When we came across this article from The Richest outlining kids’ accounts of their past lives, the creepy feature images had us saying “NOPE”—but then we read the article, written in the prose of a spammy chain email from the year 2000, and we enjoyed a lot of belly laughs. Here are lines that made us roll our eyes pretty hard:
“However, what about the fact that Hunter won 41 out of 50 junior golf tournaments by the age of 7? It does not sound like a coincidence to me.”
“Well, Cameron was either a natural born actor or telling the truth.”
In reference to one girl’s claim that she had been Anne Frank in a past life: “I believe her because no one would dare to make up such a terrible lie.”
If you read the full stories, they’d probably sound indistinguishable to your mind from the emails your aunt used to forward you that warned of your impending death if you failed to send it to 100 other people by midnight. That’s the power of bad writing. But this is also a topic that receives side-eye from many rational people and that most scientists probably wouldn’t even consider worthy of examination.
After stalking the internet, however, we confirmed that some of these stories were actually based on decades-long research out of the University of Virginia, started by Dr. Ian Stevenson and continued by Dr. Jim Tucker. They have meticulously studied more than 2,500 cases of children reporting memories of past lives, and, as a 1999 New York Times article concedes regarding the work of Stevenson, much of the evidence is “hard to refute.”
Here are eight accounts of children who seem to remember past lives, some of which have been corroborated by Stevenson’s and Tucker’s findings:
A Fighter Pilot In WWII
Here is Dr. Jim Tucker’s account of one boy they studied, James Leininger, as told to NPR’s Rachel Martin in a 2014 radio interview: “James is the son of a Christian couple in Louisiana. And when he was little, he loved his toy planes. But also around the time of his second birthday, [he] started having horrific nightmares four or five times a week – of being [in] a plane crash.
“And then during the day, he talked about this plane crash and said that he had been a pilot, and that he had flown off of a boat. And his dad asked him the name of it, and he said Natoma. And he said he had been shot down by the Japanese; that he had been killed at Iwo Jima; and that he had a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen.”
“Well, it turns out that there was an aircraft carrier called the USS Natoma Bay that was stationed in the Pacific during World War II. In fact, it was involved in Iwo Jima. And it lost one pilot there, a young man named James Huston.
“James Huston’s plane crashed exactly the way that James Leininger had described—hit in the engine, exploding into fire, crashing into the water and quickly sinking. And when that happened, the pilot of the plane next to his was named Jack Larsen.”
Okay, okay, so maybe he heard the story from a family member, or his spongy child-brain absorbed it subconsciously from a documentary playing on the History Channel or something. Right?
Wrong. “For one thing, James Huston is simply not a well known person,” Jake Flanagin points out in The Atlantic. “A cursory Google search of his name reveals only press related to Leininger’s claims… Huston’s story is so obscure that it took Leininger’s father three to four years to track down his information.”
A Hollywood Actor
In an interview with Alex Tsakiris for Skeptico, Dr. Tucker tells this story of a boy with memories of being a Hollywood actor-turned-agent who had been born in Philadelphia in 1903: “…Ryan is one, again, of a pair of Christian parents. And he is a little boy in Oklahoma who started telling his mom about a life in Hollywood he had and he was crying about it every day.
“And eventually he pointed to a man in a picture from an old movie and said, ‘Hey, that’s me. That’s who I was.’ And he also pointed to another guy and said, ‘Hey, that’s George. We did a movie together.’ And then he pointed to another man and said, ‘That’s me.’
“Well, the George he pointed to was George Raft, who was a movie star back in the 1930s or 1940s. The other guy that he pointed to was an extra who had no lines in the movie. So his mom emailed me, or actually wrote me a letter, to see if I could help in identifying him. And eventually with the help of a Hollywood archivist we were able to identify that man.
“Meanwhile, Ryan is saying all kinds of things about his past life. He said he had danced in New York and gone on to Hollywood. He had been in movies and he worked for an agency and he had seen the world on big boats, and he had this big house with a swimming pool. All of this stuff seemed quite unlikely to me for an extra with no lines in the movie.
“But it turned out this fellow was a guy named Marty Martyn and his life, in fact, did match those details. He danced on Broadway and then he went to Hollywood. He was in movies and then started a talent agency which was quite successful. And Marty Martyn went to Europe on the Queen Mary and had fancy cars and did have a big house and a swimming pool.
“And Ryan had said that the street address had the word ‘rock’ or ‘mount’ in it, and Marty Martyn’s house was on [Roxbury]. So again, it was a case where there were a lot of specific details that were clearly documented and then once the previous person was identified the details matched in a way that is inconceivable—that Ryan could have learned all this through some normal means.”
This NBC clip pulling from an interview with Ryan and his mother says he also remembered being married five times—Marty Martyn was married four times—and that 55 of the items Ryan remembered about Martyn’s life were confirmed to be true.
