H. P. Blavatsky and The Society for Psychical Research

By Grace F. Knoche

In 1882 The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London, England, for the purpose of examining impartially in a scientific spirit those paranormal faculties which are inexplicable by recognized norms. Intrigued by certain happenings reportedly occurring by or in the presence of H. P. Blavatsky, which after careful inquiry appeared to several SPR members to merit investigation, a Committee of Reference was appointed to amass evidence from theosophists visiting London during the summer of 1884 — notably Henry S. Olcott, H. P. Blavatsky, and Mohini M. Chatterji, an attorney from Calcutta, India; also Alfred P. Sinnett who had alluded in his book The Occult World (1881) to several extra-ordinary happenings.

While their findings were inconclusive, a number of strange events reported by several theosophists of repute led the SPR Committee to issue a "preliminary and provisional Report" in December 1884. Because of its tentative character it was circulated privately, and whereas the Committee withheld endorsement of what they had seen and heard, the reportage by and large was fair and open-minded.

At the theosophical headquarters in India, however, matters had taken a drastically different turn. During HPB's and Olcott's several months' absence in Europe, Emma and Alexis Coulomb — whom HPB had sheltered in 1880 and to whom she had given posts of responsibility — had been dismissed for flagrant misconduct by the Board of Control appointed by Olcott. Their keys to HPB's rooms were handed over to Dr. Franz Hartmann. It was discovered that Alexis Coulomb was in process of constructing a secret passage in the wall behind the "shrine" (1) as well as trapdoors and sliding panels elsewhere in her rooms — evidently in hopes of "proving" that communications to and from the Adepts were nothing but a sham concocted by HPB.

In revenge, Emma Coulomb handed over to the Rev. Mr. George Patterson, editor of a missionary paper, the Madras Christian College Magazine, a number of letters purportedly written by HPB. (2) Extracts from these appeared under the title, "The Collapse of Koot Hoomi," in its September and October 1884 issues. Had these been genuine, they would have confirmed that HPB had, with the Coulombs' assistance, engaged in producing fraudulent marvels on a massive scale.

It seems rather partisan of Mr. Patterson to have accepted these "incriminating" letters as having been written by H. P. Blavatsky solely on Emma Coulomb's word. A few months after her dismissal, Mme. Coulomb put on an "Entertainment" on October 18, 1884, for the people of Madras, and stated that the phenomena that had supposedly occurred spontaneously were fake, that both she and her husband had assisted Mme. Blavatsky in producing them. (3)

When word of this base assault on her honor and that of her teachers and the Theosophical Society reached HPB — then in Elberfeld, Germany — she was outraged, and she and Olcott soon headed for India. Totally false, said HPB, backed by Olcott who had experienced since his New York days sufficient phenomena to know that the often mysterious incidents at Adyar occurring around HPB — many in his presence — though often difficult to explain scientifically were by no means faked.

The odor of "fraud" is subtle and pervasive, and Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, and their SPR colleagues soon got wind of the possibility that HPB might have engaged in trickery. While reserving judgment, they decided to check out the situation themselves. They deputized one of their younger members, Richard Hodgson, Australian-born Cambridge scholar and a student of pyschic phenomena, to go to India and investigate firsthand whether or not the reported phenomena had occurred at the theosophical headquarters at Adyar, Madras, and whether the letters allegedly received from chelas and/or Mahatmas were genuine. Apparently it never occurred either to the SPR or to Hodgson how ill-equipped he was to undertake so delicate and significant a task as would be demanded of him.

On arrival at Adyar in December, Hodgson received a warm welcome by both HPB and Damodar, a young Brahman who had renounced family and caste in order to work full time at the theosophical headquarters. At the outset HPB asserted that the letters published in the Christian College Magazine were forgeries. At first Hodgson was predisposed to believe in her innocence, but soon he adopted Emma Coulomb's position: that she (Emma) not only had assisted HPB in fraudulent activities, but that HPB had herself written the so-called "Mahatma" letters.

