Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Mme. Blavatsky's Power

Events in the Career of a Remarkable Woman

The Wonderful Tales Narrated by Her
Disciples - The Theosophical Society
Which She Formed

[Reprinted from The New York Times, January 2, 1885, p. 3.]

A promulgation was received only a few days ago by the Rochester branch of the Theosophical Society, from Col. H. S. Olcott, Hierophant, the President of the society. Its address was in London, where he and the founder of the society, Mme. Blavatsky, were recently visiting, if indeed they are not still there. The communication is called the "Special Orders for 1884," and is signed by the Hierophant as President, and countersigned and attested by M. M. Chatterje, his private secretary. It is an elaborate system of regulations to govern the formations of the new branches of the society, which it is expected will be shortly in working order in various American cities. The "order" begins:

"Mr. William B. Shelley, President, and Mrs. Josephine W. Cables, Secretary, of the Rochester Theosophical Society, Rochester, N. Y., and Mr. George Frederic Parsons, of New-York City, are appointed members of the General Council to fill vacancies caused by the departure from America of Mr. W. Q. Judge and the non-acceptance of Mr. M. M. Marble, and Mr. Elliot B. Page, of St. Louis, Mo., and Mr. Thomas M. Johnson, of Osceola, St. Clair County, Mo., are appointed additional members of the same. The above five, with Major-Gen. Abner Doubleday, United States Army, and Prof. J. H. D. Buck, M.D., of Cincinnati, Ohio, to constitute a Board of Control for America and have charge of the general direction of the Theosophical movement in that part of the world. They are hereby empowered to admit and initiate applicants and by consent of a majority grant temporary charters for new branches without preliminary reference to headquarters. Applications for charters from parties east of the Alleghany Mountains to be made to Mrs. J. W. Cables, and those from persons residing in the territory west of the said mountains to be made to Mr. E. B. Page, for submission in each case to their colleagues of the Board or Control."

The rest of the document consists of directions as to the proper mode of procedure by applicants for charters.

This intelligence is interesting to the general reader, mainly as it serves to recall a most curious phase of modern thought. Its development nearly 10 years ago in New-York attracted much attention. The doings of the strange society mentioned in the French flat at Eighth-avenue and Forty-seventh-street, where they had their headquarters, were widely noticed by the press, and some influence on the thought of certain classes of men and women undoubtedly emanated from the small circle who gathered there.

This influence was beyond a question the result of the strange personal power of Mme. Blavatsky - a woman of as remarkable characteristics as Cagliostro himself, and one who is to-day as differently judged by different people as the renowned Count was in his day. The Pall Mall Gazette recently devoted a half column to the lady. By those who know her only slightly in this country she was invariably termed a charlatan. A somewhat better acquaintance developed the thought that she was a learned, but deluded enthusiast. And those who knew her intimately and enjoyed her friendship were either carried away into a belief in her powers or profoundly puzzled, and the longer and more intimate the friendship was the firmer the faith or the deeper their perplexity became. The writer was one of the last class. The closest study of a trained New-York reporter failed for over two years to convince him that she was either a fraud or self-deluded, or that her seeming powers were genuine. That she wrought miracles will be denied flatly, of course, by all persons whom the world calls sober-minded, yet there are scores of people who will swear to-day that she did work them in New-York.

A lady whose brother was an enthusiastic believer in the wonderful Russian, but who was herself a devout Methodist and thoroughly antagonistic to Theosophy, (as the new system of thought was then beginning to be called,) was induced to make Mme. Blavatsky’s acquaintance. They became friends though they continued widely opposed in belief. One day Mme. Blavatsky gave the other lady a necklace of beautifully carved beads of some strange substance that looked like, but was not, hard wood. "Wear them yourself," she said. "If you let any one else have them they will disappear." The lady wore them constantly for over a year. Meantime she moved out of the city. One day her little child, who was sick and fretful, cried for the beads. She gave them to him, half laughing at herself for hesitating. The child put them around his neck and seemed pleased with his new toy, while the mother turned away to attend to some domestic duty. In a few minutes the child began crying, and the mother found him trying to take the beads off. She removed them herself and found that they were nearly one-third melted away and were hot, while the child’s neck showed marks of being burned. She tells the story herself, and in the same breath denies that she believes in "any such things."

