Theosophical Encyclopedia

Excerpt from “Personal Recollections of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Excerpt from “Personal Recollections of Sir Richard Francis Burton, K.C.M.G., F.R.S., F.R.G.S.”

(Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. XXXIV, No. 5 [November 1892], pp. 572–574)

A. L. Rawson

TE 212 b SRFBurton

Sir Francis Richard Burton (1821-1890)


[The following is an excerpt that appeared in Theosophical History XVIII, no. 3-4 (July-October 2016): 190–94. It includes a brief episode in Madame Blavatsky’s early life wherein Rawson and Sir Richard Burton meet a “pretty young (grass) widow,” i.e., a “married woman whose husband is absent from her” (OED). The event took place in Egypt, between the latter part of 1852—following Rawson’s release from jail[1]—and May 1853—when Burton left Cairo for Mecca.  In an email dated December 31, 2016, Mr. Deveney remarks:

We know two facts here: Rawson got out of jail in New Jersey in mid-1852 (June) and Burton left Cairo for Mecca in May 1853.  So, this little snippet, if it occurred, took place in that period.  It’s funny that Rawson insists that he had by the time he encountered Burton in Cairo already been to Mecca—where he learned H.P.B. had preceded him.  He was certainly a busy beaver and careful to one-up Burton. 

In reading through all of Rawson’s pieces on H.P.B. it’s hard to determine what he actually thought about her and what he was trying to portray her as.  He certainly was under no illusions about her or her “powers”, but he seems at great pains to try not to utterly call her, flat-out, a phony.  He also was very careful to show that, whatever she was, he was greater! 

Rawson’s piece is very disjointed and reads like some editor cut a lot out: H.P.B. just appears, without introduction, and there are loose ends everywhere: who was her “Russian friend” and was it a man or woman?  Was she in the group that went around Cairo after the séances at Shepheard’s Hotel?  The visit to the snake charmer is obviously the same as that described in Theosophical Occult Apology, in which Rawson is obviously the young American artist. 

This complete article appears on pages  565–576 of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly.

James Santucci, Editor of Theosophical History]

TE 212 c

Albert Leighton Rawson (1828 - 1902) 

He [Burton] had a strong desire to see the famous serpent Charmers of Cairo, and a visit to their quarter was arranged.  Sheik Isherob [Rawson’s teacher] was engaged, and an Englishman from Leeds was invited, making a party of four.  The chief of the serpent charmers lived at Fostat, Old Cairo, the city at the time the Romans ruled Egypt, and his house was near the Coptic convent or church.       

Every traveler knows the ways of the serpent charmer of Egypt, but the mysteries thereof are as dark and unfathomable now as ever to the ordinary eye.  Burton, after seeing the sheik of the clan exhibit his power, or, rather, skill, with the snakes, said:  “It is a marvelous sleight of hand backed by true courage, for they never know when the snake’s poison fangs may have grown again so as to give a fatal stroke.”

        “But their occult power, my dear sir!”

“Come, now, we are not gathering items for a child’s wonder primer.  Don’t talk about occult power over a brute without reason.”               

“Oh, then, occult power only affects those who exercise reason?  I am glad to know.”

        “Don’t rejoice in knowledge prematurely.”

        “But those communications from the spirit world?”

        “Dead men tell no tales.”

What a volume can be conveyed by a look!  He looked the very embodiment of incredulity and fun.

“I have never had such a message, and until I get one by myself, or another I can trust, I must look on the whole scheme as experimental only, of course, with my most ardent hopes for success in boring a hole through the veil that that separates life and death.  But what has all this to do with the serpents and their charmers?”

        “Nothing at all, and you have not seen the real charmers.”

        “No! You surprise me.  Who are they?”

        “The almeh—awalim.”[2]

        “Then, we have wasted precious time.”       

“Nothing lost.  These charmers are near.  The sheik, if you give him an order in the shape of a coin of the realm, or even of England or of France, will at once produce a dancing girl, and for two pieces we may see his harem in motion.”

