Emilie Sagee: The woman who wasn't there
In 1845, Emilie Sagee took a job at the Neuwelcke boarding school. It was her 18th teaching position in 16 years. The girls of the school would soon find out why, when on numerous occasions, Emilie was seen wandering the halls or sitting at the front of class, even when she was known to be elsewhere,
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Emilie Sagee was a perfectly ordinary schoolteacher. Attractive and diligent, she upheld a reputation of impeccable conduct, but there was something a little off about Emilie, for one thing, she had had over 19 different teaching jobs in just 16 years and then there was the story that whilst teaching embroidery on a languid summers afternoon, she popped out to the garden to pick some flowers. Whilst she walked through the beds, her pupils looked on open-mouthed at the ghostly visage of her was seen by the 42 girls in the class, sitting casually at her desk, doubling back out of the window, she could still be seen at the very same time, in the garden, completely unawares.
The Doppelganger or spiritual apparition of a living person is a staple in gothic literature and modern fiction. It too, boasts deep roots in folklore and history, spawning tales for hundreds of years. The now infamous case of Emilie Sagee is one of the more famous and is both fascinating and chilling, but does it have any basis in reality? This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Doppelgangers, Robert Dale Owen & Emilie Saget
When scouring the internet for evidence of Doppelgangers, you will not get very far before you stumble upon the tale of a French woman named Emile Saget. Hers is a tale of true mystery and intrigue that is widely touted as one of the best-documented cases of the phenomena. Or so the copy and pasted articles will continuously repeat, again and again. But what of the truth? Where are these documents? It turns out, that with some heavy digging, every story of Emilie is in fact, paraphrased and watered down from just one, single source. A chapter in a book published in 1860, written by Robert Dale-Owens and titled “Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World”. There are, throughout the late 19th and early 20th Century, several other works that comment on the story, but all derive from this same, single publication.
Robert Dale Owen was born in Glasgow, Scotland on the 7th November in 1801. He was the eldest surviving son of eight children born to Anne Dale and Robert Owen, a wealthy textiles factory owner turned Philanthropist who dedicated his later years to social reform. Interested in the concept of experimental utopian communities, he joined his family and emigrated to the United States, becoming a US citizen in 1825, where he helped to manage a socialist community in Indiana whilst his father continued his philanthropic work back in the United Kingdom.
In 1830, he became the leader of the Working Men’s Party in New York City and actively opposed slavery. In the mid-1830s he served in the Indiana house of representatives, leading the line to secure both womens rights and a system of free school education. In 1842, he was elected as a Democrat in the US house of representatives and served in Congress until 1847. After his defeat for re-election in 1848 however, he returned to public service and served as a state legislator in Indiana throughout the 1850s.
By the late 1850’s, his politics took something of a swerve and like his father, he had converted to spiritualism. His first publication on the subject was that which included the tale of Emilie Saget, “Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World”.
Emilie Saget was born in Dijon, France in 1813, the following is her story, as originally written by Dale Owen in 1860, in its entirety:
FOOTFALLS ON THE BOUNDARY OF ANOTHER WORLD READ
It is, it has to be said, a fascinating and unsettling story. Just how much of it is confirmed truth or verifiable, however? As the sole source and based purely from eyewitness testimony, one cannot take it at face value without a little investigation.
Emilie Saget in history
To dig into the truth of this story, one of the first steps we need to take is to confirm whether or not Emilie Saget did, in fact, exist in history. Trawling Birth and Death registers, we can find a birth certificate in 1813 of one Octavie Saget, a girl born in Dijon in the correct year and with the correct family name, but an entirely different Christian name. It could well be possible that they are one and the same, however, as Octavie was an illegitimate child and at the time, it was common to change one’s name in adulthood in order to cast off the suspicion and prejudices associated with such a birth. There is also always the possibility that with over 30 years passing between the events and her relaying the story to Dale-Owen, time simply eroded the memory of the Baroness and she mistakenly named the teacher as Emilie entirely innocently. There is at least, historical evidence that a family named Saget did live in Dijon in the correct period. For someone with so many jobs, however, there are no other documents, no records of employment and no death certificate, the paper trail runs entirely cold.
