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Olcott, Henry Steel (1832-1907)

Olcott, Henry Steel (1832-1907)

Joint founder with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and William Q. Judge of the Theosophical Society. Olcott was born August 2, 1832, in Orange, New Jersey, where his father had a farm. At the age of twenty-six, Olcott was associate agricultural editor of the New York Tribune and traveled abroad to study European farming methods. Olcott served in the Civil War and afterward became a special commissioner with the rank of colonel. In 1868, he was admitted to the New York bar. In 1878, he was commissioned by the president to report on trade relations between the U.S. and India.

His first contact with psychic phenomena was in 1874. The New York Daily Graphic had assigned him to investigate the phenomena of the Eddy brothers in Vermont. He spent ten weeks at the Chittenden farm and came away convinced of the genuineness of the phenomena he witnessed. The fifteen articles in which he summarized his experiences began his career as a leader in the psychic community.

His next opportunity was the Holmes scandal, when the materialization mediums Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes were accused of fraud. Olcott sifted through all the records, collected new affidavits, and concluded that as the evidence of fraudulent mediumship was very conflicting, the mediums should be tested. After conducting tests, as with the Eddy brothers, he affirmed his belief in their powers.

Olcott related accounts of his investigations to the spiritual-ist community in his book, People from the Other World. Included was an account of his experiences with the medium Elizabeth Compton, who allegedly was able to accomplish an entire dematerialization. While some praised his work, as a whole, the book was heavily criticized. Among his harshest critics was D.D. Home, who denounced Olcott's account in his Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism as "the most worthless and dishonest" book.

As a result of his writing on the the Eddy brothers and the Holmeses, Olcott soon became known as a person aware of the spiritualist scene. When the professors of the Imperial University of St. Petersburg decided to make a scientific investigation of Spiritualism, they asked Olcott and his associate Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who had worked with the Eddys, to select the best American medium they could recommend. Their choice fell on Henry Slade, later to become known as one of the most notorious of frauds.

Enter Madame Blavatsky

The association between Olcott and Blavatsky began at their meeting at the Chittenden farm. Blavatsky had identified with the Spiritualists but she broke with the Spiritualist movement soon after the Theosophical Society was founded in December 1875. Olcott was elected president; he worked at founding and organizing the society worldwide. The society was firmly established in New York by the time of the Blavatsky exposure by the Society for Psychical Research.

Nobody witnessed more apparent Theosophic episodes through Blavatsky than Olcott. In those early days, she professed to have been controlled by the spirit "John King." She first specialized in precipitated writing, independent drawing, and supernormal duplication of letters and other things (among them a $1,000 banknote in the presence of Olcott and the Hon. J. L. Sullivan). Reportedly, the duplicate mysteriously dissolved in a drawer.

Olcott was convinced that Blavatsky could produce such illusions by hypnotic suggestion. Blavatsky once disappeared from his presence in a closed room and appeared again a short time afterward from nowhere. This admission called into question Olcott's observations and records and his testifying in "good faith" to the appearance of Mahatmas and to the souvenirs they left behind.

In 1878, Olcott and Blavatsky sailed for Bombay with a brief stop in London. A. P. Sinnett in his book The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe suggested that the manners of Blavatsky and Olcott caused offense in polite society and the beginning of the unfriendly attitude of the Society for Psychical Research was to be traced to a society meeting at which Olcott made a speech in his worst style.

The Blavatsky exposure in 1895 left Olcott's reputation damaged. According to Dr. Richard Hodgson, who compiled the Society for Psychical Research report, Olcott's statements were unreliable either owing to peculiar lapses of memory or to extreme deficiency in the faculty of observation. Hodgson could not place the slightest value upon Olcott's evidence. But he stated definitely also: "Some readers may be inclined to think that Col. Olcott must himself have taken an active and deliberate part in the fraud, and been a partner with Blavatsky in the conspiracy. Such, I must emphatically state, is not my own opinion." On the other hand Vsevolod Solovyoff in A Modern Priestess of Isis called Olcott a "liar and a knave in spite of his stupidity."

For his critics, a problematic instance of psychic phenomena is the story of the William Eglinton letter. From the boat Vega, the letter was claimed to be "astrally" conveyed first to Bombay, then with the superimposed script of Blavatsky carried to Calcutta, where it fell from the ceiling in Mrs. Gordon's home while Olcott pointed to the apparition of two brothers outside the window. According to Mrs. Gordon's testimony, Olcott told her that the night before he had an intimation from his chohan (teacher) that K. H. (a Mahatma) had been to the Vega and had seen Eglinton.

If the delivery of this letter was fraudulent (and it has been convincingly argued by experts that the K. H. letters were written by Blavatsky), the only excuse for Olcott is that he acted unconsciously from suggestions fed him by Blavatsky.

It is believed Olcott will be remembered in the future not so much for his leadership of the Theosophical Society as for his public espousal of Buddhism in 1880 in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). His action on behalf of Buddhism began with the writing and publication of his Buddhist Catechism, which introduced the religion to many people and remains in print. He also promoted and helped pay for the presence of Buddhists at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions which led to the founding of the first Buddhist organizations to formally receive Americans into the faith.

Olcott remained president of the society until his death on February 17, 1907, at Adyar, India. During the last years of his life he worked with Annie Besant, who succeeded Blavatsky as head of the Esoteric section and then succeeded Olcott as president.

Sources:

Gomes, Michael. The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.

Karunaratne, K. P. Olcott Commemoration Volume. Ceylon: Olcott Commemoration Society, 1967.

. Olcott's Contribution to the Buddhist Renaissance. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Publication Division, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1980.

Murphet, Howard. Hammer on the Mountain: Life of Henry Steel Olcott, 1832-1907. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972.

Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves. 6 vols. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1895-1910. Reprinted as Inside the Occult: The True Story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky. Philadelphia: Tunning Press, 1975.

. People From the Other World. Hartford, Conn., 1875. Reprint, Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1971.

Prothero, Stephen. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1996.

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Olcott, Henry Steel

Henry Steel Olcott, 1832–1907, American religious leader and author, cofounder of Theosophist movement, b. Orange, N.J. After working as an agricultural scientist and a lawyer, he and Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society (1875) in New York City. In 1878, they moved the society to Adyar near Madras (now Chennai), India. Theosophy, a mixture of Eastern religion and Western occultism, has been influential in popularizing Asian philosophy in the West.

See the autobiographical Old Autumn Leaves (6 vol., 1972–75). His writings include Buddhist Catechism (1881) and Theosophy, Religion, and Occult Science (1885).

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Theosophical Society

Theosophical Society. Organization founded in New York by Mrs H. P. Blavatsky and Colonel H. S. Olcott in 1875, to derive from ancient wisdom and from the insights of evolution a world ethical code. In 1882, it moved its headquarters to India, and became the Adyar Theosophical Society. Although intended to be eclectic, it drew increasingly on Hindu resources. An important advocate of the Society was Annie Besant.

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Olcott, Henry Steel

Olcott, Henry Steel (co-founder of Theosophical Society): see THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY.

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