The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Marvels in The Lamasery and Departure From New York: 1877 – December 1878

In September 1877, a powerful impact was made upon the reading and thinking public by the publication of H. P. Blavatsky’s first monumental work, Isis Unveiled, which was issued by J. W. Bouton in New York City, the one thousand copies of the first printing being sold within ten days. The New York Herald-Tribune considered the work as one of the "remarkable productions of the century," many other papers and journals speaking in similar terms. Isis Unveiled outlines the history, scope, and development of the esoteric sciences, the nature and origin of magic, the roots of Christianity, the errors of Christian theology, and the fallacies of established orthodox science, against the backdrop of the secret teachings that run as a golden thread through bygone centuries, coming up to the surface every now and then in the various mystical movements of the last two thousand years or so.

Already a public figure, H. P. Blavatsky became increasingly well-known after the publication of Isis, and visitors flocked to her New York apartment, nicknamed the Lamasery, to meet the author and to witness the marvelous phenomena that she could perform or that occurred merely in her presence. The source of her abilities and her own identity became a subject of speculation, even among those who knew her well.

On July 8, 1878, H. P. Blavatsky was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, an event that received widespread publicity in various newspapers. In December of that same year, she and H. S. Olcott left for India via England.

7a. Henry S. Olcott, March 1877, New York City [Quoted by Besterman 1934, 148–54]

Putting aside [HPB’s] actions, habits of thought, masculine ways, her constant asseverations of the fact . . . putting these aside, I have pumped enough out of her to satisfy me that the theory long since communicated by me to you was correct—she is a man, a very old man, and a most learned and wonderful man. Of course she knows just what my impressions are, for she reads my thoughts like a printed page (and others’ thoughts), and it seems to me she is not dissatisfied, for our relations have insensibly merged into those of Master and pupil. There is not a trace left of the old sabreur [swordsman, slasher] Blavatsky ("Jack," as I nicknamed her to her great delight) so far as I am concerned. Now she is all sobriety, dignity, stern self-repression. Before others she is as of old, but the moment their backs are turned she is Mejnour [initiate hero of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni] and I the neophyte.

I say Isis [HPB] is a man. Let me add that she is (in my opinion) a Hindu man. At any rate, this thing happened tonight after my sister and her husband had gone home: Isis was leaning back in her chair, fooling with her hair, and smoking a cigarette. She got one lock in her fingers and pulled it, and fingered it in an absent way—talking the while, when lo! the lock grew visibly darker and darker until, presto! it was as black as coal. I said nothing until the thing was done, when suddenly catching her hand I asked her to let me have this neat specimen of miracle making as a keepsake. You ought to have seen her face when she saw what she had done in her brown study. But she laughed good-naturedly, called me a sharp Yankee, and cut off the lock and gave it to me. I will send you a bit of it as a talisman. Mind you, this was cut off of Isis’s head in my sight and under the full blaze of the chandelier. This one lock showed against the blonde silky and crinkled hair of Blavatsky’s head like a skein of black sewing-silk upon a light-brown cloth. Now what this teaches me is just this—The Blavatsky shell is a shell tenanted by a copper-colored Hindu Solon or Pythagoras, and in this moment of abstraction his own hair—previously there only in its astral condition—became materialized and now stays so. Mind you these are my private speculations.

Why, I can't tell you the number and variety of exhibitions of magical power she has given me and others during the past four months. They exceed all I had seen before. She has done her wonders before 4, 5, and 8 persons, some of them comparative strangers. On Monday night, in the presence of Dr. Billing, Dr. Marquette, Mr. and Miss Monachesi, Mr. Curtis, and myself, these things happened in full light; she made the music of a musical box to be heard in the air. At first faint and far, far away, it grew louder and louder until it sounded as if the box were floating around the room and playing at full force. Then it died away again, again approached, and then suddenly ceased. She carelessly put out her hand, and withdrawing it showed us a long string of those perfumed Oriental beads, whose fragrance filled the room. Holding them in one hand, she asked me if I wanted some, and at once pulled duplicates off, one by one, until she had given me 27. I strung them and after handling them awhile laid them on my writing table (beyond her reach a good way) for a moment while I filled a pipe and upon taking them up again, there was a Turkish coin strung on the string with them! Still holding her own original necklace she pulled off (materialized) a bead mounted in gold as a scarf-pin, and upon our drawing lots, Monachesi got it and has it now. The four of the party, happening to sit so they could look out of the window into the street (a room in second story of house), saw pass the window on the outside the forms of two men. One of them was a Brother I know well, and whose portrait was materialized instantly for me some months ago. The other was a younger Brother—an advanced pupil who can travel in his [astral] double.

