Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Published by The Blavatsky Archives.  Online Edition copyright 2000.

Theosophy in New York

Facts about Mme. Blavatsky,
Her Powers and Her Religion

Brilliant Bohemian Gatherings at the Lamasery ---
Intellectual New Yorkers at the
Feet of the Marvellous Russian Countess ---
The Mediums Outdone --- Votaries of the
Buddhist Teacher --- Is She a Freemason?

[Reprinted from The World (New York), Vol. XXVII, September 12, 1886, p. 13]

A few days ago a Hindoo was thrown into jail for preaching Buddhism at the Ocean Grove Camp-Meetings.  “The Aryan Theosophical Society of New York” has been expounding and disseminating the gospel of Buddha here for nearly ten years with quiet and unimpeded persistency.  It was William Q. Judge, President of this society and editor of the Path, the organ of Theosophy in America, that went to the rescue of the aggressive Hindoo Sattay and secured his release.  Local interest is thus revived in a movement strangely at variance alike with conventional Christianity and with nineteenth-century materialism.

In other cities, also, Theosophy has recently achieved sensational notoriety.  In Washington, Prof. Elliott Coues, one of the foremost scientists of the Smithsonian Institution, astonished his friends and the public by declaring his complete acceptance of the ideas and tenets of Theosophy.  In Boston the wife of a prominent literary man, herself a woman of rare intellectual gifts and great social influence, became insane through studying Theosophy.  In Cincinnati a lady of wealth and position is worshipped by hundreds and pretends to have reached the highest state of psychological development in deification and, like Alexander, claims divide honors while still in the flesh.

In less than ten years after the organization of the parent society in New York branch societies have been formed in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and San Francisco, aggregating a membership of nearly 5,000 --- all enthusiastic to the point of fanaticism. Within the same period the movement has become actively prominent in London, Paris and other European capitals.  Western disciples of this religion transplanted from the Orient have written books discussing it in a way that has challenged the attention of profound religious and scientific scholars.  In fact, the rapid headway made by this religion of marvels is fully as marvellous as any other feature of it.

Whatever may be thought of the claims to serious consideration of modern Theosophy and its credulous adherents, the founder, organizer and inspirer of the movement is certainly a remarkable woman.  Mme. Blavatsky came to New York about ten years ago unheralded and unknown.  She was said to be a Russian Countess in her own right, the widow of a General whose services in the Russian army had won him fame and a place on the personal staff of the Czar.  In appearance, Mme. Blavatsky, though not at all handsome in the common acceptance of the term, was exceedingly impressive and interesting.  Tall and stoutly built, she carried herself with queenly dignity.  Her head is large, and under a broad, intellectual brow shone a pair of large, luminous blue eyes whose strange spiritual expression fascinated all who came within her influence.  Like Bulwer’s mysterious Zanoni, her age was uncertain.  She might have been under forty; with the physical vigor and elasticity of youth she possessed the mental maturity of age.  She had not been in New York long before she gathered about her a curiously mixed set of literary and artistic Bohemians, visionaries, cranks and an occasional practical thinker from Wall street or the colleges.  At that time Spiritualism was the rage in New York.  Flint’s teapot trick had not been exposed, Charles Foster was astonishing the town and Henry Kiddle was writing his book.  Looking upon Mme. Blavatsky as a valuable ally, the Spiritualists at first welcomed her with open arms; but their joy was short-lived.  One evening, at the close of one of Flint’s seances during which the usual fol-de-rol manifestations of knocks and musical instruments played by unseen hands, writings, &c., had been gone through, a companion asked her opinion of it all.  She replied that it was all very wonderful, perhaps, but that if the company would accompany her to her rooms she would repeat the whole performance without turning down the gas.  Several of those present, including Col. H. S. Olcott, who had gained much notoriety in Spiritualist circles by his defense of the Fox sisters, politely expressed incredulity.

“Come along and see,” said Madame.  And they went.  Upon reaching her apartments in Thirty-seventh street, near Eighth avenue, sure enough Mme. Blavatsky repeated all Flint’s wonders with seeming ease, and in the full glare of gaslight.  The mediums and their followers never forgave her expose of their humbuggery.  She explicitly disavowed any belief in Spiritualism in the common sense or any claims to mediumistic powers.  “It is my own spirit and not the spirits of those who have gone from earth,” she declared, “that does these things.  Whatever powers I possess are simply the result of the complete power over my will that I have acquired.”

