The life story of American occultist Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) reads like a Harry Potter for adults —only with more twists and turns.
If you can follow Olcott’s career, you can follow much of the development of occult, New Age, Eastern, and esoteric spirituality in the modern world. I’ve created this timeline to provide a guide to the spiritual pioneer’s rollercoaster life. (Is there a need for such a timeline? Well, even a scholarly biographer flubbed Olcott’s birthdate in a first edition of his monograph.)
First, a bit of background. The retired Civil War colonel co-founded the Theosophical Society with Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in New York City in 1875. In its early years, the Theosophical Society ignited new interest in occult and esoteric philosophy throughout much of the West, inspiring the wave of alternative spirituality that swept the modern world.
Olcott’s influence spread in other ways, as well. He brought Westerners some of their first exposure to Vedic and Buddhist religious ideas, and in 1876 he presided over America’s first public cremation service, at a time when cremation was considered an exotic oddity. Today, cremation accounts for more than half of all American funerals.
Olcott and Blavatsky relocated to India in late 1878, taking the nucleus of the Theosophical Society with them. In marathon speaking tours throughout the East, Olcott ignited Hindu and Buddhist religious revivals in the colonial-dominated societies of India and Sri Lanka. The latter nation memorialized the American on a 1967 postage stamp and celebrates his passing, February 17, as “Olcott Day.”
In the late nineteenth century, members of the Theosophical Society brought vigor and early leadership to India’s nascent independence movement. Mohandas Gandhi cited Theosophy as a major influence on his earliest ideas about human equality and religious universality (a topic I explore in my Occult America). Without Blavatsky, Olcott, and the Theosophical Society, the political and religious landscape of today’s world would look different.
Even before becoming Theosophy’s roving ambassador, Olcott led a notable career. While still in his twenties he was considered a wunderkind of scientific and experimental agriculture in America. As a staff colonel for the Union Army, he investigated and exposed fraud among military contractors during the Civil War. After the war, Olcott became one of the early investigators of the Lincoln assassination, and made some of the first arrests and interrogations of suspected coconspirators.
For anyone curious about the life of this remarkable (and under-recognized) American, and the impact that he had, this timeline is a resource for students, scholars, seekers, and history lovers.
Henry Steel Olcott is born on August 2 to Presbyterian parents Thomas and Emily in Orange, New Jersey. He is the first of six children.
At age fifteen, Henry enters University of the City of New York, later called New York University. A downturn in his father’s finances forces him to quit after one year.
At sixteen Henry works on a relative’s farm near Elyria, Ohio. Maternal uncles expose him to séances, table-rapping, and Spiritualism.
Henry returns East to study experimental agricultural at a research farm near Newark, New Jersey. (The farm’s owner shares his interest in Spiritualism.) He also works on the staff of an agricultural journal.
A relative leaves Olcott a bequest, which he and a friend use to open a school of scientific agriculture near Mount Vernon, NY.
Mother Emily dies. Olcott attracts attention with his agricultural research and lectures into the highly adaptable foreign sugar-cane crops called Sorgho and Imphee.
Olcott publishes an influential monograph, Sorgho and Imphee: The Chinese and African Sugar Canes. The book attracts widespread interest on the eve of the Civil War, when Northerners are looking for alternatives to the South’s sugarcane crop.
Olcott publishes his Yale Agricultural Lectures and embarks upon a European tour to lecture on scientific agriculture. His farm school closes. He is offered Chair of Agriculture at the University of Athens in Greece, but instead accepts a job as the agricultural editor at the New York Tribune.
As a journalist for the New York Tribune, Olcott covers the December 2nd hanging of abolitionist John Brown.
On April 26th he marries Mary Eplee Morgan, the daughter of an Episcopal minister.
In January his first son, Richard Morgan, is born. When Civil War breaks out in April, Olcott joins the Union Army and receives a commission as a signals officer.
In June his second son, William Topping, is born. Around September Olcott enters a military hospital with malaria and dysentery. In November he is reassigned to an investigations unit to uncover fraudulent billing practices among military contractors. He is named a staff colonel to lend weight to his investigative authority and is placed in command of a team of detectives and stenographers.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton commends Olcott for his success in routing out contractor fraud. His third son, Henry Steel, is born and dies in infancy.
On April Lincoln is assassinated and Olcott volunteers to assist the investigation. Stanton summons him to bring his staff of detectives from New York to D.C. to help search for the assassin. Olcott is appointed to a three-man commission to review evidence for a conspiracy and to identify possible conspirators. He makes the first major arrest of a suspected conspirator, Edmund Spangler. He also interrogates Mary Suratt who ran boarding houses where assassin John Wilkes Booth and his confederates met. Olcott and his detectives are ordered to raid the Suratt boarding house to search for conspirators. Suratt is hanged in a questionable trial, though Olcott’s interrogation of her is never introduced into evidence.
Olcott resigns his commission at the end of the year.
Olcott obtains a job at a New York law office and starts to study for the bar.
He is admitted to the New York Bar and appointed Secretary and Director of the National Insurance Convention, where he helps draft laws governing the insurance industry. His first daughter, Bessie, is born; she dies before age two.
Olcott visits London where he frequents Spiritualist mediums. He continues his work in journalism.
The world-travelled Russian noblewoman and occult seeker, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky arrives in New York. She journeyed to America, she wrote, to visit the “cradle of Modern Spiritualism.” Blavatsky and Olcott do not meet until the following year.
By mid-year Olcott is divorced from his wife — but records do not survive. (Olcott’s contemporary and fellow Theosophist, William Quan Judge, says Olcott’s ex-wife remarried in 1881.) While reasons for the divorce are unknown, Olcott’s contemporaries speculate that part of the cause was Olcott’s avant-garde spiritual interests.
