His Work with Buddhism
Images of Olcott in Modern-Day Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Henry Steel Olcott
By Stephen Prothero
EACH YEAR on February 17, Buddhists throughout Sri Lanka light brass lamps and offer burning incense to commemorate the anniversary of the death of an American-born Buddhist hero. In Theravadan temples, saffron-robed monks bow down before his photograph, and boys and girls in schoolhouses across the country offer gifts in his memory. “May the merit we have gained by these good deeds,” they meditate, “pass on to Colonel Olcott, and may he gain happiness and peace.”
Disinterested historians describe Henry Steel Olcott as the president-founder of the Theosophical Society, one of America’s first Buddhists, and an important contributor to both the Indian Renaissance in India and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Less objective observers have allotted Olcott an even more central place in sacred history. A prime minister of Ceylon praised Olcott as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.”
In the land of his birth, Olcott has been less graciously received. The New York Times denounced him during his lifetime as “an unmitigated rascal”—”a man bereft of reason” whose “insanity, though harmless, is, unfortunately, incurable.” The Dictionary of American Biography, noting that Olcott has been considered “a fool, a knave, and a seer,” concludes that he was probably “a little of all three.”
DESCENDED FROM Puritans, Henry Steel Olcott was born in 1832 into a pious Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey. After a short stint at what is now New York University, Olcott went west toward the frontier in search of youthful adventures. In Ohio, at the age of twenty, he became a convert to spiritualism. Soon he was championing a host of other causes, including antislavery, agricultural reform, women s rights, cremation, and temperance. He worked for a time as an experimental fanner, served a stint in the Army, and even worked as an investigator on the special commission charged with scrutinizing President Lincoln’s assassination. But he eventually returned to New York City, where he supported himself as a journalist and insurance lawyer. In 1874, while covering reports of spirits materializing at a farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont, he struck up a friendship with Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. One year later, he and Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society, an organization that would soon play a major role in introducing Americans to the ancient wisdom of the East.
Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott
AFTER MOVING THEMSELVES and their society to India in 1879, Olcott and Blavatsky decided it was time to visit Ceylon. They arrived in Colombo on May 16, 1880. Apparently, their reputations had preceded them, since they received what Olcott later described as a royal welcome:
A huge crowd awaited us and rent the air with their united shout of “Sadhu! Sadhu!” A white cloth was spread for us from the jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a thousand flags were frantically waved in welcome.
Shortly after this reception, on May 25, at the Wijananda Monastery in Galle, Olcott and Blavatsky each knelt before a huge image of the Buddha and “took pansil” by reciting in broken Pali the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts of Theravada Buddhism, thus becoming the first European-Americans to publicly and formally become lay Buddhists.
Later Olcott underscored the difference between what he termed a “regular Buddhist” and “a debased modem Buddhist sectarian.” “If Buddhism contained a single dogma that we were compelled to accept, we would not have taken the pansil nor remained Buddhists ten minutes,” he explained. “Our Buddhism was that of the Master-Adept Gautama Buddha, which was identically the Wisdom Religion of the Aryan Upanishads, and the soul of all the ancient world-faiths.” Even on the day of his conversion to Buddhism, Olcott was discriminating between the “false” Buddhism of the Sinhalese people, which was in his view modem, debased, sectarian, and creedal, and his ostensibly true Buddhism — ancient, pure, nonsectarian, and nondogmatic.
DURING HIS FIRST visit to the island, Olcott founded seven lay branches and one monastic branch of the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS). He was explicit about modeling his Asian work after Christian examples: “As the Christians have their Society for the diffusion of Christian knowledge, so this should be a society for the diffusion of Buddhist knowledge.” Olcott also founded, again on Christian models, Buddhist secondary schools and Sunday schools affiliated with the BTS, thus initiating what would become a long and successful campaign for Western-style Buddhist education in Ceylon.
Henry Steel Olcott and Rev. Sumangala
Thanks to these efforts, Olcott and Blavatsky left Ceylon in July of 1880 as folk heroes. They had met a number of high-ranking monks, chief among them Hikkaduve Sumangala, who would soon become Olcott’s most faithful Sinhalese ally. Equally important, Olcott and Blavatsky had been embraced by a large number of Sinhalese laypeople.
