The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 4

Chapter 4

New York and Chittenden, 1873 – April 1875

H. P. Blavatsky was forty-two years old and in controlled possession of her many and most unusual spiritual and occult powers when she arrived in New York City. In the opinion of the Mahatmas, she was the best available instrument for the work they had in mind, namely to offer to the world a new presentation, though only in brief outline of the age-old Theosophia, "The accumulated Wisdom of the ages, tested and verified by generations of Seers," that body of Truth, of which religions, great and small, are but as branches of the parent tree. Her task was to challenge on the one hand the entrenched beliefs and dogmas of Christian theology and on the other the equally dogmatic materialistic view of the science of her day. A crack, however, had recently appeared in this twofold set of mental fortifications. It was caused by Spiritualism, then sweeping America. To quote Helena's own words: "I was sent to prove the phenomena and their reality, and to show the fallacy of the spiritualistic theory of spirits."

In October, 1874, HPB was put in touch by her Teachers with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a man of sterling worth who had acquired considerable renown during the Civil War, had served the U.S. Government with distinction, and was at the time practicing law in New York. They became firm friends, and through HPB, his view of Spiritualism and his knowledge of Eastern esotericism underwent a revolutionary change.

4a. Anna Ballard, July 1873, New York City [letter, Jan. 17, 1892, quoted by Olcott, Old Diary Leaves 1: 21-2]

My acquaintanceship with Mme. Blavatsky dates back [to] July 1873, at New York, not more than a week after she landed. I was then a reporter on the staff of the New York Sun, and had been detailed to write an article upon a Russian subject. In the course of my search after facts, the arrival of this Russian lady was reported to me by a friend, and I called upon her, thus beginning an acquaintance that lasted several years. At our first interview she told me she had had no idea of leaving Paris for America until the very evening before she sailed, but why she came or who hurried her off she did not say. I remember perfectly well her saying with an air of exultation, "I have been in Tibet." Why she should think that a great matter, more remarkable than any other of the travels in Egypt, India, and other countries she told me about, I could not make out, but she said it with special emphasis and animation.

4b. Elizabeth G. K. Holt, Aug. 1873 – June 1874, New York City [Holt 257–66]

It was hard for respectable women workers of small means to find a fitting place in which to live; so it happened that some forty of them launched a small experiment in co-operative living. They rented a new tenement house, 222 Madison Street. It was a street of small two-story houses occupied by their owners, who were proud of their shade trees, and kept their front and back yards in order.

My mother and I had spent the summer of 1873 at Saratoga. In order to be ready for school when it opened, I was sent home in August to the Madison Street house, where we had a friend who would take me under her protection; and there I found Mme. Blavatsky. She had a room on the second floor, and my friend had a duplicate room next to her, so that they became very friendly neighbors. Being a co-operative family, we all knew one another familiarly, and kept a room next the street door as a common sitting room or office, a meeting place for members, and a place where mail and messages were cared for.

Mme. Blavatsky sat in the office a large part of her time, but she seldom sat alone; she was like a magnet, powerful enough to draw round her everyone who could possibly come. I saw her, day by day, sitting there rolling her cigarettes and smoking incessantly. She had a conspicuous tobacco pouch, the head of some fur-bearing animal, which she wore round the neck. She was certainly an unusual figure. I think she must have been taller than she looked, she was so broad; she had a broad face and broad shoulders; her hair was a lightish brown and crinkled like that of some Negroes. Her whole appearance conveyed the idea of power.

Madame referred often to her life in Paris. Later she gave practical demonstration that she had ability in the arts. I had a piano, and Madame sometimes played, usually because somebody pressed her to do so.

She described their past life to the people who asked her to do so, and these accounts must have been accurate, they made such a profound impression. I never heard that she told them their future. She was considered to be a Spiritualist, though I never heard her say she was one. When my friend, Miss Parker, asked Madame to put her in communication with her dead mother, Madame said it was impossible, as her mother was absorbed in higher things and had progressed beyond reach. The spirits she spoke about continually were the diaki, tricksy little beings, evidently counterparts of the fairies of Irish folklore, and certainly nonhuman from her description of them.

I never looked upon Madame as an ethical teacher. For one thing, she was too excitable; when things went wrong with her, she could express her opinion about them with a vigor which was very disturbing.

In mental or physical dilemma, you would instinctively appeal to her, for you felt her fearlessness, her unconventionality, her great wisdom and wide experience and hearty good will—her sympathy with the underdog.

