James Ralston Skinner

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James Ralston Skinner (1830-1893) was an attorney, freemason, and kabbalist from Cincinnati, Ohio who wrote books and pamphlets that were influential to early Theosophists.

Personal life

Skinner was born in 1830 in Lockport, New York, the son of Josiah K. (or, in some accounts, Ithman) Skinner and Janette (variously spelled) Ralston Chase. His uncle was Salmon Portland Chase (1808-1873), who served as U.S. Senator from Ohio and the 23rd Governor of Ohio; as U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Abraham Lincoln; and as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States. The young man, called "Ralston" by his family, was invited to study law with Chase in Cincinnati; he also managed property for his uncle and worked in his law firm.[1]

In the 1850s he married Louisa Wiggins, daughter of a wealthy banker, Samuel Wiggins. They had a son Samuel, born around 1858, and a daughter Laura the next year.[2]

On November 18, 1862, he enlisted in the Union Army in the American Civil War. He served as Judge-Advocate-General in the Battle of Stone's River campaign under Major General Rosecrans, with the rank of major. He resigned his commission on March 20, 1865; Robert Hinshaw reported "it is said that he temporarily lost his reason when a fellow soldier was decapitated by a cannon ball."[3]

Skinner was always interested in science, and was a founding member of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History. Before he turned 50, Skinner retired from his legal practice. At that point his family was distinctly well-to-do, and his household had five servants and substantial assets, according to 1880 census records.[4] He spent his remaining years writing, and passed away on September 2, 1893.[5]

Photo HPB sent to JRS in 1887
HPB note to JRS on her photograph

Connections with the Theosophical Society

In the 1880s and 1890s, Cincinnati was a hotbed of esoteric research and activity. It was there that the Cincinnati Theosophical Society, one of the first American lodges, was founded by Jirah Dewey Buck on May 9, 1886, and later that year on October 30 the American Section of the Theosophical Society took form. The records of the Cincinnati lodge from 1878-1901 make no mention of Skinner as a member or lecturer, although there is one letter from Skinner to Buck dated September 4, 1887.[6] There is also evidence that Skinner participated in the life of the Cincinnati TS, at least by lecturing. In July 1887, The Path reported:

CINCINNATI. At a recent meeting of this Branch, Bro. J. Ralston Skinner *** read a valuable paper on Cycles of Time. On this subject Bro. Skinner is an authority.[7]

H. P. Blavatsky was definitely aware of Skinner, and impressed with his work. Dr. Buck recorded that:

I sent her a complete copy in Mss. of J. R. Skinner's work on Kabala, the Zodiac, and the Great Pyramid of Gheza; from which Mss. (still unpublished) she made copious quotations in four places in her Secret Doctrine. She wrote me that there are seven Keys to Kabala, of which Mr. Skinner had discovered "two and a half".[8]

In a letter to Buck, where Blavatsky tells him "I lost Mr. Skinner's address so please pass him on this enclosed volume," she states:

He is the grandest man & mind (in the direction of the occult) I know of at present; a natural born genius & helped beyond any doubt. I don't say "helped" mind you, in discovering in his independent research what he has, but helped from the lethal effects & influences of his discoveries. He would have become, uninitiated as he is, insane long ago, or dead or strangled at night under the pretext of an apoplexy – had it not been for the helping & watching hand above him; not of one of our masters but of a Dhyan Chohan, a Planetary - the rarest thing possible, & whom I verily fear he mistakes for God instead of a god-partie & conditioned on his plane. This I know from masters who spoke of him when I was yet at Adyar, referring to him as the "Ohio-Kabbalist & mathematician" – & that I had never heard his name even. Funny I should have never heard of him or his book when in America. His intuitional powers are as marvelous as his mathematical knowledge, indeed.[9]

Buck encouraged Skinner to write to HPB to ask whether Sanskrit was an older language than Hebrew:

The next day he returned with a very carefully written abstract of his work in fourteen pages of Mss. and, after reading, asked it I thought that would do. "Splendidly", I replied, "send it on."

In about a month he rushed into my office one day, holding in his hand an open letter of forty pages, almost shouting – "I've got it, Doctor, I've got it!" "Got what? you crazy!" I replied. "Got a letter from the old Lady," he answered. "Well," I inquired, "does she know anything about your old Kabala?" "Does she?" he replied; "say, Doctor, she knows more Kabala than the man that made it." She gave him a diagram of a gable of an old temple in the mountains of India, so old that no one pretended to know when it was built, or by whom. In that diagram his "pi-value", which was the Key to all his Cabalistic and Pyramid work, was placed in symbols (lines, squares, triangles, double and triple triangles) so as to read unmistakably "3.14159+". She gave him the numerical value of ancient Sanscrit letters, and answered all his questions, covering 40 pages.