OLCOTT HAD PLANNED upon his arrival in India in 1879 to spend some time learning about Hinduism and Buddhism from Eastern experts, then to return to America, where he would devote the rest of his life to promoting Theosophy and building up the Theosophical Society. But the celebrity status that Olcott achieved during his first Ceylon tour led him to reevaluate his plans. Gradually he was coming to see himself more as a teacher than as a student. He was also coming to view India as his home. But perhaps most important, he was beginning to emerge from behind Blavatsky’s formidable shadow. Because the tour itself highlighted Olcott’s oratorical skills rather than Blavatsky’s parlor-room charisma, Olcott garnered as much influence, if not as much fame, as his traveling companion. Before their departure the Sinhalese people were praising Blavatsky, but they were also hailing Olcott as one of their own — “The White Buddhist.”
OLCOTT SET SAIL for Ceylon in April 1881 for a second tour. Together with Mohottivatte Gunananda, the monk who had spearheaded the first phase of the Sinhalese Buddhist revival, he crisscrossed the western province for eight months in a bullock cart of his own design. Villagers flocked, according to Olcott, to witness the mechanical wonders of this device, complete with lockers for furniture and books, canvas roof to keep out rain, and cushioned central compartment with removable planks that could seat eight for dinner or sleep four. All testified to Olcotts Yankee ingenuity. When not impressing the Sinhalese with his cleverness and hard work, Olcott looked the part of the anti-Christian missionary. He sold merit cards and solicited subscriptions to support his National Education Fund, wrote and distributed anti-Christian and pro-Buddhist tracts, and secured support for his educational reforms from representatives of the island’s three monastic sects.
Olcott remained disturbed by what he perceived as the shocking ignorance of the Sinhalese about Buddhism.” This was an odd sort of judgment for a recent convert who had purportedly come to Asia not to teach but to learn. It was, however, a judgment that Olcott shared with many nineteenth-century academic Orientalists. Like Olcott, pioneering Buddhologists such as Rhys Davids (whom Olcott eagerly read) tended to reduce the Buddhist tradition to what the Buddha did and what the Buddhist scriptures said. This tendency permitted them to praise the ancient wisdom of the East and to condemn its modern manifestations—to view Asian religious traditions much like Calvin viewed the human race: as fallen from some Edenic past. It was Olcott’s uncritical and unconscious appropriation of this aspect of academic Orientalism that led him to the rather absurd conclusion that Ceylon’s Buddhists knew little, if anything, about “real” Buddhism. Like his hated missionaries and his beloved Orientalists, Olcott assumed the right to define what Buddhism really was. Unlike them, however, he assumed the duty to stir the Sinhalese masses from their ignorance, to instill in them his own creole representation of their Buddhist faith.
IN DEVISING HIS strategy for this didactic mission, Olcott turned yet again to the missionary example. He decided to compile for use in his Buddhist schools a catechism of basic Buddhist principles, “on the lines of the similar elementary handbooks so effectively used among Western Christian sects,” both Protestant and Catholic. Olcott’s The Buddhist Catechism, which would eventually go through more than forty editions and be translated into over twenty languages, is in many ways the defining document of his Buddhism. It first appeared, in both English and Sinhalese, on July 24, 1881. Hugely influential, it is still used today in Sri Lankan schools.
While Olcott himself characterized his Catechism as an “antidote to Christianity,” a shocking reliance on that tradition was evident in its explicitly Christian questions:
Q. Was the Buddha God?
A. No. Buddha Dharma teaches no “divine” incarnation.
Q. Do Buddhists accept the theory that everything has been formed out of nothing by a Creator?
A. We do not believe in miracles; hence we deny creation, and cannot conceive of a creation of something out of nothing.
Olcott’s ostensibly non-Christian Buddhism sounded like liberal Protestantism. More than an antidote to Christianity, Olcott’s Catechism was a borneopathic cure, treating the scourge of Christianity with a dose of the same. His critique of Christianity shared many elements with liberal Protestants’ critique of Christian orthodoxy, including a distrust of miracles, an emphasis on reason and experience. a tendency toward self-reliance, and a disdain for hell. Like their Jesus, his Buddha was a quintessential Christian gentleman: sweet and convincing, the very personification of “self-culture and universal love.
