OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series (1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
By common consent the Western public have assumed that professional mediums, whose food and lodging depend upon their constant ability to produce psychical phenomena when patrons come to see the same, are greatly tempted in emergencies to supplement real ones with fraudulent imitations. Poor, almost without an exception; often invalids, yet obliged to support children and perhaps lazy or disabled husbands; their incomes extremely precarious, at best, became the mediumistic state depends upon psycho-physiological as well as atmospheric conditions beyond their control, it is not strange that, under the pressure of quarter-day or some other dire necessity, their moral sense should become blunted. Naturally they yield to the temptation flung at them by credulous visitors, who, apparently, ask nothing better than to pay to be duped. At any rate, that is how professional mediums have explained it to me. They have told me their miserable life-histories, how the fatal gift of mediumship embittered their
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childhood, made them shunned and persecuted by their schoolmates, sought after and run down by the curious, caused them to be used as a drawing sensation by travelling showmen, to the profit of their own parents (vide the tragical story of the Eddy children as told by them to me, in P. O. W., chapter II.), and developed the seeds of hysteria, phthisis, or scrofula, to the ruin of their health. Mrs. Hardinge Britten, than whom nobody has known more of mediums and mediumship, told me in New York, in 1875, that she had seldom or ever known, a medium who was not of a scrofulous or phthisical temperament, and medical observation shows, I believe, that derangements of the reproductive organs are quite common among them. Genuine mediumship, promiscuously practised, is, I fear, a serious physical danger, to say nothing as regards its effect morally. Every physician tells us that to sleep in an ill-ventilated room in company with a mixed company of persons, some perhaps diseased, is most dangerous and may prove fatal. But this risk is nothing as compared with that run by the poor public medium, who has to tolerate the presence and be soaked in the magnetic aura of all comers, be they morally or physically diseased or healthy: gross, sensual, irreligious, unspiritual, brutish in habitual thought, word or deed, or the opposite. Alas! poor things, theirs is a psychical prostitution. Thrice happy such as can develop and practise their psychical gifts in the pure surroundings of a select and superior company: so were Temple seeresses guarded in the ancient times.
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The above remarks are pertinent to the line of inquiry that H. P. B. and I had undertaken, at M. Aksakoff’s request, on behalf of the St. Petersburgh scientific committee. While we realised that we should have to choose among professionals, it not being likely that any private medium would consent to the publicity and annoyance of such an ordeal, we determined that we should be thoroughly satisfied of the real and reasonably available psychical powers of the male or female medium we should ultimately recommend. M. Aksakoff’s desire that preference should be given to those whose phenomena could be shown “in the light,” was most reasonable, for thus the chance of successful trickery is minimised; yet there were then—and are now, for that matter—few mediums who could count upon anything of a very striking character happening at their séances by daylight. Our choice would have been narrowed down to two or three like C. H. Foster, or Dr. Slade, who were equally indifferent whether they sat by day or night since their successes in giving “tests of spirit identity” were tolerably certain. We decided, therefore, to find a good medium at any rate, whether he or she came quite up to M. Aksakoff’s ideal or not. Our inquiries extended over several months, to the May of 1876, if I am not mistaken, and as I may as well finish with this episode, now that it is taken up, even though it breaks in upon the chronological sequence of events in T.S. history, I shall recall the successive stages of the St. Petersburgh mediumistic inquiry as best I can.
