H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR

An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885

Vernon Harrison, Ph.D.

Member of The Society for Psychical Research, London, England

Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press (print version also available). Electronic version ISBN 1-55700-119-7. All rights reserved. This edition may be downloaded for off-line viewing without charge. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted for commercial or other use in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Theosophical University Press. For ease of searching, no diacritical marks appear in the electronic version of the text.


About This Book

BLAVATSKY, HELENA PETROVNA, born Helena Petrovna Hahn, 1831-1891, Russian theosophist. She . . . founded the Theosophical Society in New York [in 1875]. Her demonstrations of supernormal phenomena were declared fraudulent by the London Society for Psychical Research (1885). — Reader's Digest Universal Dictionary, reprinted with amendments, 1994

This statement, typical of many, is factually correct — as far as it goes. The damage done lies not in what is said, but in what is left unsaid. As Patience Worth aptly has it:

Half-Truth is Lie's brother.

The "Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society" appeared in 1885 in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 3 (December 1885), pp. 201-400. It is commonly called the Hodgson Report since the bulk of it was written by R. Hodgson; but his opinions were endorsed by E. Gurney, F. W. H. Myers, F. Podmore, H. Sidgwick, Mrs. Sidgwick and J. H. Stack. It branded Madame H. P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, as "one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history." This view is still widely accepted, although it is probable that few have ever read the Hodgson Report critically and in detail, and fewer still have attempted to check his findings. Among many other accusations, the Hodgson Report claims that Madame Blavatsky herself wrote in a disguised hand certain letters commonly called the Mahatma Letters, and that she was engaged in forgery and deception on an impressive scale.

Although much of the evidence relating to this case has been lost and all the witnesses are long since dead, many of the Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett are preserved in the British Library where they are available for inspection. These letters make Primary Evidence. A study of these originals, supplemented by a detailed examination of an authentic set of 1,323 color slides prepared from them and supplied by the British Library, has shown that there are serious flaws in Hodgson's methods, observation, reasoning, and conclusions.

This book is divided into two parts. Part 1 reprints my earlier paper entitled "J'Accuse," published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 53, No. 803 (April 1986), pp. 286-310, plus a few footnotes for clarity's sake. This is, in the main, a study of the Hodgson Report itself, supplemented by as detailed a study of the Mahatma Letters as time and opportunity to visit the British Library permitted. It is reproduced here because the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research does not circulate widely outside the SPR and some libraries.

Part 2 describes work done after 1986 and records the findings of a line-by-line microscopical examination of each and every one of the 1,323 color slides in the British Library set. Several pages of these documents are reproduced in this book. Hodgson gave no illustration whatever of the alleged incriminating Blavatsky-Coulomb letters, of which he made much; and the only illustrations of the Mahatma Letters given in his Report are fragments, mostly isolated characters torn from their context and from documents which, for the most part, can neither be identified nor accurately dated.

In "J'Accuse" I wrote: "whereas Hodgson was prepared to use any evidence, however trivial or questionable, to implicate HPB, he ignored all evidence that could be used in her favor. His report is riddled with slanted statements, conjectures advanced as fact or probable fact, uncorroborated testimony of unnamed witnesses, selection of evidence and downright falsity." If this seem hyperbole, I reply that now that I have had the opportunity of re-reading the Hodgson Report in the light of the hard evidence that still remains to us (i.e., the Mahatma Letters preserved in the British Library), the Hodgson Report is even worse than I had thought. The Hodgson Report is not, as has been widely believed for more than a century, a model of what impartial and painstaking research should be: it is the work of a man who has reached his conclusions early on in his investigation and thereafter, selecting and distorting evidence, did not hesitate to adopt flawed arguments to support his thesis.

My conclusions from this examination are:

FIRST: The Hodgson Report is not a scientific study. It is more like the address of a counsel for the prosecution who is interested only in evidence, however dubious, which can be made to support his views. Hodgson shows that he was either ignorant or contemptuous of the basic principles of English justice — and the rest of the Committee seemed little better. As said, he quotes verbal and uncorroborated statements of unnamed witnesses; he cites documents which are neither reproduced in his report nor identifiable; he advances conjecture as established fact; and he makes his handwriting experts change their minds until they give him the answers he wants. The possibility that someone other than HPB could have written the Mahatma Letters was never considered. This list of misdemeanors alone would render the Hodgson Report inadmissible in a court of law.