One of Mme. Blavatsky’s friends, an artist, sat with her in her parlor, one day, when she suddenly said, "Make a sketch for me and I will see if I can control you." He began sketching without, he says, knowing exactly what he should draw, but thinking presently that he would make a picture of an Oriental head, he drew one. When he had finished she unlocked a drawer and showed him a fac simile of what he had drawn, excepting that the headdress was slightly different in the two pictures. The pose, features, and expression of the two could not be told apart. The artist solemnly declares that he never saw the picture and never thought of the peculiar type of face before. Such stories could be repeated by dozens, and for each one a reputable witness could be produced to swear to the truth of it. It was not, however, by the working of tricks or miracles whichever the reader may choose to regard them, that Mme. Blavatsky made the impress she certainly made on the thought of the day. It was by the power of her own personality, vigor of her intellect, freedom and breadth of her thought, and the fluency and clearness of her powers of expression. Her personal appearance was remarkable. She was fat; of medium height, or very little more; she weighed probably 200 pounds. While her hands were small, delicate, and very white, her face retained something of the mahogany hue it had taken on in the tropics. Her eyes were full and large, her features piquant and fairly regular, and her hair "fluffy." There was a childlike air of open frankness in her expression, which, perhaps, more than anything else, enforced confidence in her sincerity. But while the frankness of her manner and expression never varied the childlike character of it often disappeared.

Mme. Blavatsky said (in 1877) that she was 80. This seemingly wild statement she clung to, although every one who heard it pronounced it incredible. The writer, however, was only one of many who noticed great variations from time to time in her apparent age. It was not unusual for her to seem to be 60 years old. As frequently, however, she appeared no more than 35. It was impossible to say what made the difference, but that the difference actually occurred is beyond question. O’Donovan the sculptor, Walter Paris the artist, and Wimbredge, who fairly ranked with either of them as an artist, all discussed and studied this phenomenon without being able to understand it. These three are cited among many observers simply because as artists they must be accredited with accurate habits of observation. Mme. Blavatsky herself declared that she made herself older or younger at will. She would not discuss the question of the potential immortality of the body, and neither affirmed nor denied that it could be attained, but she affirmed openly that she had gone far enough toward the attainment of it to make herself young whenever she chose. How it was done she never explained. Her mental characteristics were as remarkable as her appearance. A more impetuous or impulsive person than she never lived. She was generous and hospitable to a fault. To her intimate friends her house was Liberty Hall, and while there was nothing sumptuous or pretentious about her mode of life, she lived well and entertained constantly. She seemed physically indolent, but this was on account of her great size, which made bodily exertion onerous. Nothing like mental indolence could be noticed in her conversation, and if such a trait had ever been attributed to her the publication of "Isis Unveiled," her work on Eastern mysteries and religions, would have exonerated her from the charge. Without discussing the merits of the book it may be asserted that the labor involved in its production was very great.

As a friend Mme. Blavatsky was steadfast and devoted to an unusual degree. Credulous by nature, she had been imposed upon by so many that she learned to limit her circle, but up to the time she left America she was always liable to imposition on the part of any designing person.

She was unconventional, and prided herself on carrying her unconventionality to the utmost extremes. She would swear like a dragoon when in anger, and often used in pure levity expressions which served no other purpose than to emphasize her contempt for common usages. Born, so it is said, of the best lineage in Russia, she had been bred and educated not only as a lady but as an aristocrat. Discarding, as she did, the traditional belief of her family, she discarded at the same time the entire system of European civilization. During her residence in America at least, for the writer claims to know no more about her than was developed here, she protested against our civilization as vigorously as against the Christian religion. The criticism she drew on herself by this course was merciless, and from a civilized standpoint was certainly deserved.

Those who knew her best believe her to have been entirely incapable of a mean act or a dishonest one. The honesty of her utterances was often questioned, but never by those who knew her well enough to understand how she was often carried away by her own eagerness and credulity.