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In the summer of 1875, a woman named Youngs was practising mediumship for a livelihood at New York. She was, as I dimly recall her, a largely built person, of obstreperous manners and strong physical as well as psychical powers. Her tone of bullying towards her “guides in Spirit Land” was in amusing contrast with the honeyed accents commonly used by most mediums towards the invisibles. “Now, then, spirits,” she would say, “don’t be lazy; hurry up; what are you about? Move the piano, or do this or that. Come, we are all waiting!” And do it they did, as though obedient to her will. Her chief phenomenon was the causing of the spirits to raise a full-sized, heavy piano and making it tilt forward and backward in time to her playing of airs upon it. I heard of her and thought I would get H. P. B. to go with me and see what she could do. She consented, so I put into my pocket three things, to be used as new tests of her mediumship, a raw egg and two English walnuts, the experimental value of which will be presently seen. Fortunately I am not obliged to rely wholly upon memory, since I find a cutting from the New York Sun of September 4, 1875, giving an accurate account of the séance and of my tests. Fifteen persons were present. The Sun reporter says:
“The performance began with the lifting of the piano by invisible powers, three times for ‘yes’ and once for ‘no,’ in answer to questions put by Mrs. Youngs, she resting her hands lightly on top of the music-rack. She then sat down and played various airs, and the instrument
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rose and fell and beat the time. She then went to one end of the piano and called up Colonel Olcott, and as many more of the others as chose to make the experiment, and, causing each to place his left hand underneath the case, laid one of her hands lightly under it, whereupon, at her demand, the end of the heavy instrument [He says elsewhere that he, the reporter, ‘could not lift one end of it,’ so great was its weight] was lifted off the floor without the slightest effort on her part. The Colonel here asked to be permitted to make a single test which should not injure the medium at all. Mrs. Youngs consenting, he produced a hen’s egg from a box, and asked her to hold it in her hand against the under side of the piano, and then request the spirits to raise it. The medium said that, in the course of her mediumship, such a test had never been suggested, and she could not say it would be successful, but she would try. She took the egg and held it as desired, and then rapping upon the case with her other hand, asked the spirits to see what they could do. Instantly the piano rose as before, and was held for a moment suspended in the air. The novel and striking experiment was a complete success.
“Mrs. Youngs then asked as many of the heaviest persons in the room as could sit on the instrument to mount it, and the invitation being accepted by seven ladies and gentlemen, she played a march, and the instrument, persons and all, were lifted easily. Colonel Olcott now produced a couple of English walnuts, and asked the spirits to crack the shells under the piano legs without
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crushing the kernels, the idea being to show that some power beyond the one woman herself, and a power governed by intelligence, was exerting itself. The spirits were willing, but as the piano legs rested upon rolling casters the test was abandoned. He then asked to be permitted to hold an egg in his own hand against the under side of the piano, and have Mrs. Youngs lay her hand beneath and against his, so that he might have a perfect demonstration of the fact that no muscular force whatever was being exerted by her. This test was also agreed to and immediately tried. The piano rose the same as before. The manifestations of the evening were then brought to a close with the lifting of the instrument without the medium’s hands touching it at all.”
This was certainly a very striking manifestation of psycho-dynamical power. Not only was a seven-and-a-half-octave piano, too heavy for one man to lift endwise, raised without the least expenditure of muscular force by the medium or any other living person present, and in a fully lighted room, but an intelligent comprehension of request and compliance with them was demonstrated. Let us admit that the medium’s intelligence was alone in play, still we have the problem of how she could transform her thought, first into will and then into active force. The final test of making her lay her hand beneath mine, which held the egg, and then cause the ponderous instrument to rise as lightly as a feather, contrary to the law of gravity, was to me, as well as to H. P. B., conclusive proof of her mediumistic gift, and we made
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her a conditional offer to recommend her to M. Aksakoff. The condition was that she should subject herself to a series of harmless yet convincing tests, the successful passing of which would warrant us in thoroughly endorsing her. She, however, declined the offer on account of the long voyage and her unwillingness to leave her country to go among foreigners. I do not know what became of her, but I heard that she adopted my egg test as her stock demonstration of her true mediumship. There was very little spirituality about it, but a good deal of revolutionising physics, that I thought might stagger Professor Mendeleyeff and his brother scientists.
