H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885

H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885

by Vernon Harrison
Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1997. Hardback, xiv + 78 pages.

A turning point in H. P. Blavatsky's life, which at the time must have seemed to her as well as to those around her to be a calamity, was the 1885 report of the committee of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) "appointed to investigate phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society" That report, written primarily by a young investigator named Richard Hodgson and therefore usually called "the Hodgson Report," reached a devastating conclusion:

For our own part, we regard her neither as the
mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar
adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title
to permanent remembrance as one of the
most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting
impostors in history. [4]

Theosophists have always held that the Hodgson Report, the initial effort of a fledgling and ambitious new investigator for the SPR, was biased, distorted, unfair, and unreliable. It would, however, not be unexpected that they should so respond to the report's highly critical judgment of the founder of Theosophy. Others tended to take the report as a soundly based, conclusive expose revealing Blavatsky as a fraud.

In 1986, shortly after the hundredth anniversary of the Hodgson Report, an impartial, critical examination of that report, covering both its methodology and conclusions, was made by a disinterested researcher, Vernon Harrison. Not connected with any Theosophical Society, Harrison had been a member of the Society for Psychical Research for fifty years; he was a professional expert in forgery and a frequent expert witness in legal cases involving forgery and counterfeiting.

The Hodgson Report dealt with a number of issues: (1) various paranormal phenomena performed by or connected with Blavatsky; (2) the putative Blavatsky-Coulomb correspondence; and (3) the authorship of the Mahatma Letters, Harrison confined himself to the last of those issues because forgery was his specialty and because primary evidence relating to that issue still exists, the Letters being available in the manuscript collection of the British Library. Eyewitnesses of the phenomena are now all dead, and the Coulomb letters mysteriously disappeared after having come into the possession of one of Blavatsky's opponents whom she sued for libel and who apparently found that the letters did not support his case.

Harrison's devastatingly critical examination of the Hodgson Report was published by the Society for Psychical Research, as the SPR editor said, "in the interest of truth and fair play, and to make amends for whatever offense we may have given" by the 1885 report. Harrison did not, however, end his investigation of the subject with that publication, but went on to examine critically all of the Mahatma Letters for evidence of forgery or fraud by Blavatsky.

Harrison's 1986 SPR article is reprinted in this volume together with a report of the new evidence from his subsequent investigation. The details of his research must be read in his own words to appreciate the thoroughness, skill, and knowledgeability with which it was conducted, There is also a keen and incisive sense of humor running through his comments. For example, Harrison demonstrates that by the same criteria Hodgson used to "prove" that HPB wrote the Mahatma Letters, he can "prove" that she also wrote Huckleberry Finn and that Dwight Eisenhower wrote Isis Unveiled, for Mark Twain and Ike's handwritings share critical features that Hodgson used to link HPB with the Mahatma Letters.

A1though it is not possible here to do justice to Harrison's full analysis, his concluding expert opinion on the subject can be summarized:

The Hodgson Report is not a scientific study…

Richard Hodgson was either ignorant or contemptuous of the basic principles of English justice…

In cases where it has been possible to check Hodgson's statements against the direct testimony of original documents, his statements are found to be either false or to have no significance in the context...

Having read the Mahatma Letters in the holographs, I am left with the strong impression that the writers KH and M were real and distinct human beings...

Who KH was I do not know, but I am of the opinion that all letters in the British Library initialed KH originated from him…

It is almost certain that the incriminating Blavatsky-Coulomb letters have been lost or destroyed, but there is strong circumstantial evidence that these letters were forgeries made by Alexis and Emma Coulomb...

I have found no evidence that the Mahatma Letters were written by Helena Blavatsky consciously and deliberately in a disguised form of her own handwriting…

I am unable to express an opinion about the "phenomena" described in the first part of the Hodgson Report ... but having studied Hodgson's methods, I have come to distrust his account and explanation of the said "phenomena."

Vernon Harrison concludes that there is much we do not know about Helena Blavatsky and many questions about her life remain unanswered. He believes, however, that "the Hodgson Report is a highly partisan document forfeiting all claim to scientific impartiality" (4), "riddled with slanted statements, conjecture advanced as fact or probable fact, uncorroborated testimony of unnamed witnesses, selection of evidence and downright falsity" (32), and therefore "should be used with great caution, if not disregarded. It is badly flawed" (69).

This book should be in the library of every Theosophist and should be studied by anyone who writes or reads about Blavatsky. It is an extraordinarily important work in HPB's biography and in the history of the Society and of Theosophy.


July 1998