Surprisingly, the SPR Committee failed to check the veracity of Hodgson's wholesale condemnations, and also accepted Emma Coulomb's statements at face value. Equally surprising is the summary comment of the SPR Committee of Reference in introducing Richard Hodgson's Report:

For our own part, we regard her [H. P. Blavatsky] 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, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history. — Statement and Conclusions of the Committee (4)

This opinion, arrived at without the requisite disciplined research that HPB merited, introduces Richard Hodgson's "Account of Personal Investigations in India, and Discussion of the Authorship of the 'Koot Hoomi' Letters." Totalling 200 printed pages, a fair part of it centers on Hodgson's claim that Madame Blavatsky "forged" the so-called Mahatma letters which she (and others) stated they had received from her teachers, the Adepts who sponsored the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875. For more than a century the Hodgson "verdict" has been cited by encyclopedias, dictionaries, and biographies as the accepted judgment of history. To refute the claim, spirited defenses were immediately made by William Q. Judge, A. P. Sinnett, Annie Besant, and others, and through the years excellent books defended her, among them William Kingsland's The Real H. P. Blavatsky, A Study in Theosophy, and a Memoir of a Great Soul, 1928; Beatrice Hastings' Defence of Madame Blavatsky, Volume II, The "Coulomb Pamphlet," 1937; K. F. Vania's Madame H. P. Blavatsky: Her Occult Phenomena and The Society for Psychical Research, 1951; Adlai E. Waterman's (penname of Walter Carrithers, Jr.) Obituary: The "Hodgson Report" on Madame Blavatsky, 1885-1960; Re-examination: Discredits the Major Charges Against H. P. Blavatsky, 1963.

It is gratifying to learn that Sir William Barrett, initiator of the SPR, and who had believed along with his Cambridge associates that HPB had been involved in fraud in connection with the production of supernormal phenomena, had a change of heart. According to Dr. J. H. Cousins, years later, in 1915, when he and Sir William were riding together in a Dublin tramcar, he told Dr. Cousins that Richard Hodgson had "come to believe in quite as extraordinary things as he had condemned in the case of Madame Blavatsky, and he [Sir William] hoped that the Report, which was a blot on the Proceedings of the S.P.R., would some day be withdrawn." (5)

Alas! this has not occurred, and the dictum of the SPR is still given primacy by academia and continues to mislead the general public. On the positive side HPB has always had and continues today to have staunch defenders, not alone among theosophists, but among admirers who independently recognize the validity of her message. All are stunned by the unconscionable treatment she has been accorded by generations of detractors. Regrettably, many find it simpler to accept a prevailing view rather than check the facts for themselves.

Notable among present-day defenders is Dr. Vernon Harrison of England. "Impelled by a strong feeling of the need for JUSTICE," this handwriting expert and professional examiner of questioned documents has made an exhaustive study of the handwritings of the Mahatma letters received in the early 1880s by Alfred P. Sinnett and Allan O. Hume. (6) The content of the letters is not the present concern of Dr. Harrison, nor are their authors — known to students of H. P. Blavatsky's writings as the Mahatmas Morya (M) and Koot Hoomi (KH). His focus of interest is to determine whether or not HPB, in disguised handwriting, wrote the Mahatma letters herself, as Richard Hodgson categorically declared.

In 1986 Dr. Harrison wrote "a forceful critique" of Richard Hodgson's Report, "J'Accuse: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885," published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. (7) Herein step by logical step he demolishes the grounds on which Hodgson based his charges and argued his case against the integrity of HPB. This year Dr. Harrison authored "J'Accuse d'autant plus [I accuse all the more]: A Further Study of the Hodgson Report," which, along with his 1986 Report, is now available in one volume, with 13 full color plates, under the title: H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885. (8)

Dr. Harrison, who joined the SPR as a young man and remains an active member, finds it incredible that the SPR Committee were blind to the extraordinary opportunity before them to observe and learn firsthand from HPB herself, a superbly gifted mediator — but no medium — and more, that without stringent scrutiny they should have accepted the unverified report of a young man who, though well educated by ordinary standards, was incompetent to handle an investigation of this scope and magnitude.