A very much prettier and more poetical phase of mediumship was that of Mrs. Mary Baker Thayer of Boston, Mass., to the examination of whose phenomena I devoted some five weeks of the same summer season. She is, or was, what is called a “flower medium,” viz., a psychic in whose presence rain showers of flowers, growing bushes, vines and grasses, and leaves and branches freshly torn from trees, perhaps of a kind that are exotics and to be found only in hot-houses in that cold country. When I knew her she was a middle-aged woman of winsome manners, very obliging as to tests, and always cheerful and friendly. Like many other public mediums, however, she drank to some extent; she said and I can quite believe it--to make up for the terrible drain of the phenomena upon the nervous power. That she was a real medium I am fully convinced, but that
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she also supplemented by trickery her genuine phenomena, I also know. I know, because I caught her at it one evening in the year 1878, shortly before our leaving for lndia, when she was trying to convince me of her ability to “pass matter through matter,” in imitation of Professor Zollner’s celebrated experiments at Leipzig with the help of the medium Slade. I was very sorry that she tried the game with me, for until then I had had nothing but good to say of her. It is sad, I repeat, to know that these poor mediumistic martyrs to human selfishness and inquisitiveness are so often, not to say invariably, driven by necessity to practising on credulity for the lack of reasonable maintenance and surveillance, by properly constituted spiritualistic societies and committees, in command of adequate funds for the purpose. I have always pitied rather than blamed the wretched mediums, while laying the responsibility upon the Spiritualists as a body, where it solely belongs. Let those who think differently try starvation and selfish neglect for a while, and see if they will then be so quick to condemn tricking psychics.
A long summarised report of my Thayer investigations—in part of which H. P. B. assisted—appeared in the New York Sun of August 18, 1875, and was extensively copied throughout America and Europe, and translated into various languages.
The method of procedure at Mrs. Thayer’s séances was this: The company being assembled, some respectable visitor agreeable to all was asked to examine the
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room and furniture, to fasten and, if he liked, seal the windows, lock the doors and take charge of the keys. The medium would also, if asked (provided that she meditated no trickery), suffer her dress to be searched for hidden flowers or other objects. She permitted me to do this whenever I liked, and willingly suffered me to tie and seal her up in a bag, a test I first employed with Mrs. Holmes. All present would then seat themselves about a large dining-table, join hands (the medium as well as the rest), the lights would be put out, and in perfect darkness phenomena would be waited for. After some delay one could hear a pattering on the bare table-top, the air would be filled with fragrance, and Mrs. Thayer would call for a light. Upon the room being illuminated, the surface of the table would be seen, sometimes, quite covered with flowers and plants, and sometimes they would be found thrust into the dress of the sitters or into their hair. Occasionally butterflies would come, or a rush of flying birds would be heard overhead and there might be a dove, a canary, a linnet, or some other bird, fluttering to the four corners of the room; or a gold-fish would be flopping about on the table, wet, as if just taken from the water. Sometimes people present would cry out in pleased wonder on finding between their hands some flower or plant they had mentally asked might be brought them. One evening I saw in front or a Scottish gentleman a full-grown heather plant of his native country, roots and all, and with the soil clinging to them as it had just been uprooted. There were even
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three angle worms wriggling in the dirt. It was quite a common thing for smilax and other vines, seemingly just torn from their pots or beds, and with the soil amidst their roots, to be brought: I had them myself. But I had a better thing than that. One afternoon, I visited Forest Hills Cemetery, situated in a suburb of Boston, and, passing through the green-houses, my attention was struck by a curious plant with long, narrow leaves, striped with white and pale green, known in botany as the Dracæna Regina. With my blue pencil I drew underneath one of the leaves the six-pointed star and mentally asked the spirits to bring it to me in Mrs. Thayer’s next circle, on the following evening. On that occasion I sat beside her and held her hands to make sure of her good faith. In the dark, I felt some cool and moist object drop upon one of my hands which, when the room was again lit up, proved to be my marked Dracæna leaf! To make assurance doubly sure, I revisited the greenhouse and found that my leaf had actually been detached from the stalk and the one I had in my pocket fitted the fracture! A number of similar facts, which I lack space to even cursorily mention, convinced me that Mrs. Thayer was a real psychic; there was, moreover, a certain physiological phenomenon which not only strengthened my belief, but cast much light upon the whole problem of mediumship. Holding both her hands in mine, I noticed that just at the moment when the falling plants began to patter on the table, she would shudder as if chilly, sigh, and her hands instantly turned deathly
