“If we are going to stick to this damned quantum-jumping, then I regret that I ever had anything to do with quantum theory” – Erwin Schrodinger
Have you ever considered the possibility that the universe has a place for you, but you’re just not in it? Well, if the universe wants you to be somewhere, and mind you the universe is a lot bigger than you (and frankly, something of a bully), it will darn well make sure you arrive on time, and doesn’t want to hear any hemming and hawing about violating physics or ignoring the constraints of the continuum. Are you going to let the universe push you around like that? Did you hear what he said about your mother? Unfortunately, if it comes down to a schoolyard tussle with the universe, you are usually going to lose unless you have a truly ungodly amount of celestial mojo. I mean the kind that makes Frost Giants shiver and think twice about the whole Ragnarok thing or destroys minor planetoids. You’ve got nothing, do you? Then I for one welcome our new overlord. You were joking? Guess you better go with the universal flow. While sometimes the cosmos seems to be working on a grand plan, there are other times when it just seems to be screwing with us because it can. For instance, in 1901 two mild mannered Italian boys discovered that much to their chagrin and for no particular discernible reason, the universe didn’t want them anywhere near the modest rural village of Ruvo di Puglia in the Bari countryside, and no mere physical law or logical inconsistency was going to get in the way.
Alfredo and Paulo Pansini, seven and eight years old respectively in 1901, were the sons of architect Mauro Pansini, and had settled with their family in a quaint little house near Ruvo, Italy. Ruvo is really just an adorable little agricultural hamlet surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, and most travel guides concur there are no known portals to hell or temporal vortexes in its vicinity. Okay, maybe there are one or two suspiciously deep caves (the Grave della Ferratella and Abisso di Notarvincenzo), but neither has a particularly insidious reputation. In short, a nice little idyllic community with good wine, good food, and a relative absence of angry gods, supernatural monsters, or reasons to run screaming for a shaman. The biggest problem was likely boredom. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m bored, I like to raise the dead. Apparently, the Pansini family had the same inclination, regularly attending the occasional séance with the kids in tow. I question the age appropriateness of séances for elementary school children, but I let my six-year old play Garden Warfare (a plants vs. zombies first person shooter), so who am I to say. Nonetheless, things started to get a little weird in the Pansini household after attending the séance. In truth subsequent events seemed to be the opening universal “pimp slap” for bad judgment in parenting. It all started with what seemed to be fairly standard symptoms for poltergeist infestation, demonic possession and the sudden emergence of psychic abilities. Then things got weird.
One evening the child Alfred, then about seven years old, after having attended some days before a spiritistic séance, was suddenly overcome with sleepiness, and this happened several times. During some of these attacks Alfred spoke in a strange voice, like an orator, using languages absolutely unknown to him—French, Latin, Greek—and even reciting marvelously well certain cantos of the Divine Comedy. Another evening, during one of these fits, Alfred promised that soon a good supper would be ready. And indeed, as soon as the table was prepared for the family, some Italian sausage and a little more than a pound of cheese appeared on the table. In Alfred’s bed some large sweetmeats were found. By the advice of M. Berardi, the boy was placed at the boarding school of Bitonto, and there passed two quiet years. But even then some singular things happened. If anyone looked at him, intending to ask a question—so far only half formed mentally—he wrote the answer unconsciously. He was one day invited to attend a spiritistic séance, at which three of his professors were present. The boy went, but against his inclination. On the table was placed a paper triangle, to mark the letters of the alphabet. The séance began, and this is the conversation which took place: “Will you answer us?” “Yes; but the triangle must be of wood.” “We have not got one.” “I have already made one, and you will find it in the kitchen in a stewing-pan.” And a wooden triangle was really found in a saucepan. It was very accurately made; at the corners were nails which were neatly cut in half. “Where did you make it?” “At Bari”; and he indicated the road and the house where there is really a carpenter’s shop (Lapponi, 1907, 129-130).
In case you’re shrugging this off as a silly little Italian folk tale, the case was not only documented by Dr. Guiseppe Lapponi (1851-1906), no less than chief physician to Pope Leo XIII, but also appeared in numerous Italian newspapers of the day. Still more odd phenomena centering on poor Alfredo Pansini seemed to emerge.
A few days passed off quietly, but then the family was terrified by strange noises and phenomena; the pictures fell from the nails, plates, glasses and bottles were thrown against the walls and broken to pieces, and the furniture moved about without any one touching it. They concluded that the place was haunted by evil spirits; the priest was called and went through the prescribed ceremonies for exorcising the devils; but even the most liberal application of prayers and holy water availed nothing; the tables were overturned and chairs broken just as before. One evening the little Alfredo Paoli, aged seven years, while the rest of the family were present, fell into a state of sleep and began to speak in a voice which was not his own, saying that he had been sent by God for the purpose of driving away the evil spirits, and it seemed for a while as if a better class of spirits had come, for now there were all kinds of sweets, candy, and chocolate, brought to them by the invisibles, and one night the little boy, while in a state of trance, described a battle taking place between the good and the bad ghosts. Next the boy began to walk mechanically and answer questions concerning things which he could not know. They took the boy to church. There he became as insensible as a corpse, but woke up as the bishop called his name. He remained with the bishop for several days, and then returned to his parents (Giornale d’Italia, November 15th, 1905).
