Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Reminiscences of
Original American Theosophists

by R. B. Westbrook, LL.D.

[Reprinted from The Religio-Philosophical Journal (Chicago, Illinois)
September 14, 1889, pp. 2, 8.]

From 1874 to 1877 I had an intimate acquaintance with the personnel of the American Theosophical Society. Col. Olcott, the President-Founder commenced his public career as an occultist in the capacity of a newspaper correspondent who was sent by a New York publisher to Chittenden, Vermont, to report on the Eddy farce, then attracting wide attention. His newspaper letters culminated in his book, "People from the Other World," which is now interesting reading in the light of recent developments. I think that Olcott first met Blavatsky at that Mecca of modern materialization, the Eddy homestead; at least their intimacy began there. About the time that Olcott’s book was ready for the press the "Katy King" fraud was exposed in Philadelphia, and the spirit Katy was proved to be a very solid personage, in the form of a live woman, with flesh and bones, who acted her part for pay. This Holmes humbug must be denied and the medium vindicated or "People From the Other World" would not sell. The Colonel and the Madame hied them to the City of Brotherly Love, to back up the Holmeses and prevent Olcott’s book from falling dead from the press --- and they, of course, succeeded in the white-washing device, at least in the estimation of a large flock of gulls! Mrs. Holmes subsequently affirmed that the Madame proposed to her a partnership in the materialization show-business, with Col. Olcott as manager, claiming that she had already so "psychologized" him that "he did not know his head from his heels!" For some reason or other the partnership was not formed and the gullible public missed the "greatest show on earth."

It was well understood, however, in "esoteric circles" and among the "secret wisdom" people of Philadelphia, that the magical Madame showed the medium Holmes how to stand the "tests" and vindicate her mediumship after the thorough exposure of her frauds. Indeed, Col. Olcott himself afterward said among his friends in New York, that the medium, Holmes, was vindicated through the secret power of the Madame --- a fact which soon after I had good reason to believe! The Madame had several escapades in Philadelphia as well as in New York, of which I cannot now speak. She was certainly at that time a most captivating woman, and could act the lady in any society and show off her mantles of Russian royalty and court costumes in a very bewitching manner. Col. Olcott told me that she was then ninety years of age, and preserved her youthful beauty by her marvellous secret arts. She must now be about one hundred and five! She knew well how to adapt herself to her surroundings and never let herself down to vulgarity, in the presence of ladies and gentlemen, except when she lost her temper, as, for instance, when in quite a large company I heard her call Olcott a liar! Indeed, there were times when her contemptuous treatment of the gallant Colonel was most humiliating to behold.

In 1875, I think, a most important incident in my theosophical experience occurred. My friend, the distinguished Unitarian preacher, Rev. W. R. Alger, of Boston, was supplying the pulpit now occupied by the Rev. Robert Collyer in New York. Dr. Alger had heard of the wonderful Madame, and expressed a desire to meet her. I could not take him to the "lamissary" rooms occupied by her, so I arranged to have the accomplished clergyman meet her at our apartments at No. 15 W. 42nd street. The eventful evening came. Present, Dr. Alger, Madame Blavatsky, Col. Olcott, Mrs. Emma Hardinge-Britten, Mrs. Westbrook and myself. The Queen of Sheba never could have been more elegantly arrayed, or conversed more charmingly than did Madame Blavatsky that night. Alger seemed charmed, and listened with becoming meekness. Mrs. Britten was put upon the defense of her mediumship by the occasional flings of the Madame (who could never tolerate a rival) and acquitted herself with her accustomed dignity and grace. At 9 o’clock she withdrew from the company to attend upon her aged mother, to whom she was greatly devoted, and so missed the event of that bright evening. We were in a brilliantly lighted large "upper room." The Madame waxed more eloquent than ever after the exit of Mrs. Britten, and poured forth a perfect stream of Oriental wisdom. Alger seemed almost dazed, though at times a little startled at certain expressions of the Madame that seemed like blasphemy.