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cold, as though a flush of iced water had suddenly run through her veins. The next moment the hands would resume the normal temperature of health. I challenge all the doubting scientists in the world to imitate this phenomena, in themselves. It seems indicative of a total change of “vital polarity,” in the making of phenomena, to use a necessary expression. When H. P. B., evoked the full-length spirit-form out of Mrs. Holmes’s cabinet (P. O. W., 477) she clutched my hand convulsively and her hand grew icy cold; the hand of Signor B., the Italian sorcerer was like ice after his rain-compelling phenomenon; and the passage of the hysterical into the cataleptic trance and other deeper stages of physical unconsciousness, is attended with abnormal lowering of bodily temperature. Dr. A. Moll says (Hypnotism, 113) that the “particularly surprising” experiments of Kraft-Ebing prove that “we must assume an astonishing capacity for regulating the temperature of the body” by hypnotic suggestion. It is fair to infer, therefore, that such a very marked change in animal heat as we have seen occurring in Mrs. Thayer and others at the moment when psychical phenomena are happening, indicates bona fides—the pathological change could not be simulated. Not to dwell too long on this medium’s case, highly interesting though it is, I will merely mention that at one of her public séances I counted and identified eighty-four species of plants; at another, given under my own test-conditions, saw birds appear, caught and kept them; at another, at a private
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house and in broad daylight, saw flowers and a branch torn from a tree in the compound, brought; and at still another, in the same friend’s house—where H. P. B. and I were both guests, she having come there from Philadelphia and I from New York, to follow out these investigations for M. Aksakoff—saw big stones and a quaint old table-knife of an ancient pattern, dropped on the table. But one particular rose given me by Mrs. Thayer’s benevolent Pushpa Yakshini (See Art. “Fire Elementals,” Theosophist, vol. xii,. 259) was the vehicle for a phenomenon by H. P. B. that excelled all that I had ever seen a medium do.
Our kind hostess, Mrs. Charles Houghton, wife of a well-known lawyer of Boston, living in the suburb of Roxbury, drove into town with me one evening to attend Mrs. Thayer’s public séance. H. P. B. declined to go, so we left her talking with Mr. Houghton in the drawing-room. The carriage had been ordered to come for us at a certain hour, but the séance had proved a short one and all the assistants had left save Mrs. Houghton, another lady, and myself. As we had nothing better to occupy ourselves with, I asked Mrs. Thayer to give us three a private séance, to which she obligingly agree. So we took places at the table. I held the medium’s two hands and placed a foot upon her two feet, one of the ladies fastened the doors and saw that the windows were secure, and the other took charge of the light. This being extinguished, we waited in darkness for some time, but there was no sound of plant-dropping. Presently we
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heard the carriage drive up to the door, and at the same moment I felt a cool, moist flower lightly dropped, as though it might have been a snow-flake, upon the back of my hand. I said nothing until the candle was lighted, and even then continued holding Mrs. Thayer’s hands, and called the ladies’ attention to the fact. The flower on my hand was a lovely, half-opened double moss-rose bud, glistening with drops of dew. The medium, starting as though some one had addressed her from behind, said: “The spirits say, Colonel, that that is a present for Madame Blavatsky.” I thereupon handed it to Mrs. Houghton, and she gave it over to H. P. B. on reaching home, where we found her smoking cigarettes and still talking with our host. Mrs. Houghton left the room to go and layoff her bonnet and wrap, and I seated myself with the others. H. P. B. was holding the rose in her hand, smelling its fragrance and with a peculiar far-away look in her face, that her intimates always associated with the doing of her phenomena. Her reverie was interrupted by Mr. Houghton’s saying, “What an exquisite flower, Madame; will you kindly let me see it?” She handed it to him with the same dreamy look and as if mechanically. He sniffed its odour, but suddenly exclaimed: “How heavy it is! I never saw a flower like this. See, its weight actually makes it bend towards the stalk!” “What are you talking about?” I remarked, “There is nothing unusual about it; certainly there was not a while ago when it fell on my hand. Let me see it.” I took it from him with my left hand, and