In his research Dr. Harrison examined microscopically each of the 1,323 slides comprising a complete set of the letters in the British Library, and wherever appropriate "read the writing in a line-by-line scan at a magnification of x50 diameters." (9) From his extensive and detailed study, he has come to view the Hodgson Report as "a highly partisan document forfeiting all claim to scientific impartiality. It is the address of a Counsel for the Prosecution who does not hesitate to select evidence to suit his case, ignoring and suppressing everything that tends to contradict his thesis" (p. 4). In his Affidavit, he affirms: "(4) Having read the Mahatma Letters, I am left with the strong impression that the writers 'KH' and 'M' were real and distinct human beings, not demi-gods or 'shells'. . . ." and under (8) he further declares:

I have found no evidence that the Mahatma Letters preserved in the British Library were written by Helena Blavatsky consciously and deliberately in a disguised form of her own handwriting cultivated over a period of several years, as claimed by Richard Hodgson. That is to say, I find no evidence of common origin between the 'KH', 'M' and 'HPB' scripts. In any ordinary legal case I would regard them as different scripts and attribute them to three different persons."

According to Dr. Harrison, there still remain "unanswered questions" with regard to HPB and the phenomena attributed to her, especially during the early years of her stay in India, first in Bombay and later in Adyar, Madras. About these, he is unable to express an opinion, as "All witnesses and items of first-hand evidence are gone and I have no way of checking whether any of the reported 'phenomena' were genuine; but, having studied Richard Hodgson's methods, I have come to distrust his account and explanation of the said 'phenomena'" (10). Hence, he concentrated on what is available: the handwritings of the Mahatma and Blavatsky letters in the British Library. He concludes his Affidavit with the following:

BE IT KNOWN THEREFORE that it is my professional OPINION derived from a study of this case extending over a period of more than fifteen years, that future historians and biographers of the said Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the compilers of reference books, encyclopaedias and dictionaries, as well as the general public, should come to realise that The Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with The Theosophical Society, published in 1885 by the Society for Psychical Research, should be read with great caution, if not disregarded. Far from being a model of impartial investigation so often claimed for it over more than a century, it is badly flawed and untrustworthy.

The prophetic statement that "Time is the advocate of truth," is again proving its validity. Today, those whose thought-life and destiny have been changed for the better by absorption of theosophic values are passionately grateful to HPB for having had the raw courage, loyalty to truth, and fearless will to become the transmitter of a philosophy of life that is at once universal and yet intimately personal to meet the inner need of every human being.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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    The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favorable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it. — John Stuart Mill


    1. A cabinet in an upstairs room used earlier by HPB and others for the transmission and receipt of Mahatmic letters and messages; but the evidence of unfinished carpenter work indicated that the cabinet had not been used by HPB for some time. (return to text)

    2. The so-called Blavatsky-Coulomb letters have never been found, despite vigorous efforts by several researchers to retrieve them from oblivion. Only an endorsed cheque for their purchase by Dr. Elliott Coues from the Rev. Mr. Patterson has been found among the Coues archives at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, WI (Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case, 1884-1984," The Theosophist, Feb 1985, p. 185). (return to text)

    3. See K. F. Vania's Madame H. P. Blavatsky: Her Occult Phenomena and The Society for Psychical Research, pp. 238-41. (return to text)

    4. "Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with The Theosophical Society," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Part IX, December 1885, p. 207. (return to text)

    5. Quoted in "On the Watch-Tower," The Theosophist, October 1925, p. 5. (return to text)

    6. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, 1923, transcribed and compiled by A. Trevor Barker; Second Edition, 1926, photographic facsimile, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, CA; Third and Revised edition, 1962, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Madras, India; In Chronological Sequence, 1993, Theosophical Publishing House, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines. (return to text)

    7. April 1986 (53:803), pp. 286-310. See editorial, "In the Interests of Truth . . ." Sunrise, August-September 1986, pp. 193-8. (return to text)

    8. Published by Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1997, 108 pages, cloth, ISBN 1-55700-117-0, $15.00. (return to text)

    9. H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR, Affidavit, p. 1. (return to text)