Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.


Book Review of 
Vernon Harrison's 
H.P. Blavatsky and the SPR.

By Leslie Price

[Reprinted from the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
Volume 63, January 1999, pp. 125-127.]


H. P. BLAVATSKY AND THE SPR: AN EXAMINATION OF THE HODGSON REPORT OF 1885 by Vernon HarrisonTheosophical University Press, Pasadena, California, 1997.  xii + 66 pp. 12.99 [$16.95].

Most papers published by our Society are local events.  This was not the case however with the original exposure of Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society (Hodgson et al., 1885) which is attached to her in many reference books; nor with a critique of Hodgson a century later (Harrison, 1986) which has been widely cited by scholars since publication. (1)

Dr. Harrison here reprints his 1986 paper and adds to it further analysis of the 1885 report, together with the results of some study he has done of other material associated with the Mahatmas of Madame Blavatsky.

Dr. Harrison did show, in my view, that there were grave procedural irregularities in the 1885 report.  Regardless of what individual SPR members may now believe about the case (as ever, we have no corporate view), his paper also had the effect of healing wounds inflicted by the manner of the original exposure.  Our own review editor is among those who remain sceptical of Blavatsky (Coleman, 1987), and there are continuing doubts also about her account of her travels (Gilbert, 1988).  But the whole debate can now proceed in a healthier way.

There had been other critics of the 1885 report before Dr. Harrison, including handwriting analysts, but they lacked the power range of qualifications which he brought to the task.  He was the man for the hour.  Now that a decade has passed, and Dr. Harrison has published this monograph, how does the matter rest?

There has been little detailed discussion of his critique in parapsychological circles.  Jean Overton Fuller, also an SPR member, has published her own assessment of the Coulombs (who were among the first to accuse Blavatsky of fraud) and has suggested that M. Coulomb might have been the actual writer of those passages in the Coulomb letters which incriminate Blavatsky, while his wife provided the words (Fuller, 1988, p. 155).  Dr. Harrison here also suggests the husband as the actual writer (p. 43).

As the letters appear not to have survived, the matter remains inconclusive.  Michael Gomes, with whom Dr. Harrison has been in touch, continues to collect documents for a volume specifically on the Coulombs and while in London in July 1997, he copied a letter in the India Office about the Coulombs which appeared in the Indian Mirror in 1884, and had been lost to sight.  I remain hopeful that more light will yet be thrown on the Coulomb role.

Psychical researchers cannot ignore the Blavatsky case because it has a high public profile and was important in SPR evolution.  Even without the mounting criticism of Hodgson’s report on this case, there have been criticisms of his conduct at other times (such as Munves, 1997) which make him no longer so authoritative.  But caution is needed by both believers and sceptics about the case because of the complexity of the data and the inconclusive nature of much of the evidence.

To some extent the easiest area for research is the letters supposedly written by the Mahatmas, now mostly in the British Library.  Methods of preservation and security unfortunately make examination difficult, and much of Dr. Harrison’s work has been done on photographs.  He suggests, for the first time so far as I know, that the Mahatma Letters may be copied from originals we do not have.

The writing exhibits peculiarities which he finds difficult to explain, and offers a parallel, I would suggest, to the image on the Turin Shroud.  The various hands are not Madame Blavatsky’s disguised writing, and although one cannot rule out some influence of her psyche, fraud by her, he argues, is not a plausible explanation.

Dr. Harrison disclaims any knowledge on the general reports of phenomena associated with Blavatsky (p. 41), such as those at the Adyar ‘Shrine’, though this was a topic on which the late Walter Carrithers, alias Adlai Waterman, wrote in defence of Blavatsky.  As the Shrine perished in 1884, that too is inconclusive. (2)

The study of Blavatsky and other aspects of theosophical history is in flux (Price, 1996).  For example, unexpected support, up to a point, for Hodgson’s spy theory has come with the discovery of her letter offering her services as a spy to the Russian government (Carlson, 1995), though they appear to have been declined. (3)

In contrast, the reality of the Mahatmas as actual individuals seen by witnesses is still vigorously defended (Caldwell, 1997).

My own view, after 18 years of study, is that Madame Blavatsky was acting on behalf of people who, like her, had psychic powers.  As with other mediums, that does not mean that I accept the accuracy of any specific statement that she made or the paranormality of any particular incident, nor that I agree with the profound metaphysics she at times expressed.  It does mean that she is a force to be reckoned with in SPR history, and in the study of the powers latent in man, and that Dr. Harrison has performed a signal service to psychical research in his reopening of the case.

LESLIE PRICE

15 Clouston Close
Wallington, Surrey SM6 8LX
 

REFERENCES

Caldwell, Daniel H. (1997) K. Paul Johnson’s House of Cards? Tucson,  Arizona, privately printed [this dispute has since been  continued electronically].

Carlson, Maria (1995) To Spy or not to Spy: The ‘Letter’ of Mme.  Blavatsky to the Third Section.  Theosophical History V,  225-231.

Coleman, M. (1987) Letters.  JSPR 54, 158 and 281.

Foster, Roy (1997) The Apprentice Mage.  London.

Fuller, Jean Overton (1988) Blavatsky and her Teachers: An  Investigative Biography.  London: East Publications, in  association with TPH.

Gilbert, R. A. (1988) The armchair traveller in Tibet: HPB in  Tibet.  Paper presented to the July 1988 Theosophical  History conference in London.  Unpublished.

Harrison, V. (1986) J’accuse: an examination of the Hodgson  Report of 1885JSPR 53, 286-310.

Hodgson, R. et al. (1885) Report of the Committee appointed to  investigate phenomena connected with the Theosophical  SocietyProcSPR 3, 201-400. [Hodgson’s actual report is  printed after the Committee’s conclusions].

Munves, James (1997) Richard Hodgson, Mrs. Piper and ‘George  Pelham’: a centennial reassessment.  JSPR 62, 138-54.

Price, Leslie (1996) Theosophical developments.  JSPR 61, 274- 276.

Washington, Peter (1993) Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon.  London:  Secker & Warburg.

Waterman, Adlai (Walter Carrithers) (1963) Obituary: The ‘Hodgson  Report’ on Madame Blavatsky.  Adyar, Madras: TPH.


Endnotes

(1)  A notable exception is the new official biography of Yeats (Foster, 1997).  Here the main source cited on the life of Blavatsky is a mocking account of modern gurus derived from secondary sources (Washington, 1993), whose index mentions George Harrison the Beatle, but not Vernon Harrison.

(2)  There needs to be a general re-examination of the Carrithers work, published and unpublished.  He suffered from a kind of writer’s block which made it difficult for him to complete more than a few fragments of work undertaken over a lifetime, and what he did complete was not always published, even by theosophical editors.  Daniel Caldwell is preparing an edition of his Coulomb researches.

(3)  This offer may have been known in the mid-1880s.  In The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett (p. 208) (1925, London) appears the sentence “Then he said that he had seen in the Secret Dept. documents in which I had offered myself as a Spy to the Russian Govt.”  This is in the context of her dispute with Solovief.