Ceylonese postage stamp issued in 1967 to commemorate Olcott's contributions to the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival
RETURNING TO COLOMBO on July 18, 1882, for his third Ceylon tour. Olcott discovered that the Buddhist Theosophical Society was “lifeless” and the revival was ‘at a standstill.’ Of the 13,000 rupees that had been pledged to the National Education Fund, only 100 had been collected. More ominously, a contingent of Roman Catholic missionaries had converted a well near a Buddhist pilgrimage site into a Lourdes-like healing shrine. Olcott feared “a rush of ignorant Buddhists into Catholicism.” In an attempt to break the Catholic monopoly over this crucial segment of the religious marketplace, Olcott pleaded for a monk to step forward and perform healings “in the name of lord Buddha.” But when no monk came forward, he decided to do the work himself.
Olcott’s first healing in Asia occurred on August 29, 1882. When a man said to be totally paralyzed in one arm and partially disabled in one leg approached him after a lecture, Olcott recalled his youthful experiments with mesmerism and made a few perfunctory passes over the man’s arm. The next day the man returned with reports of improved health, and Olcott began to treat him systematically Soon the man could, in Olcott’s words, “whirl his bad arm around his head, open and shut his hand,.., jump with both feet, hop on the paralyzed one, kick equally high against the wall with both, and run freely.” News of the Colonel’s healing powers spread across the island “as a match to loose straw” and his fundraising tour was immediately transformed into a roadshow featuring the miraculous healing hands of the instantly charismatic “White Buddhist.” Olcott publicly attributed his healings to the Buddha. Privately he credited the German physician Franz Mesmer.
Now that Olcott possessed a gift on a par with Blavatsky’s conjuring abilities, scores of patients lined up outside the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar (a suburb of Madras), and on an 1882 tour of Bengal Olcott supposedly treated 2,812 patients. Soon, however, the seemingly insatiable needs of his followers overwhelmed Olcott. His popularity became a burden and when, toward the end of 1883, the Theosophical Masters (adepts with whom Blavatsky is supposed to have communicated telepathically) handed down an order to stop the healings, Olcott happily complied.
Before his healing tours of 1882 and 1883, Olcott had recruited most of his Sinhalese and Indian followers from among the English-speaking middle classes. But his celebrated cures popularized his message, especially in Ceylon, where he may have inspired messianic expectations among Sinhalese peasants.
OLCOTT SOLIDIFIED HIS ROLE as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival in the wake of a tragic Buddhist-Christian riot that occurred on March 25, 1883, in Kotahena, a Catholic stronghold of Colombo. On that day a Buddhist procession marched through the streets on the way to Mohottivatte Gunananda’s newly decorated monastery, the Deepaduttama Vihara, where a new Buddha image was to be dedicated. When the procession approached a Roman Catholic cathedral located a few hundred yards from the temple, the cathedral bell sounded, followed almost immediately by bells in other Catholic churches in the area. As if in response to a signal, about a thousand men descended on the procession and a bloody brawl ensued. Authorities summoned eighty policemen, but their batons were no match for the clubs, swords, and stones of the mob. During the three-hour melee, one man was killed and forty others were injured.
As the Governor’s Riots Commission investigated the affair, Catholics and Buddhists took each other to court. Numerous cases were filed, but authorities eventually dropped all charges because of a lack of “reliable evidence.” After it had become clear that the Catholics would not be tried, a group of Sinhalese monks and laypeople cabled Olcott urging him to come to Ceylon. Upon his arrival on January 27, 1884, Olcott organized a Buddhist Defense
Committee, which elected him an honorary member and charged him to travel to London as its representative, “to ask for such redress and enter into such engagements as may appear to him judicious.” Thus, for the first time Olcott’s role as an intermediary between East and West became apparent, not only to himself but to Buddhists and colonial administrators alike.