In a New York Times interview with Dr. Ian Stevenson that ran in 1999, when asked if there were any cases that stood out to him “as particularly difficult to explain in any other way,” Stevenson told the interviewer:
“Twins in Sri Lanka. We did testing that showed they were identical, yet they were markedly different in their behaviors and physical appearance. One twin began to talk about a previous life as a Sinhalese insurgent, said he was shot by police in April 1971. Anyway, his family laughed at him, so he shut up and nothing could be verified about what he said.
“The older twin talked copiously about the previous life of a young schoolboy. He made several specific statements that ultimately checked out. He said he lived in a place called Balapitiya and traveled by train to a school in another town called Ambalangoda. He made comparisons between the families’ property. He referred to an aunt, by name, who had cooked chilies for him.
“Perhaps the most astonishing thing was that when the two families met, the boy pointed to some [writing] in a wall that turned out to be the name of the deceased boy he was remembering. The subject said he had made that when the cement was wet. No one in the deceased boy’s family had noticed it before.”
That these identical twins were “markedly different” in appearance may seem to be irrelevant to their being possible-reincarnates if you’re thinking in terms of strict mind–body duality. But among the cases studied by Stevenson and Tucker, roughly 20 percent of the children had distinct birthmarks or deformities that matched identifying marks of the people whose lives they recalled or that matched injuries these people received before dying.
A 1920s Golfer
Bobby Jones’ life began and ended in Atlanta, Georgia. He was born there on St. Patrick’s Day in 1902 and died there of the painful spinal disease syringomyelia at age 69, soon after converting to Catholicism. His disease left him weighing somewhere between 60 and 90 pounds at the time of his death.
Jones’ obituary, which ran in the New York Times when he died in 1971, calls him a “golf master” in the headline and describes him as having found early success as “an intense, unspoiled young man.” It goes on to quote him as once saying, “First come my wife and children. Next comes my profession—the law. Finally, and never as a life in itself, comes golf.”
But maybe Bobby Jones’ life didn’t end in Atlanta. In 2016, Golf Digest ran an article about a 3-year-old boy who claimed to be the famous golfer. The child was—you guessed it—another one who had been studied by Dr. Tucker and whose story was recounted in Tucker’s book Return to Life.
You may have noticed that many of these stories involve boys. Based on the University of Virginia research, 60 percent of children who report memories of past lives are male. Also, roughly 70 percent of children who report past-life memories claim to have died violent or unnatural deaths.
Of that group, just over 70 percent of the deceased people are male, which correlates to the percentage of men in the general population who die of unnatural causes.
The boy claiming to be Jones is referred to as “Hunter” in Tucker’s book, although this is a pseudonym. As Mike Stachura writes for Golf Digest: “Hunter’s father showed the 3-year-old a series of six photographs of famous golfers from the 1920s and asked him to identify which one was Jones. When he saw the Jones picture, Hunter said, ‘This me,’ and then seeing a photo of Harry Vardon, Hunter said, ‘This, Harry Garden. My friend.’
“As was often the case in children remembering past lives, in Hunter’s case he referenced Jones less and less as he grew from age 3 to 7. Tucker’s research indicates that as children reach the age of reason these memories typically fade.”
Tucker notes in Return to Life that some, but not many, children with past-life memories retain special abilities from the deceased individuals whose memories they possess. Apparently in only nine percent of the cases studied were “the children…said to have unusual skills related to the previous life.”
As for Hunter, he went on to win 41 of 50 junior golf tournaments by age 7, including 21 in a row.
A Flower Vendor’s Daughter
For Scientific American, Jesse Bering summarizes another one of Dr. Stevenson’s studied cases, about a toddler in Sri Lanka who overheard her mother mention the obscure town Kataragama, where she had never visited:
“The girl informed the mother that she drowned there when her ‘dumb’ (mentally challenged) brother pushed her in the river, that she had a bald father named ‘Herath’ who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa, that she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof (a skylight), dogs in the backyard that were tied up and fed meat, that the house was next door to a big Hindu temple, outside of which people smashed coconuts on the ground.
“Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother.
“The man lived in a house where the neighbors threw meat to dogs tied up in their backyard, and it was adjacent to the main temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground.
“The little girl did get a few items wrong, however. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald (but her grandfather and uncle were) and his name wasn’t ‘Herath’—that was the name, rather, of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise, 27 of the 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements she made panned out.”
It was unlikely that this information had been shared through any natural means, as the families had never met, and they had no mutual friends, coworkers, or acquaintances.
A Soldier in Vietnam?
This case wasn’t among those studied by the University of Virginia, so there’s no way to gauge its accuracy, but it is kind of weird. A few years ago, someone posted on Reddit about being a producer for the series Ghost Inside My Child, asking about whether anyone had experiences with children reporting past-life memories. One user, theburlyone, wrote:
“My grandmother always told me the story of when I was 3 or 4, I told her that I was shot in the belly in Da Nang and how my buddy was helping me into a helicopter. I guess it freaked her out a bit. I told her ‘my’ name, Paul something. She couldn’t remember the last name, which is too bad because I would love to know…”
He goes on to write that neither his mother nor his grandmother had ever heard of DaNang until he mentioned it.
