A spirited story of the psychic and the Colonel

from alpheus.org: On a warm autumn afternoon in 1874, Henry Steel Olcott, an attorney and popular New York journalist, found himself in Vermont looking for ghosts. On assignment for his newspaper, he planned to investigate one of the séances, or “spook shops,” that were then enjoying a surge of popularity across America.

Olcott’s credentials as a sleuth were impeccable. After rising to the rank of colonel during the Civil War, he had attracted national attention as the head of a commission that investigated the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. Now 42, with his fashionable mutton-chop whiskers and pince-nez spectacles he was an imposing media figure, and his readers expected a brilliant expose. They were to be very surprised.

For Colonel Olcott was about to have one of the most dramatic midlife crises in history. Changing from skeptic to true believer, he would become a leading exponent of occult wisdom in countries around the world, and the first American to popularize Eastern religions in the West.
What brought on the dramatic turnabout in his life? Her name was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a down-on-her-luck Russian aristocrat and mystic who had also made her way to Chittenden, Vermont, that afternoon. Middle-aged and fat, fond of dressing in frumpish Gypsy-like costumes, she was no siren. Nonetheless, her round face, wiry hair and huge eyes gave her a hypnotic attractiveness. She could converse brilliantly on any subject, and when Olcott met her, he was fascinated.

Inside an old farmhouse, they joined a hushed audience facing a wooden platform. The room darkened. Onto the stage stepped the “materialized spirit” of Honto, a beautiful Indian maiden. She did a dance with scarves, then vanished into the shadows. An Egyptian juggler appeared, offering an Oriental rope trick. A wizened old lady brought messages from the next world in a tiny piping voice.
Madame Blavatsky herself began to call forth spirits from the ether. Among them was her family’s former footman, who wore a tall fez and sang folk songs, and her late uncle, a Russian judge wearing lugubrious black robes. Another spirit gave her a military medal that, she told the amazed audience, had been buried with her father many years before. For Olcott, the medal was proof of her genuineness as a medium.

To understand how he could take such theatrical apparitions seriously, I had to look at the history of the religious movements that swept across the country during the past century. Spiritualism, the conviction that the dead could communicate with the living, had many sober-minded adherents then. The belief occurred partly as a reaction against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which seemed to deny all traces of a divine origin to human history. Defying “materialism,” clergymen and mediums alike brought reassuring messages to their audiences from beyond the grave. Like Colonel Olcott, many people believed that investigations into paranormal activity would eventually reveal ways in which Spiritualist “phenomena” could be explained by natural laws.
Today, in another era of confusing scientific innovations, the New Age movement has revived considerable interest in communication with the spirit world. A scholarly new book about Madame Blavatsky, The Masters Revealed by K. Paul Johnson, traces the historical origins of some of the people she claimed to have contacted through telepathy. All sorts of channelers, shamans, gurus and spirit guides are attracting popular attention. The most celebrated modern figure involved, actress Shirley MacLaine (right), became a best-selling author by writing about her past lives. One of MacLaine’s former spiritual interests is often satirized in the Doonesbury comic strip when a young starlet acts as a channel for a prehistoric character named Hunk-Ra.
But no one today can match Madame Blavatsky’s flamboyance or the proselytizing zeal for which Colonel Olcott became famous a century ago.

At 17, on the run from an unhappy marriage in Russia, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky began a life of travel. She supported herself as a lady’s companion, journalist, pianist and even a circus bareback rider. She also held séances among society matrons in Europe, Colonel Olcott reported in his columns, and studied magic with a Coptic sorcerer in Cairo. Ever in search of occult knowledge, she had made pilgrimages to India and Tibet, she claimed.

The Colonel, whose joyless marriage was ending and whose career had bogged down in routine, remained smitten with the exotic Madame Blavatsky after they left Vermont. Defying social convention, he set up house with her in an apartment at 47th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City. To her, he must have seemed a godsend–she had recently been reduced to working in an immigrant sweatshop making artificial flowers. Now she had someone who would not only pay the bills but introduce her to the many influential people he knew. She and the Colonel were probably never involved sexually–her letters report that she had an aversion to physical passion, and he was known to keep mistresses–but their partnership was to last for more than a decade. They spoke of each other as “chums.”