It was in these rooms, afterwards familiarly known as “The Lamasery” (the name given a Bhuddist convent in Thibet), that a brilliant crowd of Bohemians were wont to gather of an evening to drink tea from Madame’s samovar and indulge in “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.”  The hostess proved herself a conversationalist of rare magnetic power, and no one ever tired of listening to her fascinating recital of experiences in many lands, her views on life and art, or her exposition of the occultism of the East.  She was an accomplished linguist, as most Russians are; and she not only spoke French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Hindostanee and several Arabic dialects with east and fluency, but displayed a deep knowledge of the ancient and modern literature of all countries.  She was familiar with German and French philosophy, and commenting upon the work of the great thinkers expressed many ideas of striking force and originality.  Occasionally she entertained her guests with music, and her piano playing was pronounced emphatically that of a great musician.

Among those who were to be seen at these gatherings were Prof. Weiss, of the New York University; Thomas A. Edison, A. L. Rawson, the painter; Prof. Wilder, the genial and lamented Sam Ward, poet, philosopher, lobbyist and bon vivant; his chere ami, William Henry Huribert, then editor of THE WORLD; the Earl of Dunraven, whose father wrote a monumental book on Spiritualism, and who is now Lord Salisbury’s Under-Secretary for the Colonies; David A. Curtis, of the Herald; Edward P. Mitchell, then, as now, exploiting his brilliant imagination in the Sun’s columns; Albert Bierstadt, the artist; Charles Sotheran, mystic and bibliophile; Linda and Eda Diez, the actresses; A. M. Palmer, the manager; Edwin Booth, John Russell Young; William Stuart, then manager of the Old Park Theatre; Edward Donavan, the artist, and a host of other choice spirits, including on several occasions the Earl of Dufferin, whose present position as Viceroy of India affords him opportunities to continue his studies of Oriental religion in its ancient home, and Laurence Oliphant, whose social satires in Blackwood and whose scheme for the Jewish colonization of Palestine have given him a prominence distasteful to his native modesty.

At this time Mme. Blavatsky’s great life work, “Isis Unveiled,” was on the press, and many curious stories of her alleged remarkable powers are told.

One day Mr. J. W. Bouton, her publisher, called, and fancying from something that was said that the author was in need of money, delicately offered to advance a sum on the book.

“Money!” exclaimed Mme. Blavatsky, laughing; “I’m never troubled about money.  I toil not, neither do I spin for material needs, yet I am always provided.  Now I think of it, I have several little bills to pay.  Will you kindly see if there is any money in the top drawer of my writing-desk while I pour you some tea?”

Mr. Bouton opened the drawer indicated, which was in a desk at the other end of the room.  It was quiet empty.  He made sure of that and, closing the drawer, declared the fact.

“Ah,” said madame, nonchalantly, “I want $500.  Open the drawer again, if you please.”

Mr. Bouton did so, and started back amazed.  Where but an instant before was emptiness, five good, crisp hundred dollar bills met his astonished gaze.

“That is my Fortunatus purse,” explained the fair Russian, handing her visitor a cup of tea and receiving the money from his hands.  “Whenever I want money it is placed there conveniently and safely to my hands.”

A lady living in West Thirty-first street, possessed of a considerable fortune and well known in New York society, who spent much time with Mme. Blavatsky, in those days, and who is still active in the Theosophical organization, avers that she saw the seer produce instantly, by simply laying her hand on a sheet of paper, an excellent photograph of a relative of this lady whom madame had never seen and who was then in a distant city.

Mr. Rawson, the artist above mentioned, aided Gen. Cesnola greatly in his explorations of Cyprus.  His archaeological acquirements gained him the warm personal friendship of Pope Pius IX., and by special favor of the Pontiff he was allowed, under surveillance, to examine some books in the secret chambers of the Vatican Library absolutely forbidden to everybody but the Papal Secretary and members of the Sacred College of Cardinals.  Even these were not privileged to copy a line.  Yet Mr. Rawson affirmed that several pages of extracts from these secret books are given verbatim in “Isis Unveiled.”  Clairvoyance is the only explanation vouchsafed for the accomplishment of this seeming impossibility.  A like explanation is given of her thorough knowledge of Freemasonry.  She astonished thirty-third-degree Master Masons by her knowledge not only of all the ordinary grips, signs and passwords, but of the inner mysteries revealed only to the most advanced members of the craft.  An old Freemason once complimented her on this knowledge as a convincing test of her clairvoyant powers.

“It is not clairvoyance,” she rejoined earnestly.  “I am as genuine a Mason as you are.”

“But women are not admitted to the mysteries,” said the incredulous man.

“Not now,” rejoined the mysterious woman, “but they were formerly.”

“I must look up the matter,” said my friend humbly.  He did look it up and found that though it was an accepted tradition that priestesses of the Temple of the Sun in ancient Egypt were initiated into the Masonic order, there was no record of the admission of a woman within the sacred circle during the last 2,000 years.  As he was too gallant to utter a reflection on either the age or the veracity of the lady he did not mention the matter again.  Sam Ward, himself a Mason of high degree, frankly accepted the idea that, like Zanoni, madame was at least 3,000 years old and had discovered the secret of eternal youth.

