Deep in their Puritan consciences Americans have long distrusted the seemingly twisted notion that the immaterial is real and the tangible illusory. Thousands of Americans, San Diegans in particular, nonetheless attended to a debate between two charismatic advocates of Theosophy, a strain of transcendentalist thought popular at the turn of the century. Mrs. Annie Besant, spiritual leader of the Theosophical Society, and Mme. Katherine Tingley, leader of the secessionist United Brotherhood of Theosophists, each advanced a radically different concept of how theosophical thought should be rendered into human action. In a past issue of this journal, Dennis Berge and Iverson Harris cast light on how Katherine Tingley translated her interpretation of theosophical doctrine into the Theosophical Institute at Point Loma.1 This essay focuses on Annie Besant’s speaking engagement in San Diego in 1897, where she responded to the ideas forwarded by Mme. Tingley and her followers. A description of the character of Mrs. Besant’s excursion to San Diego should help clarify the ideological and cultural contexts within which the Point Loma experiment was undertaken.
The seeds of controversy from which the Besant-Tingley debate later blossomed germinated soon after the death in 1891 of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society.2 Most Theosophists believed that Indian mahatmas, beings as superior to man in wisdom as man is to the monkey, had selected Mme. Blavatsky as their sole agent to communicate to the West the “ancient wisdom” underlying all religions. Mme. Blavatsky died without publicly naming her successor, and a dispute over the leadership of the Theosophical Society ensued. William Quan Judge, leader of the American section, produced a letter allegedly written by a mahatma, which appointed him as Mme. Blavatsky’s spiritual successor. After initially supporting Judge’s claim, Mrs. Besant became convinced that his letter of appointment was a forgery. She joined Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, President of the Theosophical Society, in mobilizing the large Indian and English lodges against Judge’s position, thereby thwarting his bid for succession. The two allies could not, however, prevent the wily Judge from persuading the 4000 American members of the Theosophical Society to split from the parent organization and acknowledge his leadership of the new Theosophical Society of America.
After Judge died in 1895, the energetic Katherine Tingley assumed leadership of the secessionist movement. Mrs. Besant and Colonel Olcott regarded the actions of the new American leader with a mixture of contempt and despair as Mme. Tingley announced her intention of wresting control of the balance of the Theosophical Society from the Besant-Olcott alliance. Changing the title of her organization to the United Brotherhood of Theosophists, Mrs. Tingley, with the aid of six disciples, invaded the heartland of her rival’s domain, advocating a highly pragmatic Western brand of Theosophy in England, Europe, India, and Australia. The Tingley entourage began the final leg of its crusade in February 1897, a sweep across the United States, inaugurated in San Diego, where the Crusaders laid the cornerstone for the School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity, and concluded in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on April 4, 1897. Concurrently, Mrs. Besant organized a worldwide speaking tour of her own and often spoke in the same cities on the same days as the Crusaders. As a reporter for the San Diego Union noted, this could “scarcely be regarded as coincidence nor attributed to the impelling of unknowable forces,” but was directed by “the Mahatma” of the rival organization.3 As the Crusaders arrived in San Diego, Mrs. Besant announced plans for a six-month, cross-country tour of the United States. Sailing directly from India, where she had conferred with Colonel Olcott, Annie debarked from the steamship Teutonic in New York City on March 18, 1897. Sensing the drama of the impending clash, journalists composed banner headlines proclaiming “Tocsins Sound for Astral War” and “Battle of the Fair Theosophists is On.”
