Published by The Blavatsky Archives Online. Online Edition copyright 2000.
Report of the General Meeting
[Reprinted from Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
(London) July 1885, pp. 451-460.
This online edition is reprinted with permission
of the Society for Psychical Research, London.]
[At this second SPR meeting, Hodgson outlines his findings
on the Mahatma Letters. See also Hodgson's talk at
the previous meeting of the SPR held on May 29, 1885.
For more online information about the Hodgson Report,
consult works by Carrithers, Harrison, Hodgson, Knoche, and Studd.
For more details on what is cited by Henry Sidgwick and Hodgson, see the Hodgson Report. For H.P. Blavatsky's comments on what was said at these meetings,
see Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, Letters XLIV, XLV,
and XLVI (especially pp. 108-109.)---BAO Editor.]
A General Meeting of the Society [for Psychical Research] was held on the evening of Friday, June 26th,  at the rooms of the Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, S.W.
The chair was taken by Professor Sidgwick.
The first item in the proceedings was the second part of a paper by Mr. E. Gurney and Mr. F. W. H. Myers on Some Higher Aspects of Mesmerism. The topic dealt with on this occasion was silent willing and willing at a distance. The effects considered were (1) the definite induction of trance; and (2) the performance by a subject of some act willed by his controller, but of which he had received no intimation. Among other cases, a striking one of Esdailes was quoted, where a blind man was mesmerised from a distance of 20 yards. As regards the control of actions, it was pointed out how fallacious the instances are which are popularly supposed to illustrate the power; but some apparently genuine cases were given. Another topic --- the production of actual hallucinations by the will of some absent person --- was also touched on; but such cases do not seem to be specially dependent on definite mesmeric influence. A summary was then given of the way in which the authors treatment of mesmerism, as so far published, differs from that of other writers; the main points being (1) that hypnotic and mesmeric phenomena are both admitted as genuine, while carefully distinguished; and (2) that mesmerism is shown only to determine with special certainty events which are found also capable of spontaneous occurrence. Finally, the great desirability of extended experiment was urged. Much wearisome failure and deceptive ambiguity must be expected; but by their power of throwing the mental machinery slightly out of gear, hypnotism and mesmerism may advance our knowledge of the more obscure mental phenomena in ways which would be impossible to direct introspection.
The Chairman said that he did not propose to invite discussion on the paper which had been read, as it was likely that several of those present would wish to address the meeting in reference to what Mr. Hodgson would have to say, but at the close Mr. Gurney would be glad to answer any questions on the subject he had treated of. He now asked Mr. Myers to take his place as Chairman, as he was about to read the conclusions of the Committee on the alleged phenomena attested by members of the Theosophical Society.
Mr. F. W. H. Myers having taken the chair, Professor Sidgwick proceeded, on behalf of the Committee appointed to investigate the alleged marvellous phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society, to read the following statement of their conclusions: ---
That of the letters put forward by Madame Coulomb, all those, at least, which the Committee have had the opportunity of themselves examining, and of submitting to the judgment of experts, are undoubtedly written by Madame Blavatsky; and suffice to prove that she has been engaged in a long-continued combination with other persons to produce by ordinary means a series of apparent marvels for the support of the Theosophic movement. That, in particular, the Shrine at Adyar, through which letters purporting to come from Mahatmas were received, was elaborately arranged with a view to the secret insertion of letters and other objects through a sliding panel at the back, and regularly used for this purpose by Madame Blavatsky or her agents. That there is consequently a very strong general presumption that all the marvellous narratives put forward as evidence of the existence and occult power of the Mahatmas are to be explained as due either (a) to deliberate deception carried out by or at the instigation of Madame Blavatsky, or (b) to spontaneous illusion, or hallucination, or unconscious misrepresentation or invention on the part of the witnesses. That after examining Mr. Hodgsons report of the results of his personal inquiries, they are of opinion that the testimony to these marvels is in no case sufficient, taking amount and character together, to resist the force of the general presumption above mentioned.
Accordingly, they think that it would be a waste of time to prolong the investigation.
As to the correctness of Mr. Hodgsons explanation of particular marvels they do not feel called upon to express any definite conclusion; as on the one hand, they are not prepared to endorse every detail of this explanation, and on the other hand they have perfect confidence in the impartiality and thoroughness of Mr. Hodgsons investigation, and they recognise that his means of arriving at a correct conclusion are far beyond any to which they can lay claim.
