Hodgson Report

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The Hodgson Report was a document that arose from an investigation by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) on H. P. Blavatsky, her performance of psychic phenomena, and the production of the Mahatma letters. In November, 1884, Richard Hodgson of the SPR went to India and visited the Adyar headquarters of the Theosophical Society. He was deceived by Emma Coulomb and her husband Alexis into believing that Madame Blavatsky had faked phenomena and forged letters. Hodgson wrote a 200-page report that he presented to the SPR. Even though the Society the Psychical Research never officially endorsed the report, the public invested Hodgson's writings with the full authority of the London Society. An international scandal ensued, and Hodgson's denunciation of Blavatsky was treated as authoritative in many books and enclopedias for decades, to the great detriment of her reputation and that of the Theosophical Society.

The case was re-examined a hundred years later by Dr. Vernon Harrison, an expert on forgery, which led to the SPR to publish a report taking exception of the methods used by Richard Hodgson.

Coulomb affair

Mme. Blavatsky met briefly Emma Cutting and her husband-to-be Monsieur Coulomb in Cairo, in 1871. When the Founders arrived to Bombay in 1878, the Coulombs were in Galle, Sri Lanka, where they had opened a boarding house. This venture, however, was about to collapse, and Mme. Coulomb wrote to HPB asking for a loan. The latter answered that, if she and her husband would come to India, she could help them finding jobs. They eventually ended up working for the Founders and when they moved to Madras in 1882, the Coulombs came with them and resided at the new Headquarters at Adyar.

In February 1884 the Founders left for Europe and the management at Adyar was put in the hands of a Board of Control. Difficulties soon arose between the Board and the Coulombs. Monsieur Coulomb, who was an expert carpenter, secretly tampered with the "The Shrine" where the Masters of Wisdom used to precipitate letters. This shrine was a small wooden wall cabinet hanging up on one of the walls of H. P. Blavatsky's writing room.

The Masters were obviously aware of was going on there, as shown in a letter precipitated to Col. Olcott in a railway compartment in motion, in England, on April 5, written by Master K.H.. It was published as Letter 18 in Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, First Series:

Do not be surprised at anything you may hear from Adyar. Nor discouraged. It is possible—tho’ we try to prevent it within the limits of karma—that you may have great domestic annoyances to pass thro’. You have harboured a traitor and an enemy under your roof for years, and the missionary party are more than ready to avail of any help she may be induced to give. A regular conspiracy is on foot. She [Emma Coulomb] is maddened by the appearance of Mr Lane Fox and the powers you have given to the Board of Control. We have been doing some phenomena at Adyar since H.P.B. left India to protect Upasika from the conspirators.[1]

Finally, on May 14, 1884, the General Council of the Theosophical Society dismissed Emma and Alexis Coulomb from their positions, based on numerous affidavits about their behavior. Alexis was charged with disobedience to the Board and with aiding and abetting his wife in her scurrilous activities. Ten charges were alleged against Emma, including attempts at extortion and blackmail; lying and backbiting; dissuading people from joining the Theosophical Society; denying the phenomena at Adyar; and making claims of anti-British activities by Theosophists.[2] The couple moved away from the Adyar compound on May 25.

Four months later, Rev. George Patterson, editor of the Madras Christian College Magazine, began to publish a series of letters turned over to him by the Coulombs. "The Collapse of Koot Hoomi" was a first installment of fifteen letters written in French or English "giving instructions from Blavatsky to the Coulombs for the execution of fraudulent phenomena."[3] The Coulombs made charges that the shrine had been used to deceive the recipients of the letters which appeared, alleging that they were really inserted through secret panels and holes in the wall.[4]

After Madame Blavatsky saw the magazine in September, she refuted the charges in interviews with The Times and The Pall Mall Gazette. She and Colonel Olcott departed England for India, traveling separately. She stopped in Egypt to collect evidence against the Coulombs, arriving in Madras on December 21 to a triumphant welcome by local members and citizens. Although H.P.B. was determined to take the case to court, Colonel Olcott and a committee of fourteen distinguished Indian members persuaded her that such a course of action would be unproductive. She became very ill from the stress of injustice.