Few people must have seemed more out of place in America than Annie Besant. Clad in a white silk gown and a richly embroidered Indian silk shawl, wearing the “mystic ring of Mme. Blavatsky on the third finger of her right hand,” and with a spiritual expression “strikingly suggestive of a life in which contemplation predominates over action,” Mrs. Besant exuded a spirituality, a gentility, a mystical elegance at odds with the rugged self-image many Americans held of themselves.4 These mysterious qualities nonetheless lent credence to Annie’s claim that she had communicated with the spirit of Mme. Blavatsky. In her first interview she announced to startled reporters that “Mme. Blavatsky has been reincarnated in the person of a young Brahmin, now about 19 years old. The reincarnation took place five years ago, and the lad who previously knew only Sanskrit and Hindustani, now speaks Russian, French, German, and Hebrew.” She cautioned that “his identity must be held secret for some time to come,” and added: “I knew from Mme. Blavatsky of this reincarnation, before it was consummated.” A writer for the New York Herald commented: “This means confusion to Mrs. Tingley, some of whose friends say she is the reincarnated Blavatsky.”5
Annie Besant alleged, however, that her major differences with Mrs. Tingley were philosophical, not personal. She differed from her rival on the fundamental question of how Theosophists could help improve the lot of mankind. Mrs. Besant maintained that only by the propagation of ideas which would help the individual ennoble his soul could Theosophists alleviate their fellow man’s suffering. Affirming the Platonic conviction of three ascending levels of reality, the physical, the mental, and the spiritual, Mrs. Besant argued that man in essence “is a spiritual intelligence…. treading a vast cycle of human experience, born and reborn on earth millenium after millenium, evolving slowly to the ideal man.”6 She maintained that the ultimate object of all men should be to train and purify their animal passions into human emotions, for only then “may one achieve still higher possibilities.”7 How far any soul evolves in the present is a result of man’s “creative energies in the past.” Likewise she claimed that one’s future happiness depends upon how far one’s soul evolves in one’s present life. Reasoning that “intelligence is the only thing that will shorten the probation of the soul,” Mrs. Besant regarded public speaking, “the very essence of intellectual delight,” as a primary means of forwarding the “moral growth of man.”8 She saw little merit to diluting the intellectual substance of her message and directed her arguments to the educated mind. Mrs. Besant justified such intellectual elitism in her autobiography: “No man can enjoy a happiness which is too high for his capabilities; a book may be of intensest interest, but a dog will very much prefer being given a bone.”9
By contrast, Katherine Tingley maintained that the sentiment of compassion should govern the activities of the movement. Affirming a literal interpretation of the first object of the Theosophical Society, the promotion of a universal brotherhood among men, she believed Theosophists should help those addicted to “drink or drugs,” try to “alleviate hopeless poverty,” and work for the abolition of capital punishment and vivisection.10 While Annie Besant did little charity work and charged fifty cents for almost all her lectures, the spokesmen for the United Brotherhood, marching under the banner of “Truth, Light, Liberation for Discouraged Humanity,” charged no admission to their lectures, gave a number of free “brotherhood suppers,” advocated practical humanitarian reforms, and visited prisons, hospitals, and orphanages.
Distrusting Annie Besant’s esoteric intellectualism, Mme. Tingley and her disciples tried to innoculate their listeners against her preachments. Ernest Hargrove warned his American audiences to “beware of moneymaking ‘Theosophists,’ particularly when they claim to be able to read your thoughts.”11 An anonymous author in the Pacfic Theosophist accused Mrs. Besant of preaching a “heterogeneous mass of astral absurdities.”12 And when asked by a reporter from the Indianapolis Sentinel what she thought of Mrs. Besant’s theory of thought forms and human auras, Katherine Tingley replied, “It’s all bosh.”13
In spite of Annie Besant’s protests, reporters eagerly exploited her dispute with Mine. Tingley. The controversy flamed brightly in San Diego after Countess Constance Wachtmeister, one of Mrs. Besant’s travelling companions, offered some intemperate remarks about the Crusaders to a reporter from the San Diego Union. The Countess, who at first “did not know she was speaking for publication,” said on April 27, only two days before Mrs. Besant’s address, that Katherine Tingley’s school would be “nothing more than a nest of free lovers.” Although she hoped the school “would not degenerate into a farce,” the Countess claimed to have seen similar ventures drift into “the teaching of communism and free love.” She continued that she was disgusted by the “theatrical display” of Crusader Claude Falls Wright’s marriage, in which Mine. Tingley conducted the ceremony disguised as a mahatma. Countess Wachmeister’s alleged statements appeared to give lie to her son’s claim that “we have only kindest feelings for Mrs. Tingley and her society and certainly have no desire to hinder any of their work.”14
