The 19th Century's Seance Queen

The name Madame Helena Blavatsky was only familiar to me through Kurt Vonnegut references, and I wasn’t too sure that she was a real person. Now I know. Blavatsky was a real person, but how real any of the things she claimed to be are still in doubt. She said she was born in Russia in 1831, and had many adventures before she became famous for contacting spirits at American seances.  

But the usual ghosts weren’t good enough for Blavatsky. In 1875, in a Manhattan drawing room, she launched a group with the grand title of the Theosophical Society. Setting ghosts aside, it would search out a higher class of supernatural beings: the “Mahatmas,” whom Blavatsky had allegedly met in Tibet.

These men, she said, could ship their souls anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice through “astral projection.” They could also ship other things—notably letters. Theosophists marveled at the projectile missives that flew through the windows of moving trains or were delivered by enigmatic turbaned men sneaking into tents at midnight. In the 1870s, instantaneous delivery of a message still felt downright miraculous.

There is, however, such a thing as too many miracles. At some point, the would-be wonderworker has to call on a friend to keep up with demand—and friends are unreliable.

Hiring an assistant was to become Madame Blavatsky’s downfall. Read what happened at Atlas Obscura.

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