It was a story -- purportedly a true story -- about something that happened in a small mid-western town in the middle of the nineteenth century. I suppose it's silly of me to be cagey about this. I later learned that this case was well known to people interested in such things, but at the time I not only didn't know it was a well-known case, I didn't even know it was a case -- meaning an instance of a phenomenon. I thought I was reading about an event unparalleled in human history, completely unique.
In Vettsburg, Missouri, a little girl by the name of Mary Anne Dorson surprised her mother one day by starting to gossip about some people who lived on the other side of town, the Prescotts. The reason this surprised Mrs. Dorson was that the Dorsons didn't know the Prescotts, though they were vaguely aware of their existence. She asked Mary Anne if she had met the Prescott children at school, and the little girl explained that the Prescott children were much grown up, no longer in school, though still living at home. So how did Mary Anne know them?
"I guess I know them from my dreams," Mary Anne said.
This didn't please her mother, who liked to think she was bringing up a child with her feet planted on the ground. She didn't pursue the subject, but this didn't end it either. Mary Anne not only went on talking, she began bringing forth details she couldn't possibly know by any means whatever, which could only suggest she was making them up, fabricating them -- lying, in short. Mrs. Dorson told her daughter very firmly that she didn't intend to hear any more of this nonsense, not another word of it.
Stunned, Mary Anne fell silent. It was the beginning of summer in her eighth year. By the middle of the summer, the entire family was engulfed in her silence, which oppressed them like the still air before a thunderstorm. Mary Anne's dresses hung on her like rags. She was losing weight, melting before their eyes. They took her to the family doctor, Dr. Jansen (telling him nothing of the Prescott business, of course), who found nothing in world wrong with her. For her parents' sake, he prescribed a tonic, told them to make sure she spent time playing outdoors every day, and so on.
Neither the tonic nor the sunshine helped. Finally, beaten, Mrs. Dorson begged Mary Anne to tell her what was wrong, praying she was not going to hear a single syllable of the name Prescott. The girl's eyes filled with tears.
"I miss Mommy and Daddy," she said. "I miss Connie and Francis" (those being the Prescott children).
Mrs. Dorson thought her heart would stop or her mind would explode from her head like a bird frightened from a tree. She was starkly terrified. She summoned her husband home from his office on the double, but even when he'd heard it all, he had no better idea what to do than she did.
Was their little girl insane? Devil-possessed? They almost would have preferred the latter. They took her back to Dr. Jansen, not to be examined this time but because they didn't dare leave her at home or with a neighbor. When the doctor finally heard everything he should have heard in the first place, he didn't waste time worrying about insanity or devil possession. Though he didn't know what was going on, he knew what had to be done, and that was to bring Mary Anne and the Prescotts together.
Faced with this idea, Mr. and Mrs. Dorson knew they'd rather have been forced to choose between the insane asylum and the exorcist. It needs to be mentioned, I'm afraid, that the Prescotts were several rungs below the Dorsons on the Vettsburg social ladder. To expose their family difficulties to people of that class was completely unthinkable (though I suspect it was rather more unthinkable for Mrs. Dorson than for her husband).
Seeing that the Dorsons would have to be brought to the idea by stages, Dr. Jansen made this suggestion. Through his contacts in the medical community, he'd check out the Prescotts and make sure they weren't the sort of people who would take advantage of this strange situation. Then if they passed this inspection, he himself would undertake to contact them.
"But what do you hope to gain from this?" Mr. Dorson asked.
"In a matter like this," the doctor said, "we're like people trapped in a cave. We can sit here and starve to death or we can set off to explore the only corridor that presents itself and hope for the best."
The Dorsons reluctantly agreed.
But there was something else Dr. Jansen wanted first, and that was to satisfy himself that he wasn't being gulled. He had a scientific turn of mind, and his first hypothesis in this case wasn't going to be that something uncanny was going on. Though he didn't say so to the Dorsons, his first hypothesis was going to be that Mary Anne was playing a mean practical joke on her parents, possibly with the collusion of one or more of the Prescotts or of someone who knew them.
