OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series (1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
OUT of the sea of controversy into which H. P. B. and I were plunged by my Graphic letters and my book; Mr. Owen’s article on Katie King and his interleaved disclaimer in the January (1875) Atlantic Monthly; General Lippit’s contributions to the Galaxy (December, 1874) and the Banner of Light; the attacks upon and defences of the Holmes mediums; and the universal discussion of Spiritualism in the American and European press,—were churned certain precious things: among them, the forcing of Eastern occult ideas upon Western attention, and the birth of the Theosophical Society.
To refute the mendacious stories of Mahatma meddlings and attendant phenomena, and show the natural stages by which the Society came into being, we must glance at the earlier letters written to the press by its two actual pioneers and parents (of which I have an
incomplete set of copies). The details may be dry, but they are important as historical data.
As already explained, the self-advertising attack of the late Dr. George M. Beard—an electropathic physician of New York city—upon the Eddys, and his wild and false assertion that he could imitate the form-apparitions with “three dollars’ worth of drapery,” lashed H. P. B. into a Berserker writing-rage and made her send the Graphic that caustic reply, covering a bet of $5000 that he could not make good his boast, which first acquainted the American public with her existence and name. Naturally, people took sides; the friends of Spiritualism and the mediums siding with H. P. B., while the opponents, especially the materialistically inclined scientists, ranged themselves in the cohort of Dr. Beard’s supporters. The one who profited by the dispute was Beard, whose ruse—worthy of Pears, Beecham, or Siegel—advertised him and his electricity beyond his expectations. Profiting by the chance, he gave a thoroughly well advertised lecture on this subject, and another, if I remember aright, upon Mesmerism and Thought-reading, at the New York Academy of Music. The Banner of Light, the R. P. Journal and other papers, commenting upon H. P. B.’s anti-Beard letter, she replied, and so, very speedily found herself with her hands full of controversy. As I said before, she took up the position of an out-and-out Spiritualist, who not only believed but knew that the powers behind the mediums, which wrote, produced physical phenomena, talked in air-formed voices,
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and even showed their entire forms and disconnected faces, hands, feet or other members, were the earth-haunting spirits of the dead; neither more nor less. In a previous chapter I quoted passages from her published letters and articles going to prove this, and in her very first letter to me, written from New York within a week after she left me at Chittenden (October, 1874) addressing me as “Dear Friend” and signing herself “Jack,” and in her second one, dated six days later and signed “Jack Blavatsky,” she entreats me not to praise the mediumistic musical performance of one Jesse Sheppard, whose pretence to having sung before the Czar, and other boasts she had discovered to be absolutely false; as such a course on my part would “injure Spiritualism more than anything else in the world.”1 “I speak to you,” she tells me, “as a true friend to yourself and (as a) Spiritualist anxious to save Spiritualism from a danger.” In the same letter, referring to a promise given her by “Mayflower” and “George Dix,” two of the alleged spirit-controls of Horatio Eddy, that they would help her by influencing the judge before whom was pending her lawsuit to recover the money put into the Long Island
1Led by his unlucky star, Sheppard—she writes— had brought her a lot of his St. Petersburgh credentials, in Russia, to translate. Among them she found a Police license to sing at the Salle Koch, a low-lager-bier saloon and dance hall, resorted to by dissipated characters of both sexes, and a music-master’s hill for 32 roubles, for teaching him certain Russian songs—which we heard him sing at Eddy’s, in a dark séance when he was ostensibly under the control of Grisi and Lablache! I give the facts on her authority without prejudice.
