Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Mme. Helene Petrovna Blavatsky

Founder of Theosophy

by Nandor Fodor

[First published in Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, 1934, pp. 31-32.]

[MME. HELENE PETROVA BLAVATSKY (1831-91), founder of Theosophy, was one] of the most enigmatic personalities of the last century. She was the daughter of Col. Peter Hahn, a Russian officer, and was brought up in an atmosphere saturated with superstition and fantasy. She loved to surround herself with mystery as a child, and assured her playmates that in the subterranean corridors of their old house at Saratow, where she used to wander about, she was never alone, but had companions and playmates whom she called her "hunchbacks." She was often discovered in a dark tower underneath the roof where she put pigeons into mesmeric sleep by stroking them. She was unruly, and as she grew older she often shocked her relatives by her mannish behaviour. Once, riding astride a Cossack horse, she fell from the saddle and her foot became entangled in the stirrup. She claimed that she ought to have been killed outright before the horse was stopped "but for the strange sustaining power she distinctly felt around her, which seemed to hold her up in defiance of gravitation." According to the records of her sister, she showed frequent evidence of somnambulism as a child, speaking aloud, and often walking in her sleep. She saw eyes glaring at her from inanimate objects or from phantasmal forms, ran away screaming and frightened the household. In later years she claimed to have visions of a phantom protector whose imposing appearance had dominated her imagination. Her powers of make-believe were remarkable. She could actually cause hallucinations in playmates by her vivid story-telling. She possessed great natural musical talents, had a fearful temper, a passionate curiosity for the unknown and weird, and an uncontrollable craving for independence and action. At seventeen she was married to General Blavatsky, an old man from whom she escaped three months later. She then fled abroad and led a wild, wandering life for ten years all over the world, in search for mysteries.  When she returned to Russia she possessed well developed mediumistic gifts. Raps, whisperings and other mysterious sounds were heard all over the house, objects moved about in obedience to her will, their weight decreased and increased as she wished, winds swept through the apartment extinguishing lamps and candles, she gave exhibitions of clairvoyance, discovered a murderer for the police and narrowly escaped being charged as an accomplice. In 1860 she had an attack of severe illness. A wound below the heart, which she received from a sword cut in magical practice in the East opened again and she suffered intense agony, followed by convulsions and trance. After she recovered, her spontaneous physical phenomena disappeared and she claimed that they only occurred after that time in obedience to her will. She again went abroad, and, disguised as a man, she fought under Garibaldi and was left for dead in the battle of Mentana. She fought back to life, had a miraculous escape at sea on a Greek vessel which was blown up, and founded in 1871 in Cairo, the Societe Spirite. It was a dubious venture which soon expired amid cries of fraud and embezzlement, reflecting considerably on the reputation of the founder. Her closer ties with Spiritualism date from her arrival in New York in July, 1873. She first worked as a dressmaker to obtain a living and after her acquaintance with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott at Chittenden, Vermont, in the house of the Eddy Brothers, she launched forth in journalism, writing mostly on Spiritualism for magazines and translating Olcott's articles into Russian. "For over 15 years have I fought my battle for the blessed truth "-she wrote in The Spiritual Scientist, Boston, Dec. 3, 1874 . . . "For the sake of Spiritualism I have left my house; an easy life amongst a civilised society, and have become a wanderer upon the face of this earth." Her second marital venture falls into this period. It ended in failure and escape. The starting point of her real career was the foundation of the Theosophical Society in December, 1875. It professed to expound the esoteric tradition of Buddhism and aimed at forming a universal brotherhood of man, studying and making known the ancient religions, philosophies and sciences, and investigating the laws of nature and developing the divine powers latent in man. Col. Olcott was elected as Chairman. He was a tireless organiser and propagandist. His relationship to Mme. Blavatsky was that of the pupil to the teacher. He did the practical, Mme. Blavatsky the literary work. Their joint efforts soon put the society on a prosperous footing. At the end of 1878 a little party of four left, under their leadership, for Bombay, and soon after the theosophic movement gained an added impetus from the publicity launched by A. P. Sinnett, editor of  The Pioneer, who embraced Buddhism in Ceylon. The publicity had its disadvantages as well. The attention of the Society for Psychical Research was aroused for the theosophic marvels, and Dr. Hodgson was sent to Adyar, India, where the central headquarters of the movement were established, to investigate.  The investigation had a disastrous effect for Mme. Blavatsky and a nearly deadly blow for Theosophy.  Dr. Hodgson found nothing but palpable fraud and extreme credulity on the part of the believers. The Coulomb couple, who joined Mme. Blavatsky in Bombay in 1880 and were her acquaintances from the time of the Cairo adventure, confessed to having manufactured, in conspiracy with Mme. Blavatsky, a large number of the theosophic miracles, revealed the secret of the sliding panels of the Shrine in the Occult Room through which, from Mme. Blavatsky's bedroom, the "astral" Mahatma letters were deposited, disclosed impersonation of the Mahatmas by a dummy head and shoulders, declared that the Mahatma letters were written by Mme. Blavatsky in a disguised hand, that they were projected through cracks in the ceiling by means of spring contrivances and produced the correspondence between them and Mme. Blavatsky in proof of their self-confessed complicity. Dr. Hodgson's investigations lasted for three months. It has entirely demolished the first private and confidential report of the S.P.R. issued in December, 1884, which was theoretically favourable to Mme. Blavatsky's claims. The conclusions, as published under the heading "Report on Phenomena connected with Theosophy" (Proc. Vol. III. 1885) were as follows:

"In the first place a large number of letters produced by M. and Mme. Coulomb, formerly Librarian and Assistant Corresponding Secretary, respectively, of the Theosophical Society were, in the opinion of the best experts in handwriting, written by Madame Blavatsky. These letters, which extended over the years of 1880-1883, inclusive, and some of which were published in the Madras Christian College Magazine for September, 1884, prove that Mme. Blavatsky has been engaged in the production of a varied and long-continued series of fraudulent phenomena, in which she has been assisted by the Coulombs. The circumstantial evidence which I was able to obtain concerning the incidents referred to in these letters, corroborates the judgment of the experts in handwriting."

"In the second place, apart altogether from either these letters or the statements of the Coulombs, who themselves allege that they were confederates of Mme. Blavatsky, it appears from my own inquiries concerning the existence and the powers of the supposed Adepts or Mahatmas, and the marvellous phenomena alleged to have occurred in connection with the Theosophical Society,

"1. That the primary witnesses to the existence of a Brotherhood with occult powers----viz., Madame Blavatsky, Mr. Damodar K. Mavalankar, Mr. Bhavani Shankar and Mr. Babajee D. Nath----have in other matters deliberately made statements which they must have known to be false, and that, therefore, their assertions cannot establish the existence of the Brotherhood in question."

"2. That the comparison of handwriting further tends to show that Koot Hoomi Lal Sing and Mahatma Morya are fictitious personages, and that most of the documents purporting to have emanated from these 'personages' and especially from 'K.H.' (Koot Hoomi Lal Sing) are in the disguised handwriting of Madame Blavatsky herself, who originated the style of the K.H. handwriting; and that some of the
K.H. writing is the handiwork of Mr. Damodar in imitation of the writing developed by Madame Blavatsky."  [For a contrary view, see Dr. Vernon Harrison's book H. P. BLAVATSKY and the SPR:   An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885.]

"3. That in no single phenomenon which came within the scope of my investigation in India, was the evidence such as would entitle it to be regarded as genuine, the witnesses for the most part being extraordinarily inaccurate in observation or memory, and having neglected to exercise due care for the exclusion of fraud; while in the case of some of the witnesses there has been much conscious exaggeration and culpable mis-statement."

"4. That not only was the evidence insufficient to establish the genuineness of the alleged marvels, but that evidence furnished partly by my own inspection. and partly by a large number of witnesses, most of them Theosophists, concerning the structure, position and environment of the Shrine, concerning 'Mahatma' communications received independently of the Shrine, and concerning various other
incidents, including many of the phenomena mentioned in the Occult World, besides the numerous additional suspicious circumstances which I have noted in the course of dealing in detail with the cases considered, renders the conclusion unavoidable that the phenomena in question were actually due to fraudulent arrangement."

On the basis of Dr. Hodgson's findings the Committee of the S.P.R. declared: "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 and interesting impostors in history."

The publication of the Report which followed the printing of the Coulomb letters in the Madras Christian Magazine, created an immense sensation. The first result of the exposure was that Col. Olcott, whose honesty was not impugned by the report, banished Mme. Blavatsky from Adyar. The proofs of her guilt were overwhelming. The defence was built up with great difficulties. Dark Forces in the Beyond tending to discredit the Theosophical Society had to be called in for explanatory purposes and the case looked almost hopeless. Nevertheless, Mrs. Annie Besant, who became Mme. Blavatsky's successor, and A. P. Sinnett, valiantly attacked the superhuman task. Dr. Hodgson answered and insisted on his conclusions. In the literature which subsequently grew up on the subject, Solovyoff's book, published in 1892, a year after Mme. Blavatsky's death, is the most interesting as it claims that Mme. Blavatsky acknowledged her fraudulent practices to the author, and Blavatsky's Posthumous Memoirs is the most curious. This was published by Joseph M. Wade, of Boston, in 1896. It is said to have been dictated by Mme. Blavatsky's spirit, the text (which furnishes strong, internal proofs of its apocryphal character) having been obtained in independent typewriting on a Yost machine under the supervision of the spirit of its inventor, Mr. G. W. N. Yost.

