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Olcott, Henry Steele, (1832-1907)
A co-founder of the Theosophical
Society in 1875 with William Q. Judge and an associate of Helena
He was a son of a merchant, born August 1, 1832 in Orange, New Jersey. His
first writing attempt was the revision of the 1845 edition of The Descendants
of Thomas Olcott. He even wrote a new preface. The family genealogy
fascinated him. He attended the City College of New York and Columbia University.
Upon the failure of his father's business his formal education ended. He
entered share-farming for two years working on various farms Then he returned
to New York where he devoted himself to the scientific study of agricultural.
At twenty-three his work won him recognition. In 1858 he wrote his first
book. Sorgho and Imphee, the Chinese and African Sugar Canes. Now
having expertise in agriculture he accepted the position of associate agricultural
editor of the New York Tribune.
In 1859 Olcott volunteered to covered the Virginia lynching of John Brown
for the Tribune. Although the Virginians had vowed no northern paper
would cover the event, Olcott witnessed hanging and wrote a good story about
it. Two years later he entered the Civil War on the side of the North but
was afflicted with dysentery which ended his battle career. While recovering
his superiors noticed his special abilities and made him a special commissioner
to the War Department. His assignment was to investigate the charges of
fraud and corruption in New York Mustering and Disbursing Office. He proved
so zealous that the Navy Department borrowed him to clean up the abuses
in the navy yards, and it was during this time that he was promoted to colonel.
After the war Olcott resigned his commission, but did not return to his
former pursuits. He decided to study law. There is no record of him attending
any university, so he probably read law for someone and attained his degree
that way. He entered the new field of insurance law and retained many reputable
clients including the City of New York and the Life Mutual Insurance Company
of New York. The latter employed him to lobby for the insurance profession
in the New York Legislature.
At 40 Olcott was reasonably well off. As a lawyer he was doing well, having
enough money to enjoy some luxuries and do some freelance newspaper work.
In 1868 he married Mary Epplee Morgan, a daughter of an Episcopalian minister.
They had four children; two died, their third son lived only four months,
and their daughter Betsy less than two years.
It seems that Betsy's death partly contributed to the souring of Olcott's
marriage. There was a separation in 1874, and after that Olcott begun living
in clubs and participating in worldly public and private undertakings and
speculations. Even Helena Blavatsky later described him as "a gay dog"
who kept a mistress and drank in clubs.
Some might have described him as a rogue, but in character this seemed not
to be the case. People who knew him considered him to be a stereotype of
a prosperous, middle-aged Yankee, who was unsophisticated, honest, energetic,
and practical. But that was before he grew his Santa-Claus beard and stopped
wearing shoes. However, even some of his enemies had to say he was a man
of integrity and sincerity.
His first experience with psychical phenomena came in 1874 when the New
York Daily Graphic sent him to investigate the phenomena of the Eddy
Brothers in Vermont. After spending ten days at the Chittenden farm Olcott
came away convinced of the authenticity of the phenomena. He summarized
what he had experienced in fifteen articles which launched his career as
a psychical investigator.
The Holmes scandal afforded Olcott his next big opportunity. Nelson and
Jennie Holmes, husband and wife, were materialization mediums who had been
accused of fraud. Helena Blavatsky arranged for further seances and for
Olcott to witness them. She and Olcott had met at the Chittenden in Vermont.
In a previous seance it was rumored that the Holmes, particularly Jennie,
had impersonated Katie King, the daughter of the spirit John
King. In the seance which Olcott witnessed, John King spoke again, clearing
his daughter of all wrong doing and rapping out an account of what actually
occurred before. His statement cleared the Holmes, and Katie King appeared
in white again. Olcott knew it was not Jennie Holmes whom he had securely
tied up. This strengthened Olcott's belief in psychical phenomena as well
as the power of the Holmes.
After the Eddy and Holmes investigations Olcott was acknowledged as a creditable
psychical researcher. When the professors of the Imperial University of
St. Petersburg, at the wish of the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, decided
to make a scientific investigation of Spiritualism, they asked Olcott and
Helena Blavatsky to select the most qualified American medium. Henry Slade
was their choice.
It must be said that from their first meeting at the Vermont farm Olcott
seemed fascinated by Helena Blavatsky's psychic power; although, it must
be remembered he was attracted to all psychical phenomena. Olcott seemed
to have a love for it, as though the phenomena was a magnet drawing him
toward it. This, taken in mind, one might question whether he was the creditable
psychic investigator as many proclaimed. Also, this must be bore in mind
when examining his future relationship with Helena Blavatsky.
In those early days Helena Blavatsky professed to have been controlled by
the spirit of John King during which she specialized in precipitated writing,
independent drawing and supernormal duplication of letters and other items.
In the presence of Olcott and the Honorable John L. Sullivan she produced
a $1,000 banknote which dissolved into a drawer.
These feats occurred after the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875.
Olcott, himself, witnessed more Theosophic feats performed by Blavatsky
than anyone else. This was another reason why he eagerly assumed the presidency
of the Society. Even though the Society was actually the brainchild of Blavatsky,
it can be said Olcott actually believed in it. Critics claim that Blavatsky
manipulated him, which may be true to some extent, but Olcott actively participated
in the Society's functions.
He sincerely believed in her power to produce illusions through hypnotic
suggestion. He testified that the Madame disappeared from his presence in
a closed room and appeared again a shot time later from nowhere. This admission
appears in Olcott's records. Such evidence makes it intelligible to see
why he believed in the appearance of the Mahatmas
and the souvenirs they left behind.
When Olcott and Madame Blavatsky were sailing to Bombay in 1878 they stopped
in London, and A. P. Sinnett's The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe
(1922) suggests that their manners were not becoming in polite society.
It was speculated this caused the unfriendly feelings of the Psychical Research
Society (PRS) which sparked the Hodgson investigation of the Theosophical
Society that ended in Hodgson releasing a scathing report alleging fraud
and trickery by Helena Blavatsky and her associates. This put a black mark
on the Theosophical Society for over 100 years. In 1986 the PRS published
an article in its Journal calling the report prejudiced, saying that
Hodgson had ignored all evidence favorable to Helena Blavatsky, and, that
an apology was due.
Undoubtedly Olcott's greatest achievement was his public espousal of Buddhism
that served to popularize the religion in Western countries. He converted
to Buddhism in Ceylon in 1880. His Buddhist Catechism (1881) had
been widely studied by Western Buddhists, and versions of it are still in
Olcott died February 17, 1907 at Adyar, India. A.G.H.
Joy Mills, The Theosophy Society in America 61.
Meade, Marion, Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth, New
York, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1980.
Williams, Gertrude Marvin, Priestess of the Occult: Madame Blavatsky,
New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.