Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.


The Great Mare's Nest
of the Psychical Research Society

by Annie Besant

[Reprinted from Time (London), March 1891, pp. 193-204.]

Mr. Frank Podmore of the Psychical Research Society, is much troubled by "the transcendent and cosmopolitan miracle of human credulity," as specially exemplified in the appalling fact that "Mr. Hodgson’s elaborate and exhaustive exposure has been before the public for some years, but the faithful still throng the levees of Madame Blavatsky, and still accept the Gospel according to Koot Hoomi."   Now, granting that it is a wonderful and horrible thing that Mr. Hodgson - Mr. Hodgson of the Psychical Research Society and of St. John’s College, Cambridge - should have exposed a person, and that person remain uninjured by the exposure, it may, perchance, be worth while to examine the portentous phenomenon, and seek therefor some explanation.

Let me say, for the information of that somewhat large section of the public for whom the redoubtable Mr. Hodgson may not even be a name, that in 1884 the Psychical Research Society appointed a committee to take "such evidence as to the alleged phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society as might be offered by members of that body at the time in England, or as could be collected elsewhere." It is worthy to note at the outset that the Psychical Research Society appears to have constituted itself judge and jury of the Theosophical Society and of its leaders in a somewhat remarkable way. Neither the Theosophical Society nor its leaders invited the judgment of the Psychical Research Society, nor did the public appeal to it for enlightenment or for protection. The "alleged phenomena" had never been worked publicly, nor offered for money; they had been performed quietly, in illustration of certain statements, in the presence and generally at the earnest request of private friends and of a few inquirers interested in Oriental teachings. The person who worked them - a Russian lady - made exceedingly light of them, constantly spoke of many of them as mere "psychological tricks" - a phrase more intelligible now than it was when first uttered, and a phrase withal that gave much offence to some of her over-zealous friends, who would fain have had her a miracle-worker in her own despite. When the Psychical Research Society started on its uninvited investigations, it was met with candour and courtesy, for members of the theosophical Society are always ready to answer inquirers, though not anxious to impress the curious by means of marvels. The Psychical Research Society responded to this candour and courtesy by issuing a "First Report of the Committee" of investigation marked "Private and Confidential," and containing a warning that "no part (not previously published) of this ‘private and confidential’ Report can be printed or published elsewhere without infringing the legal rights of the Council, to whom the Report is addressed, and to whom it belongs." This threat, of course, debars me from utilising this report in any way; it must suffice to draw attention to a fact that will scarcely make on the public mind an impression of straightforward honesty, and to the further fact that the Committee thought the evidence they had obtained of sufficient importance to justify the expedition of one of their members to India to investigate matters on the spot.

Before turning to Mr. Hodgson’s report, on which the charge of fraud is based, it is right to point out that the value of the whole report depends entirely on the ability and the honesty of this young man. The most marked peculiarity of the Psychical Research Society is the genial and child-like trust they place in their own members, combined with extreme suspicion towards everyone outside that charmed circle. A Psychical Researcher can do no wrong, he cannot even make a mistake; if his opinion or his word comes into conflict with those of another person, no evidence is lacking that the opposing sinner is a deliberate impostor, a fraud, and a liar. This rule simplifies matters amazingly, and saves so much trouble. Now I do not know Mr. Hodgson, but I am told that he was not regarded as a genius at Cambridge, and that his opinion was there looked on as little worthy of respect. Whether the young man was clever or stupid, it was indubitable that he, with his English ignorance of Hindu thought and his English contempt for Hindu veracity, was pitted against the brains of the subtlest race in the world, a race, moreover, that to guard its holy things from the insolent foreigner will deny point-blank a belief that will be frankly acknowledged among sympathisers. I do not blame poor Mr. Hodgson, that he was befooled to the top of his bent - it may have been more his misfortune than his fault - but I blame him for the prejudice which made him welcome every unproven suspicion or charge made by known enemies of the Theosophical Society, and ignore all evidence tendered by friends. Leaving aside the question of his ability, his honesty is of primary importance; if he be not honest, his report is worthless. Now, apart from the general impression of unfairness left on the mind of any unprejudiced person reading the report - I read it carefully with a prejudice against Madame Blavatsky in my mind, and at the end tossed it aside as worthless - there is one crucial instance of Mr. Hodgson’s lack of honesty; he publishes a "plan of Occult-Room, with shrine and surroundings (from measurements taken by R. Hodgson, assisted by the statements of Theosophic witnesses.)" On p. 220 Mr. Hodgson says that "the accompanying rough sketch made from measurements of my own shows the positions." As a matter of fact, the place, when Mr. Hodgson saw it, had been so altered that "measurements" were impossible; the holes he shows in the plan did not exist when he saw the rooms; but it will be better for me to let the author of the plan speak for himself, only saying that he is Mr. William Judge, a New York lawyer of standing and repute, with a character to lose, and that Mr. Judge went from New York to Adyar with authority from Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, to look into the conduct of the Coulombs and the management of the place, and arrived the day after the Coulombs had been dismissed. He says: "I made a plan of how it had been left by Coulomb, and that plan it is that Hodgson pirated in his report, and desires people to think his, and to be that which he made on the spot, while looking at that which he thus pretends to have drawn. He never could have seen it as Coulomb had left it." I venture to suggest that the pirating of another person’s plan, with "measurements" of things that no longer existed when Mr. Hodgson visited Adyar, is not consistent with good faith. Yet the whole terrible charge against Madame Blavatsky rests on this man’s testimony. The Society of Psychical Research, which has taken the responsibility of the report, has no knowledge of the facts, other than that afforded by Mr. Hodgson. Everything turns on his veracity. And he issues another man’s plan as his own, and makes imaginary measurements of vanished objects!