The “Lamasery,” as journalists soon began to call their apartment, was a joyously eccentric place. A mechanical bird and a golden Buddha perched on the mantelpiece, framed by tall potted palms. Stuffed owls, snakes and lizards peeped out from the overflowing bookcases. The star of this menagerie was a stuffed baboon, wearing spectacles and clamping under its arm a lecture on Darwin’s Origin of Species.
The place became a salon for truth-seekers who were attracted by the Colonel’s enthusiasm and Madame’s witty, irreverent conversation. Guests hoped to witness one of her famous “phenomena.” Like other contemporary mediums, she could make mysterious rapping sounds echo from under séance tables and cause pictures to appear on slates no visible human hand had touched. Unseen “astral bells” tinkled around the room as she sat mesmerizing her audience with tales of her adventures.

Blavatsky often invited journalists in to chronicle her eccentricities, including her outlandish costumes and a 100-cigarette-a-day smoking habit. She referred to her critics as “gilded humbugs” and “old overboiled pumpkins.” Newspapermen, she complained vehemently, “wanted to see my mouth to count my teeth and see whether they were genuine or not. . . . They said I was a heathen . . . an adventuress . . . a felon or a forger, that I had been married seven times, and murdered six of my husbands.”

At one gathering, Colonel Olcott suggested creating an organization to study occult “phenomena” and literature. Someone suggested calling it the “Theosophical Society,” after a group of third-century Alexandrian scholars. The name was adopted, and in November of 1875 the Colonel was elected the society’s first president. Among the early members were Thomas Edison, who had just invented the phonograph, and Gen. Abner Doubleday, who was later credited (inaccurately) with inventing the game of baseball.

The new society needed ideas to distinguish it from those of other Spiritualist groups. Madame Blavatsky, announcing that she was through with “spooks,” began writing a compendium of ancient occult knowledge. She was a voracious scholar who seemed to remember every book she had read since childhood. The Colonel edited her manuscript as she wrote, skillfully packaging her arcane theories for public consumption.
When her book Isis Unveiled was published in 1877, it ran to nearly 2,000 pages. Reviews were mixed, The author pasted all of them in her 30-volume scrapbook, which I read at the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Madras, India. “The most remarkable production of this century,” said the New York Herald. “A large dish of hash,” scolded the Springfield Republican. Madame Blavatsky fired back with letters commenting on the reviews, cleverly doubling her media exposure. If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be titillating the public on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Her book is still in print, having sold more than a half-million copies since its publication.

In Isis Unveiled, Madame Blavatsky laid out the fundamentals of Theosophy. Borrowing from American Spiritualism, contemporary science, European mysticism and an assortment of Eastern religions, she explained our existence as an evolutionary process by which we progress through successive reincarnations toward a perfect understanding of the Absolute. We are governed by the laws of karma, which reward good deeds we have done in earlier lives. Though it leaned heavily on Hinduism and Buddhism, Theosophy, as she explained it, encouraged an appreciation of all the world’s faiths and embraced the brotherhood of all men.

The author claimed that most of her book had been dictated to her by various “Masters,” extraordinary men, some of them long dead, who for centuries had been guarding secret knowledge in Egypt, India and Tibet. They communicated with her telepathically, she said, using astral currents. They also wrote letters, some of which dropped from the ether into Colonel Olcott’s lap as he sat working across from her at their desk. Needless to say, non-Theosophical historians cast considerable doubt upon the telepathic origin of these letters. But the Colonel duly reported their contents with great excitement.

Rival journalists had been making fun of his declarations for some time. The Theosophical Society’s membership had dwindled since an incident that had occurred the previous year. A Bavarian aristocrat named Baron De Palm had promised to bequeath the organization his entire fortune, consisting, he said, of a silver mine in Colorado and some castles in Switzerland. He asked only that Colonel Olcott make sure that he was cremated at his death. Cremation was unknown in America at the time. When the baron passed away and Colonel Olcott announced the body was to be burned, journalists had a field day. After the ceremony, the New York Daily Inquirer’s headline announced: “Broiled Baron: De Palm Decently Done.” Perhaps predictably, the deed to the Bavarian’s silver mine proved worthless; his whole estate did not even cover the cost of the funeral.