market-garden co-partnership—she says: “Mayflower was right, Judge——came in with another decision in my favour.” Did she believe, then, that medium-controlling spirits could and would influence justices? If not, what does her language imply? Either she was a Spiritualist, or so represented herself for the time being, with the ulterior design of gradually shifting Spiritualists from the Western to the Eastern platform of belief in regard to the mediumistic phenomena. In her anti-Beard letter (N. Y. Daily Graphic, Nov. 13, 1874), she says—speaking of the incident of the bringing to her by the “spirits” of Horatio Eddy, of a decoration-buckle that had been buried with her father’s body, at Stavropol—“I deem it my duty as a Spiritualist to,” etc., etc. Later on, she told me that outburst of mediumistic phenomenon had been caused by the Brotherhood of Adepts as an evolutionary agency, and I embodied this idea in a phrase in my book (P. O. W. p., 454, top), suggesting the thinkable hypothesis that such might be the fact. But then, in the case, the spiritualistic outbreak could not be regarded as absolutely maleficent, as some Theosophical extremists have depicted it; for it is inconceivable—at least to me, who knew them—that those Elder Brothers of Humanity would ever employ, even for the good of the race, an agency in itself absolutely bad. The Jesuit motto, Finis coronat opus, is not written on the temple walls of the Fraternity.
In the same number of the Daily Graphic to which she contributed her anti-Beard letter, was published her biography,
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from notes furnished by herself. She says, “In 1858, I returned to Paris and made the acquaintance of Daniel Home, the Spiritualist. . . Home converted me to Spiritualism. . . After this I went to Russia. I converted my father to Spiritualism.” In an article defending the Holmes mediums from the treacherous attack of their ex-partner and show-manager, Dr. Child, she speaks of Spiritualism as “our belief” and “our cause”; and again, “the whole belief of us Spiritualists”; still further, “if we Spiritualists are to be laughed at, and scoffed, and ridiculed, and sneered at, we ought to know at least the reason why.” Certainly; and some of her surviving colleagues might profitably keep it in mind. In the Spiritual Scientist of March 8, 1875, she says that a certain thing would “go towards showing that, notwithstanding the divine truth of our faith (Spiritualism) and the teachings of our invisible guardians (the spirits of the circles), some Spiritualists have not profited by them, to learn impartiality and justice.”
This was both courageous and magnanimous on her part; thoroughly characteristic of the way in which she flung herself in the fore-front of battle for any cause that she took up. Her sympathies for liberty and freethought led her to follow, with several other ladies, the victory-bringing flag of Garibaldi, the Liberator, and to plunge into the thick of the carnage at Mentana; and so now, when she saw the Spiritual Idea battling against Materialistic Science, no fear of contamination by contact with fraudulent mediums, evil spirits, or cliques of
Spiritualists who preached and practised free-love and the breaking of healthy social bonds, made her hesitate for one moment about taking her stand on the side of Spiritualism. Her policy may be condemned by some, her language—as seen in the few specimens, out of many, above quoted—be regarded as a full endorsement of the very Spiritualism she afterwards so mercilessly criticised; but to judge her fairly, one must try and put himself beside her under the then existing conditions; he must try to realise how much she knew, both in theory and practise, about physical phenomena that the world needs to know before casting itself into the lethal stream of Materialism. Many of us would have used much more guarded language, and thus avoided leaving behind us such a tangle of contradictions and confusion; but then she was exceptional in every respect—in mental and psychical powers, in temperament and in method of controversy. One object of this narrative is to show that, with all human frailties and eccentricities that may be ascribed to her, she was a great, high-towering personage, who did a great altruistic work for the world, and was rewarded with savage ingratitude and blinded depreciation.
Her instructions to me about the existence of the elemental spirit world went on—as before noted—apace with our private intercourse with (alleged) rapping spirits, and so, long before I had adopted the Eastern theory of Pisachas and Bhûtas, called by us elementaries,1
1In point of fact both of us used to call the spirits of the elements “elementaries,” thus causing much confusion, but when Isis was
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I had come to distinguish the two unlike classes of phenomena-working agents, the sub-human nature-spirits, and the earth-bound, ex-human elementaries. Towards the close of the winter season of 1874-5, while at Hartford seeing my book through the press, but too late to re-write it, I had the rare chance of consulting the superb collection of books on the occult sciences in the Watkinson Library of Reference, made for it by Dr. H. C. Trumbull, the erudite Librarian. I was thus pretty well prepared to understand H. P. B.’s verbal explanations, and her many surprising psychical phenomena in illustration of them. This course of preparatory reading, lectures, and phenomena also stood me in good stead when she addressed herself to the laborious task of writing Isis Unveiled, and enlisted me as her helper.