And now to his report: it occupies 200 closely printed pages, and I must content myself with merely taking the main points and answering them. (As Mr. Podmore has chosen to revive the slander, I trust the report may be subjected to a searching analysis, at a length which is impossible in a magazine.) These main points are: (1) The presence of trap-doors and other arrangements for frauds in the rooms occupied by Madame Blavatsky at Adyar; (2) The letters alleged to have been written by her to Madame Coulomb; (3) The letters from the Mahatmas, alleged to have been written by Madame Blavatsky. The only explanation needed to make the answers intelligible is as to the Coulombs, and it should be further borne in mind by the reader that Mr. Hodgson, by his own admission (p. 208), "was treated with perfect courtesy" during his investigation, and "had every opportunity" given him for examining witnesses and the hand-writing of Madame Blavatsky. Never were cheats so ready to assist in their own exposure.

Monsieur and Madame Coulomb were persons who had appealed to Madame Blavatsky’s charity in Bombay. Madame Coulomb was practising as a medium in Cairo in 1871; after all her eastern experiences, Madame Blavatsky was curious to see some western mediums, and came across Madame Coulomb among others. The Coulombs appear to have gone from place to place, finally turning up penniless, shoeless, and ragged in Bombay, and hearing of Madame Blavatsky’s presence there, they appealed to her generosity. She helped them, and after a while Monsieur Coulomb was employed as librarian, and his wife as housekeeper and caretaker. When Madame Blavatsky left Adyar for Europe in February, 1884, the Coulombs were left in charge of her rooms; soon after this the missionaries of the Scottish Free Church began a vigorous attack on Theosophical teachings, by letters in the press and by lectures; and while this was proceeding strong suspicions arose against the Coulombs, and they were threatened with dismissal. Then was conceived the ingenious plot of which Mr. Hodgson was the willing victim. Without hopes of further gain from the Theosophical Society, charged with endeavouring to extort money from members, and with serious breaches of trust, Madame Coulomb went to the missionaries and offered to sell them some letters of Madame Blavatsky, that would show she had been guilty of fraud. Mr. Patterson, of the Christian College, in answer to a question by Dr. Hartmann, said that they had agreed to pay Madame Coulomb a sum of money (in all 1000 rupees), but had only so far given her 75 rupees: this statement was made in the presence of Mr. Judge, who published it the following day in the Madras Mail. To bear out the letters, Monsieur Coulomb, who was a clever builder and carpenter, made certain trap-doors in the rooms of Madame Blavatsky, and would have doubtless completed his task to the satisfaction of the missionaries, who were to be brought to see them, had not the Board of Control peremptorily turned his wife and himself off the premises. The general value of Madame Coulomb’s word may, perhaps, be estimated from the fact that by her confession she made herself the partner in fraud of Madame Blavatsky; she continued the fraud until she found there was no more to be got out of the Theosophical Society, but money was to be made out of the missionaries by "exposing" the fraud; and when Mr. Lane-Fox, Dr. Hartmann, and Mr. Damodar wrote to Madame Blavatsky telling her the facts, Madame Coulomb wrote: -

"I may have said something in my rage, but I swear on all that is sacred for me that I never said fraud, secret passages, traps, nor that my husband had helped you in any way. If my mouth has uttered these words, I pray to the Almighty to shower on my head the worst maledictions in nature."