Now a little possession and some random psychokinesis coupled with a healthy dose of religious ideation is nothing to write home about. Happens all the time. At least to me. Not you? Hmm. Maybe I should see somebody. Anyhow, would that this was the extent of the bizarre phenomena surrounding the Pansini boys. The universe, having established the fact that it intended mischief, commenced to repeatedly and randomly teleport the Pansini boys away from Ruvo.
One day the lad Alfredo, with his brother Paolo, aged eight years, were at Ruvo at 9 a.m., and at 9:30 they were found at the Capucine convent at Malfatti (some thirty miles away). Another day the whole family were sitting at the breakfast table at 12:30 p.m., and as there was no wine the little Paolo was sent for it. He did not return, and half an hour afterwards Alfredo suddenly disappeared, and at 1 p.m. both boys were found in a fishing boat on the sea not far from the port of Barlatta. They began to cry, and the fisherman, being himself frightened almost out of his wits by their sudden appearance, took them ashore, where by good fortune they found a coachman who knew them and took them home, where after a rapid drive of half-an-hour they arrived at 3:30. In this way they were spirited away on other occasions to Bisceglie, Giovinazzi, Mariotti, and Ferlizzi (the distance of which places from Ruvo may be seen on the map) and brought back to their parents in the ordinary way. The doctor Raffaelo Estugno and other scientists investigated their cases, but they either came to no result, or they avoided giving the only reasonable explanation which presents itself to an occultist; and this is not to be wondered at, if we take into consideration the storm of indignation which has been raised in “scientific” quarters even against such a celebrated scientist as Professor Richet for publishing the accounts of his experiments in the Villa Carmen, and having had the hardihood to affirm publicly having seen and touched a materialized ghost (Giornale d’Italia, November 15th, 1905).
Franz Hartmann, a Bavarian medical doctor and well known scholarly occultist took an interest in the Pansini case, particularly because it was so widely reported in the Italian press and the boys subjected to examination by priests and physicians. Proof that things do not change all that much in the fringy world of strange phenomena, Hartmann was convinced that lacking a convincing scientific explanation we would conveniently forget about the whole thing. “While I am writing these lines the daily papers and monthly journals are discussing the case of the two boys Alfredo and Paolo Pansini of Bari, which were repeatedly taken away in some mysterious manner and were found fifteen minutes afterwards in some place, forty-five kilometers distant, and once even in a fishing smack on the sea near Barletta. Such cases, whenever they become publicly known, create a certain excitement, but are soon forgotten, because there is no reasonable explanation for them known to scientific authorities” (Hartmann, 1906, p18). Godfather of Anomalistics, Charles Hoy Fort, digging through back issues of the Occult Review and the Annals of Psychical Science (contrary to popular opinion, Fort was a party animal), thought the Pansini boys were the ultimate example of “damned” data, particularly their sudden disappearance from Ruvo, and inexplicable reappearance on a fishing boat off the coast, because of all the bizarre explanations trotted out in an attempt to account for the near instantaneous movement of two Italian boys across impossible distances, that one defied explanation.
A great deal has been written upon the phenomena, or the alleged phenomena, of the Pansini boys. Their story is told in the Occult Review, 4-17. These boys, one aged seven, and the other aged eight, were sons of Mauro Pansini, an architect, of Bari, Italy. Their experiences, or their alleged experiences, began in the year 1901. “One day Alfredo and his brother were at Ruvo, at 9 A.M., and at 9:30 A.M., they were found in the Capuchin Convent, at Malfatti, thirty miles away.” In the Annals of Psychic Science, it is said that, about the last of January, 1901, the Pansini boys were transported from Ruvo to a relative’s house, in Trani, arriving in a state of profound hypnosis. In volumes 2 and 3, of the Annals, a discussion of these boys continues. But I haven’t told the damnedest. Oh, well, we’ll have the damnedest, A Mediterranean harbor—a man in a boat—and, like Mrs. Guppy, down the Pansini boys flop into his boat (Fort, 1941, p149-150).
While doctors and scientists played with various ideas regarding the source of the weird phenomena surrounding the Pansini boys, Italian newspapers proceeded to interview witnesses and point out where the current attempts at explanatory theories such as “ambulatory automatism” or “muscular hyperesthesia” had obvious fatal flaws.
