The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 5

Chapter 5

New York and Ithaca: Writing Isis Unveiled, August – October 1875

Shortly after Blavatsky’s return from Crittenden, Olcott introduced her to William Quan Judge, a young Irish lawyer, who was also to play a unique role in the future Theosophical work.

The general reaction to HPB was an interest in the "wonders" she could perform and a thirst for marvelous phenomena. She began to gather around her a circle of persons curious about spiritualism and the paranormal. Among the latter was Hiram Corson, a distinguished professor at Cornell University, at whose home HPB spent some weeks in the fall of 1875, working on Isis Unveiled.

Corson was a spiritualist and hoped through HPB to contact his daughter, who had died as a teenager. He was surprised by HPB’s opposition to any such efforts, but his interest in the marvelous was served by observing her work on Isis, which involved long quotations from books not in his library or, he thought, in America. He wrote that she told him she could see the original works "on another plane of objective existence" and simply recorded what appeared before her. Corson and his son, Eugene, later published a volume of correspondence from HPB.

5a. William Q. Judge, Aug. 1875–1878, New York City [Sinnett, Incidents 186–99]

My first acquaintance with H. P. Blavatsky began in the winter of the year [1875]. She was then living in apartments in Irving Place, New York City. She had several rooms en suite. The front rooms looked out on Irving Place, and the back upon the garden. My first visit was made in the evening, and I saw her there among a large number of persons who were always attracted to her presence. Several languages were to be heard among them, and Mme. Blavatsky, while conversing volubly in Russian, apparently quite absorbed, would suddenly turn round and interject an observation in English into a discussion between other persons upon a different topic to the one she was engaged with. This never disturbed her, for she at once returned to her Russian talk, taking it up much where it had been dropped.

Very much was said on the first evening that arrested my attention and enchained my imagination. I found my secret thoughts read, my private affairs known to her. Unasked, and certainly without any possibility of her having inquired about me, she referred to several private and peculiar circumstance in a way that showed at once that she had a perfect knowledge of my family, my history, my surroundings, and my idiosyncrasies.

The next day I thought I would try an experiment with Mme. Blavatsky. I took an ancient scarabaeus that she had never seen, had it wrapped up and sent to her through the mails by a clerk in the employment of a friend. My hand did not touch the package, nor did I know when it was posted. But when I called on her at the end of the week the second time, she greeted me with thanks for the scarabaeus. I pretended ignorance. But she said it was useless to pretend, and then informed me how I had sent it, and where the clerk had posted it. During the time that elapsed between my seeing her and the sending of the package no one had heard from me a word about the matter.

Very soon after I met her, she moved to 34th Street, and while there I visited her very often. In those rooms I used to hear the raps in furniture, in glasses, mirrors, windows, and walls, which are usually the accompaniment of dark "spiritist" seances. But with her they occurred in the light, and never except when ordered by her. Nor could they be induced to continue once that she ordered them to stop. They exhibited intelligence also, and would at her request change from weak to strong, or from many to few at a time.

She remained in 34th Street only a few months, and then removed to 47th Street.

After she had comfortably settled herself in 47th Street, where, as usual, she was from morning till night surrounded by all sorts of visitors, mysterious events—extraordinary sights and sounds—continued to occur. I have sat there many an evening, and seen in broad gaslight, large luminous balls creeping over the furniture, or playfully jumping from point to point, while the most beautiful liquid bell sounds now and again burst out from the air of the room. These sounds often imitated either the piano or a gamut of sounds whistled by either myself or some other person. While all this was going, H. P. Blavatsky sat unconcernedly reading or writing at "Isis Unveiled."

Precipitation of messages or sentences occurred very frequently, and I will relate one which took place under my own hand and eyes, in such a way as to be unimpeachable for me.

I was one day, about four o'clock, reading a book that had just been brought in by a friend of Colonel Olcott. I was sitting some six feet distance from H. P. Blavatsky, who was busy writing. I had carefully read the title page of the book, but had forgotten the exact title. But I knew that there was not one word of writing upon it. As I began to read the first paragraph, I heard a bell sound in the air and, looking, saw that Mme. Blavatsky was intently regarding me.

