Madame Blavatsky, the Woman Who Brought the Occult to America

Madame Blavatsky.
Madame Blavatsky. / Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Madame Blavatsky); Massimo Ravera/Moment/Getty Images (gold frame against red wall)

In October 1874, a Russian woman named Madame Blavatsky arrived on a farm in Chittenden, Vermont. It was no ordinary country outing: She had traveled to the Eddy Brothers’ farm, where, for many months, witnesses had spoken of bizarre supernatural events that were occurring on an almost nightly basis. Spirits of the dead would appear, and the brothers—both claiming to be psychic mediums—would levitate before stunned audiences.

The paranormal activity drastically increased following Blavatsky’s arrival. Reports emerged of the Russian woman conjuring up ghostly apparitions from faraway lands, who proceeded to play haunting tunes on non-existent musical instruments before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

That 1874 séance was not the first or last time Blavatsky would intrigue the supernaturally curious—and she has polarized opinion ever since. One later leader of the Theosophical movement she helped found, William Kingsland, described her as “the most remarkable as well as the most notable woman of her age.” In contrast, the Society for Psychical Research memorably dismissed her as “one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.”  

Becoming Madame Blavatsky

Helena Petrovna von Hahn was born in 1831 into a well-to-do family in the Russian city of Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipro in Ukraine). According to the later recollections of her sister, the young Helena was a precocious and strong-willed child who took an interest in the occult from an early age. She was said to have befriended an ancient mystic named Baranig Bouyrak, who told her family, “There are great events lying in wait for her in the future.” 

Helena married Nikifor Vladimirovich Blavatsky, a Russian general three times her age, when she was just 17. It was a short-lived union that ended when Helena Blavatsky escaped to Constantinople. Details of what happened during the following quarter-century remain sparse. There’s little documentary evidence on which to rely other than Blavatsky’s own flamboyant version of events—and she was never known to be the most reliable narrator. 

She claimed to have traveled the world in a quest for enlightenment. This included a life-changing visit to Tibet to study with the spiritual Mahatmas, or masters. It was then that, according to later theosophical texts, she was first given her mission of bringing their message of spiritual enlightenment to the Western world.

Madame Blavatsky arrived in New York during the summer of 1873, aiming to spread the spiritual truths she had discovered in Tibet. She certainly came at an opportune moment: The long-held beliefs of mainstream religion were being challenged by new scientific discoveries. Spiritualism, which offered the living the apparent opportunity to communicate with the dead through séances, was proving an especially popular alternative

The Rise of the Theosophical Society

black and white photo of Blavatsky and Olcott in 1888
Blavatsky and Olcott in 1888. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Blavatsky first met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a respected lawyer and Civil War veteran, a year later at the aforementioned Vermont séance. In People From The Other World, Olcott recalled that he went to the Eddy Brothers’ farm witness for himself the bizarre happenings said to be occurring there. He had investigated occult practices for over two decades. But he had never before come across anybody quite like Blavatsky, whom he, along with others in her inner circle, referred to as HPB. Her knowledge of Eastern religions seemed to strike a particular chord with him, as it offered him the chance to study the occult philosophy behind it all. “Little by little, HPB let me know of the existence of Eastern adepts and their powers, and gave me by a multitude of phenomena the proofs of her own control over the occult forces of nature,” he later wrote.

In 1875, Blavatsky and Olcott formed the Theosophical Society. Adherents of theosophy—meaning “divine wisdom”—sought to transcend normal human consciousness by gaining greater spiritual understanding through the comparative study of the world’s religions and the discovery of the universal laws of nature. If that kind of thinking wasn’t progressive enough for the time, the Theosophical Society also sought to end bigotry by promoting a “universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” (However, some of Blavatksy’s writings, as well as her association of Aryans with the swastika, did influence white supremacist groups in early 20th-century Europe.)

Blavatsky’s book, Isis Unveiled, was the first of several lengthy tomes she wrote that remained popular long after her death. She was fortunate to have the support of establishment figures like Olcott and Thomas Edison. They gave her work an air of much needed pseudo-respectability, as it included some astonishing claims: Blavatsky asserted that she was able to perform extraordinary paranormal feats because she had been given access to an ancient wisdom, known only to a select few. Her detractors, meanwhile, accused her of borrowing heavily from other spiritualist texts. 

Toward the end of the decade, Blavatsky traveled to Asia with Olcott, who was keen to experience Eastern religions first-hand. The pair enjoyed celebrity status after becoming, while on a visit to a temple in Sri Lanka, among the very first Westerners to convert to Buddhism. 

Madame Blavatsky’s Legacy

In 1884, Blavatsky became embroiled in a major scandal when an embittered Theosophical Society member accused her of faking her paranormal abilities. Richard Hodgson of the Society for Psychical Research investigated the allegations. He reviewed documents that, according to his findings, proved Blavatsky had written letters supposedly penned by the Mahatmas. To Hodgson, this suggested she had faked her abilities and lied about the existence of the spiritual masters (he also suspected Blavatsky was a Russian spy, and that the entire Theosophical Society was really a political group). His decision was damning: He concluded the following year that Blavatsky was an imposter, who was not, as she claimed to be, “the mouthpiece of hidden seers.”

The incident caused irrevocable damage to her reputation. Due to poor health, she later resigned from the Society she had co-founded.

Blavatsky eventually moved to London, where she died in May 1891 at the age of 59. Though dogged by accusations of charlatanism toward the end of her life, she has since been credited with introducing the concept of Eastern religion and philosophy to the West, thus, according to her biographer Marion Meade, paving the way for everything from “yoga and vegetarianism” to “karma and reincarnation” to spread through the western hemisphere.