It was in the first quarter of the year 1875, that we became interested in the Spiritual Scientist, a small but bright and independent journal, published and edited in Boston, by Mr. E. Gerry Brown. The crying need of the hour was a paper which, while recognised as an organ of Spiritualism, could be induced to help in bringing Spiritualists to scrutinise more closely the behaviour and pretended psychical gifts of their mediums, and to patiently listen to the theories of spirit being and intercourse with the living. The older journals of that class were, what might be termed too orthodox, while Mr.
being written, I suggest that we should employ the distinctive terms “elemental” and “elementary” in the connections they have ever since had. It is too late to change them now, else I should do it.
Brown’s speciality seemed to be to win his way by fearless criticism of abuses. Our relations with him were brought about by a letter to him (Spi. Sci., March 8,1875), and within the next month he had been taken under the favour of the powers behind H. P. B. In the number of the journal in question for April 17th, appeared a very notable circular headed “Important to Spiritualists.” The importance of it to Mr. Gerry Brown was in the promise (fairly redeemed)1 it embodied of literary and pecuniary help to be given him, while to the public which concerned itself in the question of Spiritualism, it held out the profitable idea that the paper would be used as the organ of the new movement for placing American Spiritualism on a more philosophical and intellectual basis. The circular stated that the leading Spiritualist papers were “compelled to devote most of their space to communications of a trivial and purely person-al character, interesting only to the friends of the spirits sending them . . .” and to beginners. The London Spiritualist and Paris Revue Spirite were cited as “examples of the kind of paper that should have been established in this country (U. S. A.) long ago—papers which devote more space to the discussion of principles, the teaching of philosophy, and the display of conservative critical ability, than to the mere publication of
1Professor Buchanan, Epes Sargent, Charles Sotheran and other known writers, not to mention our two selves, began contributing to his columns, and H. P. B. and I gave him several hundred dollars towards current expenses. The latter form of help was acknowledged in his “leader” of June 1, 1875, entitled “Rock Bottom.”
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the thousand-and-one minor occurrences of . . . circles.” The third paragraph read as follows:
“It is the standing reproach of American Spiritualism that it teaches so few things worthy of a thoughtful man’s attention: that so few of its phenomena occur under conditions satisfactory to men of scientific training; that the propagation of its doctrines is in the hands of so many ignorant, if not positively vicious, persons; and that it offers, in exchange for the orderly arrangements of prevailing religious creeds, nothing but an undigested system of present and future moral and social relations and accountability.”1
I wrote every word of this circular myself, alone corrected the printer’s proofs, and paid for the printing. That is to say, nobody dictated a word that I should say, nor interpolated any words or sentences, nor
1I was then and have since often been reproached by Spiritualists for the severity of my strictures upon the prevalent large admixture of immoral views and behaviour among mediums and whole groups of pretended Spiritualists, but I never wrote more caustic things, about them than are to be found in the newspaper articles and books of leading writers among themselves. To say nothing of the sweeping and savage depreciation of the whole company of his brother mediums and psychics, by that peacock medium, Home. Mrs. Hardinge Britten says (Nineteenth Century Miracles, p. 426), that her spirit guides had told her that “the worst foes of Spiritualism would be of its own household, and the cruellest stabs directed, against it would be dealt by the hands of Spiritualists themselves.” In another place she says: “and thus this great cause, like many another of the world’s purest Messiahs, has been lifted up on the cross of martyrdom between the thieves of licentiousness and cupidity”: if it had not died out, “it is not for lack of every available effort on the part of humanity to sap its integrity by internal
controlled my action in any visible way, I wrote it to carry out the expressed wishes of the Masters that we—H. P. B. and I—should help the Editor of the Scientist at what was to him, a difficult crisis, and used my best judgment as to the language most suitable for the purpose. When the circular was in type at the printer’s and I had corrected the proofs, and changed the arrangement of the matter into its final paragraphs, I enquired of H. P. B. (by letter) if she thought I had better issue it anonymously or append my name. She replied that it was the wish of the Masters that it should be signed thus: “For the Committee of Seven, BROTHERHOOD OF LUXOR.” And so it was signed and published. She subsequently explained that our work, and much more of the same kind, was being supervised by a Committee of seven Adepts belonging to the Egyptian
corruption, as well as by external antagonism. . . .” Free-love “had expanded from an incipient germ to the full maturity of a widespread movement. . . The monstrous flow of licentiom doctrine, often illustrated by monstrous licentiousness of life and conduct, which for a certain period of time spread like an evil contagion throughout the United States, . . . cast a most unjust and ruinous ill-odour over the reputation and belief of tens of thousands of innocent persons,” etc. I never wrote anything as strong as that; though even Mrs. Britten has not exaggerated the unsavoury condition of affairs produced by the unrestricted encouragement of intercourse between the living and the dead. To regulate this intercourse, to announce its perils, and to show what was true spiritualism, and how man can develop true spirituality, was plainly H.P.B.’s design and her motive for declaring herself a Spiritualist. This will be evident, I think, to those who follow her course throughout to the day of her death.
