HENRY STEEL OLCOTT: THE ‘LION-HEARTED’. Mesmerist, Journalist, and Theosophist

Henry Steel Olcott. courtesy of Theosophical Society archives

Early in the morning of 17 November 1907, the President-Founder of The Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott, discarded his earthly robes and passed to the greater light while at the Society’s international headquarters beside the Adyar River.

This short appreciation cannot but touch on the highlights of this giant of a servant to the cause of ‘universal brotherhood’, in an era when the very words were considered positively revolutionary.

THE EARLY YEARS: Agriculture, War and Spiritualism

Tellingly, like his compatriot Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Olcott was a Leo. He was born 2 August 1832, just one year after ‘HPB’, in Orange, New Jersey  –  dubbed by Americans “the Garden State”.

He came from an old English Puritan family who had settled for many generations in the United States  –  his grandmother was a descendant from one of the early members of the Dutch East India Company.

From an early age, it appeared that Olcott was set for a successful career in agriculture and/or journalism.  He gained international renown at just 23 for his work on the model farm of scientific agriculture at Newark and as a result was offered the Chair of Agriculture at the University of Athens, by the Greek government. But he declined.

Shortly thereafter he co-founded a farm school near Mount Vernon, in the state of New York  –  the first scientific school of agriculture in the U. S. A. He then interested himself in cultivation of sorghum, which had recently been introduced to the states and produced his first book  –  Sorgho and Imphee, the Chinese and African Sugar-Canes.

This treatise ran to seven editions and was placed by the State of Illinois in school libraries.  This book brought him the offer of the Directorship of the Agricultural Bureau at Washington D. C. and managership of two immense properties.

He again refused these offers and instead at 26, he set off for his first visit to Europe, still intent on the improvement of agriculture. His report of what he saw was published in Appleton’s American Cyclopaedia.

It was at this point that journalism gained the upper hand in Olcott’s life. Recognized as an expert, Olcott was appointed American correspondent of the well-known Mark Lane Express of London as well as the Agriculture Editor of the famous New York Tribune

A young Olcott – in his late 30s. courtesy of Theosophy Wiki

He also found time to publish two more books on agriculture. His public service in agricultural reform brought him recognition  – he was awarded two medals of honour and a silver goblet.

His glorious career  –  and life – nearly came to an end at just 27 years of age when reporting for the NY Tribune, the hanging of John Brown. Olcott was captured, accused of espionage and sentenced to be shot.

But his captors released him, when in his distress he appealed to them as a Freemason.  Olcott was a member of Hugenot Lodge No 448 which held its charter from the Grand Lodge of the State of New York. He was also a Royal Arch Freemason, being a member of Corinthian Chapter No 159, New York.

It is at this point that yet another chapter in Olcott’s long life of service manifests. His passion for liberty had driven him to enlist in the Northern Army during the American Civil War. He fought bravely during the whole of the North Carolina Campaign until – stricken with fever – he was invalided to New York.

As soon as he recovered, he prepared to return to the front but the US Government had other ideas.  Noting his ability and courage, they chose him to conduct an inquiry into suspected fraud at the New York Mustering and Disbursing Office.

Every means – including bribes and threats – were used to try and stop his investigation but the determined young officer persevered in a campaign more dangerous than facing Southern bullets in the field.

His physical courage had shone out in the North Carolina Campaign; his moral courage shone out yet more brightly as he fought for 4 years through a storm of opposition and calumny, until he sent the worst criminal to Sing Sing prison for 10 years and received numerous commendations from the the government and military.

Mr Olcott now became Colonel Olcott, and Special Commissioner of the War Department. After two years, he was ‘head-hunted’ by the Navy, made a Special Commissioner with the remit of eliminating abuses in the naval yards. With resolute and unsparing zeal he plunged into his work, purified the Department, reformed the system of accounts, and at the end received a glowing testimony.

At this point, Olcott’s writing career was given a boost. He was despatched by the New York Sun and New York Daily Graphic newspapers to report on extraordinary spiritualistic manifestations taking place at the Eddy Farm in Vermont.

So valuable were his articles that no less than seven different publishers contended for rights to reproduce in book form. The papers sold at the then incredibly princely sum of one American dollar.

