Famous Cases of Real Dopplegangers

French Author Guy De Maupassant Encountered His Own Double.
French Author Guy De Maupassant encountered his own double. Culture Club / Getty Images

Do you have a body double or a doppelganger? There are many instances of two people who are not related yet closely resemble one another. But the phenomenon of a phantom self is something more mysterious. 

Doppelgangers vs. Bilocation

Body doubles, as a paranormal phenomenon, typically manifest themselves in one of two ways.

A doppelganger is a shadow self that is thought to accompany every person. Traditionally, it is said that only the owner of the doppelganger can see this phantom self and that it can be a harbinger of death. A person's friends or family can sometimes see a doppelganger as well. The word is derived from the German term for "double walker."

Bilocation is the psychic ability to project an image of the self in a second location. This body double, known as a wraith, is indistinguishable from the real person and can interact with others just as the real person would.

Ancient Egyptian and Norse mythology both contain references to body doubles. But doppelgangers as a phenomenon, often associated with bad omens, first became popular in the mid-19th century as part of a general surge in the U.S. and Europe in interest in the paranormal.

Emilie Sagée

One of the fascinating reports of a doppelganger comes from American writer Robert Dale Owen, who recounts the tale of a 32-year-old French woman named Emilie Sagée. She was a teacher at Pensionat von Neuwelcke, an exclusive girls' school near Wolmar in what is now Latvia. One day in 1845, while Sagée was writing on the blackboard, her exact double appeared beside her. The doppelganger precisely copied the teacher's every move as she wrote, except that it did not hold any chalk. Thirteen students in the classroom witnessed the event.

During the next year, Sagee's doppelganger was seen several times. The most astonishing instance of this took place in full view of the entire student body of 42 students on a summer day in 1846. As they sat at the long tables working, they could see Sagée in the school's garden gathering flowers. When the teacher left the room to talk to the headmistress, Sagée's doppelganger appeared in her chair, while the real Sagée could still be seen in the garden. Two girls approached the phantom and tried to touch it, but felt an odd resistance in the air surrounding it. The image then slowly vanished.

Guy de Maupassant

The French novelist Guy de Maupassant was inspired to write a short story, "Lui?" ("He?") after a disturbing doppelganger experience in 1889. While writing, de Maupassant claimed that his body double entered his study, sat beside him, and began dictating the story he was in the process of writing. In "Lui?", the narrative is told by a young man who is convinced that he is going crazy after having glimpsed what appears to be his body double. 

For de Maupassant, who claimed to have had numerous encounters with his doppelganger, the story proved somewhat prophetic. At the end of his life, de Maupassant was committed to a mental institution following a suicide attempt in 1892. The following year, he died. It has been suggested that de Maupassant's visions of a body double may have been linked to mental illness caused by syphilis, which he contracted as a young man.

John Donne

A 16th-century English poet whose work often touched on the metaphysical, Donne claimed to have been visited by his wife's doppelganger while he was in Paris. She appeared to him holding a newborn baby. Donne's wife was pregnant at the time, but the apparition was a portent of great sadness. At the same moment that the doppelganger appeared, his wife had given birth to a stillborn child.

This story first appeared in a biography of Donne that was published in 1675, more than 40 years after Donne had died. The English writer Izaak Walton, a friend of Donne's, also related a similar tale about the poet's experience. However, scholars have questioned the authenticity of both accounts, as they differ on crucial details.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This case suggests that doppelgangers might have something to do with time or dimensional shifts. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an 18th-century German poet, wrote of confronting his doppelganger in his autobiography "Dichtung und Wahrheit" ("Poetry and Truth"). In this account, Goethe described traveling to the city of Drusenheim to visit Friederike Brion, a young woman with whom he was having an affair.

Emotional and lost in thought, Goethe looked up to see a man dressed in a gray suit trimmed in gold, who appeared briefly and then vanished. Eight years later, Goethe was again traveling on the same road, again to visit Friederike. He then realized he was wearing the very gray suit trimmed in gold that he had seen on his double eight years earlier. The memory, Goethe wrote later, comforted him after he and his young love had parted at the end of the visit.

Sister Mary of Jesus

One of the most astonishing cases of bilocation took place in 1622 at the Isolita Mission in what is now New Mexico. Father Alonzo de Benavides reported encountering Jamano Indians who, although they had never before met Spaniards, carried crosses, observed Roman Catholic rituals, and knew Catholic liturgy in their native tongue. The Indians told him that they had been instructed in Christianity by a lady in blue who came among them for many years and taught them this new religion in their language. When he returned to Spain, Father Benavides' investigation led him to Sister Mary of Jesus in Agreda, Spain, who claimed to have converted North American Indians "not in body, but in spirit."

Sister Mary said she regularly fell into a cataleptic trance, after which she recalled "dreams" in which she was carried to a strange and wild land, where she taught the gospel. As proof of her claim, she was able to provide highly detailed descriptions of the Jamano Indians, including their appearance, clothing, and customs, none of which she could have learned through research since they were fairly recently discovered by the Europeans. How did she learn their language? "I didn’t," she replied. "I simply spoke to them—and God let us understand one another."

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