Olcott, Henry Steel (1832-1907)
President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, a Renaissance man who was an author, lecturer, agriculturalist, reporter, healer, social reformer, and ecumenist, whose life was—as he himself recognized—"stranger than fiction."
Olcott’s two most important publications are The Buddhist Catechism and Old Diary Leaves. The Buddhist Catechism is a textbook for teaching the principles of that major world religion to students in Buddhist schools but is also a source of information about the Buddha and his dharma for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Old Diary Leaves, on the other hand, is a personal and autobiographical account of the early years of the Theosophical Society by the President-Founder himself. It is no accident that these two works, on Buddhism and the Theosophical Society, are Olcott’s most important publications. Olcott believed that core Buddhism and core Theosophy are the same thing—both are expressions of the same timeless Wisdom.
Old Diary Leaves is a six-volume Theosophical history covering the twenty-four years from 1874 to 1898, without equal for the authenticity and detail of the story it tells. To be sure, it is not complete—nothing in this world of anitya, or impermanence, is complete—but Old Diary Leaves has no rival for the detail of the picture it presents of Olcott’s life in Theosophy. Each of the first four volumes of Old Diary Leaves has a motto on its title page. That in the first volume is a quotation from the greatest poem by George Gordon, Lord Byron, namely Don Juan, which is an uncompleted epic satire on human beings and society: "’Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange; / Stranger than fiction." Byron was not quoting a proverb; he was creating one. His line is the origin of the popular English saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” That was true of Byron’s own life, and certainly of Henry Olcott’s as well.
Olcott was a “Renaissance man” in the sense of a person with wide interests and expertise in several areas. He was also a person whose life was full of the unexpected and the mysterious, which is what makes his life “stranger than fiction.” He grew up in the town of Orange, New Jersey, and in New York City, but the family fell on hard times, so at the age of sixteen he became a farmer in the Midwest state of Ohio, where his mother’s brothers were farming also. His uncles were interested in Spiritualism, which came into general attention in the same year Olcott moved to Ohio, and they passed that interest on to Henry. He also acquired some skill in the use of mesmerism, a hypnotic state used to alleviate pain during surgery.
After four or five years in Ohio, Olcott returned to New Jersey to become an expert in scientific agriculture. He served as assistant editor of a magazine called The Working Farmer, which began his journalistic career. He also cofounded one of the pioneering schools for scientific agriculture: the Westchester Farm School in New York State. At the age of 25, he published a book in that area: Sorghum and Imphee, the Chinese and African Sugarcanes: A Treatise on Origin, Varieties and Culture. It became a widely used textbook on the subject. It was, incidentally, the only book by Olcott in the University of Georgia Library in 1971, when the present writer arrived at that campus. Olcott both preceded and followed the publication of this book with lectures on agriculture in the United States and Europe and with other notable publications on the subject. He was offered several distinguished agricultural positions in government, both American and foreign, and in the academic world, but he declined them. His future lay elsewhere.
As a result of his agricultural expertise, Olcott became an associate agricultural editor for the New York Tribune and the American correspondent for a British agricultural journal. His journalistic interests soon expanded into other areas. The Tribune newspaper was a vigorous supporter of the abolition of slavery in America in the years leading up to the Civil War in that country. The paper became extremely unpopular in the South, where slavery was practiced. Consequently, its reporters were threatened with violence if they should venture into that part of the country. Nevertheless, Olcott volunteered to go to Virginia to report on the execution of John Brown. Brown was an abolitionist and a religious fanatic who had killed five proslavery men and invaded a government arsenal to seize armaments. He was condemned to death for murder and insurrection, but he became a rallying point for those opposed to slavery.
During the early years of the Civil War, which followed the execution of John Brown, Olcott saw military action but was soon assigned to investigate corruption and fraud in military procurement. His exposure of such racketeering earned him a commendation from the Secretary of War, who wrote that Olcott’s service was “as important to the Government as the winning of a battle.” After the assassination of President Lincoln, Olcott was charged with investigating a suspected conspiracy in support of the assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
After the war, Olcott was admitted to the bar as an attorney. He also became Director of the National Insurance Convention. He was an expert in insurance law, and he compiled two volumes that became standard works on the subject and the basis for governmental regulations. As a lawyer, he represented many important clients, including government bodies and foreign business organizations.
In his spare time, Olcott became a freelance correspondent for several New York newspapers. In that capacity, he went to Chittenden, Vermont, to report on spiritualistic séances being held in a farmhouse. There he met Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who had also gone to the farmhouse—clearly for the purpose of meeting Olcott, whose work she had read. Olcott’s newspaper accounts of the events at the farmhouse were eventually gathered together and published as a book, entitled People from the Other World.