An instance of this kind comes to mind. Undesirable people were beginning to move into the street, and the neighborhood was changing rapidly. One evening one of our young girls, coming home late from work, was followed and greatly frightened; she flung herself breathless into a chair in the office. Madame interested herself at once, expressed her indignation in most vigorous terms, and finally drew from some fold in her dress a knife (I think she used it to cut her tobacco, but it was sufficiently large to be a formidable weapon of defense) and said she had that for any man who molested her.

At this time Madame was greatly troubled about money; the income she had received regularly from her father in Russia had stopped, and she was almost penniless. Some of the more conservative people in our house suggested that she was, after all, an adventuress, and the want of money was only what might be expected; but my friend, Miss Parker, whom she took with her to the Russian Consul, assured me that she was really a Russian Countess, that the Consul knew of her family, and had promised to do all he could to get in touch with them and find out what was the difficulty. I may say here that the holding up of her income was caused by the death of her father and the consequent time required to settle up his affairs.

She had a long table in her private room and I saw her for days, perhaps weeks, steadily writing page after page of manuscript.

Shortly after this and while Madame was still without income, she met and became intimate with a French lady, a widow, whose name I have forgotten.

At this time she lived a short distance away in Henry Street. She offered to share her home with HPB until the latter's money difficulties had passed. This offer was accepted, and Madame left our house. Many of our people, however, and notably Miss Parker, kept in close touch with her.

Shortly after this Madame received money from Russia, and moved to the northeast corner of 14th Street and Fourth Avenue. The house was very unpretentious, with a liquor saloon on the street floor, and the two upper floors let as furnished rooms. To this house Miss Parker took me. There I found Madame in a poorly furnished top-floor room; her bed was an iron cot, and beside her bed on a table was a small cabinet with three drawers.

Madame was in a state of great excitement. Earlier in the day her room had been on fire; she said it had been purposely set on fire to rob her. After the fire was out, and the firemen and curious strangers had gone, she found that her valuable watch and chain had been stolen. When she complained to the proprietor of the saloon, who was her landlord, he intimated that she had never had a watch to lose. She told us that she asked "Them" to give her some proof which she could show her landlord and convince him that she really had lost her property; immediately there appeared before her a sheet of paper all grey with smoke except for white spots, the size and shape of a watch and chain, indicating that after the fire had darkened the paper, the watch and chain had been lifted from it, revealing the white spots which they had covered.

I had always heard the "They" and "Them" explained by the people who were round her, as referring to her "Spirit Guides"; naturally I thought she spoke of them. I knew nothing of Occultism.

My visit to HPB was the last time I saw her.

4c. Henry S. Olcott, October 1874, Chittenden, Vermont [Olcott, Old Diary Leaves 1: 1–10]

One day, in the month of July 1874, I was sitting in my law office thinking over a heavy case in which I had been retained by the Corporation of the City of New York, when it occurred to me that for years I had paid no attention to the Spiritualist movement. I went around the corner to a dealer's and bought a copy of the Banner of Light. In it I read an account of certain incredible phenomena, viz. the solidification of phantom forms, which were said to be occurring at a farmhouse in the township of Chittenden, in the State of Vermont, several hundred miles distant from New York. I saw at once that, if it were true that visitors could see, even touch and converse with, deceased relatives who had found means to reconstruct their bodies and clothing so as to be temporarily solid, visible, and tangible, this was the most important fact in modern physical science. I determined to go and see for myself. I did so, found the story true, stopped three or four days, and then returned to New York. I wrote an account of my observations to the New York Sun, which was copied pretty much throughout the whole world. A proposal was then made to me by the Editor of the New York Daily Graphic to return to Chittenden in its interest, accompanied by an artist to sketch under my orders, and to make a thorough investigation of the affair. The matter so deeply interested me that I made the necessary disposition of office engagements, and on September 17th was back at the "Eddy Homestead," as it was called from the name of the family who owned and occupied it. I stopped in that house of mystery, surrounded by phantoms and having daily experiences of a most extraordinary character, for about twelve weeks. Meanwhile, twice a week there appeared in the Daily Graphic my letters about the "Eddy ghosts," each one illustrated with sketches of specters actually seen by the artist, Mr. Kappes, and myself, as well as by every one of the persons—sometimes as many as forty—present in the "seance-room." It was the publication of these letters which drew Madame Blavatsky to Chittenden, and so brought us together.

