Central to the doctrines of Spiritualism was the existence of the 'spirit guide', the Hermesian entity responsible for transmitting post mortem communications. As Spiritualist séances proliferated, so too did the search for the most reliable and assiduous spirit guides. Of these, a number rose to prominence, even in some cases assuming dynastic proportions. Perhaps the most famous and ubiquitous of the early guides was the spirit known as John King. Having first appeared to the Davenport brothers in 1850 and the Koons soon thereafter, John King became a staple in the Spiritualist world, as did his 'daughter' Katie King; indeed, they were the most popular male and female spirit guides on either side of the Atlantic for many years. It is not insignificant that from reasonably humble (post-mortem) beginnings, John King was eventually to be represented in rather exalted fashion; in one instance he was shown to be the spirit of the buccaneer Henry Morgan (c.1635-1688), at another time he claimed to be the chief of a band of prelapsarian spirits.
The Kings, father and daughter, gained much notoriety from an 1874 incident involving two Philadelphia mediums, Jennie and Nelson Holmes. It appeared that the Holmes' had employed Katie King as more than just a spirit guide: the elderly Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877) claimed publicly that the jewellery he had been giving Katie King, via the Holmes, had turned up in the possession of a woman by the name of Eliza White, who acknowledged that she had been employed by the Holmes' to impersonate the spirit. This incident is significant for the present study primarily because Blavatsky, then resident in Philadelphia, rushed to the defence of the Holmes', insisting that Katie King was a genuine spirit and that the incident had been fabricated by 'the Protestant Jesuitical society called the 'Young Men's Christian Association' [the Y. M. C. A.]'. Blavatsky, it seemed, had her own relationship with the King family and did not appreciate the negative publicity surrounding the allegations of the Holmes' fraudulence.
Writing in 1875, Blavatsky explained her association with the mysterious John King in glowing terms:
[T]he spirit John King is very fond of me, and I am fonder of him than of anything on earth. He is my only friend, and if I am indebted to anyone for the radical change in my ideas of life, my efforts and so on, it is to him alone ... John King and I are acquainted from old times, long before he began to materialise in London.
Never one to broach rivals, Blavatsky took care to separate her guide ('my John King') from any others. It is apparent, even at this early stage, that Blavatsky's relationship of priority with her spirits (as would later be the case with her Masters) was jealously guarded.
Olcott, too, had encountered John King at a séance during a London visit in 1870. He only became convinced of the value and veracity of King, though, when the spirit assisted in a series of séances held during the early months of 1875 which had had as their express purpose Blavatsky's design to rehabilitate the reputation of Philadelphian Spiritualism - or at least so she had said at the time. It is during this period, however, that a subtle readjustment in explaining Spiritualist phenomena can be discerned in Olcott:
Try to get private talk with 'John King' - he is an initiate, and his frivolities of speech and action are meant to cover serious business.
There can be little doubt that Olcott's references to King's standing as an 'initiate' and to his technique of subterfuge were mediated to Olcott by Blavatsky. This shift from imaging the spirit entities as discarnate humans of no specific religious hue or status, and with no particular theological or dogmatic programme, to conceiving of them as in some sense spiritually adept is evidence of early Blavatskian revisionism. From the middle of 1875, and with an ever-broadening application thereafter, Blavatsky would assign the impetus for the inception of Spiritualism, and indeed the governance and direction of esoteric orders as a whole, to a band of living adepts she called Masters:
An attempt in consequence of orders received from T*** B*** [Tuitit Bey?] through P*** [an elemental?] personating J. K. [John King?]. Ordered to begin telling the public the truth about the phenomena & their mediums. And now my martyrdom will begin! I will have all the Spiritualists against me in addition to the Christians & the Skeptics! Thy Will, oh M:. [Master? Morya? ] be done!
