Hidden Histories

The Ansel Bourne Identity: A 19th Century Mystery

Friday, 3/28/14

Many people have enjoyed the cinematic box office successes known as the Jason Bourne series of films, such as the espionage thriller, the Bourne Identity.  However, most individuals are unaware that the movies have a partial historical basis , connected to a mysterious individual residing at the time in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania, named Ansel Bourne.

Somnambulism is an archaic word for the better known term of sleep-walking, or a medical disorder referred to as dissociative fugue, also called double consciousness in the nineteenth century as well.  During the month of March in the year 1887, the southeastern Pennsylvania community of Norristown, located within Montgomery County, was attempting to solve a mystery. Beginning on March 16th, the Philadelphia Inquirer began to relate the strange events concerning that of a well-dressed gentleman who was renting a place of business plus residing on East Main Street, who had begun operating a store filled with everything from toys to furniture.

The landlord, as can be imagined, became quite perplexed and surprised when his tenant knocked on his door, and was greeted by the man asking the question “Who am I?” The tenant  expressed his own concern, when he stated how he had awoke only to find that he was in the act of “buying and selling merchandise” and feared he might be considered a burglar, and thus asked as well, “I want to know where I am?” Finding out he was living in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and not knowing how he arrived there, naturally a local physician was called upon.

Dr. Louis W. Read was told “a peculiar and almost incredible narrative,” wherein Ansel Bourne informed the doctor that “two months have been an entire blank to me.” Discovering the date was March 14th, he informed Read that the last date he remembered, was January 18th, when he left his home in Coventry, Rhode Island, traveled by horse and carriage to Providence, drew some money from the bank, paid some bills, and went to the store of his nephew. He remembered the street names he’d passed on the way to visit his sister, but remarked how he had “no recollection of a single event since that time.”

Ansel Bourne was in actuality at that time, “61 years of age,” an Evangelical “minister of the Gospel,” who had a wife and two married daughters, both of whom lived in New York State.  A telegram was sent to his nephew,  Mr. Andrew Harris of Providence, who made his way to Norristown, Pennsylvania.  The Rev. Bourne stated how at one time he had been “an infidel…was suddenly stricken deaf, dumb and blind,” some twenty-five years previously. Once his senses were restored, he decided to become an “itinerant preacher” of the Gospel.

Bourne had actually published previously an auto-biographical  pamphlet detailing his conversion, entitled, the  Wonderful Works of God.  Here he remarked how for some ten years he had been a bitter enemy of God, and that on October 28, 1851, had “started to walk from his home to the village of Westerly,” when his sight fell upon a Christian chapel, causing him to openly declare to himself, “I would rather be struck deaf and dumb forever than go there,” after which he remarked how “almost immediately his senses left him.” He was carried home and regained consciousness, but found he was “deaf, dumb and blind.” Realizing now in his mind that his experience had proven to him “the existence of a deity,” he asked for forgiveness for his coarse actions. After a few days, his eyesight was restored, and eventually all of his faculties, but not until he had publicly visited the aforementioned Church, where he had his confession written upon a slate, and as it was read, the congregation in attendance believed they witnessed a miracle which was eventually printed and repeated by many.

As the mystery-man’s account became widely-known in the press, individuals came forward who knew Bourne. A Mr. Middleton of Gloucester, New Jersey had met Bourne previously and had been told by Bourne of his conversion to Christianity and that he was “determined to devote the future to making amends for his shortcomings in the past.”  Medical personnel such as Dr. W. A. Hammond, familiar with mysterious disappearances, described similar cases as that of Ansel Bourne’s, stating how, unless such amnesiacs encountered someone familiar with their true selves, then it was possible “they would escape detection.”

Ansel Bourne remarked how when he awoke in Pennsylvania, it was “like the report of a pistol, and then for the first time he found he was not in his own bed at home” and could remember nothing since he’d left his nephew’s home in Rhode Island in January until March 14th. He had went by the name of A. J. Brown while living in Pennsylvania.

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