Henry J. Newton

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Henry J. Newton

Henry J. Newton (1823-1895) was an American manufacturer and one of the Founders of the Theosophical Society.

Personal life and education

Henry Jotham Newton was born on February 9, 1823 at Harleton, Pennsylvania as the younger son of Dr. Jotham and Harriet (Wood) Newton. Dr. Newton, a physician, died when his son was an infant, and his wife returned to her father's home in Somers,Connecticut. Henry attended a local school, and then the Literary Institute of Suffield.

In 1850 he married Mary Abby Gates of Wetherfield, Connecticut. An accomplished musician, she was a good match for the piano maker, sharing her husband's interests. They had two sons and two daughters, and lived in New York City.

On December 23, 1895 Newton was killed in an accident.

Newton was run over and killed by a street car during an evening rush hour as he was crossing Broadway between 22nd and 23rd Streets, then "the most dangerous spot in New York."[1][2]


After completing his schooling, "he was then apprenticed for four years to Whittlesey Brothers, piano makers of Salem, Con. His progress was so rapid that in three years he became a member of the firm."[3] Newton went to New York five years later and continued in the piano trade, in association with Ferdinand Lighte, and then the Bradbury Brothers. In 1858 he retired, and "invested so judiciously in New York real estate that he died a millionaire."[4]

Interest in Photography

Wealthy and retired at the age of 35, Newton pursued his interest in photography. He became "a great authority on practical photographic science."[5]

He worked under the guidance of Chas. A. Seely, publisher of the American Journal of Photography; he outfitted a laboratory in his own home and engaged in innumerable experiments. He became known as "the father of the dry-plate process," and was pioneer in the preparation of ready-sensitized paper and the production of the paraffin paper process. For a long time he was Treasurer of the American Photographical Society, and after 1867, Chairman of the Photographic Section of th American institute of the City of New York.[6]

Interest in Spiritualism

Henry Newton was a Spiritualist, According to Boris de Zirkoff:

A scientific interest in spirit photography led Newton to the study of Spiritualism; he exposed a number of fraudulent mediums, including the famous Etta Roberts, by apparatus and tests which he originated. His faith in the truths of Spiritualism remained unshaken, however, and for the last twenty years of his life he was President of the First Society of Spiritualists in New York.[7]

In another account, the interest in spiritualism preceded the photography:

Before becoming interested in photography, he had taken up spiritualism. By the time he was disseminating his innovations in dry-plate photography, he had become the President of the First Society of Spiritualists in New York City.

He became fascinated by Mumler’s and others’ seeming abilities at spirit photography...

Newton investigated and found some fraudulent practices in the “art,” but also became convinced that some spirit photography was genuine and he worked to achieve some success in it himself...

Eventually he did achieve success in photographing spirits through the assistance of the extraordinary medium, “Dr.” Henry Slade, who was creating a sensation in New York City at the time, by conducting séances where he would levitate objects and people. In 1861, Slade had invented “independent slate writing,” a mediumistic test in which a blank slate would be placed out of reach of the sitters and the medium at a spirit circle—often it would be locked inside a kind of case, as if it were a light-sensitive photographic plate—and after the lights were turned up again, the slate would have writing “developed” on it, ostensibly from the spirits.

At the time, as part of the spiritualist “Protective Committee” of New York (see Spiritualist Listings for 1875), Newton was engaged with Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in testing various mediums in New York and New England, including Henry Slade, and also including, in June, a Boston medium named Mary Baker Thayer, who was known as “The Flower Medium” because she was able to materialize objects — often fresh flowers — onto the séance table in the dark.[8]

Theosophical Society involvement

Mr. Newton was present for the founding of the Theosophical Society. He was appointed along with H. M. Stevens and Charles Sotheran to a committee instructed to draft a constitution and bylaws for the organization.

In 1876 he was an executor, with Henry Steel Olcott, of the will of Baron de Palm in arranging for his cremation.

Theosophical historian Josephine Ransom wrote:

A man of dauntless moral courage, tenacious of opinions. Elected Treasurer of The Theosophical Society, but withdrew when he found neither H.P.B. nor Felt were going to show him either Adepts or elementals. He retained the Record List of The Society, which he later refused to give up, regarding it as a valuable relic, and was rather inclined to the opinion he had himself formed The Theosophical Society. Passed away 1895.[9]

Additional resources


  1. Boris de Zirkoff, "Newton, Henry Jotham" H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings Volume I (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Press, 1966), 502.
  2. Henry J Newton in the New York, New York, Extracted Death Index, 1862-1948.
  3. Boris de Zirkoff, 502.
  4. Boris de Zirkoff, 502.
  5. Josephine Ransom, A Short History of the Theosophical Society (Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 113.
  6. Boris de Zirkoff, 502.
  7. Boris de Zirkoff, 502.
  8. "The Photography Studio as the Séance Room" at IAPSOP.com. Author unidentified.
  9. Josephine Ransom, A Short History of the Theosophical Society (Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 113. She was quoting Henry Steel Olcott's comments in The Theosophist XIV, November 1892, p. 72.