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lo! it weighed certainly very heavy. “Take care; don’t break it!” exclaimed H. P. B. Tenderly I lifted the bud with the thumb and finger of my right hand and looked at it. Nothing visible to the eye accounted for the phenomenal weight. But presently there sparkled a pin-point of yellow light in its very heart, and before I could take a second look, a heavy plain gold ring leaped out, as though impelled by an interior spring, and fell on the floor between my feet. The rose instantly resumed its natural erect position and its unusual weight had gone. Mr. Houghton and I, both lawyers, moved by the professional instinct of caution, then carefully examined the flower, but detected not the slightest sign of its petals having been tampered with; they were so closely packed and overlaid that there was no possibility of forcing the ring under cover without mutilating the bud. And, in fact, how could H. P. B. have played the trick, right before our two pairs of eyes, in the full glare, of three gas-jets, and while holding the rose in her right hand for not above a couple of minutes before she gave it to Mr. Houghton? Well, certainly, there is an explanation possible in Occult Science: the matter in the gold ring and that in the rose petals could have been raised from the third to the fourth dimension, and restored back to the third at the instant when the ring leaped out of the flower. And that, doubtless, is what did happen; and open-minded physicists should kindly note the fact that matter may have weight without physical bulk, as this charming experiment proves. The ring
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has been found to weigh a half ounce. I am wearing it at this moment. It was not a creation out of nothing, only an apport; it belonged to H. P. B., I think, and it is “hall-marked,” or otherwise stamped to indicate its quality. It was a great ring for phenomena, certainly, to judge from what happened to it a year and a half later. The Theosophical Society was a year old then, and H. P. B. and I were living in two apartment suites in the same house. One evening my married sister, Mrs. W. H. Mitchell,1 came with her husband to visit H. P. B. and myself, and, in the course of conversation, asked me to see the ring and bade me tell its history. She looked at it and put it on her finger while I was talking, after which she held it towards H. P. B. in the palm of
her left hand for her to take it. But H. P. B. leaving it lying as it was without touching it, closed my sister’s fingers on it, held the hand for a moment, then let go and told my sister to look at it. It was no longer a plain gold ring, for we found three small diamonds imbedded in the metal, “gipsy” fashion, and set so as to form a triangle. How was it done? The least miraculous theory is that H. P. B. had had a jeweller insert the diamonds previously, and concealed them from us
1If anyone chooses to ask her she will corroborate my narrative, no doubt. Her address is Orange, New Jersey, U.S.A.
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by inhibiting our sense of perception until the spell was removed at the moment my sister’s hand opened. As a hypnotic experiment this is perfectly comprehensible; I have seen such things done and can do them myself. One can not only cover a little diamond with the mask of invisibility, but a man, a roomful of people, a house, a tree, rock, road, mountain—anything, in short: hypnotic suggestion includes seemingly limitless possibilities. Well, let this particular experiment be explained as it may, it was a very perfect success.
To return to Mrs. Thayer: we were so pleased with her phase of mediumship that we offered her the chance to go to Russia, but, like Mrs. Youngs and for the same reasons, she declined. Similar offers were conditionally made to Mrs. Huntoon, a sister of the Eddys, and to Mrs. Andrews and Dr. Slade, but all declined. So the affairs dragged on until the Winter of 1875, by which time the Theosophical Society had come into existence; M. Aksakoff’s committee had broken the original compact framed to secure a thorough investigation of the phenomena, and, with Prof. Mendeleyeff, an iron-clad materialist, at their head, had published a condemnatory report, framed on baseless conjecture, not on evidence; whereupon M. Aksakoff, with noble unselfishness and from sheer love of the truth, had determined to carry out the original programme at his own cost and risk. He writes to the London Spiritualist about that time:
“When I resolved to search after mediums to visit St. Petersburgh, . . . I decided upon a line of action
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which I communicated to Colonel Olcott, whom I deputed to select mediums in America. I told him that I wanted our committee to have the means of proving the abnormal movement of solid objects in the light without contact with any living person. I further wished to find mediums who could get the movement of solid objects in the dark behind curtains, while they were seated in front thereof in full view of the sitters,” etc.