A note in Olcott's 1875 publication People from the Other World, while reduced in emotional tone, speaks no less clearly with Blavatsky's voice:
After knowing this remarkable lady, and seeing the wonders that occur in her presence ... I am almost tempted to believe that the stories of Eastern fables are but simple narratives of fact; and that this very American outbreak of spiritualistic phenomena is under the control of an Order, which while depending for its results upon unseen agents, has its existence upon Earth among men.
Ultimately, Blavatsky's championing of the Holmes' in the Katie King incident would also be revised to insinuate that the Masters had provided the manifestation of John and Katie King for the edification of Olcott and the assembled enthusiasts. Writing years after the event, Olcott felt sufficiently confident that although he had once believed categorically in 'a veritable John King', he was now 'persuaded that 'John King' was a humbugging elemental, worked by [Blavatsky] like a marionette and used as a help towards my education'. A further note in Blavatsky's Scrapbook leaves no doubt as to how she recast her role in the séances:
I went to the Holmeses and helped by M:. and his power, brought out the face of John King and Katie King in the astral light, produced the phenomena of materialization and - allowed the Spiritualists at large to believe it was done thro' the mediumship of Mrs. Holmes. She was terribly frightened herself, for she knew that this once the apparition was real.
The notion that Blavatsky may have precipitated the phenomena in Philadelphia, and, more broadly, that the entire enterprise of Spiritualism had not been a spontaneous eruption, but a carefully engineered project by living Masters, has been analysed in an illuminating series of articles by Joscelyn Godwin. It is Godwin's contention that a variety of occultists contrived the phenomena of Spiritualism - or so they claimed - with no lesser purpose than to overturn the orthodoxies of Christianity and materialist science, and to establish in their place a novel metaphysics with profoundly altered ontological and epistemological paradigms. That these vaunted claims can have been sufficiently well justified by the parties concerned as to be widely believed by their followers is testament to the degree of dissatisfaction felt by Blavatsky's generation of esotericists for the prevailing religious, scientific, and social standards of the era. Yet the question of the Masters' motive in such an undertaking has been insufficiently addressed: what purpose could living Masters have had in provoking the mass irruption of modern necromancy into the nineteenth-century Western cultural matrix? What was the gain?
Blavatsky, writing in 1890, sought to establish the Masters' motive in the propagation of Spiritualism. Unsurprisingly, Spiritualism is the Baptist to Theosophy's Messiah:
For several years [Spiritualism] reigned undivided. Yet in truth, its phenomena, its psychic and mesmeric manifestations, were but the cyclic pioneers of the revival of prehistoric Theosophy, and the occult Gnosticism of the antediluvian mysteries. These are facts which no intelligent Spiritualist will deny; as, in truth, modern Spiritualism is but an earlier revival of crude Theosophy, and modern Theosophy a renaissance of ancient Spiritualism.
It seems, then, that
for Blavatsky the Masters operated in a sense extra-historically. They
reinitiate on a cyclical basis the invigorating injection of spiritual
sustenance required to disarm the ascendancy of materialism and
dogmatism. Spiritualism was thus the prodromus
for Theosophy which alone could re-enchant a dispiritedly rationalist
cosmos. Ultimately, then, Spiritualism had been initiated in order that
the ground could be prepared for the Masters-inspired revival of esotericism
which would come in the form of Theosophy; Olcott had worded it thus: 'Must not
babes be fed with milk?'
In Correspondence with the Masters
Having been so furtive in their Spiritualist strategies in the years preceding 1875, the Masters now became a conspicuous fixture in the lives of Blavatsky and Olcott from this point and on, selecting as their preferred mode of contact the simple franked letter. Probably around the middle of May, 1875, Olcott received the first of what became a long stream of correspondence from individuals he believed to be Masters of the Universal Mystic Brotherhood. Written in an elaborate, if imperfect, copperplate script in gold ink on green paper, and replete with sigils of a mystico-Masonic nature, the letter is in effect an invitation to an occult apprenticeship:
From the Brotherhood
of Luxor, Section the Vth to Henry Olcott.