In July, Olcott reads in the Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light about the Eddy brothers, a pair of spirit mediums who conjure ghostly figures at their farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont. In the late summer/early fall Olcott begins covering events at the “ghost-farm” first for the New York Sun and later for the New York Daily Graphic. On October 14, he meets Blavatsky at the farmhouse. They strike up a close (but not amorous) friendship. In November Olcott returns to New York City.
Olcott publishes his Spiritualist investigations as the book People from the Other World.
In May, Olcott receives his first letter from one of Madame Blavatsky’s “Masters,” or hidden spiritual mentors. The letter is identified as hailing from the Brotherhood of Luxor and is signed by a Tuitit Bey. Olcott soon installs Blavatsky in a New York apartment at 46 Irving Place
Also in May, Olcott makes a failed attempt to form a “Miracle Club” dedicated to investigating the esoteric and paranormal.
A September 17th gathering at Irving Place attracts Spiritualist thinker Emma Hardinge Britten and others to hear a lecture on Egyptian geometry. Olcott proposes to form another organization to study ancient and contemporary spiritual mysteries.
On November 17th, Olcott, Blavatsky, and others inaugurate the Theosophical Society. Olcott is named president. Later that month, Olcott rents separate apartments for himself and Blavatsky at 433 West 34 Street. They work together on her book Isis Unveiled.
In May, Olcott organizes the nation’s first public cremation service at New York’s Masonic Hall, eulogizing and announcing plans to cremate a European-American nobleman named Baron de Palm. The press calls the controversial event a “pagan funeral.” The deceased subject is not actually cremated until December at a private crematorium in Pennsylvania in the presence of Olcott and Blavatsky.
In summer-fall, Olcott and Blavatsky move to a small suite of apartments on Manhattan’s westside at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 47th Street. Their home becomes an occult salon and a gathering spot where notable figures, including Thomas Edison and Major-General Abner Doubleday, congregate to discuss mystical religious ideas. The place is considered such a hotbed of avant-garde religion that the New York press calls it the Lamasery, after the monastic retreats of Tibet.
One winter night, Olcott reports being visited one night at Lamasery by Master Morya, one of the hidden Masters, or Mahatmas, spoken of by Blavatsky. Olcott said the figure materialized before him while he was reading late one night — and the experience sealed his decision to later travel with Blavatsky to India. (The precise date of the event is unclear, though it seems to follow the events of 1876 and Olcott cites it occurring during their writing of Isis Unveiled, which was published in the fall. Hence, the encounter likely occurred in winter.)
In September, Madame Blavatsky publishes her sprawling study of occult subjects, Isis Unveiled.
In April Thomas Edison joins the near-dormant Theosophical Society.
On December 17th, Olcott and Blavatsky depart for India, uprooting the nucleus of the Theosophical Society.
Olcott and Blavatsky reach Bombay in January
Olcott makes his first visit to Ceylon (later Sri Lanka). He and Blavatsky become the first Westerners to publicly take formal Buddhist vows.
Against Blavatsky’s wishes, Olcott leaves her side to return to Ceylon for a speaking tour. He crisscrosses the island nation via ox cart calling for a Buddhist revival. Olcott starts a National Education Fund for Buddhist schools and publishes his influential Buddhist Catechism.
Olcott begins practicing magnetic or Mesmeric healings in Ceylon. In November he returns to Blavatsky at Theosophical headquarters in Adyar, India.
In May, Olcott travels to London to lobby for the rights of Ceylon’s Buddhists to worship publicly. He responds to questions about Blavatsky’s mediumistic abilities before Society for Psychical Research, which includes notable scientist Frederic Myers.
In the fall, British colonial officials agree to lighten regulations of public Buddhist worship and to officially recognize holiday of Wesak, the birthday/passing of Buddha.
In September, a disgruntled married couple formerly affiliated with the Theosophical Society circulates a series of public letters impugning Blavatsky as a fake conjuror and fraud. In December, psychical investigator Richard Hodgson arrives in Madras to investigate these and other charges for the Society for Psychical Research.
Olcott makes his first visit to the Buddhist communities of Burma (later Myanmar).
In March, Blavatsky departs India in the wake of scandals arising from the letters and investigations over her activities.
In April, Olcott co-designs the international Buddhist flag in Ceylon.
In June, researcher Hodgson issues his initial findings through the Society for Psychical Research. The controversial “Hodgson Report” appears in December, impugning Blavatsky, and writing off Olcott as her dupe.
Blavatsky resides in different parts of Western Europe and begins writing her epic study of occult cosmology, The Secret Doctrine
Blavatsky settles in London. The Secret Doctrine is published.
Olcott takes four-month tour of Japan and its Buddhist temples; he delivers 75 lectures in 107 days. He attempts to start a unifying International Buddhist League.
Blavatsky meets with a young Mohandas Gandhi in London.
Blavatsky dies in London.
Olcott becomes embroiled in internal Theosophical Society controversies with William Q. Judge, who claimed to receive to his own guidance from Blavatsky and Olcott’s Masters. Olcott disputes Judge’s claims, leading to splits in the society.
Olcott publishes the first installment of his six-book memoir, Old Diary Leaves (which is issued through 1935, including in posthumous volumes). He writes numerous articles in the years ahead.
In October, Olcott suffers a severe fall on passenger ship en route from New York to Italy.
Olcott dies in February 17 at Adyar. He leaves behind hundreds of Buddhist schools in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a sign of his success at reigniting Buddhist practice there and in other nations.