Sooner or later anyone interested in H.P. Blavatsky will come across the statement that she was declared a fraud by a Society for Psychical Research (SPR) that existed in London during her lifetime. But, as Leslie Price, a member of that Society has remarked, “Any writer or speaker who says the SPR exposed Madame Blavatsky is only exposing his own ignorance.”
In 1884 the SPR appointed a Committee for the purpose of taking such evidence on the nature of theosophical phenomena as was possible during the visit of Olcott and Blavatsky to England at that time. The Committee’s cautious preliminary report, gathering the statements of Theosophists, was issued later that year. But news of an exposure by two recently dismissed members of the staff at the Theosophical headquarters at Madras caused them to send a member of the Committee, Richard Hodgson, to gather further evidence in India. Hodgson’s report, covering almost 200 pages, was published in the SPR Proceedings at the end of 1885. Based on his findings the Committee appended their oft-quoted verdict naming her “one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.”
Hodgson looked for a motive behind such a widespread imposition, ruling out financial gain and a “morbid yearning for notoriety,” concluding instead that Blavatsky’s theosophical work was a cover for her activities as a Russian spy. Mme. Blavatsky wanted to sue for libel but was advised against such action by a committee of distinguished members of the Theosophical Society.
Over the years the aura infallibility that surrounded Hodgson’s report has slowly been eroding, due in part to the attitude of the SPR itself. In a letter to Time magazine in 1968, the Hon. Secretary of the SPR wrote of Hodgson’s report that “Any accusations therein are the responsibility of the author and not this organization.” In 1960 Walter A. Carrithers, a member of the SPR published an analysis on Hodgson’s report questioning its reliability, and, in 1986, the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research published a critical examination of the handwriting portion Hodgson’s report by Vernon Harrison, another member.
When Annie Besant was considering joining the Theosophical Society in 1889, HPB suggested that she read Hodgson’s report, for she never shied away from people deciding the truth of the matter for themselves. If all of this is overwhelming, Michael Gomes’ The Coulomb Case, published in 1984 and reissued twenty years later, provides an overview of the events leading up to Hodgson’s report with a number of original documents relevant to its understanding.
Most of the other items mentioned here are now online. Hodgson’s report can be accessed in the SPR’s 1885 Proceedings through Google books. The SPR preliminary report is at Blavatsky Archives. Walter Carrithers’ book, Obituary: the Hodgson Report, (published under his pen name Adlai E. Waterman) can be read here, and Vernon Harrison’s appraisal here. Aside from having an original edition of Hodgson’s report, the copy would be the facsimile issued by Arno Press in New York in 1976, The Society for Psychical Research Report on the Theosophical Society, with an Introduction by James Webb. It includes the folding plates of the original, plus Hodgson’s subsequent attempt to justify his narrative, and a pamphlet by William Kingsland criticizing the report.