Missionaries' involvement

The Christian missionaries of Madras played an important role in the plot created by the Coulombs, in an attempt to thwart the TS efforts to bring about the Hindu and Buddhist revival it had started to stimulate. Thus, they took up the Coulombs, financed them, and launched an attack on the Society in their most respected journal, Madras Christian College Magazine, offering so-called evidence that the Masters were Mme. Blavatsky's invention, their letters written by her, and put in "The Shrine" with the Coulombs' assistance.[5] The missionaries later published a pamphlet by Emma Coulomb entitled "Some Account of my Association with Madame Blavatsky from 1872 to 1884."

Richard Hodgson in India

The Society for Psychical Research, established in 1882, was interested in the situation after the publication of "fraudulent" letters. Its investigation began in England, with interviews of Henry Steel Olcott, H. P. Blavatsky, Mohini Mohun Chatterji, and A. P. Sinnett. The SPR Committee issued a "preliminary and provisional Report" in December 1884 that was circulated privately.[6] Then after the Coulomb letters had been published, a young Australian, Richard Hodgson, was selected to investigate in India. He arrived at the Theosophical Society's Adyar headquarters in December, 1884, and received the full cooperation of the Theosophists there.

He had been present at the December Convention and had stayed at Adyar as the guest of the Founders where, as he admits, he was "treated with perfect courtesy."[7] At first he seemed sympathetic, giving advice, taking evidence from the Theosophists; then he visited the Coulombs, the missionaries and all the Society's enemies in Bombay.[8]

Hodgson received a diagram of the Shrine Room drawn by William Quan Judge some months earlier, which was later presented as his own work in his report. In Bombay he came up with evidence that he felt proved Blavatsky's motive for fraud – that she was a Russian spy. He returned to England in April, 1885.

The report

Hodgson arranged for ten items from Blavatsky's purported correspondence to be evaluated by Mr. F. G. Netherclift, who declared that the handwriting was that of Madame Blavatsky. On June 26, 1885, at the SPR's General Meeting, he presented his theory that Madame Blavatsky had been acting as a Russian spy.

The SPR Committee accepted Hodgson's report at face value. The December, 1885 Proceedings contained Hodgson's "Account of Personal Investigations in India and Discussion of the Authorship of the 'Koot Hoomi' Letters" with this introduction:

For our own part, we regard her [H. P. Blavatsky] neither as 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 impostors in history.

-- Statement and Conclusions of the Committee[9]

Major charges made against Madame Blavatsky are these:[10]

1. Letters were written by H.P.B. to the Coulombs instructing them to produce fraudulent phenomena for the benefit of the witnesses.
2. Holes and trap-doors were used to drop fraudulent Mahatma letters.
3. The astral journeys of a chela, Damodar K. Mavalankar, was prearranged with H. P. Blavatsky.
4. A dummy head was used to simulate astral visits of the Mahatmas.
5. A cupboard, called The Shrine, was used fraudulently by means of "sliding-panels" and other "trick apparatuses."
6. The letters from the two Mahatmas were alleged to have been handwritten by H. P. Blavatsky.
7. The motive of H. P. Blavatsky in producing her fraudulent phenomena was political and that she was a Russian spy.

The report included interview transcripts, replicas of letters, and other documents as exhibits in support of its allegations.

International reaction

Boston Courier, July 18, 1886
Boston Courier, July 18, 1886
After the Hodgson Report was published, with its startling allegation of espionage, it drew international attention in the press, in articles ranging from reasoned arguments to wild speculation. The Melbourne Age embraced the theory of Russian espionage motivating a system of fraud.[11]

The Boston Courier printed a lengthy and scathing article, saying the SPR "has made no more egregious blunder than its report on Theosophy." It quoted a letter signed by almost seventy citizens of Negapatam (now Nagapattinam), India, regarding one of Richard Hodgson's major assertions:

The existence of the Mahatmas or Sadhus was not invented by Madame Blavatsky or any other individual. Our forefathers who had lived and gone long before the birth of Madame Blavatsky and the Coulombs had full belief in the existence of the Mahatmas and their psychical powers, and even had personal interviews with them. There are persons in India, even at the present day,who have no connection with the Theosophical Society, and yet have interviews with such Superior Beings... Let Mr. Hodgson and the Committee, if they are in earnest, make deep researches into the matter and find that their conclusions were not only hasty but also entirely unfounded. The report of Mr. Hodgson and the conclusion of the Committee thereon, cannot at all affect in the least our belief in the existence of the Mahatmas, but will only betray their grossest ignorance of the Occult history of the Hindus.[12]

The article went on to criticize Hodgson's qualifications and the quality of his work:

The truth is that Mr. Hodgson, sent out by the London society to India, to investigate Madame Blavatsky, was so entirely unfitted for the work confided to him that he fell a victim to errors the most egregious. He set down to the credit of Madame Blavatsky's inventive powers theories and statements which may be found even in plenty of English works upon Indian religions published in London a century or more ago; and the society can hardly be willing to attribute to Madame a term of life so extended as to suppose her to have instigated the writing of books so old.[13]

Responses by contemporary Theosophists

A. P. Sinnett

A. P. Sinnett refuted the report in a 60-page booklet, The Occult World Phenomena and the Society for Psychical Research, published in 1886.[14]

Annie Besant

After Annie Besant reviewed Madame Blavatsky's 1888 work The Secret Doctrine, she went the meet the author on May 10, 1889. Blavatsky expressed her wish to have Besant joining the Theosophical Society, and recommended that she read Hodgson's report. Mrs. Besant wanted to join, but was aware that this step would produce a rift with all her previous Freethinker and Socialist associates. However, after reading the report, she immediately became a member of the Society on May 21, 1889.[15] "She gave two evening lectures on 'Why I Became a Theosophist,' before a packed Hall of Science in London on August 4 and 11."[16] After the lecture she answered a question about the Coulomb controversy with flawless reasoning about how the report was illogical and slanderous. This brought the Hodgson Report squarely in the public eye again.

The conversion of the country's leading female orator, atheist, socialist, promulgator of birth-control, a member of the London School Board, at the height of her career, 'Struck the whole of England like a thunderbolt!,' to use H.P.B.'s words.[17]

Mrs. Besant followed up with an exchange of letters in The Methodist Times with Rev. Patterson, and defense of H.P.B. in Lucifer. In a Pall Mall Gazette article entitled "I Believe in Madame Blavatsky" she summarized her views unequivocally:

I consider that Mr. Hodgson was simply befooled by the Coulombs, and that the tricks which they alleged they had helped Madame Blavatsky to perform were a tissue of lies; that the 'Blavatsky Letters' which they produced were forgeries; and that all the sliding panels which they revealed had been constructed by them without Mme. Blavatsky's knowledge.[18]

Testimony by C. W. Leadbeater

In an article published in The Theosophist, C. W. Leadbeater wrote the following:

I was at Adyar myself when Mr. Hodgson came out there to make that investigation. He was very young and obviously not very well acquainted with psychic matters. I had my own opinion of the way in which he carried out his investigation! I gave him a considerable amount of testimony, but he did not refer to that in any way in drawing up his decision, and I know the same was the case with several others of our people there. He cross-examined us but apparently made no use whatever of what we told him of the honesty of Madame Blavatsky; perhaps he did not believe us; at any rate he sent in a report which induced people to condemn her.[19]

He also wrote to the Indian Mirror an account of his visit to the Cairo hotel formerly owned by the Coulombs, and that the reputation Mme. Coulomb had there was of being manipulative and deceitful.[20]

Defense of H. P. Blavatsky by Theosophists

Defenses were mounted immediately in newspapers around the world. Evidence of the Mahatmas' existence was known long before H. P. Blavatsky was born. Phenomena such as those attributed to H.P.B. were likewise well documented. The handwriting analysis was widely challenged, as were the writing style and language of the letters – the use of "Italianisms" and the quality of the French wording. Physical alternations to The Shrine were examined closely.

