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
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
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
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
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
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.
This article was originally published in the Smithsonian
(May 1995): pp. 110-127, and is reproduced here with the
permission of its author.
Twice a Fulbright lecturer in India, the author researched
this article in Madras and London. He also published a novel
about Madame Blavatsky and her circle titled Shadows
and Elephants: A Novel Based on the Adventures of the Notorious
Mystic Madame Blavatsky (Teaticket, MA.: Leapfrog
Press, 2002). He is the author of seven novels and two collections
of stories. The author lived over two years in India, part
of the time travelling to rural villages to transcribe folk
tales for his book, The Pomegranate Princess. He
returned many times during the 1980's and 1990's to collect
material for articles that appeared in The New York Times,
Smithsonian, and other publications.
Photos and illustrations were left out.