H S Olcott, biography, theosophy
[H S Olcott, biography] Henry Steel Olcott, Theosophical Society

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H S Olcott biography

Henry Steel Olcott ( H S Olcott ) was born on August 2, 1832 in Orange, New Jersey the first of an eventual family of six children. In his later teens his University education had to be abandoned due to the failure of his father's business in 1851. Olcott then moved to live near some relatives in Ohio where he made a living farming awakening an interest in agriculture. His relatives encouraged Olcott's interest in the paranormal, including mesmerism (Hypnotism).

Returning to the East Coast, Olcott studied agriculture to such effect that he became an educationalist and researcher in scientific agriculture. He was even retained by several publications as an agricultural correspondent.

In 1860 Olcott married Mary Epplee Morgan, with whom he had four children. This marriage was unsuccessful, and by 1874 the couple were divorced.

When the American Civil War broke out Olcott enlisted in the signal corps but his talents were such that he was after a time assigned duties as a Special Commissioner investigating fraud at the New York Mustering and Disbursement Office. Promoted to Colonel and seconded to the Navy Department in Washington, DC, he investigated fraud in the Navy Yards and received an high commendation for his work from the Secretary of the Navy. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated Olcott was sufficiently highly thought of as to be appointed to the three-man special commission to investigate the murder.

Olcott resigned from the army in 1865 and returned to New York City to study law. In 1868 he was admitted to the New York Bar and became successful as a specialist in insurance, customs, and revenue cases.

Once established as a lawyer, Olcott's interest in the occult revived. On reading in 1874 of spiritualistic phenomena at the Eddy Farmstead in Vermont, he determined to investigate for himself and obtained a journalistic assignment from the New York "Sun". Olcott's series of articles stimulated great enthusiasm, and the New York "Daily Graphic" persuaded him to return for six weeks to write twelve more articles. These were reprinted all over the country, and investigators of phenomena in Europe and America praised his thorough scientific methods.

The year 1874 was a turning point in Olcott's life. Then aged forty-two he met H. P. Blavatsky in October during his second stay at the Eddy Farmstead, and they quickly became friends. By November 1875 the name Theosophical Society had been chosen for a philosophico-religious Society they intended to establish, Olcott was elected President and Blavatsky Corresponding Secretary.

Olcott continued his law practice by day, helping Blavatsky with "Isis Unveiled" late into the night whenever they were not busy entertaining visitors. Olcott and Blavatsky prepared to go to India, leaving in December 1878. They moved the headquarters of the Theosophical Society to Adyar in Madras (now Chennai), India.

Unfortunately, from the mid-1880s until Blavatsky's death in 1891, Olcott began to distrust his fellow-founder and, increasingly, had trouble forgiving her explosive temperament and frequent criticisms. Matters were not helped by the "Coulomb attack" where Madame Blavatsky was accused by some Theosophical Society employees of fraud and only eventually exonerated.

In the wake of the stresses associated with the fraud charges Madame Blavatsky resigned as Corresponding Secretary and left for Europe in March 1885 to regain her health and write "The Secret Doctrine".

Olcott continued to work in Asia believing that "the proper work of the Founders of the Society is rather that of organization than research". Unfortunately, his decisions in running the Society seemed to result in a "machine-like organization" that was found to be off-putting by some Eastern Masters of religious philosophy who had been nurturing and advising the Theosophical Society in India.
Therefore Blavatsky, having recovered her health sufficiently, began again to take a more active role in the Society, revitalizing and leading the European work and organizing the Esoteric Section, in association with William Quan Judge, but under her direct control.
Olcott did not understand the need for this renewed involvement by Madame Blavatsky and was hostile to many of her moves. He was also increasingly disturbed by the high standing and veneration given to Blavatsky and her work by the Eastern Masters.

 After Blavatsky's death, Olcott (President-Founder), William Q. Judge (Vice-President and co-head of the Esoteric Section), and Annie Besant (President of the Blavatsky Lodge, London, and co-head of the Esoteric Section) were the leading officials.

Long-standing personal and policy tensions between Olcott and Judge (similar but far greater than those between Olcott and Blavatsky) magnified the conflicts that eventually split the Society in 1895. After the division, Olcott continued his theosophical work with Annie Besant, traveling widely, lecturing and establishing new Branches, until he injured his leg on shipboard in Europe in late 1906. He returned to Adyar, where he died of heart disease on February 17, 1907.

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