I remember our first day's acquaintance as if it were yesterday. It was a sunny day and even the gloomy old farmhouse looked cheerful. It stands amid a lovely landscape, in a valley bounded by grassy slopes that rise into mountains covered to their very crests with leafy groves. This was the time of the "Indian Summer," when the whole country is covered with a faint bluish haze and the foliage of the beeches, elms, and maples, touched by early frosts, has been turned from green into a mottling of gold and crimson that gives the landscape the appearance of being hung all over with royal tapestries.

The dinner hour at Eddy’s was noon, and it was from the entrance door of the bare and comfortless dining room that Kappes and I first saw HPB. She had arrived shortly before noon with a French Canadian lady, and they were at table as we entered. My eye was first attracted by a scarlet Garibaldian shirt the former wore, as in vivid contrast with the dull colors around. Her hair was then a thick blond mop, worn shorter than the shoulders, and it stood out from her head, silken-soft and crinkled to the roots, like the fleece of a Cotswold ewe. This and the red shirt were what struck my attention before I took in the picture of her features. It was a massive Calmuck face, contrasting in its suggestion of power, culture, and imperiousness as strangely with the commonplace visages about the room as her red garment did with the gray and white tones of the walls and woodwork and the dull costumes of the rest of the guests.

All sorts of cranky people were continually coming and going at Eddy's to see the mediumistic phenomena, and it only struck me on seeing this eccentric lady that this was but one more of the sort. Pausing on the doorsill, I whispered to Kappes, "Good gracious! look at that specimen, will you." I went straight across and took a seat opposite her to indulge my favorite habit of character study. The two ladies conversed in French, making remarks of no consequence. Dinner over, the two went outside the house and Madame Blavatsky rolled herself a cigarette, for which I gave her a light as a pretext to enter into conversation. My remark having been made in French, we fell at once into talk in that language.

She asked me how long I had been there and what I thought of the phenomena, saying that she herself was greatly interested in such things and had been drawn to Chittenden by reading the letters in the Daily Graphic: the public were growing so interested in these that it was sometimes impossible to find a copy of the paper on the bookstalls an hour after publication, and she had paid a dollar for a copy of the last issue. "I hesitated before coming here," she said, "because I was afraid of meeting that Colonel Olcott." "Why should you be afraid of him, Madame?" I rejoined. "Oh! because I fear he might write about me in his paper." I told her that she might make herself perfectly easy on that score, for I felt quite sure Col. Olcott would not mention her in his letters unless she wished it. And I introduced myself.

We became friends at once. Each of us felt as if we were of the same social world, cosmopolitans, freethinkers, and in closer touch than with the rest of the company. It was the voice of common sympathy with the higher occult side of man and nature, the attraction of soul to soul, not that of sex to sex.

Strolling along with my new acquaintance, we talked together about the Eddy phenomena and those of other lands. I found she had been a great traveler and seen many occult things and adepts in occult science, but at first she did not give me any hint as to the existence of the Himalayan Sages or of her own powers. She spoke of the materialistic tendency of American Spiritualism, which was a sort of debauch of phenomena accompanied by comparative indifference to philosophy. Her manner was gracious and captivating, her criticisms upon men and things original and witty. She was particularly interested in drawing me out as to my own ideas about spiritual things and expressed pleasure in finding that I had instinctively thought along the occult lines which she herself had pursued. It was not as an Eastern mystic, but rather as a refined Spiritualist that she talked. For my part I knew nothing then, or next to nothing, about Eastern philosophy, and at first she kept silent on that subject.

The seances of William Eddy, the chief medium of the family, were held every evening in a large upstairs hall, in a wing of the house, over the dining room and kitchen. At the farther end of the séance hall was a narrow closet in which William Eddy would seat himself to wait for the phenomena. He had no seeming control over them, but merely sat and waited for them to sporadically occur. A blanket being hung across the doorway, the closet would be in perfect darkness. Shortly after William had entered the cabinet, the blanket would be pulled aside and forth would step some figure of a dead man, woman or child temporarily solid and substantial, but the next minute resolved back into nothingness or invisibility. They would occasionally dissolve away while in full view of the spectators.

Up to the time of HPB's appearance on the scene, the figures which had shown themselves were either Red Indians, or Americans or Europeans akin to the visitors. But on the first evening of her stay, spooks of other nationalities came before us. There was a Georgian servant boy from the Caucasus, a Mussulman merchant from Tiflis, a Russian peasant girl, and others. The advent of such figures in the séance room of those poor, almost illiterate Vermont farmers, who had neither the money to buy theatrical properties, the experience to employ such if they had had them, nor the room where they could have availed of them, was to every eyewitness a convincing proof that the apparitions were genuine. At the same time they show that a strange attraction to call out these images from what Asiatics call the Kamaloka attended Madame Blavatsky. It was long afterwards that I was informed that she had evoked them by her own developed and masterful power.

