Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
Following previous writers defending the existence of a spiritual principle through accounts of apparitions and other phenomena, social reformer Robert Dale Owen explored similar grounds in his book Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1860). For the purposes of these comments I will focus on a chapter of the book devoted to apparitions of the living in which the author presented several cases originally reported to him.
Owen started his discussion with a case of an apparition seen six weeks before the death of the appearer (pp. 327-328). This was followed by cases such as the following. A woman referred to as Mrs. E. was dying at a place distant from her residence, unaware her little daughter had died at home. A Miss. H., who was visiting the family and who had a history of seeing apparitions, entered the room where the body of the little girl was lying in a coffin. She saw the little girl’s mother in the room. As Owen wrote:
“Standing within three or four feet of the figure for several minutes, she assured herself of its identity. It did not speak, but, raising one arm, it first pointed to the body of the infant, and then signed upward …This was a few minutes after four o’clock in the afternoon … Next day she received … a letter [from the lady’s husband] informing her that his wife had died the preceding day … at half past four. And when, a few days later, that gentleman himself arrived, he stated that Mrs. E’s mind had evidently wandered before her death; for, but a little time previous to that event, seeming to revive as from a swoon, she had asked her husband ‘why he had not told her that her baby was in heaven.’ When he replied evasively, still wishing to conceal from her the fact of her child’s death … she said to him, ‘It is useless to deny it …; for I have just been home, and have seen her in her little coffin …’ ” (pp. 343-344).
From this case, Owen went on to discuss what he called the “visionary excursion.” This was an experience taking place in 1857 in which a woman woke from sleep to find herself “as if standing by the bedside and looking upon her own body …” (p. 345). During the experience she traveled and visited a friend, who later verified she had seen the experiencer and had conversed with her. Owen was told of the vision by the experiencer, and later talked with the person who perceived her. In his view, this phenomenon suggested that her physical body “parted with what we may call a spiritual portion of itself; … which portion, moving off without the usual means of locomotion, might make itself perceptible, at a certain distance, to another person” (pp. 347-348).
This idea seemed to Owen to account for other cases of apparitions of the living he presented in the chapter. He also seemed to include within this explanation cases of recurrent apparitions taking place around an individual who had no awareness of the phenomenon. This was the case of Emélie Sagée, a French teacher whose double was repeatedly seen by her students, sometimes collectively (pp. 348-357). This remarkable, but evidentially weak case, and with no evidence that the teacher felt she had left her body, has been cited repeatedly by many authors both in the old, and modern literatures. In Owen’s description of some interesting incidents:
“One day the governess was giving a lesson to a class of thirteen …and was demonstrating, with eagerness, some proposition, to illustrate which she had occasion to write with chalk on a blackboard. While she was doing so, and the young ladies were looking at her, … they suddenly saw two Mademoiselle Sagées, the one by the side of the other. They were exactly alike; and they used the same gestures, that the real person held a bit of chalk in her hand, and did actually write, while the double had no chalk, and only imitated the motion …Sometimes, at dinner, the double appeared standing behind the teacher’s chair and imitating her her motions as she ate, — only that its hands held no knife and fork, and that there was no appearance of food … All the pupils and the servants waiting on the table witnessed this” (pp. 349-350).
Owen commented that while some cases of apparitions of the living coincided with death, others did not. In fact he pointed out that some cases (such as Sagée’s) did not seem to involve any special state or condition. Owen believed that the cases he presented showed that the spiritual body “may, during life, occasionally detach itself, to some extent or other and for a time, from the material flesh and blood which for a few years it pervades in intimate association; and if death be but the issuing forth of the spiritual body from its temporary associate; then, at the moment of its exit, it is that spirit body which through life may have been occasionally and partially detached from the natural body, and which at last is thus entirely and forever divorced from it, that passes into another state of existence (pp. 360-361).
Taken from my paper The spirit in out-of-body experiences: Historical and conceptual notes. In B. Batey (Ed.), Spirituality, Science and the Paranormal (pp. 3-19). Bloomfield, CT: Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, 2009.