There is only one special point on which the Committee think themselves bound to state explicitly a modification of their original view. They said in effect in their First Report that if certain phenomena were not genuine it was very difficult to suppose that Colonel Olcott was not implicated in the fraud. But after hearing what Mr. Hodgson has to say as to Colonel Olcotts credulity, and inaccuracy in observation and inference, they desire to disclaim any intention of imputing wilful deception to Colonel Olcott.
The Chairman then called on Mr. Hodgson to continue his Report on the phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society.
Mr. Hodgson, in doing so, dealt chiefly with letters declared to have been received phenomenally. The mental queries to which it was alleged instantaneous replies had been given were always, so far as he could learn, such as might easily have been anticipated by Madame Blavatsky. The envelopes in which Mahatma writing was found, and which were declared to be absolutely intact, might easily, in the cases he had been able to examine, have been opened and the contents abstracted, &c. Mr. Hodgson described in detail the appearance of one of these envelopes, which showed clear traces of its having been opened surreptitiously; and mentioned a case described to him by Mr. Ezekiel, a Theosophist at Poona, which corroborated his own conclusions, but the details of which Mr. Ezekiel was unwilling to have published. Some of the letter-phenomena were probably arranged in the manner described in the Journal [of the S.P.R.] for April , where an account was given of a letter caused by the Coulombs to fall on Mr. Hodgsons head. The Mahatma letters which appeared at the headquarters after Madame Blavatskys departure for Europe might in all cases have been arranged by Mr. Damodar, and Mr. Hodgson gave instances of this. Other instances of falling letters had occurred in Bombay, when the Societys headquarters were there; some of these letters might have been pushed through the interstices of the ceiling of the room where they fell, as Mr. Hodgson ascertained by examining the premises; or in other cases through a slit in the ceiling-cloth, no inspection of which seems to have been made by witnesses of the phenomena. The disappearance of letters and other objects from the top of a bookcase could be easily accounted for by the fact that behind the bookcase was a venetianed door near Babulas rooms, and Babula could have removed the letters, &c., by passing his hand through the venetians. It was in this way probably that the packet in the Vega case was made to evaporate while the witnesses were out of the room.
Mr. Hodgson then referred to the Koot Hoomi writing, and said that after a minute and prolonged examination of the writing, he considered it to be in most cases the handiwork of Madame Blavatsky, but in some cases that of Mr. Damodar. In various documents which had been kindly furnished by Mr. Sinnett for examination, numerous characteristic traces of Madame Blavatskys handwriting were obvious, and the gradual elimination of some of these was manifest in successive letters, suggesting that Madame Blavatsky acquired by degrees greater skill in the practice of the disguised hand. Mr. Hodgson illustrated his remarks on some of these characteristics by means of the blackboard, and quoted the positive conclusion of Mr. F. G. Netherclift, the well-known caligraphic expert, that the Koot Hoomi series of documents furnished by Mr. Sinnett were unquestionably written by Madame Blavatsky.
The Chairman said that Mr. Hodgson would now be prepared to answer questions as to his Report, and Professor Sidgwick as to the Report of the Committee. But first, it seemed fitting to invite the remarks of a gentleman to whom all present would listen with respectful attention on the subject of these phenomena. He begged leave to call on Mr. Sinnett for any observations which he might wish to make.