The bizarre proposition that H.P.B. had acted as a Russian spy was quickly dismissed: "Here was a highly suspected Russian woman sending conspiratorial letters galore, and this during the years when we [the English] were fearing a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. And nobody 'pinched' her!"[21]

Several major refutations and analyses were published:

1884 – Dr. Franz Hartmann wrote his first-hand account of 1884 events that he experienced as President of the Board of Control at Adyar: Report of Observations Made During a Nine Months' Stay at the Head-quarters of the Theosophical Society at Adyar (Madras), India[22] and a German-language treatise Warheit und Dichtung that gave a more critical view of events.[23]

1886 – A. P. Sinnett published The 'Occult World' Phenomena and the Society for Psychical Research in January, and his Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, a few months later.

1920 – Theosophy magazine presented a series of essays on the subject.[24]

1927 – William Kingsland wrote Was she a Charlatan? A Critical Analysis of the 1885 Report of the Society for Psychical Research.[25]

1934 – C. Jinarājadāsa wrote Did Madame Blavatsky forge the Mahatma Letters?, which offered several facsimile reproductions of the handwritings of the Mahatmas and H. P. Blavatsky.[26]

1937 – Beatrice Hastings wrote two excellent volumes called Defence of Madame Blavatsky, covering earlier events such as the Kiddle Incident as well as the Coulomb affair, which she researched with aid from Adyar archivist Mary K. Neff. She devoted 105 pages to examination of Emma Coulomb's pamphlet.[27]

1951 – K. F. Vania presented events from 1874-1885 in chronological order, followed by details of the "Coulomb-missionary-S.P.R. conspiracy in his 488-page book Madame Blavatsky: Her Occult Phenomena and the Society for Psychical Research. It was the first thorough examination of the subject.[28]

1963 – Walter A. Carrithers, Jr., under the pen name of Adlai E. Waterman, wrote a massive study, Obituary: the “Hodgson Report” on Madame Blavatsky 1885-1960 that includes exhibits of original documents. During years of research, Mr. Carrithers obtained numerous documents from the S.P.R. Library in London. Among them he discovered a copy of Madame Coulomb's pamphlet, Some Account of My Intercourse with Madame Blavatsky from 1872 to 1884 in which Blavatsky herself had written marginal notations.[29]

2005 – Michael Gomes presented "The Coulomb Case" in Theosophical History, summarizing all the previous defenses along with historical material from his own research.[30]

Re-examination of handwriting samples

When H. P. Blavatsky had authored the letters signed by Master K.H. was an important issue in the Hodgson Report.

In the 1960s, Dr. Paul L. Kirk, Professor of Criminology at Berkeley University, "compared photographic specimens of the two handwritings, as shown in Hodgson's Report – without any knowledge of the identities of the principals involved – and gave a decision against the Hodgson/Netherclift conclusions. Dr. Kirk's verdict was that the H.P.B. and K.H. handwritings were not by the same person.[31]

Dr. Vernon Harrison, an expert on forgery, examined the evidence of the case using Twentieth Century forensic methodology. He published an article in the April 1986 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, followed by a book, H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR. An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885, in which he outlined flaws in Hodgson's work. On May 8, 1986, the Society for Psychical Research issued a press release in support of Harrison's findings, and rejecting the Hodgson report.[32]