Colonel Olcott devised a new plan to increase membership: he would merge the society with the Arya Samaj, a large Hindu revivalist organization in India. The two groups, he thought, had a common goal: the awakening of interest in ancient religious wisdom. Madame Blavatsky, who was tiring of New York, proposed moving the society’s headquarters–and its two founders–to India. At first the Colonel balked; he did not want to give up his comfortable life. But the prospect of adventure convinced him. Madame Blavatsky took on American citizenship so that she could enjoy the protection of U.S. consulates in India.

The contents of the Lamasery were auctioned off. Soon the apartment, once so splendidly exotic, was bare. The few remaining Theosophists sat on packing crates to drink tea together one last time. Edison made a recording of everyone’s voice–including a few disconsolate meows from the society’s cat. On December 17, 1878, Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky sailed for India.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the leader of the Arya Samaj, welcomed the two when they reached Bombay. Curious pundits and priests of every Asian faith arrived in droves to meet them. A pleasant compound of tile-roofed houses in the hills above the city became the Theosophical Society’s headquarters.
Colonel Olcott soon became a popular lecturer all over the subcontinent. Never before had a Westerner so ardently espoused Eastern religion or so vehemently criticized the influence of British colonialism. Maharajas sent processions of elephants to meet him and Madame Blavatsky, showering them with gifts. Wherever he stopped, the Colonel founded branches of the Theosophical Society. One Indian paper reported that Colonel Olcott had “a Hindu heart and a Saxon energy.” Another described Madame Blavatsky as “a woman of extraordinary powers . . . whose life is full of romance and hair-breadth escapes on land and sea and from shipwreck, poison, sword, fire, wild beasts and pestilence.” She must have given quite an interview!

Despite their anticolonial sentiments, the Theosophists found a friend in A. P. Sinnett, the editor of the most influential British newspaper in India, the Pioneer. Sinnett and his wife had long been keen believers in Spiritualism. They now made Madame Blavatsky a celebrity guest at séances given by the leaders of Anglo-Indian society. Tongues sometimes clicked in disapproval of Madame’s bohemian contempt for conventional decorum, which she dismissed as “flapdoodle.” But everyone loved the equivocal miracles she produced.
Handkerchiefs embroidered with people’s names seemingly appeared from nowhere. Astral bells tinkled. Sinnett began to receive letters from the Masters. On one occasion, the wife of A. O. Hume, a high-ranking civil servant, expressed a wish to reclaim a brooch she had lost years before. Madame Blavatsky said it had been “materialized” outside in a nearby flower bed. The guests rushed out, dug as directed and were amazed to find the treasure. At another gathering, a visiting European professor challenged Madame Blavatsky by declaring that no one, not even she, could produce a miracle the way the yogis of the Shastras (holy books) had done in ancient times.

“Oh, they say no one can do it now? Well, I’ll show them!” she replied. “If the modern Hindus were less sycophantic to their Western masters, they would not have to get an old hippopotamus of a woman to prove the truth of the Shastras.” She made a sweeping gesture in the air, and a shower of roses fell onto the heads of the startled guests. Happenings like these caused hot public debate. Believing that sensational press coverage of her doings distracted from the serious mission of the society, Colonel Olcott began leaving Madame Blavatsky behind during some of his extended lecture tours.

But his greatest personal triumph came in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1880, when he and Madame Blavatsky took Buddhist vows in a public ceremony. As a Theosophist, he considered the faith part of “one great world religion” and vigorously defended it against attacks from British missionaries who had been trying to Christianize the island.

Olcott visited Ceylon 31 times in the next 27 years. During one stay, he wrote a Buddhist catechism still in use and designed a multicolored Buddhist flag, which can be seen flying over temples around the world today. The Crown Colony’s Buddhist priests appointed him to represent them in London. There he successfully petitioned for various changes in policy, including the legalization of religious schools and the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday as a national holiday in Ceylon.

Steadily defying the colonial authorities, he set about founding Buddhist schools–well over a hundred, by the end of the century. He spoke to enthusiastic audiences in temples and town halls, at coconut plantations and village crossroads, always urging his listeners to take pride in their cultural heritage. Travel was exhilarating but arduous, he reported in his journal: “when sleep is broken by the ear-splitting sounds of the jungle insect world, the horrid yelp of the jackal pack, the distant noise of wild elephants pushing through the cane groves. . . .”