He had, with every resource and facility, been working on these lines for a quarter of a century, and he "knew". from that day to the day of his death his admiration for, and confidence in, H. P. B. were little less than reverence.

When later I suggested to H.P.B. that a little memento from her would be most highly prized, she sent him a ring, which he wore till the day of his death, as his most "precious Jewel".[10]

Six letters and a photograph that he received from her are in a collection at Harvard University. A letter dated April 5, 1887 mentions that she will be sending him her photograph. On the back of the photo she wrote:

To her new acquaintance & correspondent – but very very old friend, Mr. Ralston Skinner with ever growing feelings of sympathy, admiration, appreciation & the warmest friendship – H. P. Blavatsky ***
London, May 1887

Skinner's writings on Jehovah were quoted in Blavatsky's book The Theosophical Glossary, with additional references to his ideas in The Secret Doctrine. However, he does not seem to have been a member of the Theosophical Society of which she was a Founder.


Like Dr. Buck, Skinner was a Freemason.

About this time [after the Civil War], he began to write for the Masonic Review on the subjects that occupied the remainder of his years... . Skinner was initiated into McMillan Lodge No. 141 at Cincinnati, of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Ohio, May 6, 1885.[11][12]

Dr. Buck, himself widely recognized as an expert on Masonry, wrote:

I was present when, as already recorded in "Life and Action", Mr. Skinner took his third Degree in the Blue Lodge. After theclose of the ceremony he was called on for a speech, and after "hedging" for two or three minutes, then, for an hour and a quarter, he read that Lodge-room, altar, symbols and ceremonies, "right out of the air".

This was more than a quarter of a century ago, and when at the close of the lodge, two or three 33° Masons asked me – "Where in the world did he get it all?" – I replied, "While you and I and the rest of us have been fooling with the corpse, he has been studying the Living Soul of Masonry; and this Judgment has been confirmed every day since by my own studies.[13]


These books and pamphlets are listed in order of first publication.

  • An Essay upon Force in Nature and its Effects upon Matter. Cincinnati, R. Clarke & Co., 1869.
  • The Great pyramid of Jizeh, the Plan and Object of its Construction. Cincinnati, R. Clarke & Co., 1871. 17 pages. Available at Hathitrust.
  • YeHī W̕oR: A Value of Symbolism. Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1872. 47 pages.
  • The Ancient of Days. The Measure of the Heavens and the Earth by Means of the Only Unit of Measure, the British Inch. Cincinnati, R. Clarke & Co., 1873. 46 pages.
  • Some Light Upon the Egyptian Method of Chronology. 1876. 11-page pamphlet.
  • Key to the Hebrew-Egyptian Mystery in the Source of Measures Originating the British Inch and the Ancient Cubit. Cincinnati, R. Clarke & Co., 1875. Available at HathiTrust and Internet Archive. The author discusses a square arrangement of the zodiac.
    • New high-quality hardcover edition: 2023 from Mecosta, Mich.: Wizards Bookshelf, 2023. Available at this website.
  • Supplement to Source of Measures. Robert Clarke & Company, 1876. 63 pages.
  • The Crown Jewels of the Nations are Their Measures. Cincinnati: Clarke & Company, 1877. 90 pages.
  • A Criticism on the Legendre Mode of the Rectification of the Curve of the Circle. Cincinnati: R. Clarke & Co., 1881. Available at HathiTrust and University of Michigan Historical Math Collection.
  • Actual Measures of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, in Terms of the British Inch: Disclosing, by Its Means, the Architectural System Employed in the Construction. Cleveland, OH: International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Weights and Measures., Ohio Auxiliary Society, Cleveland, 1883.
  • The Cabbalah. 1885. Originally printed in The Masonic Review, with the author named as "Brother J. Ralston Skinner (McMillian Lodge, No. 141)".[14]
  • Hebrew Metrology. 1885. 8-page pamphlet.
  • Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian Columns in Grecian Architecture. 1885. Available in Peabody Museum of Salem, Phillips Library East Indian Marine Hall. (per John H. Drais).
  • Key to the Hebrew-Egyptian Mystery in the Source of Measures Originating the British Inch and the Ancient Cubit, by Which was Built the Great Pyramid of Egypt and the Temple of Solomon; and through the Possession and Use of Which, Man, Assuming to Realize the Creative Law of the Deity, Set It Forth in a Mystery, Among the Hebrews Called Kabbala. David McKay Company, Philadelphia, 1876. The 1894 edition (Cincinnati, R. Clarke & Co). is available at HathiTrust and Google Books. This edition was reprinted in 1982 with additional material by John H. Drais by Wizards Bookshelf in San Diego.
  • Modulus System of Measures Founded on the British Inch". Undated. This typescript is available at Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library and at Library of Cincinnati Historical Society. (per John H. Drais)
  • Appendix C to Identification of the British Inch.... Undated. Available at Museum Library University of Pennsylvania. (per John H. Drais).
  • An Inquiry into the Principles of Beauty in "Grecian Architecture, by George, Earl of Aberdeen, Lon. 1867"; a prefatory essay to an English translation from the Latin of Notes and Comments on the Ten Books of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Undated. Available at Library of Cincinnati Historical Society. (per John H. Drais)
  • Kabala, the Zodiac and the Great Pyramid of Gheza. Undated. Listed in kabbalah bibliography of Blavatsky Collected Writings. (per John H. Drais)
  • Unnamed manuscript was mentioned as being sent to the Masons by Skinner's "literary legatee" (perhaps Dr. J. D. Buck); per New Age Magazine, September 1907. (per John H. Drais)
  • The Word or Logos Connected with John and with Jesus Through the Finish. Reprint available for sale through Kessinger Books.