It was here that Olcott was to meet his Blavatsky and discover his true mission in this incarnation. Olcott, had by this time, resigned from the War Department, had been admitted to the Bar, and was earning a tidy sum as Counsel in Customs and Revenue cases. But in 1874, he abandoned his practice and the following year, co-founded The Theosophical Society, of which he was appointed President for Life.

In a special edition of The Theosophist magazine, produced in 1932 to co-incide with the centenary of Olcott’s birth, Annie Besant – the then International President had the following to say of HSO

Annie Besant. courtesy of Theosophical Society Archives

“This was a man whom Madame Blavatsky was sent by her master to the United States to find, chosen by them to found with her the Theosophical Society, and then to spend the remainder of his life organising it all over the world. He brought to the task his unsullied record of public services rendered to his country, his keen capacity, his enormous powers of work, and an unselfishness which, his colleagues declared, she had never seen equalled outside the ashrama of the masters.”

It is noteworthy that no subsequent President served as long at the helm  –  some 32 years (1875 to 1907) – until Radha Burnier set a new record of 33 years, from 1980 to 2013. Also, until the current President, Tim Boyd, no other American had sat in the ‘top seat’, in Adyar, since Olcott.

OLCOTT AND HIS HEALING ‘MISSION’

While Olcott is well known in his post as the First President of the Theosophical Society and for his work in reviving Buddhism in south Asia, a lot fewer people are aware of his healing ‘mission’.

Michael Gomes. photo by Colyn Boyce

Historian Michael Gomes gives perhaps the most comprehensive view of the mesmerism of Olcott, which he covers in his Blavatsky Lecture of 2007, Colonel Olcott and the Healing Arts. Gomes gives the following account of how the healing started.

On August 29, 1882, Col. Olcott, President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, was in Galle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on a lecturing tour to raise funds for the opening of schools for Buddhist children. One of the people who came forward to contribute was a man whose arm and leg had been paralyzed for eight years.

Olcott, who had read the literature on animal magnetism, or mesmerism as it also termed, and magnetic healing in his youth, says he was moved to try some healing passes with his hands over the man’s arm, telling him that he hoped he might feel better.

Later that evening the gentleman returned to thank the Colonel, saying indeed his condition had improved. This encouraged Olcott to treat the arm again. There was a marked improvement when he returned the next morning, and, after two more days of treatment, he could move his arm and open and close his hand. Olcott also tried working on the man’s leg, which responded well enough to allow him to walk freely and even run.

To show his thanks, the now-healed man brought a friend who was also paralysed. When he was cured, others came in increasing numbers, to the point, the Colonel recalled, “within a week or so my house was besieged by sick persons from dawn until late at night, all clamouring for the laying on of my hands.” (1) Within the space of a year he would treat some 8,000 people, and only stopped when, on the verge of his own health breaking down, he was ordered by his teacher to stop.

Franz Anton Mesmer. courtesy of Wikipedia

When Olcott tried his hand at healing the paralytic brought to him in Ceylon, he drew on a tradition that traced its way back to the figure of Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer, born in Germany in 1734, had attended the University of Vienna, studying medicine. He postulated the existence of “a force which is the cause of universal gravitation and which is, very probably, the foundation of all corporeal properties; a force which actually strains, relaxes and agitates the cohesion, elasticity, irritability, magnetism, and electricity in the smallest fluid and solid particles of our machine, a force which might be called ANIMAL GRAVITY.” (2)

Mesmer’s ideas caught the public imagination in America in the 1830s, even though derided as “pseudo-science,” by mainstream science. Through the pen of American writer, Edgar Allen Poe, the subject of animal magnetism also gained wide credence.

Olcott had experienced magnetic healing, first hand, in the 1850s, encouraged by his relatives, the Steele brothers in Ohio. As he informed a correspondent, “From early manhood—say from the year 1852—I had felt an absorbing interest in the study of Practical Psychology as the master, if not the sole, Key to the mysteries of Man. I had devoted much time and my best thought to experimentation as well as reading the best authors on the subject. I had developed clairvoyance in my first Mesmeric subject and cured my second of an inflammatory rheumatism at a single sitting.” (3)

Treating his first patient in Ceylon lasted four days, but as his confidence grew he found that he could soon achieve the same result in half an hour. As news of his ‘gift’ spread, he says, “I would reach my stopping-place in my traveling-cart, and find patients waiting for me on the verandahs, the lawn, and in all sorts of conveyances.” (4) The crowds of the ill became so great he could not see the all personally and many had to be treated with water magnetised by him.