On another Ceylon visit, he was asked to cure a man who appeared to be suffering from paralysis. Long a believer in magnetic healing, the Colonel made passes over the man’s body with his hands, transferring–he believed–his own revitalizing magnetic energy into the afflicted areas. The patient immediately scrambled to his feet and soon the Colonel’s services were much in demand. During the next several months, he “treated” hundreds of Ceylonese afflicted with epilepsy, dysentery, even deafness and blindness. To satisfy the clamoring villagers, he gave away thousands of bottles of “magnetized” water.

Abruptly, the society ordered him to stop such cures. His vital energy, they said, was being so depleted that he might no longer be able to carry on his important organizing work. Fellow Theosophists might also have been worried that the society’s leading emissary was turning his mission into an American-style medicine show.

Colonel Olcott’s picture has twice appeared on Sri Lankan postage stamps. People there consider him the father of the Buddhist Revival Movement and an important figure in the island’s struggle for independence.

When I visited the headquarters of the present-day Theosophical Society in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, I asked the officers if they believed in his reputed healing powers. The organization’s president, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Burma, was surprised at such a question. Surely I was aware that, in Asia, there have always been extraordinary men with highly developed mental powers that allowed them to cure the sick. I apologized for my ignorance.

When the Colonel got back to Bombay in 1880 he found all sorts of trouble brewing. The society’s housekeeper, a woman named Emma Coulomb, was feuding publicly with two British associates who had journeyed with the Colonel and Madame from New York two years before. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky decided to back Coulomb–a decision they were later to regret. Then, in an unfortunate coincidence, Swami Dayananda, head of the Arya Samaj, broke off relations with the Theosophists. His organization hoped to unify India under the banner of Hindu revivalism and denounced the society’s embrace of all religions. At one point, Samajists distributed leaflets in Bombay attacking Olcott and Blavatsky as untrustworthy foreigners interfering in Indian affairs.

When A. P. Sinnett published a book of letters he said he had received from Madame Blavatsky’s Masters, a clergyman confronted Madame with evidence that one letter was plagiarized from a sermon of his that had been published in an American Spiritualist magazine. Anglo-Indian journalists rushed to satirize Madame’s astral communications system.

Theosophical headquarters were moved to Madras at the end of 1882, and for a time public controversy died down. The Colonel took up the lecture tours again. While in London in 1884 he learned that the British Society for Psychical Research, an organization dedicated to the study of paranormal phenomena, wanted to investigate the Theosophical Society’s activities. The group included philosopher Henry Sidgwick, as well as politician Arthur Balfour (who would become Britain’s prime minister in 1902) and physicist Lord Rayleigh.

Their attention had been caught by a sensational article in the Times of London. Emma Coulomb, the housekeeper whom Madame Blavatsky had earlier defended, claimed to possess letters from her employer instructing her to fake many of the mysterious happenings that had attracted so much controversy. Coulomb published these letters–which the Theosophists insist to this day were forgeries–in the magazine of Madras Christian College. For years the society had sparred with the missionaries. Now the men of the cloth, it appeared, were about to get their revenge.

In one letter, Madame Blavatsky reportedly instructed Coulomb to display a bearded, life-size doll in the moonlight so that it could be taken for a Master paying a nocturnal visit to prospective members. Another letter ordered the housekeeper to put faked notes from a Master in the Madras headquarters’ hallowed “shrine.” This was a cabinet equipped with hidden sliding panels, allowing access to it from the adjoining room–Madame Blavatsky’s bedroom, in fact–through a concealed hole in a closet wall.
While Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky were in Europe, the president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Richard Hodgson, left for Madras to have a look at the cabinet. But when he got there, British and American Theosophists told him the shrine had vanished. A few days afterward, he discovered that they had chopped it up and burned the pieces.

The Colonel rushed back to Madras with Madame Blavatsky. He insisted that the cabinet had been destroyed to save her from unwarranted persecution, and that she had never ordered Emma Coulomb’s husband to build its suspicious panels, as the housekeeper claimed. Instead, he asserted, the man had constructed the panels after Madame had left for Europe, knowing that the SPR would be investigating the cabinet. The Coulombs, he claimed, were out to ruin Madame Blavatsky’s reputation in retaliation for wrongs (low wages and public reprimands) the couple said she was responsible for.