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group of the Universal Mystic Brotherhood.1 Up to this time she had not even seen the circular, but now I took one to her myself and she began to read it attentively. Presently she laughed, and told me to read the acrostic made by the initials of the six paragraphs. To my amazement, I found that they spelt the name under which I knew the (Egyptian) adept under whose orders I was then studying and working. Later, I received a certificate, written in gold ink, on a thick green paper, to the effect that I was attached to this “Observatory,” and that three (named) Masters had me under scrutiny. This title, Brotherhood of Luxor, was pilfered by the schemers who started, several years later, the gudgeontrap called “The H. B. of L.” The existence of the real Lodge is mentioned in Kenneth Mackenzie’s .Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia (p. 461).
Nothing in my early occult experience during this H. P. B. epoch, made a deeper impression on my mind than the above acrostic. It proved to me that space was no bar to the transmission of thought-suggestions from the teacher’s to the pupil’s brain; and it supported the theory that, in the doing of world-work, the agent may often be actually led by overseeing directors to do things which they choose to have done, without his being at all conscious that his mind is not functioning under the sole impulse of its controlling Ego. Applying this
1It has been already explained that I first worked under the Egyptian part of the African section and later under the Indian section.
not unreasonable or unscientific theory to the whole history of the Theosophical Society, who can say in what proportion of cases any of us has been unconsciously doing what had to be done, but might not have been done if no external influence had given us the push? And how many of the wretched mistakes, missteps, and injurious eccentricities that have occurred, or been shown, by either of us, were due to our just being left to follow our own wrong impulses, the result of our temperaments, ignorance, moral weakness or bigoted prejudices? People often wonder why the various scandals, such as the Coulomb and lesser ones which we have had to suffer from, were not foreseen and prevented by the Masters; why H. P. B. was not forewarned of what traitors would do; and why, in the seemingly most serious crisis, no help came, no spiritual guide appeared. Of course, such questions imply the absurdity that Mahatmas, who implicitly believe in and govern their own actions by the strict rules of Karma, would take us, like so many puppets on wires, or so many poodles being taught tricks, and put us through set motions, to the meddling with our Karma, and the consequent interference with our rights. What the evolution of society needs at a particular juncture is, perhaps, that a certain. person should do, write, or say a certain thing which, once done, brings after it a whole train of consequences. If that necessary thing involves no Karmic wrong to the individual, the mental impulse to do it may be given him, and so the sequence of cause
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and effect be begotten. The destinies of Europe, for example, are under the control of three or four men, who might meet together in a boating party and in the same boat. If some certain trifle should occur, then such a kingdom would ultimately be destroyed, such a dynasty develop into a scourge of the race, or such an era of peace and progress be entered upon. If either the one or the other be demanded at that juncture by the interests of all mankind, and no other means are available for precipitating the crisis, then I could conceive it as lawful for the mental suggestion to be made from without: or, take a simpler case, which is also historical. A point had been reached in the progress of Egyptology where the world needed a better clue than it had for reading the hieroglyphics: in the literature of that ancient civilisation lay great and precious truths—truths, the time to republish which had arrived. All other means failing, an Arab labourer is simply moved to dig at a certain spot, or break open a certain sarcophagus; he finds an engraved stone or an inscribed papyrus; which he sells to Mr. Grey, at Thebes, in 1820, or to Signor Casati, at Karnak or Luxor; who, in turn, transmit it to Champollion, or Young, or Ebers; who find the missing clue, and with it decipher very important old writings. It is the helping, not the fratricidal, hand that these hidden benefactors of ours hold out to humanity. Or, to cite a case much nearer home: I am moved to buy a paper on a certain day; I read a certain thing in it; which prompts me to take a natural step;
which, later, brings H. P. B. and myself together; which, after a while, evolves the Theosophical Society and its consequences. For taking the initial step, I reap no merit; but if the effect is a good one, and I merge myself into it, and work for it with unselfish fervour, then I do share in the whole benefit that that effect imparts to humanity. I saw some poor people at Galle, once, reaching up their hands to touch the baskets of food which richer neighbours had procured for and were bearing on their heads to a company of Buddhist monks. Upon inquiry I was told that, by feeling a true sympathy for the deed of charity, they partook of the merit it involved. It meant more than a long sermon to me, and I embodied the idea in my Buddhist Catechism.