Brother Neophyte, we greet thee.
He who seeks us finds us. Try. Rest thy mind - banish all foul doubt. We keep watch over our faithful soldiers. Sister Helen is a valiant, trustworthy servant. Open thy Spirit to conviction, have faith and she will lead thee to the Golden Gate of truth ... Brother 'John' [John King] hath brought three of our Masters to look at thee after the seance. Thy noble exertions on behalf of our cause now give us the right of letting thee know who they were:
Serapis Bey (Ellora Section)
Polydorus Isurenus (Section of Solomon)
Robert More (Section of Zoroaster)...
Silence as to the present.
By Order of the Grand:.
Observatory of Luxor.
Day of Mars.
This letter was delivered to Olcott not by some species of occult precipitation, but in the same mail as a note from Blavatsky, who stated that she had been directed by the Masters to forward the letter to its recipient. Olcott's attentions were further aroused when he discovered that a circular that he himself had recently published in the Spiritual Scientist had prefigured his introduction to his proto-Master: an acrostic of the first letters of each paragraph read 'TUITIT'. This interesting confluence, first noted by Blavatsky, further convinced the Colonel that he had been accepted as a pupil.
Olcott's occult tutelage passed from Tuitit Bey to Serapis Bey at a very early stage. From the middle of 1875 (and thus antedating the establishment of the Theosophical Society) until the latter part of 1879, Olcott received many 'Masters' letters' from Serapis, sometimes in concentrated volleys, at other times only intermittently. Arriving by regular mail (postmarked from Philadelphia and Albany), the first several letters are in the main unremarkable and concern themselves with relatively mundane details of Blavatsky's and Olcott's domestic life. The central topics appear to be Blavatsky's financial woes and her by now failed second - and bigamist - marriage to the Georgian Michael Betanelly. The language is replete with deliberate archaisms and self-conscious allusions to some form of arcane Order. Indeed, Serapis' main interest, it would seem, was to secure Olcott's unwavering allegiance to the Lodge of the Masters and to their representative, Helena Blavatsky, by means that might sometimes appear those of a 'Machiavellian schemer' rather than an altruistic Master of the Wisdom. At one time Serapis exhorted Olcott to approach relatives of his divorced wife for money 'for the sake of the Cause'; at another he attempted to involve Olcott in highly questionable business deals with Betanelly, Blavatsky's erstwhile husband. Serapis' worldliness is accompanied by a disappointing want of oracular ability: he assured Olcott that his 'distant future is at Boston' and that 'there are millions in the future in store for Betanelly'.
It is an interesting feature of religionist Theosophical scholarship that the Masters' letters are deemed to have begun not with the correspondence of Tuitit Bey and Serapis Bey, but with the later missives sent to Sinnett and others from the Oriental 'Mahatmas' (Masters): Koot Hoomi and, later, Morya. Certainly, part of the reason for this selective emphasis is the post-1878 Orientalising of the Theosophical Society: in fact, Garry Trompf has noted that Blavatsky came to 'look more Indophile than Schopenhauer'. Unsurprisingly, this dramatic focus on the Asian Masters has had the effect of suppressing the pre-Indic history of the Theosophical Society, and of accentuating the novelty of the Oriental models at the expense of similar currents in the esoteric milieu of Europe and America. Allied to this revisionist undertaking to shift the genesis and inspiration for Blavatskian Theosophy ever farther eastward is the concern to elevate the Masters to the status of a rarefied spiritual elite, unique in the esoteric firmament. Even a cursory examination of the first generation of Masters' letters (those which feature Serapis Bey) indicates that this Master was in reality not far removed from the spirit guides of Spiritualism in terms of either dogmatic pronouncements or Mercurial activities. In fact, there is little about Serapis' self-revelation which would justify Theosophical claims that with the emergence of Blavatsky's Masters a new spiritual dispensation had begun.
To see other parts of this investigation referring to Blavatsky go to