We inwardly rejoiced that we had been successful in engineering this wonderful meeting of these wonderful people. About 10 o’clock the scene suddenly changed; the bell of the outside door rang, as if its brazen cheeks would crack. The door of our upper chamber opened, and into our very midst appeared a being of strange form and manners. It was evidently a woman’s figure, though so concealed by head-gear and other drapery that Alger compared he, she or it, to "the man with an iron mask." Mrs. Westbrook thinking it might be a washer-woman who had got into the wrong house, undertook to take he, she or it, by the shoulder and rid our select company of the mysterious intruder, but failed. With tragic air and rapid motion it heartily saluted the Madame, handed her a letter --- and as suddenly left the room, rushed down stairs, slamming the front door behind it.

Olcott seemed white with astonishment and reverently whispered, "an elementary" --- while the Madame affected great indignation that the "Brothers" should send a special messenger on such unimportant business (she having hastily opened the letter), and as Olcott approached with profound curiosity to know what it all meant she relieved his suspense by informing him that Dr. Pancoast had been refused admission to the Secret Brotherhood in India. It should be known in passing that the celebrated Philadelphia occultist denies that he ever made application for admission. Dr. Alger preserved his clerical dignity, but in leaving me at the front door soon after, contemptuously whispered in my ear, "a put up job"!  The Madame grew more indignant as she realized that Alger had failed to be favorably impressed by the "elementary" visitor, and she had failed to make converts.

But how do I know that we had not been visited by an extemporized "angel unawares?" The whole thing was transparently a fraud and a clumsy trick. Of course this strange visitor was talked about, and discussed pro and con. But a few months later I met a prominent New York Spiritualist, who informed me that he was in possession of facts that satisfied him that the Madame had attempted to deceive Mr. Alger, at our rooms, by hiring an Irish servant girl (to whom he could send me for verification) to personate the "elementary," and had agreed to pay her five dollars for her services, but failing to pay the money, the girl had "gone back" on her and confessed her share in the attempted fraud. I did not go to see the girl as I had suffered enough from the abuse of our hospitality and from this disgraceful attempt to impose upon the confidence of my distinguished clerical friend, and I already knew that a mean trick had been attempted and had failed.

I do not believe that Olcott had any knowledge of or in any way favored or assisted the Madame in this "elementary" fizzle. From first to last, I believe that Col. Olcott had perfect confidence in the Madame’s wonderful knowledge and almost divine power, and honestly longed to become an "adept." He submitted to humiliations and endured hardships and made sacrifices that are beyond description. He had everything to lose, and nothing to gain but "secret wisdom." He had graduated at Harvard, been admitted to the New York bar, had become an expert as an insurance lawyer, had transacted a vast amount of confidential business for the Government during the war, enjoyed the confidence of Lincoln and Stanton, and was pressed by Horace Greeley and other prominent politicians, for Assistant United States Treasurer, under Salmon P. Chase. I know this to be true, as I have seen the original papers. I occupied a suite of law offices at 71 Broadway with Olcott and found him to be honorable and honest. But I then believed and now know that he was so far under the strange influence of that ambitious adventuress Blavatsky, as to be utterly incapable of judging correctly anything that she might say or do. He (like many adherents to false, tricky materializing mediums) was a monomaniac. He was as crazy as a loon on everything relating to Blavatskyism, though perfectly sane on every other subject. That it is possible to be utterly untrustworthy upon one subject, and yet honorable and true on all others, I know from long observation and experience as a lawyer. This is the most charitable construction to put upon the strange conduct of many Spiritualists as well as Theosophists. But this paper is already too long, and I have not yet begun to tell what I know of Theosophists and Theosophy. I may resume this subject at another time. Meanwhile, Mr. Editor, "lay on" your heaviest blows on all false pretenders and hypocrites, and you will soon hear the cry of "enough." I would as soon have the tower of Babel fall on me, if, I were an impostor, as to have one of your powerful and inimitable editorials, such as you have written on Blavatskyism, come crashing upon my devoted head.

  Philadelphia, Pa.