On his lecture tour of Bengal in spring 1883, he began treating patients in Calcutta — mobbed with invalids at every step of his journey. In addition to lecturing, organizing branches, having discussions, it’s estimated that Olcott treated over 2,800 afflicted people in 57 days. (5) 5,000 people were treated by him, directly or with magnetised water, during the following summer tour of South India.

Requests for help reached such a level that he was forced to put a notice in The Theosophist stating that he would not receive any patients unless they had written to him previously and received his permission to call.

“I cannot work miracles; and so can neither replace eyes, ear-drums, internal organs, nor limbs which have already been hopelessly destroyed by disease or accident, nor cure by a few passes or a bottle of vitalised water tumours, enlarged joints, clots in the brain, or other diseased growths which, if cured at all, can only be by gradual absorption of the healthy matter, molecule by molecule. (6)

Olcott explains that he only began healing to “relieve to some slight extent the sad load of human suffering, and to prove . . . that our Aryan progenitors were the masters of science as of philosophy. I never intended to set myself up as a physician, but only to teach physicians willing to learn the art of healing, so they might ennoble their profession.” (7) Olcott never took any payment for his healing.

The pressure of dealing with so many infirm took its toll on him. In October, he awoke to find his left forefinger devoid of any feeling. His healing cures now required more energy than previously and the number of failures increased. On instructions from his spiritual ‘teacher’ Olcott was ordered to suspend all healing. (8)

Olcott recounts some of the healing effected by him — “an old woman afflicted with a paralysed tongue was cured; the bent elbow, wrist, and fingers of a little boy were freed; a woman deformed by inflammatory rheumatism was made whole” (9) However he doesn’t detail the actual technique used in treating the cases of paralysis, deafness,  and blindness

When he encountered a young man in Bengal whose eyes could not close and whose tongue could not be used, he tells of “raising my right arm and hand vertically, and fixing my eyes upon the patient, I pronounced in Bengali the words: ‘Be healed!’ At the same time bringing my arm into the horizontal position and pointing my hand towards him. It was as though he had received an electric shock. A tremor ran through his body, his eyes closed and re-opened, his tongue so long paralysed, was thrust out and withdrawn, and with a wild cry of joy he rushed forward and flung himself at my feet.” (10)

Even though the Colonel gave up his magnetic healing in October 1883, he still remained interested in the field and would occasionally use his talents for special cases. He turned his attention to the developing area of magnetic sleep, or hypnotism, that was being explored by the medical faculty in France.

Madame Blavatsky had written extensively about Mesmer and his system of healing in her first book, Isis Unveiled. She traced the lineage of Mesmer’s discoveries back to the sixteenth-century doctor Paracelsus, who had written on the function of magnets and the correlation between sidereal influences and humanity.

H. P. Blavatsky, ‘New York Days’ reproduced in Collected Writings 1 (1874 – 78)

In 1885, in reply to criticism that the Theosophical Society offered no practical work, Blavatsky suggested, “why do not these persons and all our members who are able to do so, take up the serious study of mesmerism? Mesmerism has been called the Key to the Occult Sciences, and it has this advantage that it offers peculiar opportunities for doing good to mankind. If in each of our branches we were able to establish a homeopathic dispensary with the addition of mesmeric healing, such as has already been done with great success in Bombay, we might contribute towards putting the science of medicine in this country on a sounder basis, and be the means of incalculable benefit to the people at large.” (11)

In conclusion, Michael Gomes says it was Colonel Olcott’s hope that his work in the healing arts would in turn cause others to investigate the matter for themselves. “I am thoroughly convinced that Western science will be compelled in the near future to accept the ancient Eastern explanation of the natural order of things. We have had more than enough of talk about ‘mysterious providences’ and extra cosmic interferences; we have outgrown superstition because we have conquered some of our ignorance; and since we see daybreak glimmering beyond the encompassing hills of our ignorance, we will never be satisfied until we have climbed to where the light can shine upon us. It requires courage still to profess oneself an uncompromising seeker after truth, but the whole race is moving in its direction, and those who first arrive will be those who, by keeping alert through a long and complicated course of evolution, have gained the knowledge and the strength to outstrip their contemporaries.” (12)

Whilst with the benefit of hindsight, one discovers that Olcott’s healing ‘mission’ was to become only a small part of the gargantum task that befell him, in helping to bring knowledge of Theosophy, the Ageless Wisdom, to the wider world.