Another user, elyze, wrote, “I found you […] apparently only 8 died at da nang. Interesting that one just happened to be named Paul.”
According to the page, Paul Wayne Anthony died right after arriving at Danang, after a rocket attack during his first night on the job.
One skeptical user, whose account has now been deleted, pointed out: “The story didn’t say he died at Da Nang; it said he was helped into a helicopter. […] ‘Paul’ is a very common name.”
User theburlyone follows up with: “I could have picked it up from something I saw on TV. That’s the only real explanation I can think of. On the linked website above, the obituary said that he died in a ground mortar/artillery attack. Those things throw shrapnel everywhere and would be like getting shot, I suppose.
“I’ve read that sometimes people have things that carry over from past lives such as birthmarks. I have a big, ugly mole just under my right ribs. Who knows, maybe that’s where Paul was wounded. Or it could all just be coincidence. The possibility still fascinates me though.”
Unfortunately, since theburlyone’s caretakers didn’t write down details of what he said so that the stories could be compared, Reddit (and the world) will never know.
Barbro Karlén published And the Wolves Howled, Fragments of Two Lifetimes in 2000 about her experience growing up believing that she was the reincarnation of Anne Frank, the famous Holocaust victim who penned a diary in hiding before her death in 1945.
Karlén—born in 1954 in Sweden to a Christian family with no idea who Anne Frank was because Frank’s diary had not yet been translated and published in the country—says she was 2 years old when she told her mother that her name wasn’t really Barbro.
Karlén’s parents believed this was just fantasy until something happened during their visit to Amsterdam. For the Institute for the Integration of Science, Intuition and Spirit, Walter Semkiw, MD describes the moment that shifted everything:
“By the time Barbro was ten, the Diary of Anne Frank had been published in Sweden and while in Amsterdam, her father wanted to visit the Frank House. At their hotel, he took the phone off the hook and asked for a taxi to take them there.”
Karlén told her parents they didn’t need a taxi, that it was close enough to walk. Her parents asked her how she could possibly know, since she had never been to the city, but she was insistent that they follow her.
“‘We’ll soon be there, it’s just round the next corner,’ Barbro told her parents. She herself wasn’t at all surprised when they arrived at the Anne Frank House after a ten minute walk through the twisting streets of the city. …Upon their arrival, her parents stood there speechless and just looked at one another.”
Just as Frank was a gifted writer at a young age, Karlén published her first book at age 12.
A Civil War Soldier
Carol Bowman writes in Children’s Past Life Memories and Healing about her son’s experience with retrieving past-life memories after a hypnotherapist asks him to explain his sudden fear of loud noises:
“Norman simply said to Chase, ‘Sit on your Mom’s lap, close your eyes and tell me what you see when you hear the loud sounds that scare you.’ Immediately Chase said, ‘I am a man. I’m a soldier. I have a dirty uniform on. I’m holding a gun with a long sword at the end. I’m crouching behind a rock. I’m scared, confused. There’s smoke everywhere. I don’t even know who I’m shooting at.’
“I think I went into a mild state of shock at that moment; we were in new territory. My little boy, who never played war games, and didn’t even own a toy gun, was talking about a soldier. It didn’t compute. My mind was quickly scanning everything Chase may have been exposed to on TV, in the movies, or from his playmates to explain what was happening.
“I was a stay-at-home mother and knew much of what Chase had been exposed to. The only television our kids were allowed to watch was Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. I was trying to figure out where he could have gotten this—which Sesame Street episode was this? Which Disney movie?”
Chase talks about a cannon. He explains that he’s been wounded, then grabs his right wrist. His sister later pointed out that that was where Chase had severe, recurring eczema that his mother had to bandage every night before bed so that he wouldn’t get blood on the sheets. After this session with the hypnotherapist, the eczema went away, though they had tried all kinds of treatments before that never worked.
Chase’s story aligns with many of the cases studied at the University of Virginia (although he was not among them), except in one respect: His story came out at first only while talking to a hypnotherapist.
We’re not sure if what Chase experienced was exactly like being under hypnosis, but past-life regression hypnotherapy has seen growth in popularity in recent years. Some practitioners, like Dr. Brian Weiss, have built an empire on the premise that the memory recoveries can have healing benefits.
It’s worth noting, though, that Dr. Stevenson was hugely skeptical of this practice and its propensity for creating false memories. “I do not undertake verifications of details that may emerge from such experiments except in the extremely rare instances that seem to me to show strong evidence of some paranormal process,” he writes in an open letter to the number of people who wrote to him for hypnosis recommendations regarding past-life memories.
“Instances of responsive xenoglossy (speaking a foreign language not normally learned) may be included in this small group that I am interested in investigating.”