If Madame Blavatsky (HPB) was the most influential occultist of the nineteenth century, Walter Carrithers was her sustained twentieth century champion against the charges of fraud. Obituary: The "Hodgson Report" on Madame Blavatsky is his only book on the case, though some of his articles achieved a wider if temporary circulation. It shows him at the height of his powers and going where no historian had previously trodden.
There had been many defenses of HPB, but Carrithers went back to the earliest versions of the charges made by the Coulombs (disgruntled former household staff), exposing inconsistencies. He went forward also, comparing the different conflicting explanations offered by Richard Hodgson, the investigator from the Society for Psychical Research who went to India.
But he had an uphill struggle. He received little help from the Theosophical establishment, to whom the Blavatsky case was an embarrassment. Only a handful of people, such as Mr Jinarajadasa, (eventually T.S. president) had any knowledge of the details. Moreover, the imperial myth of the shrewd white psychical researchers of the SPR who had fearlessly exposed the machinations of the Russian agent and her dupes was still powerful, and dominated all coverage of the subject from encyclopaedia entries to full histories of parapsychology.
In this book (starting with its puzzling title) Walter is not at his best as a communicator. The focus moves too much from broad questions to minute detail about the Shrine (an area associated with some of HPB's phenomena). Moreover he maintains the fiction of a separate person, Adlai Waterman, who had recently persuaded the SPR to permit microfilming of the surviving Blavatsky case papers. In fact, it was one of his own major achievements The historian can also see how Walter anticipates on several points the argument used by Dr Vernon Harrison in his 1986 Journal SPR paper which finally dethroned the Hodgson report.
When I joined the SPR thirty years ago, Walter Carrithers was regarded as a bit of a nuisance. The founders whose portraits adorned the walls had supposedly enjoyed one of their greatest triumphs in exposing Madame Blavatsky. Many books defending HPB had not been reviewed in the Journal, (Obituary eventually became an exception) but books attacking her could be. The work of Beatrice Hastings was not in the library. It seemed unlikely this situation would ever change. But Walter lived to see it change decisively, as HPB had predicted. The microfilm yielded evidence of SPR concealment of phenomena, for example. Then in the 1980s, the editor of the SPR Journal, Dr John Beloff, was willing to take a serious look at historical cases of physical phenomena. Dr Hugh Gray, as general secretary of the English Section of the T.S. Adyar, (which I joined in 1980), encouraged historical enquiry. I wrote him a note suggesting Dr Gray invite Dr Vernon Harrison, though not a member, to lecture at T.S. headquarters. Dr Harrison was invited and chose as his subject a re-examination of the Hodgson report. He brought to that task some impressive qualifications. Afterwards, he sent his paper to Dr Beloff, who eventually published it. Walter was involved in this effort, making some of his own findings available.
When my own lecture to the SPR, "Madame Blavatsky Unveiled?" was published as booklet in February 1986, I was proud in the "Introduction" to offer the paper to Walter. Later I was delighted when he accepted the annual presidency of the Theosophical History Centre. All historians of modern Theosophy will welcome the new and wider publication of his book.
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