The Bourne Identity

Not Jason.  Ansel.

Back in the 1850s, Ansel Bourne was a carpenter in Rhode Island.  In 1857, for reasons unknown, he seemingly spontaneously became blind, deaf, and mute — but 18 days later, recovered with only a case of partial amnesia as a lingering after effect.  (He wrote a book on the experience; good luck getting a copy.)  He’d live a mostly normal life for the next few decades, becoming a preacher in part due to a lingering, subconscious desire to visit a chapel borne fro his period of incapacitation.

Thirty years later, he was gone.

Not dead — just gone.  For on January 17, 1887, Ansel Bourne disappeared both from Rhode Island and from the world at large.  And in Norristown, Pennsylvania, A.J. Brown — a confectioner and stationer — appeared shortly thereafter.   Brown would continue in this role until March 14, 1887, when he’d wake up as Ansel Bourne, having no recollection of the previous two months, the existence of A.J. Brown his other personality, nor how he ended up in Pennsylvania.  Bourne went into what is now called a “fugue state” — a state of amnesia where the person forgets the details about their own identity (including their own name) but otherwise seems to remember everything else.  (If this sounds, again, like Jason Bourne of The Bourne Identity book/movie series, there’s a reason for that — Robert Ludlum, the author of the novel, almost certainly borrowed Ansel’s last name for the title character.)

Bourne’s odd type of amnesia (also called “disassociated fugue”) is rare, but historically, it’s not otherwise unheard of nor something of yesteryear.  It cropped up in this incredible story of a New York City schoolteacher who went for a run on August 28, 2008 — and never returned home.  She emerged again in mid-September, alive, bobbing in New York Harbor, alive, with no memory of the three weeks prior.


Bonus fact: Disassociated fugue has a similar condition called traveling fugue or “dromomania.”  It’s marked by an uncontrollable urge to travel, often for great distances for no discernible reason — with no recollection of the travel afterward.  One notable case: In the late 1880s, Jean-Albert Dadas, a man from Bordeaux, France, ended up traveling (in separate trips) to Prauge, Vienna, and Moscow, and recalled nothing of his trips.  Even more amazing, he almost certainly made the trips by foot.

From the Archives: Temporary Blindness: Why our minds erase what our eyes see, 30-45 minutes each day, instead of creating memories.

Related: The Bourne Identitybook or DVD.