Charles Sotheran (1847–1902) was present at the founding of the Theosophical Society in September, 1875, when he was elected Librarian of the new organization. He was an antiquarian, bookseller, and journalist.
Charles Sotheran was born on July 8, 1847 in Newington, London. On January 2, 1869 he married Mary Eva MacManus, whose family came from Belfast. In 1873 they immigrated to the United States. They had several children. Sotheran became a naturalized American citizen. After Mary Eva died, Sotheran married Allice Rhyne on October 17, 1893. She was also a writer and journalist; they lived in Manhattan. He died on June 26, 1902 in New York.
He was related to the famous London booksellers of the same name that has now been in business for over 250 years. He was with Sabin and Sons, Book-sellers, in New York, and was connected with their journal The American Bibliopolist.
Theosophical Society involvement
Charles Sotheran was present at the founding of the Theosophical Society, and was established as one of the first members on November 17, 1875. He was responsible for bringing John W. Lovell into the new organization. Mr. Sotheran was appointed along with Henry J. Newton and H. M. Stevens to a committee instructed to draft a constitution and bylaws.
Historian Josephine Ransom said of him:
His temperament kept him and his friends in a turmoil. Three months after The Society was formed there was trouble, as Sotheran not only made inflammatory speeches at a political street meeting, to which H. P. B. objected, but he wrote bitterly in the newspapers against her and The Society. His resignation was accepted, and for the sake of protection, The Society was made into a secret body, with signs and passwords. Six months later Sotheran apologised and was taken back into membership. He gave useful help to H. P. B. in finding quotations and borrowing books for her during the writing of Isis Unveiled. Sotheran later published a small short-lived journal called The Echo. He became a considerable nuisance to H. P. B. and H. S. O., and after their departure to India was not again mentioned.
Sotheran wrote a letter to the editor of Banner of Light in January 1876 about his resignation:
As I have been much annoyed by inquiries and statements concerning my connection with the Theosophical Society, I wish it to be distinctly understood that I have no longer anything whatever to do with that organization. The Society accepted my resignation of fellowship at its last meeting, January 5th.
It has been asserted that I have left the Theosophical Society through "lack of moral courage." Those who know me well cannot but be aware that such a statement is utterly false, and that my real reasons for taking the step are because I am confident the pretensions of the Society are fallacious; further, that the position taken by the President in his inaugural address, and the expressions of other members, are of such a character as to only render the body ridiculous in the estimation of all thinking persons.
I would not thus trouble your readers with matters of a personal nature, but I consider it a duty to myself and friends to do so, because in consequence of having recently recommended acquaintances and others not to join the Society, the Corresponding Secretary, madame Blavatsky, has in a letter dated the 8th inst, and written on official paper—whether by order of the Society or not, it is immaterial—threatened me as "one who should be and will be proceeded against in such a way as to prevent his attempting of doing further harm."
Madame Blavatsky may have occult powers of an extraordinary character; but after intimate knowledge of her for a considerable period, I can affirm that in my humble opinion she possesses NONE WHATEVER, notwithstanding she may have psychologized herself and her champions into believing so, and therefor her threats fall on me with as little effect as
- "The wind which passeth idly by."
I would advise her, instead of abusing those who, like myself, are struggling for the Highest Truth, and detest imposture of any kind, to content herself with combating those with whom she has a real cause of grievance...[Sotheran here quotes HPB's January 6th letter to The Spiritual Scientist in which she details how she has been slandered.]
I regret that any individual with the experience gained from travel, and the literary capabilities which every one who knows Madame Blavatsky must acknowledge she has acquired, has so heavy a cross to bear. I trust she will successfully disprove these calumnies, and having done so, will learn to be less impulsive, and give credit for at least honesty of purpose to those who may disagree with herself o the Theosophical Society.
Membership in other groups
Sotheran was initiated as a Freemason on April 8, 1872, in the United Grand Lodge of England.According to an advertisement for his book on Cagliostro, Sotheran was also active in the English Brotherhood of the Rosie Cross, in Egyptian Rite masonry, and other organizations. See the illustration at the right.
He was corresponding secretary of the New York Liberal Club.
After leaving the Theosophical Society, Sotheran helped to organize the Socialist Labor Party and ran for Congress in 1894, in New York, on a populist ticket. He was expelled from the SLP and joined the Socialist Party.
Sotheran wrote for New York papers including The Sun and The World. He also wrote books:
- Alessandro di Cagliostro: Impostor or Martyr? A paper read before the New York Liberal Club, May 28, 1875. New York: D. M Bennett, 1875. Pamphlet.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley as a Philosopher and Reformer. New York: C. P. Somerby, 1876.
- Horace Greeley and Other Pioneers of American Socialism. New York: Humboldt Publishing, 1892.
- Letter to the editor, The Banner of Light, (January 15, 1876), 5. Sotheran explains his resignation from the Theosophical Society on January 5, 1976. Available at Blavatsky Archives website.
- Sotheran,Charles at Theosophy World
- Josephine Ransom, A Short History of The Theosophical Society (Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 82.
- England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915.
- Birth, Marriage and Death Notices, 1738-1925, The Belfast Newsletter January 8, 1969.
- New York, Extracted Marriage Index, 1866-1937.
- 1900 U. S. Census.
- Theosophical Society General Membership Register, 1875-1942 at http://tsmembers.org/. See book 1, entry 7 (website file: 1A/10).
- Josephine Ransom, A Short History of The Theosophical Society (Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 114.
- Charles Sotheran letter to the editor. Banner of Light 38 no. 16 (January 15, 1876), 5.
- United Grand Lodge of England Membership Registers, 1751-1921.
- Candace Falk, Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years Made for America, 1890-1901 (University of Illinois Press, 2008), 98.