Mr. Sinnett said that at the conclusion of his interesting paper, Mr. Gurney had spoken of the ridicule and opposition which everyone engaged in psychical inquiry was liable to encounter, and suggested that in raising an easy laugh at the expense of some of the phenomena he had endeavoured to investigate, Mr. Hodgson had afforded a prompt illustration of the justice of his colleagues remark. He, however, desired to approach this subject in a serious spirit, as a Member of the Society for Psychical Research not less than as a Theosophist. It appeared to him that in this inquiry the Society had taken an entirely new departure. Hitherto when the guiding Members of the Society thought they had found evidence illustrating the reality of psychic phenomena, they had proceeded to investigate it, and if they found it calculated to support this idea they brought it forward. If, on the contrary, they found it inconclusive they put it aside. In the present case an entirely different course had been pursued. The Society for Psychical Research had not considered the whole Theosophical position, but only certain incidents. The important point in a matter of this kind was to prove the existence of occult power. The value of a single item of positive evidence was not impaired by any amount of negative evidence. Mr. Hodgson had collected with great care a vast amount of negative evidence, which in his (Mr. Sinnetts) opinion was of exceedingly small value. Mr. Sinnett, speaking for himself and others, said that they had studied occurrences of the kind treated of for many more years than Mr. Hodgson had months. Mr. Hodgson had undertaken his inquiry, moreover, under disadvantageous circumstances, when the group of persons at the headquarters of the [Theosophical] Society had been demoralised by the long absence of their leaders. He had no experience of India to guide him in conducting a difficult investigation with natives concerned. The series of events examined in a case like this was not to be tested by the weakest, as a chain was tested by the strength of its weakest link, but the question whether psychic agency really entered into the matter should be determined by reference to the most important and conclusive incidents. He ventured to say that in many of the cases he could bring forward no elements of suspicion could be found. He considered that Mr. Hodgson had proceeded on a totally wrong principle. A large quantity of miscellaneous evidence had been given by persons whose statements were of no value, and who were in the position of servants. Mr. Sinnett then went on to speak of the court before which the inquiry took place, and that practically prosecutor, counsel for the defence, and judge were all one and there was no cross-examination by persons representing opposite sides. Speaking of the Committee, Mr. Sinnett referred to its constitution as not including any who by reason of being acquainted with or from having sufficiently studied the whole Theosophical movement might have been in a position to direct its inquiries aright. He thought the Committee was as little qualified to form a judgment as Mr. Hodgson himself. As he was not able to be at the previous meeting, he might perhaps be allowed to refer to the report of its proceedings. He thought many of the conclusions drawn were wholly unsupported. Reference was made to the position taken by the editor of the Christian College Magazine, who was commended for having performed a delicate task with much tact and temper. In reality the editor in question had paid money to obtain the letters which he employed as a weapon against the Theosophical movement. Coming to the question of handwriting, Mr. Sinnett said that he now learned with great pleasure that the experts had given an opinion to the effect that the so-called Koot Hoomi handwriting of the letters he had received from the Mahatma was produced by Madame Blavatsky. He was glad of this because it was a reductio ad absurdum of the argument derived from the opinion of the experts to the effect that the letters alleged to have been written by Madame Blavatsky to Madame Coulomb were genuine. This declaration had been the subject of much concern and bewilderment for Theosophists at first, but it was now retrospectively discredited by the present opinion about the Koot Hoomi handwriting. There were great masses of letters in that handwriting in his possession, and a large part of this correspondence had been seen by many persons besides himself. He believed that all these persons would agree with him in regarding the hypothesis that the contents of these letters had emanated from Madame Blavatsky as absolutely grotesque in its extravagance. No caligraphic evidence in such a matter would have weight for anyone who might fairly take into consideration the substance of such letters. In conclusion, he argued that the report now brought forward dealt exclusively with mechanical details of certain phenomena connected with the Theosophical movement. It was impossible to solve the questions before them without paying attention to the character of the movement in its higher aspects. The psychic phenomena with which the movement had been associated were of merely collateral interest. By the philosophical teaching of which the Theosophical Society had been the channel, light had been thrown upon the inner meaning of a great mass of Indian literature which, now that it was thus interpreted, was seen to bear out the theory of Nature that had been introduced to the world by means of the Theosophical Society as the Esoteric Doctrine. The great value of the work thus accomplished had been very widely recognised, and whatever gratitude was due for the benefits conferred on modern thinking in this way, was due primarily to Madame Blavatsky, through whom the results had been attained. Whatever might now be alleged in regard to the matters Mr. Hodgson thought he had investigated, no one could deny that Madame Blavatsky had devoted a life which might have been spent in an easy and honourable station, to the service of the cause which the philosophical achievements of the Theosophical Society represented, and her whole career was thus a demonstration of the fundamental nobility of her character.
The Chairman said that there were one or two points in Mr. Sinnetts speech to which he felt bound briefly to reply. Mr. Sinnett had made a strong point of the supposed fact that the editors of the Christian College Magazine had bought the Blavatsky letters from the Coulombs, as though they had been thus tempted to make the most of a costly purchase, and to insist unduly on the importance of the letters. In saying this, Mr. Sinnett could hardly have been cognisant of a passage in the Christian College Magazine for April last  (which the Chairman now read to the meeting), in which the editors explicitly denied having bought the letters, and stated, on the contrary, that the letters had been lent to them by the Coulombs without any conditions, except that they should be ultimately returned. The editors distinctly stated that from first to last they had paid the Coulombs only 150 rupees, that being about the ordinary rate of remuneration for copying and other actual work done by them.
