Olcott, Henry Steel (1832–1907)
Joint founder with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and William
Q. Judge of the Theosophical Society. Olcott was born August
2, 1832, in Orange, New Jersey, where his father had a farm.
At the age of twenty-six, Olcott was associate agricultural editor
of the New York Tribune and traveled abroad to study European
farming methods. Olcott served in the Civil War and afterward
became a special commissioner with the rank of colonel. In
1868, he was admitted to the New York bar. In 1878, he was
commissioned by the president to report on trade relations between
the U.S. and India.
His first contact with psychic phenomena was in 1874. The
New York Daily Graphic had assigned him to investigate the phenomena
of the Eddy brothers in Vermont. He spent ten weeks
at the Chittenden farm and came away convinced of the genuineness
of the phenomena he witnessed. The fifteen articles in
which he summarized his experiences began his career as a
leader in the psychic community.
His next opportunity was the Holmes scandal, when the materialization
mediums Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes were accused
of fraud. Olcott sifted through all the records, collected
new affidavits, and concluded that as the evidence of fraudulent
mediumship was very conflicting, the mediums should be tested.
After conducting tests, as with the Eddy brothers, he affirmed
his belief in their powers.
Olcott related accounts of his investigations to the spiritualist
community in his book, People from the Other World. Included
was an account of his experiences with the medium Elizabeth
Compton, who allegedly was able to accomplish an entire dematerialization.
While some praised his work, as a whole, the
book was heavily criticized. Among his harshest critics was D.
D. Home, who denounced Olcott’s account in his Lights and
Shadows of Spiritualism as ‘‘the most worthless and dishonest’’
book.
As a result of his writing on the the Eddy brothers and the
Holmeses, Olcott soon became known as a person aware of the
spiritualist scene. When the professors of the Imperial University
of St. Petersburg decided to make a scientific investigation
of Spiritualism, they asked Olcott and his associate Helena Petrovna
Blavatsky, who had worked with the Eddys, to select the
best American medium they could recommend. Their choice
fell on Henry Slade, later to become known as one of the most
notorious of frauds.
Enter Madame Blavatsky
The association between Olcott and Blavatsky began at their
meeting at the Chittenden farm. Blavatsky had identified with
the Spiritualists but she broke with the Spiritualist movement
soon after the Theosophical Society was founded in December
1875. Olcott was elected president; he worked at founding and
organizing the society worldwide. The society was firmly established
in New York by the time of the Blavatsky exposure by the
Society for Psychical Research.
Nobody witnessed more apparent Theosophic episodes
through Blavatsky than Olcott. In those early days, she professed
to have been controlled by the spirit ‘‘John King.’’ She
first specialized in precipitated writing, independent drawing,
and supernormal duplication of letters and other things
(among them a $1,000 banknote in the presence of Olcott and
the Hon. J. L. Sullivan). Reportedly, the duplicate mysteriously
dissolved in a drawer.
Olcott was convinced that Blavatsky could produce such illusions
by hypnotic suggestion. Blavatsky once disappeared from
his presence in a closed room and appeared again a short time
afterward from nowhere. This admission called into question
Olcott’s observations and records and his testifying in ‘‘good
faith’’ to the appearance of Mahatmas and to the souvenirs they
left behind.
In 1878, Olcott and Blavatsky sailed for Bombay with a brief
stop in London. A. P. Sinnett in his book The Early Days of Theosophy
in Europe suggested that the manners of Blavatsky and
Olcott caused offense in polite society and the beginning of the
unfriendly attitude of the Society for Psychical Research was to
be traced to a society meeting at which Olcott made a speech
in his worst style.
The Blavatsky exposure in 1895 left Olcott’s reputation
damaged. According to Dr. Richard Hodgson, who compiled
the Society for Psychical Research report, Olcott’s statements
were unreliable either owing to peculiar lapses of memory or
to extreme deficiency in the faculty of observation. Hodgson
could not place the slightest value upon Olcott’s evidence. But
he stated definitely also ‘‘Some readers may be inclined to
think that Col. Olcott must himself have taken an active and deliberate
part in the fraud, and been a partner with Blavatsky in
the conspiracy. Such, I must emphatically state, is not my own
opinion.’’ On the other hand Vsevolod Solovyoff in A Modern
Priestess of Isis called Olcott a ‘‘liar and a knave in spite of his
stupidity.’’
For his critics, a problematic instance of psychic phenomena
is the story of the William Eglinton letter. From the boat Vega,
the letter was claimed to be ‘‘astrally’’ conveyed first to Bombay,
then with the superimposed script of Blavatsky carried to Calcutta,
where it fell from the ceiling in Mrs. Gordon’s home
while Olcott pointed to the apparition of two brothers outside
the window. According to Mrs. Gordon’s testimony, Olcott told
her that the night before he had an intimation from his chohan
(teacher) that K. H. (a Mahatma) had been to the Vega and had
seen Eglinton.
If the delivery of this letter was fraudulent (and it has been
convincingly argued by experts that the K. H. letters were written
by Blavatsky), the only excuse for Olcott is that he acted unconsciously
from suggestions fed him by Blavatsky.
It is believed Olcott will be remembered in the future not so
much for his leadership of the Theosophical Society as for his
public espousal of Buddhism in 1880 in Sri Lanka (then known
as Ceylon). His action on behalf of Buddhism began with the
writing and publication of his Buddhist Catechism, which introduced
the religion to many people and remains in print. He
also promoted and helped pay for the presence of Buddhists
at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions which led to the
founding of the first Buddhist organizations to formally receive
Americans into the faith.
Olcott remained president of the society until his death on
February 17, 1907, at Adyar, India. During the last years of his
life he worked with Annie Besant, who succeeded Blavatsky as
head of the Esoteric section and then succeeded Olcott as president.
Sources
Gomes, Michael. The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement.
Wheaton, Ill. Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.
Karunaratne, K. P. Olcott Commemoration Volume. Ceylon Olcott
Commemoration Society, 1967.
———. Olcott’s Contribution to the Buddhist Renaissance. Colombo,
Sri Lanka Publication Division, Ministry of Cultural Affairs,
1980.
Murphet, Howard. Hammer on the Mountain Life of Henry
Steel Olcott, 1832–1907. Wheaton, Ill. Theosophical Publishing
House, 1972.
Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves. 6 vols. Adyar, Madras,
India Theosophical Publishing House, 1895–1910. Reprinted
as Inside the Occult The True Story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky.
Philadelphia Tunning Press, 1975.
———. People From the Other World. Hartford, Conn., 1875.
Reprint, Rutland, Vt. Charles E. Tuttle, 1971.
Prothero, Stephen. The White Buddhist The Asian Odyssey of
Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington Indiana University, 1996.

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