.