This is the tainted source from which Mr. Hodgson drew his information.

(1.) The presence of trap-doors, etc. Madame Blavatsky’s bedroom was curtained off from a large sitting-room, and separated from the adjoining "occult-room" by a party-wall. In this wall originally existed a door, but this (see below) was bricked up at Madame Blavatsky’s order. On this wall, in the occult-room, was hung the "shrine" - a wooden cupboard with back - in which were found letters from the Mahatmas. Mr. Hodgson alleges that by an elaborate arrangement a communication was made between Madame Blavatsky’s bedroom and the inside of the cupboard in the occult-room. The top half of the panel at the back of the cupboard was made to slide, and a mirror was hung in the cupboard to hide the line of separation; then a hole was made through the wall; next a panel in the blocked-up door was made to slide; lastly, a sliding panel was made in the back of the wardrobe. If any one went into the wardrobe, opened the back of the wardrobe and the panel of the door, he could slip into the space between the door and the brickwork, and then through the hole in the brickwork slide up the top of the panel of the cupboard, and come on the back of the mirror and push it aside. All this Mr. Hodgson learned from the veracious M. Coulomb, and nobody else. "Mr. Coulomb states," a ""statement of M. Coulomb," "according to M. Coulomb;" such is all the evidence - evidence of a dismissed subordinate, partner in fraud, if fraud there were, and getting money for the statements! Now let us look at the other side. Madame Blavatsky, as I said, left Adyar in February, 1884; rather reckless of her to go away, leaving such damning evidence behind her. The recklessness, however, is explained by the fact that previous to her leaving there were no trap-doors.

Major-General Morgan writes:

"I first saw the occult-room in August, 1883. Since then I have frequently examined the shrine, and the wall at the back of the shrine, up to January, 1884, when I left the head-quarters, and I can safely affirm that any trickery was impossible. Mrs. Morgan was engaged in new papering the back wall of the shrine, and I frequently saw the work in progress in December last.’

Mrs. Morgan says:

"I can state for a fact, that during my stay at Adyar during December, 1883, Madame Blavatsky took Mr. C. and myself and showed us the back of the shrine, and the wall she had built behind it, where there had been a door, and the people were welcome to inspect this and see it was barred and bolted; yet she thought it would remove the least occasion for suspicion were it bricked up, and so had it done. The wall then presented a fine, highly-polished, white surface. This wall I shortly afterwards saw papered, as I superintended the hanging of the paper."

Dr. Hartmann says:

"The so-called shrine was a simple cupboard, hung loosely to a wall in Madame Blavatsky’s room. I examined it on this occasion(December 4th, 1883), and more carefully afterwards, and found it like any other cupboard, provided with shelves and a solid unmovable back hung upon an apparently solid and plastered wall."

Mr. Pillai, inspector of police, Nellore, states that during January, 1883, he went into the occult-room five or six times, and he twice saw the shrine and walls examined:

"These persons, after very careful examination, found nothing suspicious. The shrine was found attached to a solid wall behind, and there were no wires or other contrivances which could escape the trained eye of a police officer like myself, who was standing close by."

I might continue to cite testimonies, but these may suffice as samples of the bulk. Now it is beyond doubt that in the late spring of 1884 there was an aperture partly made in the wall behind the shrine, but M. Coulomb appears to have been cleared out of Adyar before he had finished his piece de conviction, and the hole was quite inadequate for its purpose, while the sliding panels were all new, and could only be made to move by blows of a mallet - a most awkward arrangement where secrecy was a necessity. Mr. Judge - who saw the hole - describes it as "a rough, unfinished hole in the wall, opening into the space left when the old door had been bricked up. . . . This hole began at the floor, and extended up about 22 inches. From each edge projected pieces of lath, some three inches, others five inches long, so that the opening was thus further curtailed . . . the plaster was newly broken off, the ends of the laths presented the appearance of freshly broken wood, and the wall-paper had been freshly torn off." These facts were seen and signed to by over 30 gentlemen, sent for by Mr. Judge as witnesses. Mr. Judge further tells us that, at his request, Mr. Damodar tried to get into the recess through the hole, but could not; Mr. Judge himself tried and failed, as did a "thin coolie"; finally, "a small boy about ten years of age" squeezed in, but found that he could not stand upright, for there were large pieces of hard mortar projecting from the sides. Mr. Judge then sent for a man, who "in my presence bricked up the aperture, replastered it, and then repapered the whole space." What, then, becomes of Mr. Hodgson’s "measurements" and his statement that the space was sufficient for a person to stand in? As to the mirror, no one seems to have seen it - except M. Coulomb - and Mr. Judge could find no trace of its presence when he examined the shrine - no marks such as are always left by a hanging object.

