The blog of the American Birding Association for March 10 carries a brief note about ornithologist Elliott Coues’s association with Theosophy.
It’s not the strangest thing a birder has ever done, but Elliott Coues’s association with the American Theosophical Society remains a remarkable chapter in the history of ornithology. Coues joined Mme Blavatsky's gang in 1880, and by mid-decade had ascended to the presidency of the Society, only to be expelled as an apostate in 1889.
Coues brief trajectory through the Theosophical Society is given a chapter in his 1981 biography, Elliott Coues: naturalist and frontier historian, and more specifically in Michael Gomes’ “History of a Humbug,” in The Canadian Theosophist, 1984-86, which gives HPB’s letters to Coues, and his Witness for the Prosecution, 1993, with Annie Besant’s deposition in the libel case Blavatsky brought against Coues and the New York Sun.
Elliott Coues (1842-1899), an American ornithologist of note, met Olcott and Blavatsky in Europe in 1884 and was made head of the Theosophical Society’s newly formed American Board of Control. In 1886 Olcott dissolved Board of Control and created the American Section of the Society. W.Q. Judge was voted its leader and Coues was furious, writing letters threatening dire consequences if he was not made President in America.
In the April 30, 1889, letter that closes her correspondence with him, HPB wrote:
You will not move me by either threats, sweet irony, or Parthian arrows—because I am not a “woman in general.” And also because I have become of late a dead body, dead to outside influence, dead to love or hatred, to praise or blame, and that the few years, or perhaps days I have to live, I have determined to devote to the service of the God within me, and my terrestrial or Earthly master, who is beyond the Himalayas.
Work for the Society and show me that you can do it good, real good, and my life will be at your service. Go on flapdoodling, attempting to play with me as cat plays with a mouse, and the latter will prove too strong for you.
There is a a story about a freethinking hero, or perhaps a president of the United States, whom Satan would not have in hell, and therefore gave him a box of matches and some coals, asking him to go and make a hell of his own.
A Persian proverb says: “He who spits against the wind, receives it back in his face.” Better swim with, than against the tide.
Coues responded with a scandalous interview about Blavatsky that appeared in the Sunday New York Sun of July 20, 1890. HPB sued for libel, but her death terminated the suit. A year after her death the Sun published a long sketch of her life by Judge as a corrective to Coues’ statements, adding: “we desire to say that his allegations respecting the Theosophical Society and Mr. Judge personally are not sustained by evidence, and should not have been printed.”
Gomes says: “Elliott Coues died on Christmas Day, 1899, at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where he had gone for surgery for cancer of the rectum. He passed away from the exhaustion of the operation.”—The Canadian Theosophist, Jan-Feb 1986, p. 137.