SECOND: In cases where it has been possible to check Hodgson's statements against the direct testimony of the Letters preserved in the British Library, his statements are found to be either false or of no significance in the context. He makes three cardinal statements on which hangs his whole contention that Madame Blavatsky wrote the Mahatma Letters herself with intent to deceive. These I summarize as follows:

(i) That there are clear signs of development in the KH handwriting, various strong resemblances to Madame Blavatsky's ordinary handwriting having been gradually eliminated;
(ii) That special forms of letters proper to Madame Blavatsky's ordinary writing, and not proper to the KH writing, occasionally appear in the latter;
(iii) That there are certain very marked peculiarities of Madame Blavatsky's ordinary writing which appear throughout the KH writing.

The first two are demonstrably false; the third could apply to many other writers and does not pinpoint HPB as the writer to the exclusion of all other possible writers. These downright falsities coupled with the procedural errors, make it impossible for me to accept as a fair, impartial statement of fact those parts of the Hodgson Report that I can verify from primary evidence. This being so, I may perhaps be pardoned for regarding with suspicion the remainder of the Hodgson Report for which supporting firsthand evidence is no longer extant.

THIRD: The KH and M scripts raise unanswered questions about whether they were written by pen and ink (or blue pencil) on paper in the ordinary way. These questions relate to

(i) The extraordinary striations, made with engineering precision, in some of the Letters apparently written in blue pencil;
(ii) The small amount of ink penetration even with the thinnest papers;
(iii) Erasures that seem to have been made with ink eradicator, but which have left neither stain nor roughening of the paper;
(iv) The distortions in some pages of writing which otherwise bear all the marks of genuine KH writing. Of these, the most conspicuous are the exaggerated t-bars which are seen in some of the later KH Letters.

All of these points suggest that the Letters we have are copies, made by some unknown process, rather than original documents, but only laboratory investigation can provide an answer. I have long sought to have some nondestructive laboratory tests made, but without success; and I fear that it is unlikely that permission to do such work will be forthcoming.

LAST: I find no evidence of common origin of the KH and M scripts and HPB's ordinary, consciously-made handwriting. That is to say, I find no evidence that the Mahatma Letters were written by Madame Blavatsky in a disguised form of her ordinary writing made for fraudulent purposes. What may have come through her hand in trance, dislocation, or other forms of altered consciousness is another matter; but writing so made cannot be classed as either fraud or imposture.

If there is insufficient evidence in the legal sense, a case must be dropped; for in English law a person is innocent until he is proved guilty and a "not proven" verdict is not allowed. Remember that the charge against HPB made by Hodgson was that she was an accomplished but nevertheless common fraudster and impostor.

I have done this work impelled by a strong feeling of the need for JUSTICE. This is a concept that seems beyond the grasp of some para-psychologists and psychical researchers. Mediumistic people are not just objects that can be used for "experiments." The lasting damage that can be done to their lives by a hasty or erroneous judgment must always be considered.

In the course of my practical work I am often called upon to advise in the defense of dubious characters, some of whom may have served prison sentences. The fact that they have a "record" does not mean they can, ipso facto, be convicted of each and every charge that may subsequently be brought against them. They cannot be condemned "on suspicion." Each verdict must be based upon the available evidence pertaining to that case and not on previous history.

H. P. Blavatsky was not a known criminal and had not served a prison sentence. Yet Hodgson was allowed to act as both Expert Witness and Public Prosecutor. There was no Counsel for the Defense, no cross-examination of Hodgson's favored witnesses or recall of witnesses whom he had rejected, no Judge and no Jury. The meanest criminal in the courts can expect fairer treatment than was ever accorded Madame Blavatsky at the hands of the SPR; and the Hodgson Report has been allowed to become one of the most sacred of all the SPR's sacred cows, as I have discovered.

I joined the SPR in 1937 and have been in continuous membership ever since. This must make me one of the Society's most senior members. In recent years I have contributed on a regular basis to the Society's Journal and one volume of Proceedings. I joined the SPR as a young man hoping that it could answer for me those age-old problems: the Whence, the Whither, the Why. I have come to share the experience of Omar Khayyam, as related in Fitzgerald's famous lines:

And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd —
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.
With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd —
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."

