Percy Shelley

5 Historical Figures Who Saw Their Doppelgänger... And Then Died

Have you ever come face to face with your doppelgänger? Would you want to?

These days the term “doppelgänger” is used to describe two different people who look unusually alike. The internet practically abounds with photos of identical-looking celebrities, people who’ve discovered their so-called doppelgänger in old artworks, and complete strangers who look like they could be long-lost twins. It’s actually eerie how closely most of these people resemble each other. But the original meaning of “doppelgänger” is even eerier.

When translated from German, the word “doppelgänger” literally means “doubler walker” or “double goer,” describing not a lookalike but the ghostly counterpart of a living person… and meeting one’s doppelgänger was never a good thing. Doppelgänger apparitions were sinister occurrences, bringing with them bad omens and evil intentions. In traditional folklore, they are known to impersonate the person they resemble, plant negative and confusing ideas into others’ minds, and signal some kind of impending doom for their earthly counterpart. These demonic doubles are seen as harbingers of illness, tragedy, and death.

While many explanations of the doppelgänger phenomenon have been offered - including supernatural manifestations, electrical glitches of the brain, and mental illness - what is known for sure is that the “double walkers” bring bad news for those who see them, as recorded by a number of spooky historical accounts.

In ascending order of creepiness and tragedy, here are five such accounts of figures in history who had the misfortune to encounter their doppelgänger… and then died:

#5: Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great was the formidable and longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 1762 until 1796. Though Catherine took the throne by way of a coup that overthrew her own husband and usurped power from her son, who was rightfully the throne’s next heir, her extended rule became known as the Golden Age of Russia. 

Shortly before her reign came to an end, something unexpected took to Catherine’s throne, literally - the creepy double of Catherine herself. 

According to the account, Catherine was in her bedroom when some troubled servants came to tell her they had just seen the Empress entering the throne room, even though she had been lying in her bed at the exact same moment. The Empress went directly to the room to investigate the servants’ claims. Once there, Catherine encountered a second version of herself, seated calmly on the throne. Ever formidable, the real Catherine ordered her guards to fire on the spectral queen. Presumably, the bullets had no effect and her doppelgänger disappeared with no further recurrences, but not long after this event, Catherine the Great collapsed and suffered a stroke. Within hours she became comatose, and by the evening following the stroke, her reign permanently ended. 

#4: Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth the First ruled England from late 1558 to early 1603. The daughter of Henry VIII and the beheaded Anne Boleyn, she was the last of the Tudor monarchs to assume the throne. Queen Elizabeth is often referred to as “The Virgin Queen,” as she defied convention by refusing to marry or bear an heir. Her long reign, known as the Elizabethan era, was not without controversy, but did see a flourishing of English drama (through no less than the works of William Shakespeare) and successful seafaring exploits (such as Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world), among many other successes.

Though Elizabeth I achieved a long reign, death still sought her out, and allegedly gave her a preview of its coming by way of a dead doppelgänger. According to history, Elizabeth was said to have encountered her own person lying in state like a corpse in her chambers. The doppelgänger was described as “pallid, shivered, and wan,” and though Elizabeth was level-headed and not prone to fantasies, she seemed to know this strange sight meant something ill-fated was in store. Only a few days later, Queen Elizabeth I, aged 69 and monarch of 44 years, was dead in actuality. 

#3: Percy Shelley

Percy Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets, composing such pieces as “To a Skylark” and “Ode to the West Wind.” Unfortunately Shelley never truly saw fame during his lifetime, and was most typically known for being husband to Mary Shelley, the author of the famously known horror novel, Frankenstein.

Percy Shelley had a short life marked by tragedy and turmoil. As a child he was tormented by his schoolmates. As a young adult, Shelley eloped with his first wife whom he later abandoned, and who was also later found dead in a lake, drowned and pregnant. He had several other failed love affairs before marrying Mary Shelley (and is suspected of some afterward as well). Both he and Mary lost three of their four children together, and Mary’s sister Fanny committed suicide. 

With a life marked by such sad events, it’s no wonder that, shortly before he died, Percy confessed to Mary that he had many times seen his doppelgänger, a harbinger of bad luck for him and those in his circle. On one such occasion, Percy was strolling on the terrace of his house when he came eerily face to face with his double, who spoke to him, asking, “How long do you mean to be content?” In a strangely similar sighting, Percy’s friend Jane Williams also seems to have encountered Percy’s spectral twin on the terrace, where she claims to have seen him pass by the window several times, but when she went out to him, Percy had disappeared. Jane received the shock of her life when she soon realized that the real Percy was not at home at all.