Anticipating an attack by the Besant forces, Katherine Tingley had earlier voiced her opinion of Mrs. Besant to a reporter for the Union. Her remarks were first published in the paragraphs immediately following the account of Wachtmeister’s interview. Mme. Tingley claimed that “A.B.” was ‘a reincarnation of the devil.’ Although she admitted Mrs. Besant had ability in “the gross, material form,” Mine. Tingley believed her rival did not have “a clear transparent soul, which shall reflect back the thoughts of the Wise Ones.” She concluded that Mrs. Besant talked of “mummeries masquerading under the cloak of true belief,” because “she is a victim of her own selfishness.” In direct response to Mrs. BesaDt’s claims that a young unnamed Hindu was actually Mme. Blavatsky’s successor, Mme. Tingley argued that “before Blavatsky died, I was chosen as Judge’s successor. Before Blavatsky died, my own successor was chosen. Nothing on earth, no power of kings, can change this succession.”15
When confronted with these charges at a reception at the Hotel Brewster, Mrs. Besant, “dressed in white silk and holding a red rose in her right hand,” professed to want to avoid controversy. Although she said she did “not like quarrels,” she opined that Claude Falls Wright resigned from the United Brotherhood after growing tired of Mme. Tingley’s “theatrical way of conducting matters.”16
The publication of these vigorous sallies aroused a “storm of criticism” and “much debate among Tbeosophists and others.” “Mrs Besant was much disturbed by the unfavorable comment caused by the indiscreet words of her companion and sent a note to the Union stating that in her opinion, the phrase ‘nest of free lovers’ was an unfounded slander upon the school of mysteries.” The Union speculated that Mrs. Besant may have had a “sharp talk” with the Countess, causing her to deny she made the charges published in the inverview. Nonetheless, the Union stood by its Story.17
“Contrary to general expectation,” during her lecture at the Fisher Opera House on April 29, neither Mrs. Besant, “nor Countess Wachtmeister who introduced her,” ventured to discuss the controversy. Instead Annie Besant devoted the night to a discussion of “Man’s Unseen Bodies.” Although her “audience was not large,” it was “very attentive.” To illustrate this lecture, Mrs. Besant used a recent invention, the stereopticon. She projected “upon the illuminated screen a visible representation of what is called the human aura.” Visible only to the eyes of the spiritually advanced, the aura is “a color effect” resultant “from the vibration of waves of psychic ether emanating from invisible bodies clothing a human individuality.” The form and color of an aura reveal to the clairvoyant the “spiritual and moral emotions of the individual.” Three principles underly the production of thought forms: quality of thought determines color; nature of thought determines form; definiteness of thought determines clearness of outline. For example, the representation of the aura of a North American Indian “was marred by brown splotches,” the colors of “cruelty and revenge. Red spots showed anger and hatred. Very little blue was seen, blue being the color of devotion. There was no rose color at all. This is the color of pure love, unmixed with gross physical love.” Another picture was the aura of a woman in New York City. “She had thought so persistently and spitefully of another woman that her thought assumed a terrible direct and threatening shape. It was a long, red streak shooting straight across the screen like a comet, with a sharp point of great brilliancy. Mrs. Besant said thoughts so sharply defined as this were dangerous, and generally lasted into another life, even impelling the possessor to do murder.” Nonetheless, she concluded her lecture on an optimistic note maintaining that “all evil in the world might be diverted by the casting of a rose colored shaft of love by the astral body in return for flashes of anger which were sent out by one’s enemies.”18
The Sun’s reporter commented that “Mrs. Besant delivered a very interesting, eloquent, and instructive illustrated lecture.”19 And surprisingly, the Union‘s reporter wrote that Mrs. Besant possessed “remarkable powers as an orator and thinker, and not a moment of her address was dull or lacking in substance for study.” He concluded that if her statements were true, they would “completely overturn the accepted theories regarding man” and establish “a new and startling field for scientific investigation.”20
Annie Willson, Mrs. Besant’s secretary, believed the trip to San Diego a success. She reported that “when we left on Saturday, May Ist, we felt that we had found several people who might become centres of Theosophic thought in their respective neighborhoods.” She was particularly pleased that a number of people “united and formed a lodge.”21
Undaunted by the censure of Katherine Tingley and her Crusaders, Annie Besant “rode into the field of battle with uplifted visor” and installed a hostile lodge on her rival’s doorstep.22 Although she achieved her immediate objective of establishing the popular viability of esoteric Theosophy, she also appears to have reinforced the position of those skeptical of the worth of the Theosophical movement. To many who read the columns of the San Diego Union during Mrs. Besant’s stay, it must have appeared that the spokeswomen for Theosophy were more interested in undermining one another than they were in spreading a message of brotherhood and love.