O’Sullivan (J. L.) has been here en route to Paris, and made "Mme.’s" acquaintance and even stayed all night once with us. In his presence she materialized, on two different occasions, handkerchiefs of a beautifully fine and delicate Chinese silk crepe with a satin-striped border. In the corner, marked in ink, was the name of a certain Brother in the ancient Zenzar character. I was present both times. I wish you might have seen O’Sullivan's consternation: he jumped for the handkerchiefs like a trout at a fly, and carried one off as a trophy. The original handkerchief was materialized two weeks ago Sunday in the presence of a French artist named Harrisse. We three were talking of the delicate fabrics of the Chinese, and Harrisse said that their crepes were much finer than those of Lyons. "Did you ever see their handkerchiefs, Madame?" he asked. "Oh! Yes—see, here is one!" she replied, quietly grabbing the very article out of the astral wardrobe! This specimen I retained for myself, chiefly because it was strongly impregnated with the Lodge perfume.

I saw a splendid exhibition of willpower recently. Isis and I were alone after dinner, in the parlor, when she bade me turn the gas very low and sit quiet at the other side of the room. I made the light very dim, and upon looking at her through the gloom in a few minutes, I saw beside her dark figure (she was dressed in a dark gown) a man’s figure in white, or light robes, and with a shawl wound in Eastern fashion about his head. She told me to look away for a moment, and then to turn up the gas. She sat there with the very shawl transferred to her own head, and no one else visible but us two. She gave me the shawl. It was powerfully perfumed with the familiar odor. In one corner was worked the name of the same Brother above alluded to, and in the same Zensar character. It is on his portrait, in my bedroom.

7b. Henry S. Olcott, 1877, New York City [Olcott 1895, 1: 377, 379–81]

Our evening’s work on Isis was finished, I had bade goodnight to HPB, retired to my own room, closed the door as usual, sat me down to read and smoke, and was soon absorbed in my book. All at once, as I read with my shoulder a little turned from the door, there came a gleam of something white in the right-hand corner of my right eye; I turned my head, dropped my book in astonishment, and saw towering above me in his great stature an Oriental clad in white garments, and wearing a head cloth or turban of amber-striped fabric, hand-embroidered in yellow floss silk. Long raven hair hung from under his turban to the shoulders; his black beard, parted vertically on the chin in the Rajput fashion, was twisted up at the ends and carried over the ears; his eyes were alive with soul fire, eyes which were at once benignant and piercing in glance. He was so grand a man, so imbued with the majesty of moral strength, so luminously spiritual, so evidently above average humanity, that I felt abashed in his presence, and bowed my head and bent my knee as one does before a god or a godlike personage. A hand was lightly laid on my head, a sweet though strong voice bade me be seated, and when I raised my eyes, the Presence was seated in the other chair beyond the table. He told me he had come at the crisis when I needed him, that my actions had brought me to this point, that it lay with me alone whether he and I should meet often in this life as co-workers for the good of mankind, that a great work was to be done for humanity, and I had the right to share in it if I wished, that a mysterious tie, not now to be explained to me, had drawn my colleague [HPB] and myself together, a tie which could not be broken, however strained it might be at times. He told me things about HPB that I may not repeat, as well as things about myself, that do not concern third parties. At last he rose, I wondering at his great height and observing the sort of splendor in his countenance—not an external shining, but the soft gleam, as it were, of an inner light—that of the spirit. Suddenly the thought came into my mind: "What if this be but hallucination; what if HPB has cast a hypnotic glamour over me? I wish I had some tangible object to prove to me that he has really been here, something that I might handle after he is gone!" The Master smiled kindly as if reading my thought, untwisted the fehta [turban] from his head, benignantly saluted me in farewell and was gone: his chair was empty; I was alone with my emotions! Not quite alone, though, for on the table lay the embroidered head cloth, a tangible and enduring proof that I had not been "overlooked," or psychically befooled, but had been face to face with one of the Elder Brothers of Humanity. To run and beat at HPB’s door and tell her my experience was the first natural impulse, and she was as glad to hear my story as I was to tell it. I returned to my room to think, and the gray morning found me still thinking and resolving. I have been blessed with meetings with this Master and others since then.

[Note: Colonel Olcott elsewhere describes how the Master Morya left his room: "When I asked him to leave me some tangible evidence that I had not been the dupe of a vision, but that he had indeed been there, he removed from his head the puggri [turban] he wore, and giving it to me, vanished from my sight." H. S. Olcott, Theosophy, Religion and Occult Science (London, 1885), p. 123 —D. C., Editor.]