Again, Mr. Sinnett had urged that the Committee, before investigating the more dubious phenomena, should have paid attention to what he considered as the conclusive and indisputable phenomena which showed Madame Blavatskys power over nature without a doubt. But this was precisely what the Committee had done. Before Mr. Hodgsons visit to India was resolved upon, the Committee had expressly invited the attendance of any Theosophists who had striking phenomena to recount, and had caused their depositions to be taken down by a shorthand writer, and afterwards printed for consideration. Colonel Olcott, Mr. Mohini, and Mr. Sinnett himself, had in fact responded to this invitation, and a great mass of evidence given by them had been printed. All this evidence, as well as all the evidence that already existed in print, had been most carefully weighed by the Committee, with the result that they had, in an ad interim and provisional report, expressed their conclusion that a prima facie case for further investigation existed, and had recommended that such investigation should be pursued in India. The Committee had thus done precisely what Mr. Sinnett urged that they ought to have done. The only difference between Mr. Sinnetts view and the Committees was as regards the absolute value of the evidence supplied by himself and others. The Committee, while showing by their subsequent action that they attached some value to these accounts, were quite unable to consider them as so conclusive and irrefragable as Mr. Sinnett and his friends appeared to do. On the contrary, they saw various weak points in even the strongest parts of the evidence; and the results of Mr. Hodgsons visit to India had in several particulars confirmed the suspicions which the examination-in-chief of the primary witnesses had itself excited.
Mr. Sinnett had spoken of Mr. Hodgsons scrutiny as though it had not embraced the whole field of the phenomena. The field covered by the Blavatsky-Coulomb letters was surely wide enough, and he (the Chairman) would much like to know by whom Mr. Sinnett and his friends now supposed those letters to have been written? The only hypothesis of which he had heard on the side of the defence was that the letters had been written by black magicians. Now he was prepared, as a Psychical Researcher, to keep his mind open to a variety of strange hypotheses; but if he were called upon seriously to suppose that a whole series of letters --- which according to all human canons of evidence were in the handwriting of a well-known person, corresponded with her circumstances, and expressed her character, --- to be in effect the work of a black magician, he should retire in despair from the task of endeavouring to get at any truth in a region so remote from the laws of ordinary human intelligence. He begged to call on Mr. Mohini for any remarks which he might be disposed to make.
Mr. Mohini, in responding to the Chairmans invitation, complained of the method adopted in taking evidence both in India and here. All details regarding phenomenal occurrences were elicited by cross-questionings by those who were utterly ignorant of the times and places of those occurrences. Upon this information, necessarily obscure, Mr. Hodgson proceeded in his investigation, and considered himself justified in rejecting evidence whose chief defect was a want of precision which ought not to have been expected. Regarding Dr. Hartmanns contradictory statements, there was no reason for preferring the earlier to the later one. For if Dr. Hartmann was capable of a falsehood there was nothing to prevent him from using it as the means of separating philosophical doctrines from phenomenalism with which it had been illogically mixed up. He emphatically protested against the course Mr. Hodgson had taken in attacking a dead man on hearsay evidence, as he did when he stated that Mulji Thackersy confessed on his death-bed to having told lies at the instigation of Madame Blavatsky. Then, again, he would draw attention to the fact that Mr. Hodgson never saw the Shrine, and that the drawings he had shown were made from information given him by the Coulombs. In his opinion, Mr. Hodgson had brought forward much that he had not proved. In fact, Mr. Hodgson had examined how far the statements of the Coulombs were true, and not how far the phenomena were genuine. He had put forward the statement of the Coulombs as to the surreptitious introduction of letters through crevices in the ceiling, because he found some of these crevices filled up in the way described by the Coulombs. Mr. Hodgson had accepted what the lawyers would call mere matters of prejudice as good evidence. It was unnecessary to go into details. The special difficulties of investigations of this kind were well known to those who had inquired into the phenomena of Spiritualism, and to these difficulties no attention had been paid. The Committee had entirely ignored evidence resting upon the abnormal experience of psychics. The Committee had entirely ignored subjective evidence. This would not have been surprising if the inquirers had been materialistic men of science. But the Committee either did or did not believe in psychic experience. If they did, he did not consider their conclusions fair to themselves. For his part he thought many questions must still be left open, and for many reasons he did not believe that Madame Blavatsky wrote the Coulomb letters. Other explanations were possible. Unquestionable cases of abnormal production of peoples handwriting had occurred within the experience of inquirers into Spiritualism. This was the black magic to which reference had been made by the Chairman. He should be glad to know if Mr. Hodgson showed the Coulomb-Blavatsky letters to Madame Blavatsky herself.