Hodgson visited the Coulombs’ quarters in Madras. There, a mysterious letter fell into his lap, just as letters had fallen onto Colonel Olcott and other Theosophists. Emma Coulomb demonstrated how she had caused the letter to drop–by releasing it from a nearly invisible thread attached to a concealed hook in the Ceiling. It occurred to Hodgson that a shower of roses might have once been released in a similar manner.

The SPR gathered evidence with the meticulousness of a police investigation unit. A handwriting expert testified that the letters produced by Coulomb had been penned by Madame Blavatsky. Hodgson’s committee published its report, which came to more than 350 pages.

Colonel Olcott, the report stated, was “innocent of any willful deception” but guilty of “extraordinary credulity and inaccuracy of observation and inference.” Madame Blavatsky was judged guilty of deceiving many people with bogus messages and faked appearances of Masters. The report concluded: “We regard Madame Blavatsky as neither a mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history.”

Was Madame Blavatsky an impostor? Theosophists still passionately deny it. During my research I found nothing fraudulent about the intellectual scope of her books or the intensity of her devotion to the esoteric ideas they contained. I can understand how people who believe in psychic intuition claim her as one of its greatest practitioners. But the SPR’s case against her seems convincing. Clearly she did use deceitful tricks to dazzle people and encourage their faith in the occult world.

Colonel Olcott understood how important she was for the winning of converts, but I believe that he eventually came to doubt the authenticity of her “phenomena” and even of the Masters. He once argued vehemently with Madame Blavatsky about a supposed Master’s letter that, she insisted, ordered him not to make a trip to Ceylon. After defying the order, he reported in his journal, “I did not love or prize her less as a friend or as a teacher, but the idea of her infallibility . . . was gone forever.” Whatever he thought, he could not openly criticize her during the SPR investigation. To do so would have damaged his own reputation for integrity and further risked the good name of the movement to which he had dedicated his life.

The investigation nearly destroyed the Theosophical Society. Madame Blavatsky, who usually deflected criticism with her famous wit, insisted on suing for slander. Colonel Olcott, ordinarily a jovial and easygoing administrator, refused to back her lawsuit, fearing even more public embarrassment for the society. Accusing him of treachery, she retreated to her quarters in a rage and announced that she was on her deathbed.

She was, in fact, suffering from a serious liver ailment and nervous exhaustion. Colonel Olcott arranged for her passage on the first ship bound for Europe. On March 31, 1885, too weak to walk, she was hoisted in an invalid chair onto a steamer waiting in the Madras harbor. She was never to return to India. Except for one brief, uneasy meeting in London, she would never see Colonel Olcott again.

But to the astonishment of her critics, Madame Blavatsky’s career as a public figure was by no means finished. Miraculously recovering her health, she went on to write The Secret Doctrine, another enormous chronicle of occultism that caused as great a sensation as Isis Unveiled. Taking up residence in England, she again began attracting many of the leading intellectuals of her day. A frequent guest in her London salon was Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Annie Besant, one of the future founders of the Indian National Congress, converted to Theosophy. A young Indian law student named Mohandas K. Gandhi at-tended the society’s meetings and was inspired by the discussions of Indian religions he heard there.

In her 60th year, Madame Blavatsky died in London during the influenza epidemic of 1891. Colonel Olcott, lecturing in Australia at the time, was not among the mourners at her funeral. He always praised her work but had learned to move on without her.

Ever since her departure from India, he had been a driven man, traveling the world and planting branches of the Theosophical Society wherever he went. He started free schools for children of the Untouchable caste in Madras. He founded a library there where scholars from many countries could study ancient religious texts. Today, the society’s Indian headquarters, a beautiful palm-fringed estate, attracts thousands of visitors a year. The organization’s profile is much lower than during the times when its leaders were making headlines, but it has steadily grown, with about 33,000 members and branches in more than 50 countries.

Colonel Olcott made his last trip to Madras in 1907, to give his annual presidential address. Too ill to deliver it himself, he was carried downstairs from his room to hear it read. A few days later, on February 17, he died of heart failure. He was 75 years old. He had often revisited the United States during his lecture tours, but he never returned there to settle. India was–and is his final home.

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