“For our part, we regard her as neither 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 imposters in history.”
With these words, published in 1885, the Cambridge-based Society for Psychical Research brought an end to a scandal that that had been brewing for years.
The imposter in question was Madame Helena Blavatsky. Born in Russia in 1831, she had, by her own account, left home at the age of 18 to wander the world. Her self-reported adventures include fighting alongside Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi; pursuing Native American magicians in Quebec; and, most pertinent to her later life, studying with mystics in remotest Tibet.
When she reappeared onto the historical record around 1870, Blavatsky quickly insinuated herself into the 19th century’s booming séance circuit. Since the late 1840s, people on both sides of the Atlantic had been flocking to mediums who claimed they could channel the spirits of the dearly departed. Then, as now, ghosts thrilled the public—even when the thrills involved were a little dubious. (The two teenaged girls who started the spiritualist craze were later accused of having produced the sound of ghosts rapping on walls by popping their toe knuckles.)
But the usual ghosts weren’t good enough for Blavatsky. In 1875, in a Manhattan drawing room, she launched a group with the grand title of the Theosophical Society. Setting ghosts aside, it would search out a higher class of supernatural beings: the “Mahatmas,” whom Blavatsky had allegedly met in Tibet.
These men, she said, could ship their souls anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice through “astral projection.” They could also ship other things—notably letters. Theosophists marveled at the projectile missives that flew through the windows of moving trains or were delivered by enigmatic turbaned men sneaking into tents at midnight. In the 1870s, instantaneous delivery of a message still felt downright miraculous.
There is, however, such a thing as too many miracles. At some point, the would-be wonderworker has to call on a friend to keep up with demand—and friends are unreliable. Enter Emma Coulomb, an old acquaintance of Blavatsky’s from Cairo. When Blavatsky moved her small band of Theosophists from New York to Bombay in 1879 (and then on to Chennai in 1880), Emma and her husband Pierre joined them as Blavatsky’s personal assistants.
Things went badly from the start. Coulomb was prickly, and didn’t much like her fellow Theosophists. The notoriously cantankerous Blavatsky, meanwhile, often turned her temper on friends and associates.
We don’t know what sparked Coulomb’s betrayal. But when, in September 1884, she handed a stash of secret letters to the Madras Christian College Magazine, it spelled nothing but trouble for Blavatsky and the Theosophists. The magazine published the letters, and scandal erupted. Apparently penned by Blavatsky, these communiqués tell Emma and Pierre when and how to fabricate miracles—causing letters to coalesce from nowhere, roses to shower from ceilings, and astral heads to waft on the evening breeze.
In retrospect, the mechanics of these miracles seem achingly obvious. Once, a bumbling Theosophist opened the door to the wonder-cabinet in Blavatsky’s “Occult Room,” and a tea saucer came tumbling out to splinter on the ground. After it was placed back in the cabinet for five minutes, the saucer was miraculously restored. Later investigators pointed out that the cabinet shared a wall with Blavatsky’s bedroom; they also uncovered evidence of a secret panel (now destroyed) connecting the two. It was then further revealed that Blavatsky had recently purchased a tea set: how easy to replace the shattered saucer with its matching twin.
This event might seem too mundane to even warrant the word “miracle.” But, in the 1880s, investigating such things was serious business. With the new science exploding old conceptions of how the world worked, major minds wanted to make sure that the likes of Blavatsky weren’t onto something. Perhaps spirits really were real. Or perhaps, in their misguided way, they pointed to unexplained “psychical” realities as yet unknown.
Further investigations, as we have seen, led the Cambridge Society of Psychical Research to conclude otherwise. Blavatsky was a fraud, pure and simple. Her reputation never quite recovered from this pronouncement. Even so, her allure lived on, attracting followers well into the next century.
But if it’s not miracle that Blavatsky was delivering, what is it? Freethinkers had long claimed that religion per se was mostly fraudulent, a ruse cooked up by crafty priests to dupe and control the gullible masses. By the 1880s, this idea was commonplace, at least in Blavatsky’s circles. For such people, perhaps, excessively earnest religion no longer cut it. What Blavatsky delivered was faith laced with doubt—and irresistibly so. Her miracles were so hokey that you couldn’t quite believe them, but you couldn’t quite look away either.