Before he left for London, a group of high-ranking Buddhist monks gave Olcott a solemn farewell ceremony, in which they authorized him “to register as Buddhists persons of any nation who may make to him application, to administer the Three Refuges and Five Precepts and to organize societies for the promotion of Buddhism.” The first person of European descent to be given such an honor, Olcott thus became the first Buddhist missionary to the West.
WHEN OLCOTT ARRIVED in London in April 1884, British colonial officials were already well acquainted with him. In a June 26, 1883, letter covering the Report of the Riots Commission, Governor Longden discussed Olcott while reviewing the root causes for the brawl. The most important such cause was, in Longden’s view, the revival of Buddhism. There could be, he wrote, “no doubt” about the “genuineness” of the revival. Signs of it were everywhere:
The outer evidence of it is to be seen in the rebuilding of old shrines, . . . the larger offerings made to the Temples. Within the Buddhist Church the revival is signalized by a greater number of ordinations held with greater publicity, the care with which the Buddhist doctrines are being taught in the Pali language in the Vidyodaya College and in the monasteries, and the preparation of Buddhist Catechisms in the native and even in the English language.
Longden appended to his report a copy of Olcott’s Catechism and remarked that the Colonel had “very warmly espoused the cause of Buddhism.” The creole nature of Olcott’s actions was not lost on Longden, who remarked that the Colonel “brought the energy of Western propagandism to [the revival’s] aid.”
In a subsequent dispatch to Colonial Secretary Derby, Longden again mentioned Olcott, but now in more ominous terms. It was only a matter of time, he wrote, before one or two individuals would arise and take control of Buddhist affairs on the island. Given the “negligent character of the Sinhalese mind,” he reasoned, it was likely that non-Asian Buddhists would fill these leadership roles.
In May of 1884, almost a year after Longden had warned his superiors about the Colonel, Olcott arrived in London. Though officials were wary of augmenting his already significant influence, he was able to meet with Lord Derby’s assistant undersecretary, R. H. Meade. Shortly thereafter he sent a memo to Lord Derby, demanding: (1) that Catholics accused of instigating the riot be brought to trial; (2) that Buddhists be guaranteed the right to exercise their religion freely; (3) that Wesak—the full moon day on which the Sinhalese commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death—be declared a public holiday; (4) that all restrictions against the use of tom-toms and other musical instruments in religious processions be removed; (5) that Buddhist registrars be appointed; and (6) that the question of Buddhist temporalities (the supposedly negligent control of Buddhist properties by monks) be resolved. Olcott enclosed with his memo some accompanying documents that testified to the “discontent and despair” that had in his view gripped the island’s Buddhists following the Kotahena riots. He hinted that, if ignored, their dissatisfaction might result in a rebellion.
Only two of Olcott’s requests were speedily granted. In the fall of 1884, colonial officials agreed to pursue “more of a hands off policy” regarding the use of tom-toms and other musical instruments in religious processions; and on April 28, 1885, Wesak became an official holiday in British Ceylon.
Following the negotiations with Meade, Olcott wrote to the chairman of the Buddhist Defense Committee and informed him, over-optimistically, that his mission had been a complete success. Olcott’s Sinhalese supporters concluded that the British proclamation of Wesak as a public holiday was “primarily due to Colonel Olcott’s appeal,” and on April 28, 1885, during the first government-recognized celebration of the Buddha’s birthday’, the now-venerable name of Olcott was invoked frequently and with great devotion.
DESPITE CLAIMS THAT Olcott initiated the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival, his connection with the movement was, as he himself recognized, neither as originator (credit Mohottivatte Gunananda) nor as culminator (credit Anagarika Dharmapala) but as organizer and articulator. It was Olcott who agitated for Buddhist civil rights, and who gave the revival its organizational shape by founding voluntary associations, publishing and distributing tracts, and, perhaps most important, establishing schools. It was he who articulated most eloquently the “Protestant Buddhism” synthesis. The most Protestant of all early “Protestant Buddhists,” Olcott was a culture broker with one foot planted in traditional Sinhalese Buddhism and the other in liberal American Protestantism. By creatively combining these two sources, along with other influences such as theosophy, academic Orientalism, and metropolitan gentility, he helped to craft a new form of Buddhism that thrives today not only in Sri Lanka but also in the United States.