In a serialised publication released in 1907 named “The Word”, a sort of Edwardian version of the Fortean TImes, Eduard Herrman writes a piece entitled “The Astral Plane” in which he comments that Alexander Askakov, a Russian Journalist and writer who examined the case and included it in his book “Animismus und Spiritismus”, published in 1890, actually took photos of Emilies apparition, though this appears to have been a mistranslation of the original text as Hermann was, in fact, stating that the case of Emilie Saget could be cleared up if photographic evidence was to be taken and then goes on to comment about an entirely different case where photographic evidence was apparently obtained. In another publication, “The Mysteries of Hypnosis” published in 1902 authored by Georges Dubor, it is written that the self-same Alexander Aksakov:
“Obtained the details, firsthand, from several of the pupils at the school, and received permission to publish the names of his informants.”
Once again though, Aksakov failed to live up to the hype and there is no mention of him doing this, nor publishing any names at all, he, like all others, recounts the story from Robert Dale Owen.
The School of Neuwelcke is a different story. The task of uncovering any historical evidence for the establishment is made difficult by the medley of languages used at the time, naming places with various different names. This is made all the more complicated due to Robert Dale Owens fast and loose way with figures. Wolmar is the modern-day town of Valmiera in Latvia and is slightly more than the 36 miles from Riga that Dale-Owens stated. In reality, Valmiera lies 82 miles Northeast of Riga. Neuwelcke is generally translated into modern day Melbarzi, however, if it is the town he talks about in his account of Emilie Saget, it lies not one and a half miles from Wolmar at all, rather 82 Miles East and there are no records of the school in that town. It appears that if the school did exist, it could well be in another town altogether and could itself possibly be documented under another name entirely.
Dale-Owen does write about the school that it:
“still exists, having gradually recovered it’s standing after mademoiselle Sagee left it; and corroborative evidence can be obtained by addressing its directors.”
However once again, we are left with only the word of the original writer. He makes no attempt to extrapolate on this point, nor to clue the reader in on whether or not he did approach the directors, or is rather stating that it may be possible to do so if one was so inclined.
The only other pupil named in the story, Antonie Von Wrangel, is also elusive. The family Von Wrangel did exist, in the correct time period and in the correct location, however, no record of an Antonie could be found. One Emilie Von Wrangel was found, with Antonie as her third given name, however, she would have been born just three years before the event took place, though with Antonie being included in her given names, this does suggest that somewhere in her family name, an Antonie could have well existed.
So what about Guldenstubbe? A witness who was claimed to be so venerable and high of character?
In a book titled “Nineteenth Century Miracles; or, spirits and their work in every country of the Earth, a complete compendium”, written by Emma Hardinge Britten and published in 1884, the Baron and his sister are described:
“The Baron is a nobleman of well-known status and good fortune; his wife is a firm believer, but is not a medium, while his sister – said to be very clever and amiable but the most weird, unearthly and elfin looking little creature imaginable – shares her brothers gifts and even surpasses them in this line.”
Which is quite impressive for the Baroness, as the same book claims that the Baron is able to “Heal the sick by animal magnetism”.
