Tingley, Katherine (1847–1929)

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Tingley, Katherine (1847–1929)

American theosophist leader. Name variations: Katherine Westcott; Katherine Westcott Tingley. Born Katherine Augusta Westcott on July 6, 1847, in Newbury, Massachusetts; died on July 11, 1929, in Visingsö, Sweden; daughter of James P.L. Westcott (a merchant and hotelkeeper) and Susan Ordway (Chase) Westcott; attended public schools and briefly attended convent school in Montreal, Canada; married Richard Henry Cook (a printer), in 1867 (marriage dissolved after two months); married George W. Parent (a railroad investigator), around 1880 (divorced around 1887); married Philo Buchanan Tingley (a mechanical engineer), on April 25, 1888.

Founded Society for Mercy (1887); founded "Do-Good Mission" in Manhattan (1890s); was named Outer Head of Esoteric Section, Theosophical Society in America (1896); toured with Theosophical Society world crusade (1896); founded Point Loma Theosophical community in California (1897); founded International Brotherhood League (1897); formed War Relief Corps (1898).

Katherine Tingley was born in Newbury, Massachusetts, on July 6, 1847, the only daughter among three children of Susan Chase Westcott and James P.L. Westcott, who later gave up his lumber business to work as a hotelkeeper in nearby Newburyport. Katherine was educated in public schools in Massachusetts and Alexandria, Virginia, where the family lived for a short time during the Civil War. She then briefly attended a convent school in Montreal, Canada, leaving it in 1867 to marry a printer named Richard Harry Cook. The marriage lasted less than two months. Her next years are poorly documented, but it is possible that for some period of time she traveled with a theatrical company. At some point she arrived in New York City, where around 1880 she married an investigator for the New York Elevated Railway, George W. Parent. Around this time she also became drawn to charitable and spiritualist endeavors, and in 1887 founded the Society of Mercy to promote hospital and prison visitation. Her marriage to Parent ended sometime before April 25, 1888, when she married Philo Buchanan Tingley. Although Philo, a mechanical engineer who worked for a steamship company, would not figure prominently in her later public life, their union proved more lasting than her earlier efforts.

Tingley established the "Do-Good Mission" on the East Side of Manhattan early in the 1890s, and to support this charity and the Society of Mercy began giving occasional psychometric readings. Psychometrics experts, who along with mediums and séances became increasingly popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, claimed that by touching something belonging to someone, or by being near a person, they could divine information about the subject. (On the other side of the Atlantic, poet W.B. Yeats engaged in similar spiritualist experiments.) In the winter of 1892–93, Tingley met William Quan Judge, who, with Madame Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, had founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. The society, whose aim was the promotion of international solidarity and whose motto was "there is no higher religion than truth," mixed the occult, Buddhism and Hinduism in teachings Blavatsky claimed she had received telepathically from a secret Egyptian brotherhood. After Blavatsky's death in 1891, Judge attempted to wrest control of the Theosophical Society from her appointed successor, Annie Besant . He lost this battle about a year after meeting Tingley. In 1895, he founded what he called the Theosophical Society in America, and she became one of his most ardent followers.

Leadership of the Theosophical Society in America consisted not only of a presidential office but also of an "inner headship of the Esoteric Section" (supposedly a brotherhood of Tibetan holy men, although they were never seen) and an "outer headship of the Esoteric Section," which for obvious reasons was a more publicly powerful position, and exceeded in authority even the presidency of the society. Judge died in 1896, and certain passages he supposedly wrote in a secret diary, as well as her own receipt of messages from him from beyond the grave, pointed to Tingley as being his choice for Outer Head of the Esoteric Section. Duly appointed, Tingley soon embarked on a world tour to publicize and proselytize for the Theosophical Society in America (and to steal some thunder, converts, and credibility from Besant and her larger Theosophical Society). Along with five other renowned theosophists, she traveled in the British Isles, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, visiting religious and occult sites including Kilarney Castle in Ireland and various temples in Greece. She claimed to have searched for and consulted with a mahatma while traveling in Tibet, an honor that strengthened her right to hold the outer headship of the Esoteric Section (which some in the society at home were debating). As well, these visits may have stimulated her own ideas for founding a theosophist community in the United States.

Upon her return to America, Tingley laid a cornerstone on February 24, 1897, at Point Loma, California, a dramatic site overlooking San Diego Bay. Later that year she founded the International Brotherhood League, which through a six-point program was intended to promote fellowship between the races and assist prisoners, the working class, and poor women thought to be "fallen." Among its first projects was a summer camp in New Jersey for children from tenements in New York City. In 1898, she wrote a new constitution for the Theosophical Society in America, one which merged it with the International Brotherhood League to create the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, of which, as "Leader and Official Head," she had complete control for life. Tingley directed the movement towards social causes as well; that year, she galvanized theosophist volunteers into a War Relief Corps to aid hospitalized Spanish-American War veterans at Point Montauk, Long Island. She was also active in antivivisection causes and opposed capital punishment, and later, when the First World War threatened, acted on her pacifist beliefs to try to prevent America from entering the war.

In 1900, Tingley officially established her headquarters at Point Loma. She concentrated on raising funds to support the Utopian community, which, with its exotic and eclectic architecture (generally wood painted white to resemble marble, leading to its frequent description as "the white city"), attracted both theosophist seekers and the curious from around the world. At the community's most popular time, some 600 people lived there. Interested in the arts as well as in social concerns, Tingley guided Point Loma's development as a cultural center. Among the many programs established were theater, music, and artist-in-residence programs; forestry and horticultural programs; and a print shop, which produced theosophical literature. (Tingley edited two theosophical publications, the weekly Century Path which became the Theosophical Path [1911–29], and Raja Yoga Messenger, a monthly periodical [1912–29].) Silk, school uniforms, and batik fabrics were created at the "Woman's Exchange and Mart." Perhaps best known, however, was the Raja Yoga school and college established at the community, a highly structured holistic educational venture that stressed a balance between spiritual, mental, and physical development. Three hundred children (including a number of impoverished Cuban children who were educated free of charge) lived at the school with about sixty teachers. Tingley attempted to establish similar schools in Germany, Sweden, Cuba, England, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, but none remained in existence long. She also set up the School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity at Point Loma, which was later transferred to the community and in 1919 was chartered by the State of California as the Theosophical University at Point Loma.

She grew so focused on the Point Loma community that her leadership of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society suffered as a result, and in the early 1920s a number of her followers left either to rejoin Besant's group or to join a newly created, third theosophist organization. Tingley has also been described as possessing such an "overwhelming" personality that many of her close subordinates were unable to work with her for any lengthy period of time, and financial problems plagued Point Loma. Nonetheless, those who lived in communities around it were always highly supportive of its programs and of Tingley. In 1925, the wife of one of her followers successfully sued Tingley for alienation of affection, and she began spending much of her time in Europe. Severely injured in an automobile accident in Germany in 1929, she died on July 11, 1929, at the theosophist community at Visingsö, Sweden. (Some of her ashes were buried at Point Loma.) The Point Loma colony dwindled steadily for 13 more years, at which time its few remaining adherents moved to another site.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.