I found among my papers last week an old letter from the Hon. Alexander Aksakoff, of St. Petersburgh, which though probably not one of those which were so phenomenally abstracted from the mailbags en route to New York and delivered to me in Philadelphia, since it is dated in St. Petersburgh the 4-16th April, 1875, and must have reached me after my visit to H. P. B. was finished, contains a lead-pencil postscript on the fourth page in the quaint handwriting of “John King.” He tells me that my correspondent “is a truly good man and a learned one, too”—facts which are now acknowledged universally. Having lost or given away the envelope, I cannot fix the exact date of the letter’s arrival. In it, M. Aksakoff informs me that, after reading my Graphic letters and noting their effect in the
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two hemispheres, he is convinced of the absolute necessity for an exhaustive inquiry into the phenomena, by the best men of science. He asks me if I cannot organise such a committee, and tells me what has been done in Russia. There are four professors of eminence, in as many different Universities, who have, in committee, gone thoroughly into the matter and satisfied themselves ofthe reality of the phenomena; if I choose, these scientific gentlemen will send me a joint appeal to their American colleagues, to do as they have done, and thus settle, once and for all, the most important problem that man has to solve for his own sake and for the welfare of the race. Of course, this was exactly the motive which had prompted my undertaking the Eddy researches, but I found the obstacles presented, in the ignorant and brutish obstinacy of the mediums and their whole corps of “guides,” insurmountable, and recorded the fact in my book. I was a little amused to read, in a Postscript written two days later than his letter, that M. Aksakoff, who had meanwhile finished reading H. P. B.’s Russian translation of my book, said it was plain that an orderly scientific search with such people as mediums was impossible, and begged me to consider his plan as cancelled. The matter did not drop there, however, for our correspondence was kept up, and resulted in H. P. B. and I being asked to serve as a committee to select a trustworthy medium to be sent over to St. Petersburgh, for trial and testing by a Special Committee of Professors of the St. Petersburgh Imperial University. We
accepted the commission, and our joint card announcing the fact to the public appeared in the Spiritual Scientist of July 8, l875—as far as I can make out from the confused way in which the newspaper-cuttings are pasted in our Scrap-Book, Vol. I. At all events, in the journal of that day was published a translation of Mr. Aksakoff’s letter to H. P. B. broaching the subject, thus:
“My prayer to you and Col. Olcott is as follows: Will you be so kind as to translate into English the enclosed ‘Appeal to Mediums’ . . . consult together and report to us [the Imperial Society of Experimentalists in Physics] whom, of American mediums we had better invite to St. Petersburgh in the best interests of the Cause? For our first experiments we should prefer having mediums for simple but strong physical manifestations in the light. Use all your influence to get us good mediums, begin the work at once and advise me without loss of time. Bear in mind that money is no object with us,” etc.
Naturally enough this letter drew out a good many applications, and we personally tested the mediumship of several of the parties, seeing some extremely surprising phenomena, and some really beautiful. Its appearance was seized upon by certain impudent impostors to give a public show of pretended mediumship at the Boston Theatre, on a Sunday evening in the same July, advertising themselves as engaged to go to Russia. We exposed and repudiated them in a card sent, July 19, 1875, to all the Boston papers.