"What book do you read?" said she.

Turning back to the title page, I was about to read aloud the name, when my eye was arrested by a message written in ink across the top of the page, which, a few minutes before, I had looked at and found clean. It was a message in about seven lines, and the fluid had not yet quite dried on the page—its contents were a warning about the book. I am positive that when I took the volume in my hand not one word was written in it.

About any object that might be transported mysteriously around her room, or that came into it through the air by supermundane means, there always lingered for a greater or less space of time a very peculiar though pleasant odor. It was not always the same. At one time it was sandalwood mixed with what I thought was otto of roses, at another time some unknown Eastern perfume, and again it came like the incense burnt in temples.

One day she asked me if I would care to smell again the perfume. Upon my replying affirmatively, she took my handkerchief in her hand, held it for a few moments, and when she gave it back to me it was heavy with the well known odor. Then in order to show me that her hand was not covered with something that would come off upon the handkerchief, she permitted me to examine both hands. They were without perfume. But after I had convinced myself that there was no perfumery or odoriferous objects concealed in her hands, I found from one hand beginning to exhale one peculiar strong perfume, while from the other there rolled out strong waves of incense.

One evening I was in a hurry to copy a drawing I had made, and looked about on the table for a paper cutter with which to rub the back of the drawing so as to transfer the surplus carbon to a clean sheet.

As I searched, it was suggested by someone that the round smooth back of a spoon bowl would be the best means, and I arose to go to the kitchen at the end of the hall for a spoon. But Mme. Blavatsky said, "Stop, you need not go there; wait a moment." I stopped at the door, and she, sitting in her chair, held up her left hand. At that instant a large tablespoon flew through the air across the room from out of the opposite wall and into her hand. No one was there to throw it to her, and the dining room from which it had been transported was about thirty feet distant, two brick walls separating it from the front room.

My office was at least three miles away from her rooms. One day, at about 2 p.m., I was sitting in my office engaged in reading a legal document, my mind intent on the subject of the paper. No one else was in the office, and in fact the nearest room was separated from me by a wide opening, or well, in the building, made to let light into the inner chambers. Suddenly I felt on my hand a peculiar tingling sensation that always preceded any strange thing to happen in the presence of HPB, and at that moment there fell from the ceiling upon the edge of my desk, and from there to the floor, a triangularly folded note from Madame to myself. The message was in her handwriting and was addressed to me in her writing across the printed face.

5b. The Rev. James H. Wiggin, Late Aug. 1875, New York City


Rosicrucianism claims that a brotherhood of occultists has existed and still exists, reaching perfection in the far East, that in the fraternity's archives are preserved grand records of truths about men and nature, that Rosicrucians can work what are falsely called miracles, by their knowledge of the true essence of things, that human bodies can disappear and reappear at will, that they can float in the air, that all nature is subject to their decrees through their knowledge of divine laws.

It is a little startling to find oneself associating with those who possess, or claim to possess, such powers. Of late Rosicrucianism has been brought to the front by the advent in the [United] States of a Russian baroness, Madame H. P. De Blavatsky. I was kindly bidden by my friend Mr. [Charles] Sotheran, of the American Bibliopolist, to meet both Madame and Colonel [Olcott] the following evening in [46] Irving Place.

Col. Olcott is well known as the author of "People from Another World." His experience as a lawyer and a war detective might be supposed to guard him against deception.

Judge M., of New Jersey, represented the judicial mind, and his poetic wife graces any gathering.

There was present also a Boston gentleman.