Additional Resources

Articles and pamphlets

Books

Bibliography

Notes

  1. Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom First Series No. 18 (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1977), 46-47, 149.
  2. Proceedings of the General Council of the Theosophical Society, May 14, 1884. Reprinted in Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case" Theosophical History Occasional Papers Volume X (Fullerton, California: Theosophical History, 2005) 38-39.
  3. Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case" Theosophical History Occasional Papers Volume X (Fullerton, California: Theosophical History, 2005) 15.
  4. Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, The "K. H." Letters to C. W. Leadbeater (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 25-26.
  5. Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, The "K. H." Letters to C. W. Leadbeater (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 26-27.
  6. Grace F. Knoche, "H. P. Blavatsky and The Society for Psychical Research."
  7. R. Hodgson, S.P.R. Proceedings 3 (Deember 1885), 208.
  8. Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case" Theosophical History Occasional Papers Volume X (Fullerton, California: Theosophical History, 2005) 11.
  9. "Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with The Theosophical Society," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Part IX, December 1885, p. 207.
  10. Paraphrased from [https://www.theosophycanada.com/files/vania-intro.pdf K. F. Vania.
  11. "The Theosophical society. Russian Intrigue or Religious Evolution?" Melbourne Age, September 12, 1885. Quoted by Michael Gomes in "The Coulomb Case" page 14.
  12. "Theosophy and the Psychical Society," Boston Courier 63:21 (July 18, 1886). The entire article is reproduced in the "Boston Courier reaction" section of this wiki page.
  13. Ibid.
  14. A. P. Sinnett, The Occult World Phenomena and the Society for Psychical Research, London: George Redway, 1886. Available online at Blavatsky Archives.
  15. Annie Besant, An Autobiography (Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1984), 314.
  16. Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case" Theosophical History Occasional Papers Volume X (Fullerton, California: Theosophical History, 2005) 15.
  17. Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case" Theosophical History Occasional Papers Volume X (Fullerton, California: Theosophical History, 2005) 15.
  18. "I Believe in Madame Blavatsky," Pall Mall Gazettem July 13, 1891. Quoted by Michael Gomes in "The Coulomb Case" page 17.
  19. Charles Webster Leadbeater, "Theosophy and the T.S." The Theosophist vol:1, No. 11 (November, 1930), 941.
  20. C. W. Leadbeater letter to Indian Mirror. December 14, 1884. Also printed in Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case" Theosophical History Occasional Papers Volume X (Fullerton, California: Theosophical History, 2005) 52.
  21. Beatrice Hastings, "The Coulomb Pamphlet" Defence of Madame Blavatsky Volume II (Worthing, England: The Hastings Press, 1937), 66, 69.
  22. Self-published in Madras, 1884.
  23. Translated in 1997 by Robert Hûtwohl as Truth and Fiction: The "Theosophical Society" and the Miracle-Cabinet of Adyar. Santa Fe: Spirit of the Sun Publications, 1997.
  24. "The Society for Psychical Research and the Theosophical Phenomena: The Report of the S.P.R. on Madame Blavatsky," Theosophy (Los Angeles, CA, USA), June, 1920, pp. 230-241 and July, 1920, pp. 257-270. A slightly edited and revised version was published as Chapter V, "The S.P.R. and The Theosophical Movement," pp. 59-74 and as Chapter VI, "The Report of the S.P.R.," pp. 75-93 in the book titled The Theosophical Movement 1875-1925: A History and a Survey (First edition, 1925).
  25. William Kingsland, Was she a Charlatan? A Critical Analysis of the 1885 Report of the Society for Psychical Research. London: The Blavatsky Association, 1927.
  26. C. Jinarājadāsa, Did Madame Blavatsky Forge the Mahatma Letters?. New York: Macoy's, 1934. Available from Independent Lodge of Theosophists.
  27. Beatrice Hastings, Defence of Madame Blavatsky, Volumes I and II. Worthing, England: The Hastings Press, 1937. Volume I and Volume II are available at Theosophy Canada website.
  28. K. F. Vania. Madame Blavatsky: Her Occult Phenomena and the Society for Psychical Research. Bombay: Sat Publishing, 1951. 488 pages. His Introduction is avaiable on the Theosophy Canada website.
  29. Published by Theosophical Publishing House in Adyar, India. Preface by N. Sri Ram.
  30. Michael Gomes, "The Coulomb Case" Theosophical History Occasional Papers Volume X. Fullerton, California: Theosophical History, 2005.
  31. Howard Murphet, Yankee Beacon of Buddhist Light: Life of Colonel Henry S. Olcott (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 215.
  32. Press Release of Society for Psychical Research, May 8, 1986. Available at [http://www.blavatsky.net/gen/refute/sprpress.htm# Blavatsky Net.