Gothamist, the “website about New York City and everything that happens in it”, talks with Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America, in its October 21st issue. Horowitz sees early 19th century central New York State as “a hotbed of avant-garde, religious and social thought and activities.”
This chapter in religious history took another turn by the 1870s when New York became home to a Russian migrant named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, or typically known as Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky was a Russian spiritual adventurer, she was in search of hidden and esoteric knowledge. She came to America, she said, because she wanted to visit the birthplace of spiritualism. She settled in New York City and in 1875, she and some over her colleagues founded the Theosophical Society in the neighborhood of what is now Hell’s Kitchen. That organization became hugely influential—it actually reintroduced the word occult into common use as the word had fallen into disuse—and Blavatsky very convincingly spoke of her search for an occult or hidden philosophy from which all the modern religious sprang. She called it a “Secret Doctrine.” She spoke of traditions emanating out of Buddhism and Hinduism and said that she was under the guidance of hidden spiritual masters who were helping her bring this liberalizing religious revolution to the West. People were enchanted with her, enthralled with her, and it was probably the figure of Blavatsky, more than anybody else, who helped ignite this revolution in alternative spirituality that began to sweep through the West, the effects of which we’re still feeling today. New York played a very special role as a “new age,” and that’s certainly true in terms of recent decades, but in the 19th century New York was this avant-garde religious capital.
The rest of the interview, with a guide to some historic places of occult New York and thoughts about Halloween, can be read here.