Mme. Blavatsky, nevertheless, succeeded in living down every attack during her life, continued her work, gained many new adherents to Theosophy and published a stupendous work The Secret Doctrine which was mostly written in a supernormal condition. Whatever result psycho-analysts may arrive at in the study of her complex character, it must be admitted that she was a remarkable woman and that she
indeed possessed psychic powers which, however, fell far short of the miraculous feats she constantly aimed at. Even Solovyoff admits some remarkable experiences and though he furnished natural explanation to many of the marvels, the least assumption which withstands challenge as regards her phenomena is that she had, as plainly pointed out by Olcott himself, unusual hypnotic powers. Her famous feats of duplicating letters and divers other objects are plainly ascribable to this source when
common fraud does not cover the ground. She never troubled about test conditions. Most of her phenomena were produced under circumstances wide open to suspicion and strongly savouring of a conjuring performance; like the finding of an extra cup and saucer at a picnic at Simla in 1880 in the Sinnett garden under the ground at a designated spot; the clairvoyant discovery of the lost brooch of Mrs. Hume in a flower bed; the astral dispatch of marked cigarettes to places she indicated; and the Mahatma scripts imposed over the text of private letters which the post had, just delivered. There is no end of these and similar miracles and the testimony of the truth thereof is sometimes so surprising that one hardly can escape the conclusion that imposture occasionally blended with genuine psychic performance. The general character of Mme. Blavatsky's phenomena is of a different order from those of the spiritualist medium. Her early physical phenomena subsided at a later age, though the power to cause raps remained, and once, in New York, Col. Olcott witnessed the materialisation of a Mahatma from a mist rising from her shoulders. As a rule the Mahatmas were not supposed to depend upon Mme. Blavatsky's organism for appearance, and controlled her body but seldom. Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine were claimed to have been produced under such control. Whereas there is a limit to the phenomena of every spiritualistic medium, Mme. Blavatsky apparently
knew none. From the materialisation of grapes for the thirsty Col. Olcott in New York to the duplication of precious stones in India, or the creation of toys for children out of nothingness, she undertook almost any magical task and successfully performed it to the stupefaction of her coterie. One may well understand that Mr. Sinnett must have genuinely suffered in this admission: "That she sometimes
employed the Coulombs, husband and wife, as confederates in trickery is the painful though hardly intelligible state of the facts. Even with me she has done this. For example, on my return to India, after having published the Occult World---after she knew that I was rooted in a personal conviction not only that she possessed magic powers, but that I was in touch with the Masters and devoted to the theosophical cause, she employed M. Coulomb to drop a letter from the Master intended for me
through a crack in the rafters above, trying to make me believe that it had been dropped by the Master himself---materialised then and there after transmission by occult means from Tibet. M. Coulomb told Hodgson that he had been so employed on this occasion, and his statement fits in with the minor circumstances of the incident."

Books by Mme. Blavatsky:

Books on Madame Blavatsky:

  • Col. H. S. Olcott:   People from the Other World, 1875; Old Diary Leaves, 1895;

  • A. P. Sinnett:  The Occult World, 1881, Esoteric Buddhism, 1895; Incidents in the Life of Mme. Blavatsky, 1886, The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe, 1922. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, 1923, The Letters of Mme. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, 1925;

  • Vsevolod Sergyeevich Solovyoff:  A Modern Priestess of Isis, 1892;

  • Edmund Garrett:   Isis Very Much Unveiled, The Story of the Great Mahatma Hoax;

  • Blavatsky's Posthumous Memoirs, 1896;

  • Mme. Coulomb:   Account of My Intercourse with Mme. Blavatsky, 1885;

  • J. N. Maskelyne:  The Fraud of Modern Theosophy Exposed;

  • William Kingsland:   Was She a Charlatan?;

  • Arthur H. Lillie:  Mme. Blavatsky and her Theosophy;

  • Annie Besant:   H. P. Blavatsky and the Masters of Wisdom;

  • Countess Constance Wachtmeister:  Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine;

  • In Memory of Helene Petrovna Blavatsky, 1891;

  • Helene Petrovna Blavatsky, a Refutation of Recently Published Slanders, 1921;

  • Alice L. Cleather:   H. P. Blavatsky, a Great Betrayal, 1922, H. P. Blavatsky, Her Life and Work for Humanity, 1922, H. P. Blavatsky as I Knew Her, 1923;

  • G. Baseden Butt:  Mme. Blavatsky, 1925;

  • C., E. Bechhofer Roberts (Ephesian):   The Mysterious Madame, 1931;

  • A.Trevor Barker:   The Collected Works of H..P. Blavatsky, 1933.