During the fortnight that followed, the doctor spent two or three hours a day with either the girl or her mother. Mrs. Dorson insisted it was completely impossible to suppose that some outsider was coaching her daughter. Mary Anne wasn't one of a passel running wild, she was an only child living virtually every minute under her mother's gaze. She had two or three friends she visited occasionally, but these weren't people who would have any connection with the Prescotts, though of course the doctor was free to check this for himself -- and he did.
You could see in the telling that Dr. Jansen was really getting into his role as investigator. His tests and stratagems were ingenious, subtle, and persuasive. But unless these very ordinary middle-class families were all joined in a fiendish conspiracy (and to what point?), Mrs. Dorson was right: Mary Anne had not been coached. Nor had she pieced together her picture of the Prescotts from things she'd heard or overheard at her friends' homes. The Prescotts were unknown to them all.
The doctor's next hypothesis was that the girl's babblings about the Prescotts comprised the sort of generalities that fortune tellers make their reputations on. If pressed, she'd shy away from details. If pressed harder, she'd start inventing things and soon get tangled in discrepancies and contradictions. The hypothesis foundered immediately. Mary Anne was eager to supply details of the most minute kind and was unruffled by any challenge.
The doctor's next and final hypothesis was that even if Mary Anne's lies were internally consistent, they'd collapse when compared to actuality. Of necessity, this brought him face to face with the Prescotts themselves. He proceeded with the confidence of a Grand Inquisitor, presenting himself at their house unannounced, practically accusing them of perpetrating a confidence swindle on the Dorsons. They stared at him with such open-mouthed incomprehension that he couldn't doubt what he'd already heard from others, that they were a family of thoroughly prosaic and innocuous working-class people. He apologized for having made this blustery beginning and went on to explain why he was there. When they finally understood what had been happening at the Dorson house, Dr. Jansen asked if they could imagine any ordinary way Mary Anne could have come into possession of detailed information about their lives and household arrangements. When they gave the expected answer, it was time to test the information itself.
He'd divided it into statements he could verify with his own eyes (descriptions of the house and family members) and statements only the Prescotts could verify (habits, history, and so on). It would serve no purpose to recite the process here. The material Mary Anne had provided was a mass of hits and misses, but not a hodgepodge. By the time they were finished, the character of the data was unmistakable. It was remarkably accurate -- but ten years out of date.
Connie and Francis were no longer living with their parents, for example. Connie was married and had a home of her own. Francis had joined the army and was now a career soldier. Many of the furnishings and decorations Mary Anne had described were gone, but they'd certainly been there ten years ago.
The significance of "ten years ago" was no mystery to the Prescotts. Ten years ago they'd lost their firstborn, Natalie, to leukemia.
Now eight-year-old Mary Anne was telling anyone who would listen: "I am Natalie."
The rest of the story is rather anticlimactic and more than a little chilling. When Mary Anne finally met the Prescotts, it was eerily like a reunion. Mrs. Prescott started weeping and couldn't stop. Dr. Jensen finally had to administer a sedative and put her to bed. The Dorsons watched, frozen with horror and bewilderment, and when it was all over and they took their daughter home, they knew they'd lost her. It was an inevitable thing now. Two weeks later Mary Anne moved in with the people she considered her true parents, and that was the end of that.
News of the wonder couldn't be suppressed. With the Prescott house at its center, Vettsburg became a place of pilgrimage for thousands who wanted to believe that Mary Anne was living proof of life after death and reincarnation. It would be nice to be able to say that the girl was unaffected by all this hullabaloo and grew into an angelic young woman, but it seems she grew into a perfectly normal young woman (one who, according to most witnesses, was a bit more than normally inclined to be sulky, spoiled, and demanding). She married twice, divorced twice, and in later life distinguished herself in no way whatever. Any sanctification that had come with being reborn in another girl's body (if that's what happened) was distinctly short-lived.