7c. Emily Kislingbury, Autumn 1877, New York City [Collated from Religio-Philosophical Journal, January 12, 1878, 6, and In Memory 1891, 11–3]

My earliest acquaintance with HPB dates from the autumn of the year 1877, when I took advantage of a three months’ leave of absence from my duties in England to seek her out in New York. The Spiritualist movement, with which I was officially connected, was at that time in full swing, and the appearance of Col. Olcott’s book, People from the Other World, was making a great stir. The part of the book which attracted me, however, was that in which Col. Olcott related the appearance on the scene of the Russian lady lately arrived from the East, and whose explanation of the phenomena was widely different from that generally received. As soon as I learned the address of Madame Blavatsky from the American Spiritualist journals, I wrote to her, and it was in consequence of our correspondence that I was induced to visit America.

Our first introduction was a singular one. I was staying at some distance from where HPB was then residing, and one afternoon, soon after my arrival, I went to call on her. After ringing three times in vain, I was about to turn away in despair, when the door was opened by HPB herself! Having already exchanged photographs, recognition was mutual, and my welcome the heartiest imaginable. We went up to the flat on the second floor. I could not remain then, for I was leaving New York the next day on a little tour to Niagara and elsewhere; but on my return three weeks later, I spent five weeks with HPB until I finally left for England.

Just at that time Isis Unveiled was going through the press, and many were the happy hours I spent correcting proof sheets and discussing the problems put forward in that marvelous book.

Various instances of HPB’s psychical powers occurred while I was with her, but most of these are difficult to record, are in fact incommunicable. One instance is of mesmeric power exerted upon myself. I was reading, in a position from which I could see into a mirror on the opposite side of the room, and I remarked to Madame Blavatsky that the wall which was reflected in the mirror appeared to be moving up and down. She said, "That is an atmospheric effect," and went on reading her Russian newspaper. I then began to look at the mirror intently, and I saw Madame Blavatsky look at me once or twice. I was aware that she had her eye on me, but that was all. I continued to gaze, and presently the mirror became clouded and I saw distinctly, though momentarily, two different scenes. The first was that of a sea in motion, covered with ships, and might have been a port or harbor. This faded out, like a dissolving view, and was succeeded by a picture representing a group of men in Eastern costume, turbans and long garments, such as is worn by Hindus. The men seemed as if alive and conversing together. When I told Madame Blavatsky what I had seen, she said, "That is right; that is what I wished you to see; I am sorry I did not write it down, that you might have had the proof to carry away with you."

It required no special insight to perceive that communication was constantly kept up with some distant or invisible minds. Frequent signals of various kinds were heard even at the dinner table, when HPB would immediately retire to her own apartment. So familiar were these sounds, as well as the terms "Masters" and "Brothers," that when in after years so much controversy as to their reality took place, even among those calling themselves Theosophists, it never occurred to me to doubt their existence.

7d. Princess Helene von Racowitza, May 1878, New York City [Theosophical Review 1902, 387–8, 386, 387]

Accompanied by my husband, I pulled the bell of Madame Blavatsky’s flat. The door was opened by a neat little Negress, who, showing all her teeth in a broad grin, pointed with her hand to a door closed by dark Indian curtains, through which the sound of lively conversation reached us. We went in unannounced and were greeted with a loud joyous shout of welcome by HPB—as Madame Blavatsky always liked best to be called.

She sat at her writing table in a large, comfortable armchair, which seemed as much a part of her as the flowing garments. A samovar stood beside her, from which she continually supplied her guests with the fragrant Russian national beverage, while just as perpetually her beautiful hands never ceased for a moment to roll between their graceful fingers delicate cigarettes for herself and all present, for HPB was almost more inseparable from her box of finely cut Turkish tobacco than from her Indian garments, and whenever she changed her seat, which seldom happened, the little Negress had to carry it after her. Around her sat or reclined eight or ten people, men and women of all ages and apparently belonging to every possible class of society.

As we entered, a man of very distinguished appearance was just relating to a small group his latest experiences from the "spirit-world." He was a former Ambassador of the United States, well known for his personal charm, who was then living wholly for the occult sciences. All these people sat or reclined in comfortable, careless attitudes on the low divans and cushions or on small seats, made up of boxes and chests, covered with Indian cloths and rugs.

These, with a variety of idols and oriental bric-a-brac, formed the furnishing of the room. In it there reigned a hum and buzz of conversation in various languages, and clouds of incense and tobacco smoke, streaming from oriental incense sticks and the Russian cigarettes which everyone present was smoking, so that it needed a few moments of becoming accustomed to it, before eye and ear could clearly make out what was going on.