HPB tried her best to make me suspect the value of William Eddy's phenomena as proofs of the intelligent control of a medium by spirits, telling me that, if genuine, they must be the double of the medium escaping from his body and clothing itself with other appearances; but I did not believe her. I contended that the forms were of too great diversities of height, bulk, and appearance to be a masquerade of William Eddy; they must be what they seemed, viz., the spirits of the dead. Our disputes were quite warm on occasions, for at that time I had not gone deep enough into the question of the plastic nature of the human double to see the force of her hints, while of the Eastern theory of Maya I did not know its least iota. The result, however, was, as she told me, to convince her of my disposition to accept nothing on trust and to cling pertinaciously to such facts as I had, or thought I had acquired. We became greater friends day by day, and by the time she was ready to leave Chittenden, she had accepted from me the nickname "Jack," and so signed herself in her letters to me from New York. When we parted it was as good friends likely to continue the acquaintance thus pleasantly begun.

4d. Henry S. Olcott, Nov. 1874 – April 1875, New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania [Olcott, Old Diary Leaves 1: 10–1, 40–2, 17]

In November 1874, when my researches were finished [at Chittenden, Vermont], I returned to New York and called upon [HPB] at her lodgings at 16 Irving Place, where she gave me some seances of table-tipping and rapping, spelling out messages of sorts, principally from an invisible intelligence calling itself "John King." I thought it a veritable John King then, for its personality had been as convincingly proved to me, I fancied, as anybody could have asked. But now, after seeing what HPB could do in the way of producing mayavic (i.e., hypnotic) illusions and in the control of elementals, I am persuaded that "John King" was a humbugging elemental, worked by her like a marionette and used as a help towards my education. Understand me, the phenomena were real, but they were done by no disincarnate human spirit. She kept up the illusion for months, and I saw numbers of phenomena done as alleged by John King.

An experiment [was] made by HPB, with myself as a passive agent after my coming to her house in Philadelphia. She was tipping tables for me, with and without the contact between her hands and the table, making loud and tiny raps—sometimes while holding her hand six inches above the wood and sometimes while resting her hand upon mine as it lay flat upon the table—and spelling out messages to me from the pretended John King, which, as rapped out by the alphabet, I recorded on scraps of paper. At last some of these messages relating to third parties seemed worth keeping, so one day, on my way home, I bought a reporter's notebook, and, on getting to the house, showed it to her and explained its intended use. She was seated at the time and I standing. Without touching the book or making any mystical pass or sign, she told me to put it in my bosom. I did so, and after a moment's pause she bade me take it out and look within. This is what I found inside the first cover, written and drawn on the white lining paper in lead pencil:

his book.
4th of the Fourth month in A.D. 1875.

Underneath this, the drawing of a Rosicrucian jewel; over the arch of the jeweled crown, the word FATE; beneath which is her name, "Helen," followed by what looks like 99, something smudged out, and then a simple + [etc.]. I have the book on my table as I write, and my description is taken from the drawing itself. One striking feature of this example of psycho-dynamics is the fact that no one but myself had touched the book after it was purchased; I had had it in my pocket until it was shown to HPB, from the distance of two or three feet, had myself held it in my bosom, removed it a moment later when bidden, and the precipitation of the lead-pencil writing and drawing had been done while the book was inside my waistcoat. Now the writing inside the cover of the book is very peculiar. It is a quaint and quite individual handwriting, not like HPB's, but identical with that in all the written messages I had from first to last from "John King." HPB having, then, the power of precipitation, must have transferred from her mind to the paper the images of words traced in this special style of script; or, if not she, but some other expert in this art did it, then that other person must have done it in that same way—i.e., have first pictured to himself mentally the images of those words and that drawing, and then precipitated, that is, made them visible on the paper, as though written with a lead pencil.

Little by little, HPB let me know of the existence of Eastern adepts and their powers, and gave me by a multitude of phenomena the proofs of her own control over the occult forces of nature.

  • Holt, Elizabeth G. K. 1931. "A Reminiscence of H. P. Blavatsky in 1873." Theosophist (December), pp. 257–66. Selection 4b.
  • Olcott, Henry S. 1895. Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical Society. Vol. 1 (1874–1878). New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. Selections 4a, 4c, 4d.
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