May 04, 2005

Afterlife Tease: William James and the Red Pajamas

This is the most dramatic anecdote I know of that supports a belief in an afterlife (a belief I am NOT convinced of, by the way).

William James and a friend, the Columbia University logic professor and Jungian James Hyslop, made a pact that the one who died first would try to contact the other from beyond the grave. James died first, in 1910. Shortly afterward, Hyslop received a letter from a married couple in Ireland who had been divining on a sort of folk ouija board. The couple had never heard of either Hyslop or James. Hyslop did not know the couple and had never visited Ireland. The couple, on their ouija board, had repeatedly received messages from someone named William James telling them to contact Professor Hyslop and ask him, “Remember the red pajamas?”

Hyslop immediately remembered the red pajamas, and he also believed that no one else could have known about them. He and James had once taken a trip to Paris together, and their luggage had been lost en route. They had gone shopping to replace a few things, and among Hyslop’s purchases were a pair of pajamas. James had teased Hyslop about their bright red color.

I first heard this story many years ago – I don’t remember where, perhaps a university lecture, perhaps a Quaker meeting. Last night I looked it up on Google in the aftermath of a spirited discussion on religion among several bloggers in my pod: Tamar, Amba, David, and Adriana. I found the anecdote recounted on the website of a TV evangelist named John Ankerberg, whom I’ve never heard of. Ankerberg cites as his source Laurens van der Post’s 1974 book JUNG AND THE STORY OF OUR TIME, which is possibly where I first encountered it. Ankerberg’s religion doesn’t seem much like mine, but I see no reason to dismiss him because of that. Indeed Ankerberg does not conclude that the story proves that James communicated with Hyslop: it could just as easily have been a demon impersonating James.

I have not come across evidence suggesting that the red pajamas incident was a concoction. However, I’d be more convinced if the chief witness were impartial on the subject of communicating with spirits. Hyslop was Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research, an organizational whose archives are stuffed with transcripts of gushy tete-a-tetes between earnest transcendentalist tea–loiterers and amiably dead Boston Brahmins. If anyone knows anything about the red pajama story, I would be interested in hearing about it -- from either side of the grave.