The center of the group was Madame De Blavatsky, who is certainly a most original and interesting woman to meet. The journals have complained of her cigarettes. Madame speaks English with a strong accent, but with remarkable fluency and accuracy, distinguishing nicely its delicacies and quickly understanding its allusions. Her fantastic Rosicrucian jewel she wore about her neck. She is perhaps forty years old, strong-built, brusque, and generous appearing. Interesting were the stories she had to relate about her residence in Asia and Africa. Marvellous were her narratives of her attempts at commerce, selling a cargo for coconuts, which the unseaworthy ship could not bring away. Strange sights had she seen among the tribes of sorcerers in Africa. The phallic element in religions, the souls of flowers, recent wonders among the mediums, Nature's duality, Romanism, gravitation, the Carbonari, jugglery, the literature of magic—were among the topics of animated discussion lasting till after midnight.

If Madame Blavatsky can indeed bring order out of the chaos of modern spiritism she will do the world a service. Col. Olcott declares that till he met her he had no philosophy which could adequately explain the contradictory phenomena he witnessed.

5c. Eugene Rollin Corson, Sept.–Oct. 1875, Ithaca, New York [Collated from Eugene Corson 45–6, 24–6, 118, 26–8, 33, 35, 36–7, 47, 118]

My father's [Hiram Corson's] acquaintance and correspondence with Mme. Blavatsky came about in this way. On July 15th, 1874, my sister died, my father's only daughter, and the blow to him was very great. In the religion of the churches he found no comfort, and he turned to spiritualism for some sign and assurance of the continued existence of his child. In the end he believed that this sign had come to him, and the assurance of his daughter's continued life became very strong.

HPB's appearance in this country first became generally known after her visit to the Eddy brothers in Chittenden, Vermont, when she published her experiences at the seances of these mediums. My father [then] wrote to her.

Her letters had so increased his interest in her, that he and my mother invited her to be their guest at their home in Ithaca. My father at that time was professor of Anglo-Saxon and English literature at Cornell University, and had been there since 1870. He was a fine scholar, of wide interests, and had become a great authority and teacher, and especially on English poetry. My mother, who was French, herself a fine scholar of the most varied interests, became interested in spiritualism in a moderate way only; it never possessed her as it did my father. She had accepted the loss of her daughter with great composure and resignation, and her interest in HPB was more in the woman herself than in her doctrines and mission. My mother, however, was not interested in occultism; on the contrary, she was greatly opposed to it.

HPB arrived in Ithaca about September 17th, 1875. At that time my father had a cottage known as the Richardson Cottage, on Heustis Street. At the time when HPB visited Ithaca, the weather is usually fine. In October there is the Indian summer; the trees have put on their autumn tints, the mornings and nights are crisp and frosty, with a pleasant warmth in the middle of the day, with the distant hills and lake bathed in the late summer haze. Ithaca proper is in the valley at the foot of Cayuga Lake, and is built up on the east, west, and south hills, with the outskirts heavily wooded. My father's home was on the east hill. On this hill the University stands, an imposing array of noble buildings.

My father in a letter dated October 2nd, 1875 [writes]: "Mme. B. is still with us. She gives us a good deal of trouble, and we get very little from her in return, for she is occupied wholly with her own work. I had expected we should have some [spiritualistic] 'sittings' together; but she is not only not disposed, but is decidedly opposed to anything of the kind. She is a smart woman, but ignorant of all the graces and amenities of life. She is a great Russian bear."

One day my father said to her, "It is a pity, Madame, for you not to see the beauties around you. I want to give you a carriage drive that you may see the University buildings and the lovely country." She finally consented to go, but my father begged her not to smoke in the carriage because the people were not used to it, and it would give them a bad impression and might cause comment, especially with a staid university professor. To this she also reluctantly consented. But before the drive was over, Madame said she would have to smoke a cigarette, she could not stand it a minute longer, and begged that she might get out of the carriage and sit on a stone on a side of the road and smoke in comfort. If the country people took her for a gypsy, why not, what harm would it do? So there sat the author of Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine, satisfied with her own thoughts and oblivious of everything around her, even the waiting horses and coachman and the carriage with its occupants. Perhaps it was less the tobacco she wanted than the desire to be alone with herself and her own thoughts. When the cigarettes were finished she returned to the carriage and they continued on their drive.