A case in point. A ghost story was started some eight years ago by some unknown person on the east side of town, near the river. It was declared that the disembodied spirit of a watchman who had been known in his lifetime as "Old Shep" had been seen around where he had worked, and that it came to a certain dock every night in a ghostly boat. Many people in the neighborhood of Thirtieth-street professed to have seen this, and among these persons were several policemen. Mme. Blavatsky was one of a party who visited the river front one midnight in hope of seeing the ghost. It is useless to say that no ghost appeared, and a careful investigation of the story (which was made) failed to develop anything like respectable evidence of its truth. Yet Mme. Blavatsky always insisted that the story was true - insisted angrily when the story was ridiculed. "There are ghosts, and ghosts," she said once to the writer, when she was questioned about "Old Shep." The air that we breathe is permeated by a subtler fluid that corresponds to it, as the soul corresponds to the body of man. It is the astral fluid, and in it are the thoughts of all men, the possibilities of all acts - as in the photographer’s plate there are images that remain unseen until revealed by chemical action. So the last dying thought of any person, if it be intense enough, becomes objective, and, under favorable conditions, is very apt to be seen. Only a little while ago the newspapers of the city reported the case of a man who committed suicide in his bathroom. A friend ran for a doctor against the earnest remonstrance of the dying man. On the way the friend was startled by seeing, for a moment only, the image of the dying man, clad only in his night shirt, grasping his pistol, and bleeding from his death wound. This was at a considerable distance from the house where the suicide was, and the apparition disappeared almost instantly.

"That was merely the intense desire of the dying man to stop his friend. It became objective and visible when the astral man left the physical. So it is with many other apparitions. In haunted houses the last thought of the victim of a crime may remain, and the tragedy may be re-enacted thousands of times before it fades away. It is likely in the case of ‘Old Shep,’ the watchman, that he does not know he is dead, and his last thought was probably that he was going his rounds. So he will continue to go his rounds until that thought fades away, and under certain conditions he will be visible to the physical eyes of those around him. Many persons do not know when they are dead, and they go around afterward in great perplexity, sometimes for several days, because no one pays any attention to them. They feel as well as ever and talk to their friends, and are almost frantic at not being able to get any answers."  It will readily be seen from this discourse how impossible it was for any one to hold controversy successfully with Mme. Blavatsky. Accepting as demonstrated facts things and thoughts that seem to every-day mortals to be ingenious dreams, and flatly denying, as she did, what are held ordinarily to be the fundamental proved facts of human knowledge, there was no common ground of argument between her and the most of her antagonists. You cannot argue with anybody who will "speak disrespectfully of the multiplication table."

It will be asked, "What did this singular woman really believe? What was the exact ground she occupied as a controversialist?" The answer is difficult. It could, possibly, be made by digesting "Isis Unveiled," and stating the import of that book in a sentence, if that were a possible task. Probably no one could do that satisfactorily excepting the author herself. She would say "Science" is a true and beautiful thing, but these modern scientists have not found out what it is. They borrow theories from the ancients, and dress them up in beautiful, eloquent language, and pass them off for their own productions. The ideas that Huxley advanced while he was in America are all taken from the ancients, as I shall show in my book. But they don’t any of them know what they are talking about - Huxley, Tyndall, and the rest. They refuse to investigate things which are absolutely demonstrated, and they break their noses over the origin of matter, which is a correlation of spirit, and they reach, for a conclusion, the annihilation of man.  "I am a Buddhist," she said, in reply to the obvious question which followed the statement, "but Buddhism does not hold out annihilation as the last best good. That is one of the misrepresentations of ignorant theologians. The Buddhists teach that whatever is beyond the power of human language to describe, beyond the reach of human intellect to conceive, whatever is impossible in any measure to understand, is, so far as man is concerned, non-existent, and what we term God is therefore non-existent. That is, that so far as the understanding of man is concerned God can have no existence. You see, it is merely a refinement of metaphysics. And we believe in the triple nature of man. We believe we are a material body, an astral body, and pure soul, or nous, as the Greek terms it. After the death of the material body we lead a dual existence, and finally, when purified, the soul enters nirawana, that is, it rejoins the Creator. The astral body I spoke of is not spirit, and yet not the matter with which we are familiar. It is imponderable matter, and ordinarily is imperceptible to the senses. It is what St. Paul called ‘the spiritual body.’"