We were instantly, as [HPB] expressed it, quite crazy for one another. She declared that I impressed her as if a bit of sunshine had got loose and were shining straight into her heart; while I found myself at once entirely under the spell of this marvelous woman. Outwardly she was quite unusually corpulent and indeed never spoke of herself otherwise than as "an old hippopotamus." But that made not the smallest unpleasant impression; she always wore loose flowing garments of a sort of Indian cut—a kind of flowing robe, which concealed the entire figure, leaving only the really ideally beautiful hands free.

Her head, standing out from the usually dark-colored woolen garments, was equally full of character, even though far sooner to be called ugly than beautiful. A genuinely Russian type: broad forehead, short, thick nose, prominent cheek bones, thin, clever, ever mobile mouth with beautiful, small teeth, brown, quite curly hair, almost like a Negroes, then still without a single silver thread in it, yellowish complexion, and—a pair of eyes, such as I have never elsewhere seen—light blue, almost water-gray, but with a look so deep, so piercing, so compelling, as if they gazed into the inmost being of things, and at times with an expression as if directed far, far above and beyond all earthly things—large, long, wonderful eyes that lit up the whole of that most singular face. To give this bodily picture is easy—but how shall I begin to describe the wonderful woman herself, how give an idea of her nature, her power, her character, of what she could do!

She was a mixture of the most heterogeneous qualities. In conversation she possessed a charm which none could withstand, and which probably lay for the most part in her keen and living appreciation of everything great and noble, and in her bubbling enthusiasm, mated with an original, often somewhat pungent humor, and a way of expressing herself which often drove into the most comical despair her Anglo-Saxon friends, who as all the world knows are rather given to prudery in the use of words.

Her contempt, nay rebellion, against all society forms and formalities made her sometimes of purpose put on a coarseness not usual with her; and she hated and battled against the conventional lie with the heroic courage of a true Don Quixote. Yet whoever came to her poor and ragged, hungry and needing comfort, could be certain of finding a heart so warm and hand so freely and generously open as could be found with no other cultured human being however "good-mannered" he might be.

7e. New York Daily Graphic, December 10, 1878, New York City [New York Daily Graphic, December 10, 1878, 266]

Helen P. Blavatsky is leaving America, as she says, forever. A very damp reporter found his way into the pleasant French flat at Eighth avenue and Forty-seventh street this morning, and his ring was answered by a colored servant, who expressed serious doubts as to whether his mistress would see any one at so early an hour. The interviewer was, however, ushered into a breakfast room, which was in a very disordered condition, and invited to a seat on a vacant stool. The disorder was a necessary result of yesterday's auction sale, and the only semblance of occupancy left were an uncleared breakfast table and three human occupants. Colonel Olcott sat at the table busily making memoranda in a notebook and burning his handsome moustache with a half-finished cigar that struggled ineffectually to reach beyond the outskirts of his beard.

When the reporter was finally ushered into Mme. Blavatsky’s own room, he found that lady seated at the end of a letter and tobacco laden table, twisting a fragrant cigarette from a quantity of loose tobacco of a famous Turkish brand. The room was the inner temple of the Lamasery, which has become so widely known in recent years.

The reporter said: "And so you are going to leave America?"

"Yes, and the Lamasery where I have spent so many happy, happy hours. I am sorry to leave these rooms, although there is little to regret about them now," glancing about at the bare floors and walls, "but I am glad to get away from your country. You have liberty, but that is all, and of that you have too much, too much!"

The reporter asked Mme. Blavatsky: "How with your dislike for America did you come to abandon your Russian citizenship and become a resident of New York?"

"Ah, you have liberty. I had none. I could not be protected by Russian consuls so I will be protected by American consuls."

"When shall you leave?"

"I know neither the time nor the vessel, but it will be very soon. I am going first to Liverpool and London, where we have branch Theosophical societies. Then I shall go direct to Bombay. Oh! how glad I shall be to see my dear Indian home again!" and as she arose and wrapped a morning gown of strange design about her, she looked very much the Oriental priestess which she claims she is—not.

  • Besterman, Theodore. Mrs. Annie Besant: A Modern Prophet. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1934. Selection 7a.
  • In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, by Some of Her Pupils. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1891. Selection 7c., by Some of Her Pupils.
  • Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical Society. Vol. 1 (1874–1878). New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1895. Selection 7b.
  • Religio-Philosophical Journal. Selection 7c.
  • Theosophical Review. Selection 7d. Selection 7d.
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