So as it turns out, the Baroness was the member of both high society and a spirit circle in France, along with her brother who led the group. The pair were in fact, fairly famous spirit mediums for their time and the Baron could do much more than simply healing the sick, he is described as a “Psychic of great power” and was able to obtain evidence of Psychography, or Spirit writing, without the aid of a pencil and in the cold light of day. One account of this is documented in a paper published by M.A. Oxon in 1878 titled “Psychography: A treatise on one of the objective forms of psychic or spiritual phenomena” describing him as such:
“Baron Guldenstubbe seems to have been able to dispense with the usual conditions under which writing is obtained—a closed room with magnetically charged atmosphere, subdued light, and a formal gathering of persons from or through whom the necessary force is evolved. He obtained his writings anywhere, and at any time”
The circle worked in places as grand as the Louvre and Versailles, one of his experiments in Versailles is detailed and told of preceding as such:
“After twelve days, during which no mark was made on the paper, there appeared on it certain mysterious characters, and during that day ten separate experiments gave successful results. The box was then left open and watched, and writing was seen to grow upon the paper without the use of the pencil. From that time he abandoned the use of the pencil altogether, and obtained his vast number of Psychographs by the simple process of putting blank paper on the table of his room, or in public buildings, or on the pedestal of ancient statues, or on tombstones in churches and cemeteries. It apparently mattered little where the paper was placed; and it is more than probable that the Baron, by exercise of his will, could have obtained any given name in any given place.“
If this held any truth then there is no doubt at all that the Baron was a psychic of great power, for he seemed to hold abilities which have not been documented before nor since outside of the realm of fantasy. And who was one of the keen members of the circle who travelled to France to witness such events? That would be one Robert Dale Owen, the man who wrote and published the account of Emilie Saget from the Baroness that has spawned a tale lasting for over 75 years.
For a case that is supposedly well documented, one has to ask, if Emilie Sagets mysterious, ghostly doppelganger was witnessed by 42 young girls of a boarding school, why was it only ever retold by one? It appears more and more likely the further we dig that the case of Emilie Saget was a tall tale, whisked up by a 19th Century spiritualist, spoken to a man who was a close friend and who was, at best, heavily biased by his own belief in spiritualism. Published in an old book with an authoritative name, in modern times it has spawned a new lease of life by any number of internet-based bloggers, podcasters and YouTubers who all make the same old claim that it is “well documented” and based in reality. The truth, however, seems that whilst it is a great story, it all appears to be built upon very frail foundations indeed. Is there any chance the phenomena could be real, or that the events of Neuwelcke could be true? In the end, we are no closer to uncovering any hard evidence on either side, however, the curious tale of Emilie Saget is not the only case of Doppelgangers in history.
The term Doppelganger is relatively modern in origin, however, the concept of a “spirit double” has existed throughout history and across the world. In ancient Egypt, the Ka shared many of the same characteristics, in Norse mythology, vardøger too would appear to play out the actions of its originator in advance. In Cornish, Welsh and Norman Folklore, the Ankou, or the traditional personification of Death, complete with Scythe and cloak can be seen as a version of the modern Doppelganger. In fiction, the Doppelganger has been used as both a tool to frighten readers and explore philosophies involving the human condition and stretch from the Ancient Greeks to Dostoyevsky, from Edgar Allan Poe to films like Fight Club and The Double. Depicted as evil twins, foreshadowings of the future, metaphorical representations of human duality and simple apparitions with no apparent intellectual qualities, the tales cover a broad spectrum. Even the most famous and powerful have been known to have had apparitions of themselves appear, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln.
In the book Washington in Lincoln’s Time, published in 1895, the author, Noah Brooks recounts a story as told directly to him by Lincoln himself:
“It was just after my election in 1860 when the news had been coming in thick and fast all day and there had been a great “hurrah, boys,” so that I was well tired out, and went home to rest, throwing myself down on a lounge in my chamber. Opposite where I lay was a bureau with a swinging glass upon it (and here he got up and placed furniture to illustrate the position), and looking in that glass I saw myself reflected nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other. I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished. On lying down again, I saw it a second time, plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler — say five shades — than the other. I got up, and the thing melted away, and I went off, and in the excitement of the hour forgot all about it — nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang as if something uncomfortable had happened. When I went home again that night I told my wife about it, and a few days afterward I made the experiment again, when (with a laugh), sure enough! the thing came back again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was somewhat worried about it. She thought it was a “sign” that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term.”