(2) The letters to Madame Coulomb. It has always been a mystery to me how any one could read these letters, and believe them to have been written by Madame Blavatsky. The French, to begin with, is clumsy and "English," while Madame Blavatsky speaks and writes French with the purity characteristic of educated Russians. Then there is the absurdity of supposing that a person who is alleged to be entitled to "permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history" (p. 207), would be such a fool as to place herself at the mercy of a woman of the type of Madame Coulomb, putting the whole of her elaborately constructed system of deception into the hands of one who is described as being "tolerated as a person hardly responsible for her actions." Mr. Allan Hume, a gentleman by no means friendly to Madame Blavatsky, put this very well in a letter written to the Calcutta Statesman. He said:

"All that I desire to point out is this: Madame Blavatsky is no fool; on the contrary, as all who know her, be they friends or foes, will admit, she is an exceptionally clever and far-sighted woman, with a remarkably keen perception of character. Would such a woman ever give a person like Madame Coulomb the entire power over her future that the writing of such letters involves? Or again, say she had, in some mad mood, written such letters, would she have come to an open rupture with the holder of them? . . . Believe me, Madame Blavatsky is far too shrewd a woman to have ever written to any one anything that could convict her of fraud."

Judge Sreenevas Row, a "judicial officer of 25 years’ standing," examined the letters very carefully, and came to the conclusion that the letters were forgeries. So with many others to whom they were submitted. On the other hand, Mr. Netherclift and Mr. Sims came to the conclusion, as experts, that the letters were written by Madame Blavatsky. Their opinion is somewhat discounted by the facts, (a) that experts disagree so much that you can always get two to swear in an opposite sense in an important case; (b) that Mr. Netherclift and Mr. Sims came to the opinion, as Mr. Hodgson was "surprised to find" that some writing, believed by him to be hers, was not hers at all, and subsequently, when the same writing was "re-submitted to him" (Mr. Netherclift) with some other Mr. Netherclift thought that "without doubt" it was hers, the complaisant Mr. Sims also changing his opinion - a variation casting much doubt on the value on Mr. Netherclift’s and Mr. Sims’ judgment. To condemn a woman for a scandalous fraud on such a variable opinion as that of Mr. Netherclift is, in itself, a scandal.

(3.) The letters from the Mahatmas. Mr. Hodgson avers that certain letters, alleged to be from Koot Hoomi, are written by Madame Blavatsky, or in some cases by Mr. Damodar. It was on these letters that Messrs. Netherclift and Sims so curiously varied together. Against their opinion may be put that of Herr Ernst Schutze, the Court expert in caligraphy at Berlin, who gave evidence on oath that the letter of Koot Hoomi "has not the remotest resemblance with the letter of Madame Blavatsky," and who wrote: "I must assure you most positively that if you have believed that both letters came from one and the same hand, you have laboured under a most complete mistake." Expert for expert, or rather Herr Schutze and half Messrs. Netherclift and Sims against the other half of Messrs. Netherclift and Sims. Secondly, a very large number of letters have been received hundreds and thousands of miles away from Madame Blavatsky’s place of residence, sometimes enclosed in private letters from far-away correspondents: has she confederates everywhere, this most surprising impostor, so that letters in the Koot Hoomi writing turn up in this extraordinary way? Thus Mr. Judge writes that he has seen in America over 40 letters "all written in the same hand as is found in the so-called ‘adept letters’ sampled by Hodgson, and yet none of them arrived in letters that H. P. Blavatsky had even seen or heard of." Judge Sreenevas Row wrote a letter, which he showed to no one, took it himself to Adyar, placed it himself in the shrine, closed the door, opened it a few minutes after, and received a reply in the challenged writing, answering "every single point in my letter which I had just deposited and had shown to nobody else." Madame Blavatsky was then at Ootacamund, so could scarcely have written the letter. Dr. Hartmann states that he received such letters at headquarters when she was not living there. In a statement signed by fifteen Hindus, it is said that one letter thus received was in Sanskrit, another in the Mahrathi language, in the Modi characters, although she does not know Mahrathi, nor can write in Modi. Of course, all these people, and many others of character and good repute, may be lying, even though the wherefore of their thus disgracing themselves is inexplicable.

