The truth is that during the question time that followed the Friday afternoon conference at the SPR headquarters, the questions of the “silly genre” abounded. “If ghosts do not occupy space, how many ghosts fit in a tylbury?” “Telekinesis could be manufactured and put on the market at a low price?” “Clairvoyance is in colors or in black and white?”. This kind of silly things. Once, however, a question apparently as silly as the ones I just mentioned was asked, but that question led several members of the Society for Psychical Research to undertake a serious investigation. The question was: “Can anyone recognize a person he has never seen?”. And indeed, if that had been all, the question would have gone to swell the list of stupidities that were said in those long evening sessions open to the public. But when, soon thereafter, the man who formulated it put the question in its context, the members of the SPR were intrigued and decided to investigate the case.
The man in question, whom we will call Conrad, worked as a clerk in Oxford Street and there was nothing outstanding about him except his aquiline nose. He was single, but not because he could not afford to marry, but because he was loyal to a woman he had never spoken to and had only seen once in his life. Frederic Myers, who was not only unfaithful to his wife but to the wives of many other husbands, must have felt concerned because he volunteered to carry out the first part of the investigation, which was of the detective kind. For several months he devoted himself to an exhaustive work of vigilance that led him to the conviction that this Conrad not only did not attend secret appointments but also did not receive female visitors in his house. Nor male ones either (at that time the public scandal around Oscar Wilde was boiling over). When Myers reported his findings to the SPR Board, his colleagues found him with a dejected look. They attributed it to the long hours of surveillance, but the truth is that Myers hoped to discover in Conrad a hypocrite of those who abounded in the puritan Victorian society. But when Conrad’s alleged vow of celibacy turned out to be true, Myers became depressed and for almost two months was faithful to his wife and to the wives of all the others.
The second part of the investigation was carried out by Sir William James. James was an American who had emigrated to Britain fleeing from an unhappy love, so the case also touched him closely. As a first step, he asked Conrad to give him a detailed account of the circumstances of his encounter with the case’s female protagonist. Conrad agreed on condition that James promised him confidentiality and to keep his identity anonymous. With this data, it was not difficult for James to find the lady. To come in contact with her, he requested the collaboration of Elaine Sidgwick, which facilitated the way to gain her trust. James offered the lady his card with the stamp of the Society for Psychical Research, a scientific institution (he explained) dedicated to the search for the truth that may be behind the so-called “paranormal phenomena”. The lady was very collaborative and opened wide the doors of her heart. She was not only beautiful but affable and friendly, and James ventured to ask her for the reasons of her singleness. She, too, remained faithful to a man she had never spoken to and whom she had met only once in her life. When she explained the circumstances of that unarranged encounter, she showed James an inverted mirror (so to speak) of Conrad’s account. Also the sensations were identical: the same feeling of familiarity, of belonging, the same ineffable love that transcended the space-time dimensions. And finally, she summed it all up with the same expression that Conrad had used: she thought she had found her “soul mate”.
True to the commitment acquired with Conrad, James did not reveal to the lady the mystery underlying that seemingly casual encounter, thus terminating the investigation of this case. However, some years later, when with a lump in his throat James was reading in The Times the list of deceased in the tragic wreck of the Titanic, he ran into a couple of names that were familiar to him. After making an effort of memory, he realized that it was that pair of strangers who, despite having seen each other only once, had mutually recognized. James was comforted to see that, on the passenger list, both were listed as husband and wife.