Speaking of Spiritualism and its alleged manifestations, Mme. Blavatsky in the same conversation said:  "The phenomena that are presented are perhaps often frauds. Perhaps not one in a hundred is a genuine communication of spirits, but that one cannot be judged by the others. It is entitled to scientific examination, and the reason the scientists don’t examine it is because they are afraid. The mediums cannot deceive me. I know more about it than they do. I have lived for years in different parts of the East and have seen far more wonderful things than they can do. The whole universe is filled with spirits. It is nonsense to suppose that we are the only intelligent beings in the world. I believe there is latent spirit in all matter. I believe almost in the spirits of the elements.  But all is governed by natural laws.  Even in cases of apparent violation of these laws the appearance comes from a misunderstanding of the laws. In cases of certain nervous diseases it is recorded of some patients that they have been raised from their beds by some undiscoverable power, and it has been impossible to force them down. In such cases it has been noticed that they float feet first with any current of air that may be passing through the room. The wonder of this ceases when you come to consider that there is no such thing as the law of gravitation as it is generally understood. The law of gravitation is only to be rationally explained in accordance with magnetic laws as Newton tried to explain it, but the world would not accept it.

"The world is fast coming to know many things that were known centuries ago, and were discarded through the superstition of theologians," she continued. "The church professes to reprobate divination, and yet they chose their four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by divination. They took some hundred or so of books at the Nicene Council and set them up, and those that fell down they threw aside as false, and those that stood, being those four, they accepted as true, being unable to decide the question in any other way. And out of the 818 members of the Council, only two - Eusebius, the great forger, and the Emperor Constantine - were able to read. The rest were ignorant donkeys. And the theologians of to-day are as great donkeys as they were. Greater than Balaam’s, for that ass knew a spirit when he saw it and owned up to it at once."

Talking thus by hours together when the right listener was present, and speaking always, "as one having authority," it is small wonder that Mme. Blavatsky made her modest apartments a common meeting ground for as strange a group of original thinkers as New-York ever held. Not all who visited her agreed with her. Indeed, there were only a few who followed her teachings with implicit faith. Many of her friends, and many who joined the Theosophical Society which she formed, were individuals who affirmed little and denied nothing.

The marvels which were discussed and manifested in Mme. Blavatsky’s rooms were to the most of them merely food for thought. If the bell tones of the invisible "attendant sprite" Pou Dhi were heard as they were heard by scores of different persons, this phenomenon so minutely described by Mr. Sinnett in "The Occult World," was as likely to be chaffed good-naturedly by an obstinate skeptic as it was to be wondered at by a believer. But even the skeptic would shrug his shoulders and say, when hard pushed, "It may be a spirit. I can’t tell what it is." If the discussion turned on some marvel of Eastern magic, or some fanciful doctrine of Eastern mythology, there was always a witness to the magic and a believer in the mythology present, and there was no one bold enough to deny what was affirmed, however much it might be laughed at. Sensitive as Mme. Blavatsky was to personal ridicule and to slander, she was truly liberal in matters of opinion, and allowed as great latitude in the discussion of her beliefs as she took in discussing the beliefs of others.

The apartment she occupied was a modest flat of seven or eight rooms in West Forty-seventh-street. It was furnished plainly but comfortably, but of the furniture properly so called it was hard to get an exact idea, for the rooms, especially the parlors, were littered and strewn with curios of most varied description. Huge palm leaves, stuffed apes, and tigers’ heads, Oriental pipes and vases, idols and cigarettes, Javanese sparrows, manuscripts, and cuckoo clocks were items only in a confusing catalogue of things not to be looked for ordinarily in a lady’s parlor.

Concerning the relations between Col. Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky much foul slander has been written and uttered. Not one person who knew them both ever believed that there was the slightest foundation in fact for this calumny. Col. Olcott was thoroughly and entirely dominated intellectually by Mme. Blavatsky, and if there was ever a thorough-paced enthusiast in religious matters he was one. The story of his life has no place here, but it is due to him to say that without his practical knowledge of the world and executive ability the Theosophical Society would never have been even as well organized as it was.

The society, however, was never, at least in New-York, very much more than a dream. So long as Mme. Blavatsky’s lips were the channel through which it was to be enlightened the study of theosophy was a recreation, and the society flourished after its own straggling, irregular fashion, but when, some eight years ago, she sailed, with Olcott and two other Theosophists, on her way to India, the New-York society virtually died. Gen. Doubleday was made President and tried hard on several occasions to revive it, but failed. The influence this strange thinker and writer exerted while she was in America seems to have been only temporary. It was not very strong. Perhaps it was to some extent more apparent than real, but today it is difficult to realize that such a person was ever living in prosaic New-York.