Olcott’s 1874 meeting with Blavatsky, in his 42nd year, was the major turning point in his life. He first saw her during a noon meal at the farmhouse. She was striking in appearance with her Garibaldi red blouse. Olcott whispered to a companion, “Good gracious! look at that specimen, will you.” When she rolled herself a cigarette, Olcott took that as an excuse to introduce himself by offering to light it for her, with the words, “Permettez moi, Madame,” as he recognized that she was a foreigner. As Olcott wrote, “Our acquaintance began in smoke, but it stirred up a great and permanent fire.”
That meeting resulted in his developing new Renaissance-man interests and expertise, and it also initiated the most unexpected and strange events he was ever to experience. Through Blavatsky, Olcott came into contact with her teachers, the “Brothers,” a band of evolved human beings who work behind the scenes to further the evolution of humanity. Through their influence, in 1875 Olcott was inspired to propose the foundation of the Theosophical Society. The remaining 32 years of his life would be spent in working for and through the Society, often involving direct contact with the Brothers. Olcott deeply respected these teachers and benefactors of humanity, but he did not worship them or treat them as idols. Instead, he used to refer to them as “the Boys.”
A minor, but still noteworthy, event early in Olcott’s Theosophical career was the “pagan” funeral service and cremation of the Baron de Palm in late 1876, events orchestrated by Olcott. They were a public relations bonanza for the infant Theosophical Society. Joseph Henry Louis Baron de Palm was a penniless Austrian nobleman. He was also something of a con artist. He played upon the sympathy of both Olcott and Blavatsky and became a member of the Theosophical Society. He was ill, so Olcott took care of him, and in return the Baron deceived Olcott. The Baron drew up a will, ostensibly leaving vast estates in both America and Europe to the Society. He also asked that Olcott officiate at his funeral and that his body be cremated in the Eastern fashion, rather than buried as was customary in the West. Out of charity, Olcott agreed to do those things.
After the Baron’s death, it was discovered that, as a young man, he had been an officer in the Bavarian army but was cashiered for dishonorable conduct. He lived by various dishonest dealings, for which he was sometimes imprisoned. After he had lost his European holdings for nonpayment of debts, he emigrated to America, where he lived by his wits. His supposed American real estate holdings were nonexistent. When Olcott opened the Baron’s trunk after his death, the most valuable objects he found were two of Olcott’s own shirts, from which the Baron had picked out Olcott’s name, which had been stitched into them.
Despite the fraudulent nature of the Baron’s representations about himself, Olcott felt obliged to fulfill his promise concerning the funeral and cremation. For the funeral, Olcott used his Masonic fraternal connections to engage a Masonic Temple in New York City. It was such an event as newspapers delight to report. Published accounts describe the main participants as decked out in Egyptian-style garments. There were Orphic hymns and mantras set to exotic music. Olcott and others gave funeral orations that expressed such concepts as karma and the objects of the Theosophical Society. Newspaper stories dubbed the funeral a Pagan extravaganza. It was a great publicity achievement.
The cremation was more difficult to arrange. At that time, there were no public crematoria in America, and cremation was neither practiced widely nor generally approved of. However, Olcott learned of a doctor, Julius Le Moyne, who had constructed a crematorium for his own personal use in Washington, Pennsylvania. Olcott contacted Dr. Le Moyne and got permission to use the doctor’s facility for the Baron. He also managed various legal problems that might have inhibited the Baron’s cremation. So on December 6th, 1876, the first public cremation in the United States was held under the sponsorship of the Theosophical Society. It was widely reported in newspapers all over this country and in Europe by feature articles in more than seven thousand periodicals.
Baron de Palm, although an impecunious fraud, repaid the Society for the pains and expense it went to on his account by generating the most news (some might say notoriety) that the still infant Society had ever received. Many of the articles reported not just the unusual features of the Baron’s funeral and cremation, but also the Theosophical views that underlay them. A New York Tribune editorial encapsulated the anomaly by observing that “Baron de Palm had been principally famous as a corpse.”
A major and far-reaching event in Olcott’s life was the removal of the two Founders to India. They left New York at the end of 1878 and arrived in Bombay in early 1879. That change of locale had profound effects on both the Society and the form in which its teachings were to be expressed. Before the transfer to India, Theosophy, as represented in Blavatsky’s 1877 work Isis Unveiled, was a fair balance between Western and Eastern spirituality. After the transfer, it became increasingly Indic. Olcott was intimately involve in both those presentations.