And yet, with all the aridity of so many of the SPR's publications, the Society has provided me with four fine tutors who have influenced my development greatly. They never knew me, but I remember them with affection and gratitude: C. D. Broad, H. H. Price, R. H. Thouless, and G. N. M. Tyrrell.

I am not a member of the Theosophical Society, though I can subscribe to the three principles on which it was founded. (1) I have read much of Theosophical literature, in its several brands, but I do not know how much of it may be true. However, I have found some Theosophical teaching useful in explaining facts that I cannot otherwise account for. Ideas which I have borrowed include: the sevenfold nature of man; the difference between individuality and personality; the persistence and reactivation of kama-manasic shells; and karma and rebirth. H. P. Blavatsky for me is a writer and source of ideas; and she takes her place with George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne; Swedenborg; Swedenborg's irreverent disciple, William Blake; and Carl Jung.

H. P. Blavatsky wrote: "he who hears an innocent person slandered, whether a brother theosophist or not, and does not undertake his defense as he would undertake his own — is no Theosophist" (Lucifer, November 1887). Maybe, on this criterion, I am a theosophist.

The results of the present investigation, which has been extended over a fifteen-year period, are now presented in the hope that future biographers of Madame H. P. Blavatsky, the compilers of reference books, encyclopedias and dictionaries, as well as the general public, will come to realize that the Hodgson Report is not the model of impartial investigation so often claimed for it over the past century. It is flawed and untrustworthy; and Hodgson's observations and conclusions need to be taken with a considerable portion of salt.

The case of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky needs re-examination in this light. She deserves no less.

21 March 1997

About the Author

Vernon George Wentworth Harrison was born in Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire, England, in March 1912. His father was a schoolteacher specializing in French. Vernon was educated at Bishop Vesey's Grammar School, Sutton Coldfield, and at the University of Birmingham where he read physics, chemistry, and mathematics. After graduation he undertook three years of postgraduate study and research in the Department of Physics. In this study the use of photography and photomicrography as recording media played a prominent role.

After obtaining his Ph.D. he found employment as a research physicist in the Printing & Allied Trades Research Association (PATRA) with laboratories then located in London. His work at PATRA had hardly started when war broke out and he was put on to war work for the Ministry of Supply. PATRA lost all its records and scientific equipment in the last big fire raid on London, and it was not until 1947 that the staff was able to move into new laboratories at Leatherhead, about twenty miles south of London. Here he was able at last to start work on the optical properties of paper, color printing, and the quality of halftone reproduction. In 1957 he was appointed Director of Research of PATRA and was responsible for the administration of a staff which by then had grown to around 120.

In 1967 he moved to Thos. De La Rue & Co. in the capacity of Research Manager of their research center then located at Maidenhead. De La Rue prints banknotes (bills), postage stamps, stock certificates, passports, and other types of security documents; and an important part of the work of the research center was to study the methods of counterfeiters and forgers and to devise methods of improving the security of the Company's products.

This work aroused an interest in forged printed and written matter generally, so that on retirement in 1977 he was able to set up in private practice as an examiner of questioned documents. Being independent, he can work for either prosecution or defense. He is used to giving evidence in Court and submitting to cross-examination. His work of recent years has covered a wide range of subjects from disputed Elizabethan documents to graffiti on walls, dubious wills, forged mortgage agreements and financial documents in profusion, anonymous and poison-pen letters, threatening notes, a spy case, examination of counterfeit currency and illicit printing plates, identification of banknote paper recovered from drains, and the evidential value of photographs. He considers this period to be the most interesting and, maybe, the most useful of his life.

He has had a lifelong interest in photography and from 1974 to 1976 he was President of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. He has also had a lifelong interest in the music of Franz Liszt, and is the surviving co-founder and a past Chairman of the (English) Liszt Society.

The author describes himself as "reading the equations of Schrodinger and Dirac through the eyes of Francis Thompson."


Last, but not least, I am ever grateful to Elsie, my wife and constant companion of nearly fifty years, without whose support and understanding it is unlikely that these monographs would ever have been written.


(1) To form a nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color;

(2) To study ancient and modern religions, philosophies, and sciences, and to demonstrate the importance of such study; and

(3) To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man. (return to text)

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