He wrote for Masonic publications, and also two articles that appeared in Theosophical journals:

  • "No Error (a reply to Euphrates)". Lucifer 2 (August 1888), 492.
  • "Notes on the Cabbalah of the Old Testament". The Path 1.5 (August, 1886), 134. Available at Theosophical University Press Online. This was reprinted from a Masonic journal.

Additional resources

  • "Part III: Source of Measures" or "Art Speech". This unpublished manuscript is in the Archives at the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India. C. Jinarājadāsa wrote about this work in The Theosophist of August, 1923. The first page is entitled "Introduction: Giving a Key of Formation of An Ancient Language". The last page says "I end this closing section of my work on Monday the 18th day of February, 1884 on the retiring of the flood water of the Ohio at 12n. I, Ralston Skinner, Jany. 10, 1887 shall send this original MSS to Madame Blavatsky Ostend." CJ's article also includes a table of contents for the manuscript.
  • "Skinner, J. Ralston (James Ralston), 1853-1887". Personal papers at Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard University. This collection includes six letters from H. P. Blavatsky.
  • More information about unpublished manuscripts is available in Blavatsky Collected Writings Volume XIII, pages 404-405.
  • Correspondence with Edwin Markham in Markham Manuscript Collection, Wagner College, Staten Island, NY.
  • Papers of Salmon Portland Chase, 1755-1874. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
  • Index of Hebrew and numerical terms contained in The source of measures by J. Ralston Skinner by John H. Drais. San Diego: Wizards Bookshelf, 1982.


  1. The Salmon P. Chase Papers: Volume 1, Journals, 1829-1872, Edited by John Niven (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993), 153.
  2. U. S. Census records for 1860, 1870, 1880.
  3. Robert A. Hinshaw letter to Richard I. Robb. Ralston Skinner file. Boris de Zirkoff Papers. Records Series 22. Theosophical Society in America Archives.
  4. U. S. Census records for 1880.
  5. Robert A. Hinshaw letter to Richard I. Robb. Ralston Skinner file. Boris de Zirkoff Papers. Records Series 22. Theosophical Society in America Archives.
  6. Cincinnati Theosophical Society Records. Records Series 20.02.01. Theosophical Society in America Archives.
  7. Anonymous, "Some Theosophical Statistics" The Path 2 (July, 1887), 124.
  8. Jirah Dewey Buck, Modern World Movements (Chicago: Indo-American Book Co., 1913), 39-40. Available at Blavatsky Archives.
  9. Blavatsky Letter to J. Ralston Skinner at Blavatsky News 2.0
  10. Buck, Modern World Movements, 40-41.
  11. "Skinner, James Ralston". Blavatsky Collected Writings Volume XIII, page 402-404.
  12. Robert A. Hinshaw letter to Richard I. Robb. Ralston Skinner file. Boris de Zirkoff Papers. Records Series 22. Theosophical Society in America Archives.
  13. Buck, Modern World Movements, 41.
  14. See "The Kabalah and Kabalists" at Blavatsky Net