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Nobody knew quite what to make of it at first.
According to one newspaper account published on March 17, 1887, a man, who appeared to be about sixty years of age, arrived in Norristown, Pennsylvania and promptly rented a store. Identifying himself as Albert Brown from Newton, New Hampshire, he announced that he planned to start a new business. Nobody knew him but he paid in cash, and in advance, so there were few questions when he divided the store into two sections separated by a curtain. The back part of the store became his living quarters while the front part was stocked with numerous toys and various other dry goods that you might find in any store of its kind. He then proceeded to run his business with only occasional trips to nearby Philadelphia to replenish his stock as needed.
Six weeks after he arrived, the couple living over the store were awakened Monday morning by someone knocking at their door. It was their new neighbour, appearing somewhat confused and asking where he was. Though they tried to reassure him, he became even more confused and agitated and told them, "I awoke this morning after dreaming that I was buying and selling merchandise. I discovered I was in a store, and I was seized with the fear that should be arrested a a burglar. Now I want to know where I am."
When he was told that he was in Norristown and that he had been living there for six weeks, the man they had known as Albert Brown became even more confused than ever. When he was told that he had frequently visited Philadelphia, he insisted that he hadn't visited Philadelphia in decades. Alarmed at their neighbour's condition, the couple immediately sent for Surgeon General Louis W. Reed who lived nearby.
When questioned by Reed, the man related this remarkable story:
"Doctor. I have just awakened from a confused dream. I am informed that I am in Norristown, Pennsylvania and that this is March 14. If this is true, the past two months have been an entire blank to me. It seems to me but yesterday I left my home in Coventry, Rhode Island, but that was the morning of January 18."
The last thing he could recall was paying some bills and visiting the store of his nephew and then heading to his sister's house but he couldn't recall anything after that. He also said that his name was Ansel Bourne, a minister with a wife and two grown daughters.
Leaving Bourne/Brown in the care of his neighbours, Dr. Reed then sent a telegram to Bourne's nephew using the address his patient had provided. The telegram stated simply, "Do you know Ansel Bourne. Send particulars." The nephew, Andrew Harris, responded immediately and, after learning the details of what had happened to his uncle, traveled to Norristown to take him home.
Though Dr. Reed couldn't provide any real explanation for what had happened to Bourne, he did recommend that he be cared for until he could recover fully. Bourne was then escorted home by his nephew. Still, the publicity over Bourne's disappearance and reappearance ensured public interest in his case. That interest was piqued as more details about the enigmatic Ansel Bourne became available including stories of his life before his remarkable disappearance and reappearance.
According to an autobiography which had been published years before, he was born in New York City in 1826, the youngest of a poverty-stricken family. His father died when he was seven years of age and he was raised by his strict mother ever since. After a few years of school, he was sent to work in a factory (child labour was common in those days) but left when he was fifteen to become a carpenter's apprentice in Rhode Island.
Also about this time, he married a local woman and slowly abandoned his religious beliefs, apparently to the point of becoming an atheist (or so he said in his book) though he was never militant about it. In spite of this unbelief, he did well enough though he avoided churches and sermons wherever possible. Despite falling seriously ill at times due to the heavy workload required to support his wife and growing family, Bourne refused to pray for his recovery.
Things began to change for him in 1857 when he started experiencing spells of delirium that affected his ability to work. Finally, in September of that year, he was walking from his house towards town when he felt pressure to attend a church meeting that was being held at the time. He resisted this idea and told himself that "I would rather be struck deaf and dumb forever than go there." Soon afterward, "it seemed as though some powerful hand drew something down over his head, and then over his face, and finally over his whole body; depriving him of his sight, his hearing, and his speech; and rendering him perfectly helpless."
His neighbours noted his distress and he was taken home and a local physician, Dr. William T. Thurston was called in to treat him. As the doctor himself noted, Bourne's pupils were "insensitive to light, wildly dilated and not contracting on the application of sudden and vivid light." Though he seemed to be in a stupor, Bourne himself said that he was perfectly conscious of the world around him and able to think despite his sensory blindness.
After twenty-six hours of this, his vision suddenly returned though he was still deaf and mute. Believing his condition to be a punishment from God, Bourne began asking forgiveness of everyone he believed had been hurt by his atheism. Following weeks of this, including attending prayer meetings and becoming reconciled with the local religious community, Ansel Bourne gradually regained all of his senses.
After a vision telling him to "settle all your worldly business and come to work for me," Ansel Bourne became a lay preacher, despite his heavy debts, and a family to support, and dedicated himself to preaching. His case became well-known in Rhode Island and his book, Wonderful works of God: a narrative of the wonderful facts in the case of Ansel Bourne, of Westerly, Rhode Island, who.was suddenly struck blind, dumb and deaf and after eighteen days was suddenly and completely restored., was published in 1858.
Almost immediately, there was a difference of opinion over what had exactly happened to Bourne. While Bourne and his friends declared it to be an act of divine intervention, his own doctor attributed his strange sensory loss to a "cerebral disturbance" while a local newspaper, The Providence Daily Journal, even suggested some fraud at work. Whatever the real explanation, Bourne settled down and largely faded into obscurity. After the death of his first wife in 1881, he moved to Greene, Rhode Island and resumed his life as a carpenter (being an itinerant preacher isn't as profitable as you might think). In every respect, he lived as unremarkable a life as ever.
Until, of course, the strange events of 1887 and the mysterious loss of memory that struck out of the blue.
To be continued
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