My father dwelt especially on this incident as showing the woman's preoccupation. As he repeatedly said to me: "Never have I seen such an intense creature, intense in her purpose, intense in her endeavor; nothing around her mattered; though the heavens fall she would keep on her way."

It has always been a regret of my life that I did not meet her at that time. I was in Philadelphia studying medicine, [so] I have to rely on what my father and mother told me subsequently.

In her dress she wore mostly a loose wrapper with a sort of embroidered jacket, as my mother described it to me, with the cigarette papers in one pocket and the tobacco in the other. My father, who was a great smoker himself and a judge of tobacco, thought her brand a cheap kind; perhaps her lack of money accounted for it. The cigarettes were countless, and the flowerpots were full of the stubs.

She spent her time at her desk, writing, writing, writing most of the day and way into the night, carrying on a huge correspondence by long letters. Here she started Isis Unveiled, writing about twenty-five closely written foolscap pages a day.

On one occasion she asked [my father] for a Greek word on some text in the New Testament, and when [he] said he could not remember it but would look it up for her at once, she said to him, half irritated and half joking: "You school-boy! Why, don't you know it?" My father got the Greek for her, and she went on with her writing.

My mother described to me how HPB would sit down at the piano and improvise with great skill, showing a remarkable efficiency for one who played but at odd times as the spirit might move her.

HPB's phenomena with a few exceptions were not a feature of her visit. She showed the raps as produced by her willpower sometimes through a stack of hands, and again on different parts of the room. My father was familiar with this phenomenon in the seance room through the ordinary medium, but was much more impressed when produced by conscious willpower. On another occasion he had asked if she could place me and tell what I was doing, then a student of medicine in Philadelphia, and she gave him an accurate account of where I was and what was taking place. It happened to be that I was visiting my preceptor on Green Street. She said I was much under his influence, which was true. On another occasion she caused a heavy table to rise up in the air without touching it, and she repeatedly said that this was all due to her willpower, and was not to be classed with the ordinary mediumistic phenomena.

HPB left our home for New York after a visit of a month. [In] a letter from my father, he writes: "Mme. B. has gone. Though there were many things unpleasant in her stay with us, altogether we enjoyed her visit. She is a very remarkable woman, a woman of a frantic intensity. I never knew such a worker. She would write from morning until midnight often without stopping longer than to take dinner and make a cigarette. She smoked two hundred cigarettes in a day. Beardsley has taken some magnificent pictures of her. I shall send you one as soon as they are ready."

5d. Hiram Corson, Sept.–Oct. 1875, Ithaca, New York [Hiram Corson 9, 4]

She continually filled me with amazement and curiosity as to what was coming next. She had a profound knowledge of everything, and her method of work was most unusual. She would write in bed, from nine o'clock in the morning, smoking innumerable cigarettes, quoting long verbatim paragraphs from dozens of books of which I am perfectly certain there were no copies at that time in America, translating easily from several languages, and occasionally calling out to me, in my study, to know how to turn some old-world idiom into literary English. She herself told me that she wrote [down quotations from books] as they appeared to her eyes on another plane of objective existence, that she clearly saw the page of the book, and the quotation she needed, and simply translated what she saw into English. The hundreds of books she quoted were certainly not in my library, and if her quotations were from memory, then it was an even more startling feat than writing them from the ether.

  • Corson, Eugene Rollin. 1929. Introduction and commentary. Some Unpublished Letters of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. London: Rider & Co. Selection 5c.
  • Corson, Hiram. 1910. In The Path [Hale, England], July. Selection 5d.
  • Sinnett, A. P., ed. 1886. Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, Compiled from Information Supplied by Her Relatives and Friends. London: George Redway; reprint New York: Ayer, 1976. Pp. xii + 324. Selections 5a.
  • Wiggin, James H. 1875. "Rosicrucianism in New York," The Liberal Christian (New York), September 4. Selection 5b.
Selections 4a, 4c, 4d.
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