From The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott, Indiana University Press, 1996.
Courtesy: TRICYCLE: THE BUDDHIST REVIEW, Fall 1996, pp. 13-19.
The International Buddhist Flag
Recognized by All Buddhist Traditions
The Buddhist flag, first hoisted in 1885 in Sri Lanka, is a symbol of faith and peace used throughout the world to represent the Buddhist faith.
The six colors; Blue (nila), Yellow (pita), Red (lohita), White (odata), Scarlet (manjestha), and the mixture of these six colors (prabaswara) of the flag represent the colors of the aura that emanated from the body of the Buddha when He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.
The Horizontal Stripes represent the races of the world living in harmony and the Vertical Stripes represent eternal world peace. The colors symbolize the perfection of Buddhahood and the Dharma.
The Blue light that radiated from the Buddha's hair symbolizes the spirit of Universal Compassion for all beings.
The Yellow light that radiated from the Buddha's epidermis symbolizes the Middle Way which avoids all extremes and brings balance and liberation.
The Red light that radiated from the Buddha's flesh symbolizes the blessings that the practice of the Buddha's Teaching brings.
The White light that radiated from the Buddha's bones and teeth symbolizes the purity of the Buddha's Teaching and the liberation it brings.
The Orange light that radiated from the Buddha's palms, heels and lips symbolizes the unshakable Wisdom of the Buddha's Teaching. The Combination Color symbolizes the universality of the Truth of the Buddha's Teaching. (Burmese Buddhist replaced with Pink.)
Therefore, the overall flag represents that:
Regardless of race, nationality, division or color, all sentient beings possess the potential of Buddhahood.
The six colors are better interpreted as :
1. Blue: signifying the concept of loving kindness and peace in Buddhism
2. Yellow: signifying the Middle Path, that is, the complete absence of form and emptiness
||3. Red: signifying achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune and dignity.
||4. White: signifying purity, emancipation, that the Dharma will always exist regardless of time or space.
||5. Orange: the essence of Buddhism which is full of wisdom, strength and dignity.
|| 6. The combination of these five colors symbolizes that it is the one and only Truth.
The horizontal bars signify peace and harmony between all races throughout the world while the vertical bars represent eternal peace within the world. In simple terms, the Buddhist Flag implies that there is no discrimination of races, nationality, areas or skin color; that every living being possess the Buddha Nature and all have the potential to become a Buddha.
Images of Olcott in Modern-Day Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
Col. Henry Steele Olcott:
A great name in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history
Olcott During the Civil War
An excerpt from: Yankee Beacon of Buddhist Light: Life of Col. Henry S. Olcott
By Howard Murphet
The year 1861 began happily enough for Mr. and Mrs. Henry Olcott. In January of that year their first child was born-a son. He was named Richard Morgan after his maternal grandfather.
But the clouds of national conflict were darkening heavily, and in April, 1861, the Civil War began. As men do in war, Henry forgot his dislike of officialdom and authoritarianism. Suddenly it seemed that the things for which the North was fighting-the abolition of slavery, industrial progress, the solidarity of the nation through the continuance of the Union-were the most important in life. Agricultural journalism sank into insignificance.
Henry volunteered for action in the field, and we next hear of him as a signals officer. Writing of this period himself, he says: "I passed at the front the first year of the war, joining the Burnside expedition at Annapolis, participating in the capture of Roanoke Island, the battle of Newbern, the siege and capture of Fort Macon, the battles on the Rappahannock during Pope's retreat and other military operations." *
What his actual rank was at this time we do not know, but he was apparently in a position that enabled him to talk personally with General Burnside. Describing the attack on Roanoke Island in vessels of the wrong draught, hired for the army by agents at exorbitant prices, Olcott writes: "Conversing with Burnside as the vessel we were on stuck fast half-way over the swash, I offered to send an account of this infamy to the Northern press and denounce the responsible parties by name." *
The General felt, however, that he must take the responsibility himself, and did not accept Olcott's offer. But he probably made a mental note of it.
One day in the fall of 1862, when Henry was in Washington with his horse "ready saddled for a start next morning with General Burnside to join Hooker with the Ninth Corps," he found himself instead taken off to a military hospital. He was one of the many casualties of those wartime enemies-malaria and dysentery.