When Katherine Tingley and her followers laid the cornerstone for what was to become a remarkable experiment in cooperative living, Theosophy was an unknown quantity, a mysterious intrusion into San Diego’s sunny calm. Throughout its fifty year existence at Point Loma, the Theosophical Institute was embroiled in controversy, and Annie Besant’s sally against it at its inception proved to be an apt prelude to its future growth and decline.
1. Iverson L. Harris, “Reminiscences of Lomaland: Madame Tingley and the Theosophical Institute in San Diego,” ed. Dennis E. Berge, The Journal of San Diego History, 20 (Summer, 1974), 1-32.
2. See Arthur H. Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961) and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963) for the most scholarly account of Mrs. Besant’s life. Pages 54-63 of the latter volume are devoted to Mrs. Besant’s countercrusade. Emmett Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community in California, 1897-1942: A Theosophical Experiment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955), pp. 23-35, contains an account of the secessionists’ Crusade. These books also provide details of the secession of the Judge faction from the Theosophical Society. At the time of Mme. Blavatsky’s death, Olcott held sway over the lodges in India and Ceylon; Mrs. Besant over those in England and Europe; and William Quan Judge, an American of Irish descent, over those in the United States and Ireland. Under Judge the American secession movement adopted the title, “Theosophical Society of America.” In 1897, Mme. Tingley changed the title to the “United Brotherhood of Theosophists.”
3. “Nest of Freelovers,” San Diego Union, 29 April 1897, p. 1, col. 1.
4. Henry Tyrrell, “Mrs. Annie Besant and Her Mission,” Frank Leslies’ Illustrated Newspaper, 8 April 1897, p. 232; “Mrs. Besant on the Human Aura,” New York Herald, 22 March 1897, p. 6, col. 5; “Toesins Sound for Astral War,” New York Herald, 4 April 1897, sixth section, p. 7, col. 3.
5. “Mrs. Besant Tells of a New Mahatma,” New York Herald, 19 March 1897, p. 6, col. 1; Annie Willson, “Another Report,” Theosophist, 18 (1897), 757; “Blavatsky is Back,” New York Herald, 20 March 1897, p. 6, col. 2; “The Seen and Unseen,” Washington Post, 29 March 1897, p. 4, col. 3.
6. Annie Besant, Annie Besant, An Autobiography (London: Unwin, 1893), pp. 138, 175.
7. Autobiography, p. 242.
8. Autobiography, pp. 117, 156; “The Seen and Unseen,” p. 4, col. 3.
9. Autobiography, p. 163.
10. Katherine Tingley, Universal Brotherhood, 1 (1897), 1.
11. Ernest Hargrove, “Theosophy,” Theosophy, 12 (April, 1897), 7; “The Esoteric School,” Indianapolis Sentinel, 22 March 1897, p. 2, cols. 5-6.
12. “Letter,” Pacific Theosophist, 7 (January, 1897), p. 15.
13. “The Esoteric School,” p. 2, cols. 5-6.
14. “Nest of Freelovers,” p. 1, cols. 1-2; “Theosophists,” San Diegan-Sun, 29 April 1897, p. 8, col. 4.
15. “Nest of Freelovers,” p. 2, col. 1.
16. “Nest of Freelovers,” p. 2, cols. 1-2.
17. “Man’s Unseen Bodies,” San Diego Union, 30 April, 1897, p. 5, col. 2; “Changed Her Mind,” San Diego Union, I May 1897, p. 5, col. 2.
18. Besant, “Thought Forms,” Lucifer, 7 (1896), 71-72; “Mrs. Besant on the Human Aura,” New York Herald, 22 March 1897, p. 6, col. 5; “Man’s Unseen Bodies,” p. 5, cols. 1-2.
19. “The Theosophists,” San Diegan-Sun, 6 May 1897, p. 8, col. 4.
20. “Man’s Unseen Bodies,” p. 5, col. 1.
21. Wilson, “The Work in America,” Theosophist, 18 (1897), p. 627.
22. Autobiography, p. 190.
Thomas D. Clark is Assistant Professor of Speech and American Studies at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. He received his Ph.D. ftom Indiana University in American Studies, Rhetoric and Public Address.