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 Post subject: Col. Henry Steele Olcott — a fascinating life
 Post Posted: Thu Aug 11, 2005 8:49 pm 
Col. Henry Steele Olcott — a fascinating life

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He was a farmer, scientist, author, journalist, soldier, lawyer, investigator and teacher—the list of accomplishments goes on and on for Henry Steele Olcott.

By Mac Wyckoff
Date published: 7/16/2005


FOR MOST SOLDIERS who participated in the Civil War, it was the biggest event of their lives. It was something they never forgot and were influenced by for the rest of their lives. However, there were a few soldiers whose Civil War experiences, important as they might have been, were simply blips on the radar screens of their lives.

One such soldier was Henry Steele Olcott. He was born in 1832 in Orange, N. J. While Olcott was attending Columbia University in 1851, his father’s business failed. Olcott dropped out of school and moved near three of his uncles, who were farmers in Ohio. His uncles encouraged his interest in the paranormal, including mesmerism, in which he found he had some ability. He successfully mesmerized a neighbor during a dental surgery, preventing her from suffering pain.

He also developed an interest in agriculture. He soon returned to the East Coast, where he began to study the science of agriculture. He established a farm school, which pioneered the teaching of agriculture. He went to Europe to further his study and, by 1858, had published two books. He became the agricultural correspondent for several newspapers, including the New York Tribune.

In 1859, when Virginia banned Northern journalists from attending the hanging of John Brown, Olcott was the lone Northern reporter to witness the event. His eyes met Brown’s just before death — a look that he would never forget.

In 1860, Olcott married Mary Morgan.

With the outbreak of war, Olcott joined the Signal Corps and served with Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Olcott participated in Burnside’s campaigns on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and along the Rappahannock River during the early stages of the second Manassas Campaign. There is no documentation, but it seems likely that while Burnside was headquartered at Chatham in August 1862, Olcott strolled the hallways of the stately mansion overlooking the city of Fredericksburg. He then became seriously ill with dysentery. Upon Olcott’s recovery, Burnside recommended that he be detailed to investigate corruption in the army’s supply system. Olcott found the corruption so widespread that he was given a large staff to assist him. Eventually, hundreds of cases were investigated. His efforts earned him a promotion to colonel and a special recognition from Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war.

Olcott’s work proved so successful that he was then detailed to investigate fraud and corruption in the Navy. After the assassination of President Lincoln, Olcott and two others were appointed to investigate the conspirators. His recommendations proved sound, but unfortunately most were ignored by the prosecutors.

Olcott then returned to New York, where he studied law and in 1866 passed the bar. He had a very successful practice specializing in customs, internal revenue and insurance cases. He continued his work as a journalist. He seemed to be the stereotype of a middle-aged Yankee: prosperous, honest, energetic and practical. But his life began to change. Two of his four children died, which may have led to the souring of his marriage. In 1874, he divorced. One friend described him as a "gay dog" who had a mistress and lived in nightclubs. It is unclear whether his temporary change of lifestyle caused the divorce or was a result of the divorce.

In July 1874, Olcott was sent by one of his publishers to investigate a psychic phenomenon in Vermont. There had been reports of "solidification of phantom forms." He proceeded to write 15 articles that launched his career as a psychic investigator.

"I saw at once," he wrote, "that, if it were true that visitors could see, even touch and converse with, deceased relatives this was the most important fact in modern physical science."

While in Vermont, Olcott met Helena Blavatsky and came under her spell. Madame Blavatsky was a Russian "wonder worker" who produced magic like phenomena. Despite their difference in personality and temperament, they would work closely together. Olcott sincerely believed in her power to produce wonders through hypnotic suggestion. He witnessed her disappearance from one room and appearance in another room.

The woman’s interest was in performing the feats, whereas Olcott’s interest was purely intellectual curiosity about the phenomena and the latent powers of man. When Blavatsky was accused of fraud he stuck by her, but eventually realized that there was too much fraud committed by other wonder workers for him to determine what was a legitimate phenomenon.

In 1875, Olcott and Blavatsky helped organize the Theosophical Society, of which Olcott was elected president. The purposes of the group were "to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science; and to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man." They sought to discover the highest truth as taught throughout the ages, from the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates to the prophets and Asian thought.

In 1878, Olcott and Blavatsky moved to India, where he lived for the rest of his life. Olcott combined firm conviction with brilliant administrative and organizational ability. While he traveled extensively in Asia, Europe and the Americas, these abilities helped him establish new theosophical groups. He was able to support his travels through wise investments and business deals.

In 1880, Olcott converted to Buddhism, although he made it clear this was a philosophical change, not a religious one. His greatest accomplishment was to popularize Buddhism in the Western countries, and he contributed to the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka. He wrote a Buddhist catechism that is still in print today. He founded three colleges and 250 schools under Buddhist auspices in Ceylon. A statue to Olcott stands in Ceylon, and a memorial bust in Adyar, India, where he lived.

Olcott died of heart disease in Adyar on Feb. 17, 1907. Although he had an interesting and important Civil War career, Olcott’s main contributions to society occurred after the war. A search on the Internet for Olcott produces more hits than for almost any Civil War general. He was a farmer, scientist, author, journalist, soldier, lawyer, investigator and teacher. He was a superb investigator, organizer and administrator. He was the type of man who saw something that needed to be done, and then did it, despite the difficulties.

He also was interested in his family genealogy. He wrote a book on his family tree. My interest in him arose when I discovered that one of his grandmothers was a Wyckoff, a descendant of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, a Dutch immigrant who built what is the oldest standing house in New York. I am a 13th-generation descendant of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff.


MAC WYCKOFF of Spotsylvania County is a historian.


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