Two months later, while he was still convalescing, he received an order that both surprised and dismayed him. He was detailed to carry out special investigations into the operations of one Solomon Kohnstamm, a big army contractor who was suspected of fraud. Henry was puzzled as to why he, a signals officer, should have been chosen for this job. Agricultural science and journalism could scarcely be considered a training for such detective work. Had Burnside remembered the conversation at Roanoke Island and, feeling that Olcott's hatred of dishonest practices was sufficient qualification, recommended him? Or was it just one of those unaccountable things that happen in wartime?
The job was supposed to be a brief one. It should, they said, not take more than a fortnight to determine if Kohnstamm had been robbing Uncle Sam to the tune of some $25,000, as suspected. After that, Olcott would be free to rejoin his unit in the field.
So in November 1862, he started on the investigation. For the work he was stationed in New York and able to live at home. This was a compensation. Four months earlier, in June, his second son, William Topping, had been born. Richard Morgan Olcott was nearly two now. Dr. the Rev. Morgan preached the righteousness of the Northern cause from his pulpit, and Mary was proud of her hero from the battlefield. The hero himself reveled in the domestic felicity as a respite from the horrors, ugliness, and discomfort of the front.
But he was discovering a worse ugliness in the machinations of the "enemy" behind the lines. Corruption was on a much wider scale than had at first been suspected, and Kohnstamm was by no means the only villain. More and more cases of suspected fraud, corruption, and misconduct, came onto Olcott's desk at 93 Franklin Street, New York. The work increased; his staff of detectives and stenographers was enlarged; eventually he had to take an office in Washington as well as New York. The job, which was supposed to take a fortnight, went on and on.
Henry was given the rank of Colonel for this important, and frequently dangerous, task of bringing to book the racketeers or agents-some of them powerful and ruthless-who were either trying to make quick fortunes out of the war, or giving undercover help to the enemy. Olcott's correspondence with top officials at the War Department, written in the copperplate handwriting of the clerks of those days, reveals the variety and extent of his activities as Special Commissioner.
Among the matters into which he probed were: the sailing of vessels from New York with arms destined for the enemy, the corrupt complicity of high officers of both the services and the Government in trying to make personal profits out of the war, the issuing of passports in Washington to enemy agents to get through the lines, and the apprehension and arrest of spies and other southern agents in New York, who were, among other things, carrying dispatches to their allies, or potential allies, in Europe.
In one of his reports the Colonel says: "The Government has been in the habit of paying ruinous prices for the charter of vessels, some of which have been perfectly unseaworthy. The precious lives of officers and men, and public property of the value of millions of dollars, have been entrusted to rotten steamboat hulks, and greedy speculators and middlemen have been paid, for their use, prices of the most extortionate nature."
On one of hundreds of cases investigated, he reports that "by a corrupt conspiracy between a government purchasing agent, an inspector, a Cincinnati contractor, an Indianapolis horse dealer, and Republican politician, the United States had been systematically robbed of one million dollars in the purchase of horses and mules, at the Cincinnati corral, during the preceding year."
But perhaps the star performer in what Henry called "The War's Carnival of Fraud" was the one who first triggered official suspicion-Solomon Kohnstamm. This man's main crime consisted "in his procuring from landlords-generally German saloon-keepers-their signatures to blank vouchers (bills for the board and lodging of recruits for volunteer regiments). These blank vouchers he would have filled in by his clerks for, say, one or two thousand dollars each, and then either get unprincipled commissioned officers to append their certificates for an agreed price, or, cheaper still, forge them. By this device he drew over three hundred thousand dollars from the Mustering and Disbursing Office in New York, of which sum the greater proportion was in due time ascertained by me to be fraud."
But bringing this racketeer to heel was by no means easy. He had for years been a big businessman in the city of New York. He entertained lavishly and bribed liberally. He had many influential friends, some of whom were quite respectable and not aware of his crimes. To make matters worse, through an official blunder, Kohnstamm had been arrested prematurely, before the Colonel could gather all the necessary evidence. Loud voices of protest were raised among the public, and pressures from the contractor's friends and certain political groups were brought to bear. Before long it came to Henry's ears from a reliable source that he, the United States Marshal, and even the Secretary of War were to be "indicted for resisting the writ of habeas corpus under the alleged unconstitutional act of Congress suspending the same."