In one of the final instances of Percy’s encounters with his doppelgänger, he claimed to have seen himself on a beach, pointing out at the sea. Not long afterward, Percy was drowned in a sailing accident in 1812, at the ripe old age of 29.

#2: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, serving as the country’s leader through its bloodiest conflict on its own soil, the American Civil War. He is also remembered for abolishing slavey, modernizing the U.S. economy, and preserving the Union. Not as widely known is that Lincoln had an interest in spiritualism and the supernatural.

Having lost two children at young ages, Lincoln’s wife Mary frequently invited mediums to the White House to hold seances, some of which were attended by Lincoln himself. Though he seemed to contend that most mediums were hucksters, Lincoln did believe in the power of dreams to predict the future. He even had an alarmingly accurate dream (unbeknownst to him, of course) in which he walked through several rooms of the White House to the sound of crying, before discovering a dead shrouded body lying in state. Dream-Lincoln asked a nearby soldier to whom the body belonged; the soldier replied it was the President, murdered by an assassin.

Lincoln also encountered what he believed to be another ill omen regarding his fate, when he glimpsed his deathly pale doppelgänger looking at him from a mirror. One of Lincoln’s associates, Noah Brooks, recounted the story the president allegedly told to him on November 9, 1864. Brooks's version of the tale, using Lincoln’s words as best as he remembered them, described the following events:

“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.”

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Critics of the story of Lincoln’s deathly doppelgänger argue that his double image was nothing more than a defect in an old mirror. While that theory is a possibility, the fatalistic Lincoln and his wife Mary believed it was a sign of bad things to come, and fate  proved them right. Sadly, we all know how Lincoln’s life story ends, when he was shot in the head and killed by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, three months into his second presidential term. 

#1: Guy de Maupassant 

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Celebrated French author Guy de Maupassant, who lived and wrote in the second half of the 19th century, is considered to be the father of the modern short story. Though he did write several novels, including Bel Ami, his short stories totaled over 300, and quite a number of them featured themes of the supernatural and paranormal. 

One such story, called Le Horla, tells the tale of a man afflicted by an invisible spirit that he unwittingly invited into his home. Gradually the spirit haunts him with increasing ferocity as he begins to lose his mind, and he takes drastic measures, by way of suicide, to rid himself of his tormentor. What makes Le Horla even creepier is that Guy de Maupassant is said to have written the story with the help of his own doppelgänger. 

Guy’s interactions with his doppelgänger were reported as frequent and personal, with Guy sometimes meeting with his double every day. As the account goes, Guy and his doppelgänger conversed with one another during their visits, and Guy began writing Le Horla at the dictation of his eerie twin. Of the strange event, French doctor and psychologist Dr. Paul Sollier wrote:

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“Maupassant had a vivid hallucination one afternoon and told his friend of it that evening. Working at his desk in his office, where his servant had orders never to enter while he was writing, he seemed to hear his door open. He turned and was not a little surprised when he himself [Maupassant’s double] entered, and came to sit in front of him, head in hand, and began to dictate everything he wrote on the occasion. When he had finished and stood up, the hallucination disappeared.  The result was the short story Le Horla.”

Maupassant himself confirmed his recurring encounters with his doppelgänger, saying, “Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door, and I see him sitting in my arm-chair. I know it for a hallucination, even while experiencing it. Curious! If I didn’t have a little common sense, I’d be afraid.”

Maupassant had reason to believe his sightings of his spectral double were hallucinations, as a long battle with syphilis had left his mental state slowly deteriorating. As time went on he became increasingly unpredictable and paranoid, even becoming obsessed with the idea that flies were eating away his brain. After writing Le Horla in 1887, Guy’s disease-induced madness culminated in a suicide attempt and admission to an asylum in 1892. In 1893, the disease took his life entirely. 

Whether the presence of Guy’s doppelgänger was of a supernatural nature or whether it was the visual and auditory hallucination of a sick man is not a point that can be proven on either side, but the story of his other self is nonetheless disturbing.  At best or at worst, Maupassant was either visited repeatedly by a paranormal apparition of death, or spent his time alone talking to an empty room and writing with a companion who didn’t even exist. It‘s not immediately obvious which of these scenarios would be the best and which the worst. What is obvious is how closely Le Horla, his doppelgänger-inspired tale, comes to resemble an autobiographical work, capturing Guy de Maupassant’s final battles with his own demons, be they metaphorical or supernatural ones. 

What’s the spookiest doppelgänger story you’ve ever heard? Share it with us in the comments! For a modern doppelgänger tale, check out The Confessionals Episode 117: Gorilla Man, Doppelgangers, and Demons, Oh My!