“I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Doppelgängers are a bit of a nuisance, what with their disrespect for your individuality and traditional portending of death and ultimate doom. A proper monster, when you think about it, guaranteed to creep out you and your friends, complicate your job, get you in hot water with the spouse, possibly replace you, and generally muck up life through a mixture of confusion and uselessness. Heck, there’s even an umlaut in its name, which should be enough to fill one with horror. Curiously, there appear to be a few sub-species of doppelgängers with less nefarious habits or malign intent. I’m thinking in particular of the Norwegian Vardøger and his close cousin the Finnish Etiäinen. These peculiar doubles just seem to arrive before you do.
Basic Vardøger behavior is to precede one in reaching their intended destination, resulting in witnesses swearing they’ve seen the actual person before said person physically arrives. While this besmirches one’s reputation for punctuality, even if you arrive on time, it’s not the most sinister preternatural event one can experience. Vardøger (Old Norse for something like “watchman soul”) and Etiäinen (Finnish for “firstcomer”) are common in Norwegian and Finish folklore, but in at least one instance, it seems that a merry Vardøger put in a delightfully mundane appearance in Tipperary, Ireland.
Lieutenant-Colonel William Matthew Bigge (1812-1889) of the 70th Surrey Regiment of Foot was temporarily quartered at Templemore in County Tipperary, Ireland in 1847. The 70th Regiment had returned from Montreal in 1843, and would depart for India in 1849. Guess that’s why they call them a “Regiment of Foot”. They get around. Bigge had the fortune (or misfortune) to witness the arrival of a Vardøger at the military encampment on February 20th, 1847 at 3 P.M., an experience which so disconcerted him that he jotted down a written statement regarding it, and placed it into an envelope, which he sealed, only opening it many years later in the presence of the famed Victorian parapsychologist Edmund Gurney on July 17th, 1885. Together they read the account.
I was walking from my quarters towards the mess-room to put some letters into the letter-box, when I distinctly saw Lieut.-Colonel Reed, 70th Regiment, walking from the corner of the range of buildings occupied by the officers towards the mess-room door; and I saw him go into the passage. He was dressed in a brown shooting-jacket, with grey summer regulation tweed trousers, and had a fishing-rod and a landing-net in his hand. Although at the time I saw him he was about 15 or 20 yards from me, and although anxious to speak to him at the moment, I did not do so, but followed him into the passage and turned into the ante-room on the left-hand side, where I expected to find him. On opening the door, to my great surprise, he was not there; the only person in the room was Quartermaster Nolan, 70th Regiment, and I immediately asked him if he had seen the colonel, and he replied he had not; upon which I said, “I suppose he has gone upstairs,” and I immediately left the room. Thinking he might have gone upstairs to one of the officers’ rooms, I listened at the bottom of the stairs and then went up to the first landing-place; but not hearing anything I went downstairs again and tried to open the bedroom door, which is opposite to the ante-room, thinking he might have gone there; but I found the door locked, as it usually is in the middle of the day. I was very much surprised at not finding the colonel, and I walked into the barrack-yard and joined Lieutenant Caulfield, 66th Regiment, who was walking there (Myers, 1919. p159-161).
Bigge voiced his puzzlement to Lieutenant Caulfield, describing the odd manner of Colonel Reed’s dress (apparently it was not fishing season), keeping his eye the whole time on the only door leading to the mess room. Of course, nobody emerged from the mess hall, and ten minutes later, the real Colonel Reed sauntered into the compound.
I saw the colonel walk into the barracks through the gate— which is in the opposite direction — accompanied by Ensign Willington, 70th Regiment, in precisely the same dress in which I had seen him, and with a fishing-rod and a landing-net in his hand. Lieutenant Caulfield and I immediately walked to them, and we were joined by Lieut. Colonel Goldie, 66th Regiment, and Captain Hartford, and I asked Colonel Reed if he had not gone into the mess-room about 10 minutes before. He replied that he certainly had not, for that he had been out fishing for more than two hours at some ponds about a mile from the barracks, and that he had not been near the mess-room at all since the morning. At the time I saw Colonel Reed going into the mess-room, I was not aware that he had gone out fishing — a very unusual thing to do at this time of the year; neither had I seen him before in the dress I have described during that day. I had seen him in uniform in the morning at parade, but not afterwards at all until 3 o’clock — having been engaged in my room writing letters, and upon other business. My eyesight being very good, and the colonel’s figure and general appearance somewhat remarkable, it is morally impossible that I could have mistaken any other person in the world for him. That I did see him I shall continue to believe until the last day of my existence (Gurney, 1918, p430-431).
Colonel Reed was understandably alarmed at hearing that his double had preceded him, and particularly that it seemed to be emulating his keen sportsman’s fashion sense. Bigge felt it important to note that he had never experienced any sort of hallucinations, had been away in Dublin and thus hadn’t really seen Colonel Reed for the previous week, and that he had actually described Reed’s attire to several witnesses before the legitimate Reed arrived. Nothing else happened. Nobody died. No preternatural events ensued. The Vardøger Lieutenant Colonel Reed just got there first. And in many ways, that is far creepier than a ghost with a good backstory as explanation or a doppelgänger with doomsday prophecies. Headline-grabbing sorts of paranormal occurrences are all the rage, particularly these days in a world of intense competition for market attention, but there’s something compelling about anomalies, monsters, and things that are anomalous, but barely go bump in the night. Maybe it’s a symptom of incipient neurosis, but my guiding principle is similar to Rufus Wainright’s. “I like to make the mundane fabulous whenever I can”.
Gurney, Edmund, 1847-1888. Phantasms of the Living. Abridged ed. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1918.
Holms, A. Campbell. The Facts of Psychic Science and Philosophy. Jamaica, N.Y.: Occult Press, 1927.
Myers, F. W. H. 1843-1901. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1919.
“Cases Received by the Literary Committee”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Journal of the Society for Psychical Research v2. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1885.