The Italian papers continue to publish articles about the two boys at Ruvo, of whom we have already spoken, and the subject has given rise to a discussion between the Messagno, the Corrine della Sera, the Giornale d’Italia, the Secola, the Patria, the Corrine delle Puglie, etc. The last named paper has even published an interesting interview with the Bishop of Bitonto, to whom the parents of the two boys, Alfredo and Paulo Pansini, had frequently applied in the hope that he would be able to deliver the children from the obsession of which they were supposed to be the victims. The Bishop, Monsignor Berardi, is a man of about forty years of age, a former ofﬁcer of Bersaglieri. He is in no way fanatical, and has some acquaintance with modern psychology. To tell the truth, the Bishop cannot tell us much that is new with regard to the two children. It will be remembered that at one time Alfredo Pansini was taken to him in a state of profound sleep, from which he could not be aroused. The prelate awakened him simply by calling him by name—a method well known to hypnotisers. Another time Alfredo was taken to the Bishop quite naked, in a state resembling that of the “possessed ” persons referred to in the Gospels: Monsignor Berardi brought him back to the normal state, as on the former occasion, by calling him loudly by name; the child awoke, and asked for his clothes, and appeared ashamed at ﬁnding himself in such a condition. As long as he remained with the Bishop, Alfredo behaved quietly; his condition was also normal while at the seminary, where he studied for some time; but as soon as he returned home the extraordinary events recommenced as frequently as ever. The prelate knows nothing personally as to the mysterious journeys of the two children; all that he can say is that their mother once came to see him, with the two boys and a little girl; while they were talking it was noticed that both the boys had disappeared. Alfredo also presented this phenomenon; when anyone looked at him and asked a mental question, the boy gave the answer by writing in an unconscious state. Mgr. Berardi, while believing that all phenomena must have some natural cause, is of opinion that the spirits may very well have something to do with them, “since spirits exist.”…With regard to the mysterious disappearance of the two brothers Pansini, and their almost instantaneous appearance in another locality, the hypothesis most easily accepted by the Italian savants who have looked into the matter, is that it is a case of ambulatory automatism; it is known that subjects affected with this nervous disease feel an irresistible impulse to move about and then fall into the second state; when they return to their normal state they have forgotten all about it. Dr. Petrus, writing in the Secolo, of Milan, does not exclude the hypothesis that the two boys, in a state of muscular hyperasthesia, might traverse, walk, or even run, distances of thirty, forty, ﬁfty, even up to ninety kilométres without resting. Nevertheless he asks how they could possibly walk or run fourteen kilometres (nine miles) in half an hour. Besides, he adds, how is it that these two lads, in their precipitate peregrinations, have never attracted the attention of passersby, when the main roads of those districts are always frequented by numerous carts and persons on foot? (Annals of Psychical Science, 1906, p131-133).
Noted Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso took an interest in the Pansini boys, impressed with the fact that such an “unimpeachable witness” as Giuseppe Lapponi attested to the veracity of the reports, and ultimately came to the sensible conclusion that sometimes there’s no point in resisting the insurmountable will of a universe that thinks you should be somewhere else.
Another time, in ten minutes they were at a distance from Ruvo and in front of the house door of an uncle of theirs, before whom Alfred made the prediction that they would not be able to depart next day, not until fifteen days had elapsed. In fact, the next day the uncle’s horse was taken ill. Then the aunt hired a carriage to take back her nephews to Ruvo. But no sooner had they been reconsigned to their parents than they disappeared again, and again found themselves at Trani. Being sent back to Ruvo, they disappeared once more and found themselves at Bisceglie. Then, convinced that they were struggling in vain against superior powers, they betook themselves to Trani to await the expiration of the fifteen days (Lombroso, 1909, p176-177).
It’s always nice to believe in the boundless potential of humanity and that one day our consciousness will bend reality to our will, but until that day, it behooves us to recognize when we are fighting above our weight class. If whatever governing principle or improbability engine that directs things in the cosmos has decided that you need to be somewhere other than Ruvo, Italy and has repeatedly suspended the laws of space and time to make its point, it is probably prudent to walk away from a fight you can’t win. Sometimes the universe just needs to flex its muscles. As Gary Zukav said, “We cannot stop the winter or the summer from coming. We cannot stop the spring or the fall or make them other than they are. They are gifts from the universe that we cannot refuse. But we can choose what we will contribute to life when each arrives”. And if in the end, you still feel the need for a little payback, take my advice, just wait until the universe turns its back.
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. Lo! New York: Ace Books, 1941.
Lombroso, Cesare, 1835-1909. After Death–What?: Spiritistic Phenomena And Their Interpretation. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1909.
Lapponi, Giuseppe, 1851-1906. Hypnotism And Spiritism: a Critical And Medical Study. New York: Longmans, Green, 1907.
“The Two Mediumistic Children at Ruvo”. The Annals of Psychical Science 3:2. London, 1906.
Hartmann, Franz. “Medical Metathesis”. Occult (Rider’s) Review v.4. London, 1906.