Professor Sidgwick remarked that Mr. Sinnetts complaint that the Committee included none of the persons who were already committed to the genuineness of the phenomena, could hardly be seriously entertained.
Mrs. Macdonald, who described herself as only a student in these matters, thought Theosophy had much to answer for, in having given false views of Buddhism, and for having turned away the attention of so many from the beautiful philosophy and teaching of the older writings.
Mr. Keightley and Mr. Henslow having made some brief remarks, Mr. G. P. Bidder said he had listened with care to Mr. Sinnett and Mr. Mohini, but he had heard no answer to the report of Mr. Hodgson as to the facts. He could not at all agree with what Mr. Sinnett said as to the course which had been pursued by the Society. The first thing to be done was to sift the phenomena. This was what was done in other branches of the Societys work. Nor could he follow Mr. Sinnetts argument as to the value of the weakest links in a chain of this kind. If it were found that a certain portion of the phenomena were tainted with fraud, the greatest possible doubt is thrown on the remainder. He could not conceive that those who were conscious of the power of producing phenomena by genuine means should have recourse to fraud. He thought that any impartial person carefully reading the reports which the Committee made last year would come to very similar conclusions to those at which Mr. Hodgson had arrived. Mr. Bidder proceeded, in support of this view, to refer to two instances in particular, viz., the falling of a letter referred to in p. 57 of the Report, and the instance of the appearance of Mr. Damodar to Mr. Ewen in London.
Professor Barrett defended the strictly scientific position which the Society had taken. As presenting somewhat of an analogy he referred to papers in the early history of the Royal Society, some of which consisted largely of what might be called negative evidence, but which were of value in clearing the ground, and in leading to subsequent positive results.
Mr. Hodgson, in replying, agreed with much that Mr. Sinnett had said concerning the value of psychical phenomena on the higher planes, but joined issue with him as to the value of the phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society. Mr. Sinnett had offered no specific reply whatever to the charges which had been brought against these phenomena, except to say that the Report largely depended upon the statements made by the Coulombs. This was quite contrary to the fact, as he had in no case relied upon the evidence given by the Coulombs, though he had found all their essential statements corroborated by independent evidence. In reply to the chief statements made by Mr. Mohini, he said whether Dr. Hartmanns final statement concerning the destruction of the Shrine was true or not, made no difference to the results of the investigation; but that the Shrine had disappeared, and the explanation offered by Dr. Hartmann was the only one forthcoming. If, as Mr. Mohini apparently suggested, Dr. Hartmanns last statements concerning the Shrine were false, then one of the leading Theosophists at headquarters was still taking part in deliberate dishonesty. He had not depended upon the decision of caligraphic experts alone in the question of the Blavatsky-Coulomb documents; he had examined carefully the circumstantial evidence offered by Theosophists, and had questioned Madame Blavatsky herself at great length upon the letters and statements printed in Madame Coulombs pamphlet. Nor was it true that the diagrams exhibited were given by the Coulombs. Nearly all the drawings exhibited had been enlarged from sketches which depended on measurements made by himself. It was only the half-panel of the Shrine which depended merely on the statements made by the Coulombs. Further explanations concerning these and other points would be left to the judgment of the readers of the complete Report shortly to be published.
The Chairman, in a few concluding remarks, said that he trusted that the meeting would not separate with the impression that the Committee of the Society for Psychical Research were in any way disposed to feel exultation in the exposure of the frauds involved in these phenomena, or antagonism of any kind towards those who might still cling to some kind of belief in them. Their feeling, if feeling might be alluded to in a discussion which turned entirely upon evidence to facts, was one of disappointment at the closure of what had seemed a possible avenue towards the attainment of some of that further knowledge of the secrets of the universe which Theosophists and members of the Society for Psychical Research desired with equal earnestness, though it might be with somewhat different standards of proof. Most assuredly there was no touch of triumph on the one side, and he earnestly trusted that there would be no touch of resentment on the other, but that all should still feel themselves united by a disinterested love of truth.