This will give my Indian readers an idea of the extraordinary physical phenomena which were going on at the time in the Western countries. In the East, similar displacements of solid things, such as household furniture, cooking utensils, articles of clothing, etc., are occasionally heard of, but always with horror, and the eye-witnesses have scarcely ever dreamt of making them the subjects of scientific research: on the contrary, they are looked upon as misfortunes, the work of evil spirits, often of earth-bound souls of near relatives and intimate friends, and their greatest desire is to abate them as unqualified nuisances. I only repeat what has often been explained before by all theosophical writers, in saying that intercourse between the living and their deceased friends and connections is, to the Asiatic, an abhorrent proof that the dead are not happily dissevered from earthly concerns, and thus are hampered in their normal evolution towards the condition of pure spirit. The West, as a whole, despite its religious creed, is grossly materialistic, imagining the future life as but an extension of this in time,—and in space too, if one comes to consider its
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physical conceptions of heaven and hell—and can only grasp the actuality of post-mortem conscious existence through such concrete physical phenomena as M. Aksakoff enumerates, and the many others which astonish the visitors to mediums.1 The East, on the other hand, is spiritual and philosophical in its conceptions, and phenomena of the above kind are to Asiatics but evidences of the possession of a low order of psychical powers by those who show them. The incident of my flower-born ring, of Mrs. Thayer’s showers of plants, flowers, and birds, and of Mrs. Youngs’s lifting of pianos on eggs, strike the Western materialist’s imagination, not as horrors but simply as interesting lies, too scientifically revolutionary to be true, yet vastly important if so. I suppose I must have heard a hundred times if once, in India, that it was a great pity that H. P. B. showed phenomena, for it went to prove that she had not reached a high stage of Yoga. True, the Yogi is warned by Patanjali, as the contemporary bhikshus were by Gautama Buddha, to beware of vainly showing their wonders when they found the Siddhis had developed themselves in the course of their psychical evolution. Yet the Buddha himself sometimes displayed his transcendent powers of this kind, but improved the occasion
1In drafting the much-discussed “Third Object” of the Theosophical Society, at New York, my mind was influenced by the knowledge of this fact, and, at the same time, by my ignorance of the full scope of Oriental Science. Had I known what evils were to come upon us through the pretended development of psychical powers, I should have worded it otherwise.
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to preach the noble doctrines of his Arya Dharma, and spur his hearers to the noblest efforts to spiritualise, after de-brutifying themselves. And so with most other religious teachers. Did not H. P. B. adopt the like policy? Did she not, even while doing her wonders, warn us all that they were a very subordinate and insignificant part of Theosophy—some, mere hypnotic suggestions, others physical marvels in the handling of matter and force, by knowledge of their secrets and an acquired control over the elemental races concerned with cosmic phenomena? Nobody can deny this; nobody can truthfully aver that she did not invariably teach that the psychical experiment has the same relation to spiritual philosophy that the chemical experiment has to the science of chemistry. She, no doubt, erred in wasting power to astonish unimportant observers, that could have been far more profitably employed in breaching the walls of incredulous and despotic Western science: yet she did thereby convince some who were thus influenced to do good work for this great movement of ours; and some of the most tireless of that class among us came into Eastern out of Western Spiritualism over the bridge of psychical phenomena. For my part, I can say, that the great range of marvels of educated will potency which she showed me, made it easy for me to understand the Oriental theories of spiritual science. My greatest sorrow is that others, especially those of my Eastern colleagues whose minds were thoroughly prepared, did not have the same chance.