Queen Elizabeth the first too was said to have seen her own doppelganger whilst lying on her deathbed as well as the poet Percy Shelley, husband of the writer of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, who claimed to have seen his own on several occasions. Catherine the Great ordered her own Doppelganger shot by the guards when she first saw a ghostly visage of herself sitting on her throne, ordering her armed guard to “shoot the imposter”.
In the realm of the paranormal, the idea of Bi-Location, whereby one projects an image of their physical body to a different location is as old as the doppelganger itself, though there stands no physical evidence or proof of such an ability. The idea that one’s soul or spirit can leave the body at will is again suggested, though once again, holds no evidence or factual basis.
If we are to discount any paranormal phenomena, we can turn to science and psychology to try and explain away such visions. Hallucinations due to stress or underlying conditions such as epilepsy and schizophrenia have all been marked for serious consideration when looking to find answers in medical conditions and chime back to the concept of Heautoscopy, a possible symptom of all above conditions, in which the vision or hallucination of one’s own body appears outside of the self.
However, these explanations do not explain, or even begin to explain, so many of the historical cases of doppelgangers. What of the case of Emilie Sagee for a start, where the entire class saw her double? You could possibly chalk it up to a collective hallucination or collective suggestion, but in the case of hallucination, that would be awfully shallow. Clearly, there is something deeper going on here than rare symptoms of psychological problems, if we are to discount cases where these are likely explanations, they would surely make up only a small minority. Why is it that the concept has fascinated in folklore and literature for so many years? And what is it about the tale of Emilie Sagee that both instils fear and intrigue at once?
It could be suggested that the very concept of a spiritual vision of oneself represents a whole host of philosophical explanations. From the concept of ‘the other’ as a form of human duality, a manifestation of a person’s unconscious undesirable, or desirable qualities. In the undesirable, we are transposing our own image of ourselves onto an outside other, in simple terms, placing them at arms length, or distancing ourselves from them due to a fear that if we were to accept them as qualities within ourselves, society might judge us poorly. In the case of the desirable qualities, ‘the other’ acts as a form of that which we wish for, but do not believe ourselves capable of achieving.
These psychological and philosophical arguments for our fascination with doppelgangers run incredibly deep but on the surface, our fear and intrigue of an identical self, either in the spiritual or physical form, represent questions on self-identity such as Who am I? What is my life about and what could I be? The answers to which can be both aspirational and terrifying, depending on the outlook. It is a narrative which helps us to explore the nature of our own self-identity.
Or, all the psychological baggage aside, the fear of the Doppelganger could just be our fear of what Freud called “The Uncanny”, something that which is both familiar and strange at the same time. When we see a familiar object, removed from the original, it promotes an anxiety and fear within ourselves. Seeing a spirit double of ourselves or of another promotes the consideration of the self and of the soul. With the idea of the soul tied to death as it is, our primal fears are peaked.
We should.. Probably leave these ideas here for the time being, as these concepts could probably make for an entire podcast series alone, however, the basic ideas help to explain why we are both fascinated and fearful of such a phenomena and perhaps why the story of Emilie Sagee has preserved, despite apparent lack of hard evidence for such a long period of time.
In the end, it seems highly unlikely that Emilie Sagee ever existed. We have nothing but flimsy evidence based on a single, dated oral account from a 19th Century medium who claimed, among other things, to be able to heal the sick and obtain spirit writing.
Whilst there is some evidence of a family Sagee who lived in Dijon at the supposed time of her birth, there is no other solid documentation to confirm her existence of either her or the school she taught at.
But what of the numerous other cases of Doppelgangers? It seems that scientific explanations only barely cover the concept and do not answer for the hundreds of cases documented throughout history. The fact that they have existed throughout history and across cultures speak to a much deeper reasoning for their existence, at least in the imagination. To untangle this question, however, we are lead down deep rabbit holes, where we must tackle profound questions on self-identity and what it exactly means for us to be who we are.