The Theosophical Society in England’s magazine – Insight, Spring 2007 – featured an editorial by then National President Colin Price, which included the following remarks on the challenge facing Olcott and his compatriot, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

Henry Olcott in the International HQ of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, with a photo of Blavatsky in the background. courtesy of Theosophy Wiki

The Theosophical Society was founded at a very critical period in human evolution to provide opposition to the ever-increasing materialistic forces that threatened to kill the spiritual aspirations of humanity.

Colonel Olcott was placed in Blavatsky’s words, “in the executive lead of one of the most difficult movements in the history of human thought.” The Theosophical Society was without precedent. Previously, esoteric teachings were given only to the few and in secrecy, in the Ancient Mysteries or in different secret societies but now the T. S. attempted to reveal a relatively large part of this knowledge openly.

In a letter H. P. B. wrote to him: “Were it not for your gigantic unselfishness, your unparalled devotion, your kindness and sincere zeal – I do not know who would be President of the TS.”

In his inaugural address in 1875 he sums up the new enterprise with these words “Behind our Theosophical Society there gathers a MIGHTY POWER that nothing can withstand –  the power of TRUTH”.

“Religious truth, he says, is not a thing for physical observation, but one for psychical intuition. One who has not developed this psychical power can never know religion as a fact; he can only accept it as a creed, or paint it to himself as an emotional sentimentality.”

References for Colonel Olcott and the Healing Arts, by Michael Gomes

[1] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Second Series (Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House [TPH], 1954), 375.

[2] Mesmer, Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum influxu, in Mesmerism: A translation of the original scientific and medical writings of F.A. Mesmer, by George J. Bloch (Los Altos, Calif.: William Kaufmann, 1980), 14.

[3] Olcott to Sarah D. Cape, 27 September 1894, Archives of the Theosophical Society in America, Wheaton, Ill.

[4] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Second Series (Adyar: TPH, 1954), 377.

[5] “Statistics of Col. Olcott’s Bengal Tour,” Supplement to The Theosophist, June 1883, p. 11.

[6]  Olcott, “Healing—A Warning from Col. Olcott,” Supplement to Theosophist, July 1883, p. 12.

[7]  Ibid, 12.

[8] Mavalankar, “The President-Founder’s Circular,” 20 October 1883, Supplement to The Theosophist, November 1883, p. 15.

[9] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Second Series (Adyar: TPH, 1954), 377.

[10] Ibid, 399.

[11] Blavatsky, “Spiritual Progress,” The Theosophist, May 1885, BCW, vol. 6 (Los Angeles: Blavatsky Writings Publication Fund, 1954), 335-36.

[12] Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Fourth Series (Adyar: TPH, 1975), 360-61.

The author is grateful for background information supplied by

a. The Theosophical Society, Adyar. https://www.ts-adyar.org

b. The Theosophical Society Year Book 1938

You can read more about Olcott and his work as President of the Theosophical Society and his tireless efforts to promote Buddhism in a recent article, The Path to Self-Realisation: Buddhism and the Theosophical Society. https://hermesrisen.wordpress.com/2021/05/25/the-path-to-self-realisation-buddhism-the-theosophical-society/

A Canadian by birth, Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, who worked in central British Columbia in the 1970s. Born in 1951, he joined the Theosophical Society in Vancouver in 1969. An inveterate traveller, he hitch-hiked across America in 1972 and travelled extensively through southern and central Europe after arriving in Britain in 1977. What was meant to be a six month holiday, turned in permanent residency in the UK. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society – arranging an ambitious programme of lectures, seminars and courses. For about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, ‘Insight‘, which he typeset and illustrated – showcasing many of his own photographs. In 2018 he undertook a lecture tour of theosophical branches in western Canada and in 2019 – over a 3 week stint – spoke in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York City and Buffalo.

Published by hermesrisen

writer, theologian and broadcaster, my work can be found at www.debbie-elliott.co.uk Colyn Boyce is co-editor for Hermes Risen and is a writer, photographer and all round good guy.

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