It was a situation that called for bold action without delay. Olcott took the initiative and went before a grand jury with his papers, answering any questions they cared to ask. "The result was a vote of commendation for what had been done, and all danger of indictment was removed." Then, with his newspaper experience standing him in good stead, he made a bid for better public and press relations. He invited the journalists to a conference, and gave them an outline of the facts that had so far been revealed by his investigations. The newspaper stories next day caused a sensation. Public sympathy was immediately enlisted for the work he was doing. Never afterwards, he said, did the press interfere with the discharge of his official labors, so that he was able to carry out his duties with the efficiency and secrecy required.
Finally, forty-eight bills of indictment were brought against Kohnstamm. Political pressures were overcome, the contractor was brought to trial, and in May 1864, he was sentenced to ten years with hard labor at Sing Sing prison. The out come so pleased the Secretary of War that he sent the following telegram to his Special Investigator;
WAR DEPARTMENT, May 21st., 1864
To: Colonel H. S. Olcott, New York:
I heartily congratulate you upon the result of today's trial. It is as important to the Government as the winning of a battle.
Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.
Henry's Herculean labors in what he called "cleaning out the Augean stables" of the Army were so successful and so gratifying to the authorities that, after about fifteen months as Special Commissioner for the War Department, he was asked by Secretary of the Navy Welles to perform similar services for that department. Stanton agreed to loan. the Colonel temporarily. So he was officially commissioned as Special Investigator for the Navy.
He found the same abuses, the same corruption, the same systematic robbery of the Navy Department, as he had uncovered in connection with the Army. He set himself to clean out this Augean stable, too - "without fear or favor." The rank, position, or power of the wrongdoer meant nothing whatever to Henry Olcott. And so the flow of anonymous threatening letters increased. Indeed, his life was frequently in danger from those whose rackets he was bent on exposing.
At the same time tragedy entered his domestic life. A third son, named Henry Steel, died at the age of four months while the Colonel was busy fighting his grim battle against the ring of rogues who were fleecing the Navy of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of them were the same crooked contractors whose scent he had caught behind the scenes in Army affairs. With untiring energy he traveled from state to state as required. (In one semi-annual report he states that during the preceding six months he had traveled over 19,000 miles and examined, with the help of his assistants, 817 witnesses.)
* * *
On the evening of April 14, 1865, while the Colonel was working late at his office in New York, a tragic event that staggered the North took place in Ford's Theatre, Washington. As the audience quietly watched the drama, Our American Cousin, John Wilkes Booth, well-known as an actor (though not in this cast) leaped from a box above onto the stage. He faced the audience and cried, "Sic semper tyrannis." Then dashing through the stage door he mounted a waiting horse and rode off into the darkness.
In the box from which he had jumped, Abraham Lincoln, the wartime President of the United States, lay in his blood, with one of Booth's bullets buried in his brain. This great man and statesman, whose hands had once, like Henry's, held a plough, died that April night as the Civil War, which he had steered to victory, drew toward its close.
The next day Colonel Olcott sent the following telegram to Stanton in Washington:
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War,
If Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan or I or any of my employees can serve you and the country in any way, no matter what, or anywhere, we are ready.
H. S. Olcott.
The reply came within a couple of hours:
H. S. Olcott, New York.
I desire your services. Come to Washington at once, and bring your force of detectives with you. Answer.
Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.
The Colonel replied promptly that he would be leaving New York by midnight with such of his men as lived in town. The rest would follow next day.
At Washington Olcott, who had now proved himself to the authorities as a highly efficient and incorruptible investigator, was appointed as one of a three-man commission whose job it was to gather all the evidence that could be found concerning any conspiracy behind the assassination, and to flush out the conspirators. The actual killer, John Booth, was on the run from police and army, like a fox before the hounds. There was little doubt that he would be taken, but none of those in the murder plot must be allowed to escape the net.