More than one of Mme. Blavatsky’s former associates in New York assert that the lady has repeatedly demonstrated her power of “projecting her astral body beyond the bounds of flesh,” as Prof. Coues claims to do.  Her appearances and disappearances were as sudden and mysterious as those of the weird adept, Ram Lal, in Marion Crawford’s story of “Mr. Isaacs.”  In fact, if all that is reported be true, this Theosophist priestess might well controvert Sir Boyle Roche’s famous aphorism that “a man cannot be in two places at once, barrin’ he was a bird.”  Mme. Blavatsky claimed to be able to be in two or more places at once when she so desired.  When she announced that she was about to go to India to spread the doctrines of Theosophy among the natives and foreigners there, a friend asked her why she did not utilize her supernatural powers by continuing to give the infant Theosophical Society of New York the aid of her presence and guidance, carrying out her mission in India at the same time.  To this she replied simply that she was commanded to leave New York and that she bowed to the superior wisdom of the adepts.

These adepts, be it understood, are the highest order of Theosophists, who by long years of fasting, study and meditation had attained an advanced state of spiritual perfection.  These men dwell principally in the mountains of Thibet, far from contact with the world and mankind; sometimes in small communities, oftener as hermits in solitude.  Dwelling entirely away from railroads, telegraphs and newspapers, they are said to possess a direct knowledge of everything of moment that goes on in the world and to be able to communicate their thoughts or to convey their persons instantaneously to any quarter of the globe.  Astrology is a favorite study of the Theosophists, and those who have devoted themselves sufficient to this “science” (popularly supposed to have been exploded centuries ago) are said to forecast individual destinies and events with marvellous exactness.  Far from being an ascetic, Mme. Blavatsky when here greatly enjoyed a good dinner washed down by good wine, and was much addicted to smoking Turkish cigarettes of a peculiar and excellent quality.

In the discussions at the “Lamasery” already alluded to, Mme. Blavatsky argued that Theosophy was but an extension of the theory of evolution taught by Spencer, Huxley and Darwin, beyond its mere material phase.  In universal evolution she held that man’s higher nature --- the spiritual rather than the physical or intellectual --- was developed.  Among the proven possibilities of this development she counted omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence --- the qualities generally attributed by the mass of mankind to the Deity it worships.  The principal means to these grand attainments, according to the Blavatsky theory, are a complete control of the will power and the acquisition of divine knowledge.  Theosophy (from the Greek Theos, God, and sophos, wise) means wise in the things of God.  Its mission is to teach man to control and use his will power for the higher advancement of humanity.  This, stripped of mystic symbolism, Oriental phraseology and abstruse metaphysical speculation, is the real essence and meaning of Theosophy.

Soon after Mme. Blavatsky’s departure, five years ago, she was followed by Col. H. S. Olcott, Hierophant and President of the New York society.  The sensation their teachings produced will be remembered by newspaper readers of that day.  Much of the notoriety they then gained was due to the persistent efforts of the Rev. Joseph Cook, of Boston, who followed Olcott and Blavatsky from place to place endeavoring to carry on a controversy and valiantly abusing Buddhism and all its teachers.  Olcott is still in India, but Mme. Blavatsky is in Germany writing another book, which, as the result of her advanced development in the East, will probably cause even a greater sensation than “Isis Unveiled.”  Gen. Abner Doubleday, who succeeded Olcott in the Presidency of the New York society, retired about two years ago, and William Q. Judge, a former law partner of Col. Olcott, took the helm.  President Judge is a tall, handsome, blond-bearded, blue-eyed and eager enthusiast.  He speaks with ready and impressive eloquence, has travelled in the East and read much of the literature of Oriental religions.  But even Theosophists are human.  Personal jealousies arose, petty scandals were whispered about and under the first year or so of Mr. Judge’s regime there was a serious falling off both in the dignity and the membership of the society.  Its fortnightly meetings are held in an Odd-Fellows’ hall over a beer saloon at 35 Union square, amid strangely incongruous surroundings.

At a recent meeting Mr. Bjeregaard, the learned and amiable Librarian of the Astor Library, read a paper on Occultism to about a score of women and half a dozen men.  In the discussion which followed it was evident that the speaker had been very imperfectly understood.  An old outsider of cranky aspect got into a mathematical discussion with an impetuous young Chela in gold-bowed spectacles.  Another young man ruffled the President’s temper in a discussion of the comparative morality of monogamy and polygamy.  An enthusiastic woman of “uncertain” age poured forth a fearfully strange and complicated discourse on astrology, maintaining the floor against all contestants until shut off by a motion to adjourn.  In putting this motion the President adroitly got in some vague and glittering generalities about universal brotherhood, and the select gathering abandoned the warm and stuffy room for the fresher atmosphere of the square.