We often think of Olcott as an organizational man, the Founder-President of the Theosophical Society, but he was also a notable speaker and the author of works on Theosophical subjects. In fact, in India, Madame Blavatsky was of principal interest among members of the British Raj because of the phenomena she could perform. Olcott, on the other hand, was more highly respected by the Indians for the wisdom of his talks. The Indians were not impressed by phenomena, which many Yogis could do, but they were impressed by wisdom, especially when it was spoken by a Westerner who understood the wisdom of the East.
In 1880, the two Founders made their first visit to Sri Lanka, where they “took Pancha Sila (Pansil),” which is a formal recitation of the five vows of ethical living required of all lay Buddhists. Taking those vows is a requirement for becoming a declared Buddhist. But doing so does not automatically make one into a sectarian Buddhist. Olcott and Blavatsky considered themselves to be Buddhists in the sense that they believed that Buddhism and Theosophy are essentially the same.
That first Sri Lankan trip did, however, connect Olcott closely with Buddhism. It led to his subsequent work for the ecumenical accord of all schools of Buddhism. For that purpose, he wrote a statement defining fourteen fundamental Buddhist principles. He also persuaded representatives of both the Southern and Northern schools to accept those fourteen points as statements of basic Buddhist belief. In the 1880s, Olcott also worked to establish Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka, he wrote and published a Buddhist catechism in English and in Sinhalese, and he successfully interceded with the British government in London for the civil and religious rights of the Sinhalese. As a result he still remains a national hero in Sri Lanka.
Olcott’s ecumenical work was not limited to Buddhism. He similarly applied his Theosophical understanding to Zoroastrianism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, in each case recognizing those religious traditions as diverse outer expressions of the same inner essential teachings that are Theosophy. His ecumenism linked together all those religions and others as outer expressions of inner Theosophical wisdom.
By 1882, Olcott had begun his first mesmeric healings, for which he became famous and in great demand throughout India. He treated thousands of persons with mesmeric techniques, curing the blind, the lame, the deaf and dumb, and those with a wide variety of other physical and mental handicaps. He expected no payment or thanks for such service; he did it because he was able to do it and because doing it met a need.
In 1882, Olcott and Blavatsky established the Theosophical Society’s headquarters at Adyar in Madras (now Chennai). He was a patron of learning, and in 1886 founded the Adyar Library, which became one of the world’s most important repositories of ancient Sanskrit and other manuscripts.
Olcott was also a very popular lecturer. He was noted, not for rhetorical flourishes and high style, but instead for clarity, simplicity, and sincerity. Those who heard him recognized that they had listened to a man who knew what he talked about, who believed with all his heart and soul in the great truths that the holy teachers of India had set forth, and whose only ambition was to do such good as he was able to achieve in service to the world. Colonel Olcott was recognized as a Buddhist among the Buddhists, as an honorary Brahmin among the Hindus, as one learned in mystical Zoroastrianism among the Parsis, and as a Westerner who lived the teachings of Christ rather than merely preaching them.
Olcott’s travels had begun quite early in his life, but reached a crescendo during his late years. He traveled over India and Sri Lanka; but also he visited Burma, Vietnam, Singapore, China, and Japan, as well as Australia and New Zealand. In Europe, he went to Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, both South and North), France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. He traveled across his native United States and elsewhere in the Americas, including Argentina and Cuba.
It was on a return trip from America that a shipboard accident resulted in a fatal injury. Olcott managed to return to Adyar, where he died in 1907. His “Last Message” is a moving expression of the values that motivated his life: "To my beloved brothers in the physical body: I bid you all farewell. In memory of me, carry on the grand work of proclaiming and living the Brotherhood of Religions. To my beloved Brothers on the higher planes: I greet and come to you, and implore you to help me to impress all men on earth that 'there is no religion higher than Truth,' and that in the Brotherhood of Religions lies the peace and progress of humanity."
Colonel Olcott lived his entire life as an act of Theosophical service. Madame Blavatsky, the other principal outer founder of the Society, wrote, “Theosophist is who Theosophy does” and “Theosophy is altruism.” So service to the world is the essence of Theosophy and of Theosophical living. In remembering Olcott, we should celebrate with joy his life and the example he gave us. For his was the life of a true Theosophist, even before the Theosophical Society was called into existence by those Great Ones who watch over the whole world as Bodhisattvas of infinite compassion. Colonel Olcott was himself such a Bodhisattva in the making.
—John Algeo [The basic text of this entry was delivered as a talk at the German Theosophical Society convention and published in the meeting Souvenir of the Uktal Theosophical Federation, both in 2007, the centennial of Olcott's death.]
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