We made a joint-stock venture of it, and saw to very fair dancers—or, rather, posture makers—and four assistants, younger and much more handsome, and quite pretty as Arab girls go, and for an hour had a fine exhibit of pantomime, in which a love story was enacted, from the first shy and modest glances to the quarrel, the reconciliation, elopement and final blessing of the parents, accompanied by music and clapping of hands of the husbands and brothers and cousins of the women; and in all the exercises the serpents were kept lively, erect or crawling about between the feet of the dancers.  We were unable to discover any evidence of occult power, or of any other power than that of habit.  The snakes had been trained by long and patient practice, and permitted the men or the women to poke them about, usually without showing signs of rage or irritation; and when stirred up with a stick on purpose to make them angry they were half asleep and struck very lazily.

We were very much disappointed in the quest of wonderful works, and, except for the girls and their dancing, we considered the day wasted, only that it served as a means of exposing a very popular fraud.

Not long after that the then pretty young (grass) widow Blavatsky, fresh from Russia, visited the same serpent charmers with us, but with a very different result.  She went into ecstasy over the entire performance—dance, snakes, music, and the noises of the attendant rabble that surrounded the actors.

        “What do you think of the fair Cossack?”  I asked Burton.

“A dangerous young woman—trebly so from having a husband so near the frozen Caucasus while she exposes herself to the ardent sun of Egypt.”

        “And of her mesmerism?” [574]

“Biology is a new study—not a ‘science,’ as it is erroneously called, but yet in the experimental stage.  Madame is reported to have done many wonder works.  If we could see some—even one!”

I arranged a meeting with Mme. Blavatsky, her Russian friend, Burton, Mr. Broadway the dentist, and two or three others whose names I have forgotten, as they were not written in my notebook with the others.  They came late, after we had been in the room at Shepheard’s nearly an hour. And we all noticed that they became very deeply interested at once in madame’s phenomena.  Burton had been introduced as Mr. Jones, of England, and he soon made himself useful by mesmerizing a young woman.  Nothing peculiar happened, except that she said several times, “I don’t get any light—I see no light,” which we afterward interpreted to mean as a hint for the operator or mesmerizer to give her a leading idea so she could go into an intelligent trance.  Late in the evening a young English girl came into the room with her father, and out of curiosity asked to be put under the influence.  While in a trance, as it was said, he told us that a number of persons were in the room who had been neighbors of the Burtons’ at Richmond, where Sir Richard went to school when a lad, and who were reported dead.

“I see,” said the medium, “a short, fat, French woman standing behind Mr. Burton, who says her name is Pujol, and that she knew him at Blois, in France.”

Many other names she gave, some of which Burton remembered as of persons he had known, and he expressed the utmost astonishment that a stranger whom he had never met before should be able to tell so much that seemed to be real and true information.

“What surprises me most is that she told me things I did not know before; for instance, what disease my grandfather died of. I must inquire if she was correct in her statement.”

It was many years after that before I had a chance to remind him of the circumstance and inquire if he had verified the report, and he said:  “The young woman told me correctly as to the nature of my grandfather's last illness, and, whether it is imagination or not, I seem to feel the approach of the same insidious malady.”

“How now about dead men telling no tales?”

“It was a live woman that told me, not a dead one, and there may be a subtle connection between our souIs that enables certain peculiarly organized persons to read each other’s minds.  Or if not to know their thoughts, which seems utterly improbable, at least to be conscious of their physical construction, as, for instance, in my case.  If she was able to see that I was affected by a certain disease, she might also know it was inherited, and from which line of parentage.  We are literally and truly wonderfully made.”


[1] John P. Deveney, The Travels of H. P. Blavatsky and the Chronology of Albert Leighton Rawson: An Unsatisfying Investigation into H. P. B.’s Whereabouts in the Early 1850s,” Theosophical History, Vol. X, No. 4 (October 2004):  8-31.

[2] Almeh (pl. awālim) refers to “dancers” and “learned female singers.”  The Oxford English Dictionary states that it is employed in Egypt as “a trained female entertainer of a type that was formerly engaged to dance, sing, or recite    poetry; (sometimes more loosely) a dancing girl or (in recent use) a prostitute.  Interestingly, the term is a borrowing from French almée. On the nomenclature relating to the “belly dance,” see Stavros Stavrou Karayanni, Dancing Fear & Desire: Race, Sexuality, and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004), 28 & 29. 

his article is published in collaboration with Professor James Santucci, editor of Theosophical History. For more interesting articles and subscriptions follow this link:

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