Mr. Hodgson has made a minute examination of the writings attributed to Koot Hoomi and to Madame Blavatsky, and has come to the conclusion that they are from the same hand. My own judgment on his specimens differs, but there are certain likenesses. It would be strange if there were not, when we consider the admittedly close connexion between the two persons. Nothing is more common than similarities between the writings of persons attached to each other by ties either of affection or of work. I know at the present time some most striking likenesses between the handwritings of tutor and grown-up pupils, those of two friends, and so on, likenesses far closer than that suggested between those of Koot Hoomi and of Madame Blavatsky.

Where letters were "precipitated" the resemblance would be very much closer, as students will understand, but no argument based on this can be addressed to the general reader with any hope of acceptation. It may not be irrelevant to remind the public of the great exposure of the value of "expert" evidence on handwritings, which took place before the Parnell Commission. There a great newspaper was wholly duped by a clever forger, and paid heavily for its trust in experts of the Netherclift type. Their evidence was proved worthless, and the forger, convicted of fraud, made the public apology of suicide. Yet the Times took much more care to substantiate its case than did the slanderers of Madame Blavatsky.

Speaking generally, Mr. Hodgson’s whole report is vitiated by the absence of direct testimony, save from the Coulombs. All his arguments are based on unproved assumptions: "it may have been thus," "it is probable that," " it may be suggested," so and so "may have done" such a thing. Quite so: it may, but it also may not, and one craves for facts to support so grave an accusation, not assumptions. Nor can Mr. Hodgson suggest any rational motive for the extraordinary antics he ascribes to Madame Blavatsky. Here is a Russian lady, of admittedly high birth and social position, playing the fool in Europe, America and India to her own financial and social ruin, gaining nothing but abuse and slander, when she might be living luxuriously in high dignity in her own land. Mr. Hodgson rejects the idea that she is a religious monomaniac; he admits that pecuniary gain was not her object and discards the theory of a "morbid yearning for notoriety." A casual conversation opened "his eyes at last, and he discovered the secret of her strange career: she was a Russian agent, and "her ultimate object has been the furtherance of Russian interest"!! This sapient conclusion is, perhaps, the best criterion of Mr. Hodgson’s ability, the more so as it is partly based on a "fragmentary script which forms one of the Blavatsky-Coulomb documents" - in plain English, a torn scrap picked out of Madame Blavatsky’s waste-paper basket by Madame Coulomb! This portentous script is - I regret to thus shatter a fond illusion - a discarded scrap of a translation, by Madame Blavatsky, of a Russian work, translated for and published in the Pioneer, ordered and paid for by its editor, and to be read there by anyone who cares to do so. O sapient Mr. Hodgson! and O unlucky Psychical Research Society, to have fathered a report based on the sole investigations of so easily deluded an emissary.

Let me say in conclusion that, as everybody who knows her is aware, Madame Blavatsky is constitutionally incapable - apart from all questions of morality - of carrying out an elaborate and prolonged system of fraud. She is hasty, impulsive, unconventional, frank to unwisdom (as the world estimates wisdom), careless of appearances, of a quite childlike openness. I live in the house with her, I know her extremely intimately, and she is the most transparently honesty person with whom I have ever had to deal. And this I say: that with this intimate knowledge of her, I bear my testimony to her moral worth, as to her extraordinary knowledge and intellectual strength. I never met her equal in courage, in unselfishness, in charity, and in generosity. Some day, it may be, the world will recognise her value. Meanwhile, we, who KNOW, can wait. (1)

Annie Besant,
Fellow of the Theosophical Society.

Note

(1)  The quotations given in Madame Blavatsky's defence are:  "Reply to a Report of an Examination," by H.R. Morgan, Major-General, Ootacamund, 1884.  "Report of the Result of an Investigation," by a Committee of the Council of the Theosophical Society, Madras, 1885.  "Official Report of the 9th Session of the General Convention," Madras, 1885.  A written statement, signed by W.Q. Judge.