During the next fortnight all information about the case, from whatever source, was laid before this committee of investigation, consisting of Olcott and two other colonels.
In his book, The Web of Conspiracy, Theodore Roscoe, an official historian for the U.S. Government, describes some of Olcott's activities during this hectic fortnight of national crisis.
On the day following his arrival in Washington, for instance, the Colonel made the first arrest of a major conspirator, Ned Spangler. He also spent many hours interrogating Mary Suratt who conducted the boardinghouse at which the plotters had held their meetings. Her son, John H. Suratt, was thought to be John Booth's chief accomplice. By this time Henry Olcott had had a great deal of experience in the art of interrogation. A verbatim report of the exchange between him and Mary Suratt is to be found in the United States of America's National Archives, and Theodore Roscoe calls it "an exemplary illustration of 1865 police interrogation technique." That busy first day ended at 11 p.m. when General Augur, Commander of the District of Columbia, "ordered Colonel H. S. Olcott to mount the raid" on the Suratt boardinghouse.
Meantime the "fox" was still on the run. Although General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy had officially surrendered to General Ulysses Grant of the Union army on April 9th, the armies of the South were still in the field, and John Booth was doing his best to reach them. But he was hampered by damage to his leg, caused apparently in that dramatic jump from the President's box to the stage. Twelve days after the assassination, on April 26th, the "hounds" surrounded the "fox" in a hideout on a farm, and the kill was made. Though why Booth was not taken alive for trial-which may have revealed much that will now remain forever hidden-is one of the strange question marks of history. Soon after this event Colonel Olcott was able to return to his pressing duties in New York.
Mary Suratt was subsequently tried before a military tribunal. The chief witness for the prosecution was a drunken innkeeper named Lloyd, and the case against Mrs. Suratt as an accomplice was very weak. If the Colonel's report on his interrogation of her had been brought forward, the case might have been too weak for a conviction. Anyway the report was not produced at the trial, and the lawyers for the defense did not even know of its existence: For some reason the swift dispatch of Mary Suratt was more important than considerations of justice, let alone mercy. At all events she was convicted and hanged.
After the end of the war Olcott still carried on his special work. There was much unfinished business in bringing miscreants to punishment, also he wanted to devise new methods of procedure to ensure against future abuses in the services. In the Navy Department, for instance, he introduced a new system of bookkeeping calculated to prevent the kind of "carnival of corruption" that he had found during the war. The system was eventually introduced in all the Navy yards on the Atlantic seaboard.
Toward the end of 1865, three years after the beginning of his "fortnight's job," Olcott resigned his commission. His chiefs, in letters of farewell, thanked him for the good work done, and their letters provide many testimonials to the Colonel's honesty, integrity, and moral courage.
Olcott had been given unlimited authority "because he made no mistakes that called for correction and had not committed one single act of dishonesty," stated the Secretary of War.
He had, wrote the Judge-Advocate General of the Army, "been the means of rescuing vast sums of public money from peculators and swindlers for whom the vigor and skillfulness of [his] investigations had been a continual terror." He had done his work with thoroughness, "zeal, ability, and uncompromising faithfulness to duty despite the clamors and calumnies" with which he had been assailed in the interests of crime. The Assistant Secretaries of War and the Navy wrote of him in similar vein.
The Special Counsel and Solicitor of the Navy Department, Mr. W. E. Chandler wrote: "I have never met with a gentleman entrusted with important duties of more capacity, rapidity and reliability." He bore testimony to the Colonel's "entire uprightness and integrity of character. . .," saying that he may well be proud of the fact that he had come through without any assault on his reputation when one considered the "corruption, audacity and power of many villains in high position whom you [Olcott] had prosecuted and punished. . . ."
These yellowing letters in the archives of The Theosophical Society prove to all who care to read them that, after three years down in the mud of fraud and corruption, Henry Olcott, like the mudfish, had come out clean; none of it had stuck to him.
His high reputation and many contacts could undoubtedly have secured him a good government post after his work as a Special Commissioner was over, but perhaps he had had enough of official circles. At any rate he decided to start on an entirely new career.
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*From The Annals of War, the Times Publishing Co., Philadelphia, 1879. Back to Text