Albert Leighton Rawson is famous in theosophical history for
two things; first, he is a major witness of HPB's travels
and second, he claims to have witnessed her taking hasheesh.
I have seen a paper from Theosophical History (“The
Travels of H.P. Blavatsky and the Chronology of Albert
Leighton Rawson: an unsatisfying investigation into H.P.B.’s
whereabouts in the early 1850s”) cited by critics of
HPB to discredit her biography and by students of Theosophy
who want to discredit Rawson's hasheesh claim. Unfortunately
for the later, if Rawson is discredited so is HPB for
I don't have access to this paper but James Santuccisummarizes it
All who are familiar with Blavatsky’s journeys realize
that there is little evidence to substantiate her claims
to be in the many exotic locales she claims. One
exception is the testimony of Albert Leighton Rawson
(1829 – 1902), who writes about her travels during the
period 1851 – 1853. It is clear that there are divergent
accounts of her whereabouts during this period if one
compares this account to A.P. Sinnett’s Incidents in the
Life of Madame Blavatsky, her own scattered accounts,
and Rawson’s “Mme. Blavatsky: A Theosophical Occult
Apology.” What is important, however, is Rawson’s claim
that he and Blavatsky were in the Near East in 1851 and
1852 before arriving in New York in 1853 via Paris. This
is very unlikely if for no other reason than the fact
that Rawson was imprisoned for theft from September 15,
1851 to June 22, 1852. Yet, what are we make of
Blavatsky’s acknowledgement of Rawson as an initiate
into the Brotherhood of Lebanon, a traveler to Mecca,
and his claim to be privy to the “mysteries of the
Druzes”? Was she taken in by Rawson’s contention of
being an initiate? She certainly accepted them in Isis
Unveiled (II. 312 – 315) and did not deny Rawson’s
observations of her own travels to Mecca in the Near
East and Mecca. The implications of Mr. Deveney’s
discovery of Rawson’s imprisonment cast doubts on his
and Blavatsky’s travels during this time. All that can
be stated is that if they had occurred it certainly
would not be in the time frame given.
What are the possible motives for making these claims?
It is obvious to me that Rawson was playing fast and
loose with the facts of his travels and that he and
Blavatsky wished to establish claims to have a special
knowledge of the mysteries of the Orient—Rawson through
his communication in the Spiritualist, the publisher of
his “Two Madame Blavatskys – The Acquaintance of Madame
H.P. Blavatsky with Eastern Countries,” and Blavatsky,
by maintaining silence and by not challenging Rawson’s
account or commenting on the claims.
First, we should consider the issue of Rawson's character.
Imprisonment for theft would go to witness credibility aside
from anything else. Roderick Bradford writes, "Francis Abbot
accused Albert Rawson of being a convicted thief... Rawson
had an explanation for [the charge]. The 'theft' incident
happened twenty-eight years earlier in 1851, when the artist
bought some clothes to help some people 'who seemed to be in
need.' Subsequently, he was arrested and persuaded to plead
guilty. However, he eventually was given a pardon. (A
facsimile was printed with his explanation.)" (D.M. Bennett:
The Truth Seeker).
Secondly, we have the major issue of dates. Both primary
sources for Rawson cited above are available for reading
online. The communication to the Spiritualist may be readhere and
his "Theosophical Occult Apology" may be readhere.
In the first source, he does not even describe his own
adventures with HPB but only cites other witnesses to her
travels. Nor does he provide dates, even for his own
independent journeys. It is a very interesting source that
is relevant to her biography but it tells us almost nothing
about his own relationship to her. So we may put this source
In the second, written in 1892, he writes of his time in
Egypt with HPB and of his subsequent meeting with her in New
York. He says he has known her "nearly forty years" which
could allow for a date as early as 1852, but probably not
1851. Only her arrival in New York is dated at 1853 and he
does not state or imply that he was with her in the interim
between Egypt and New York.
This does not exhaust the primary sources from Rawson
he was friends with the famous Sir Richard Burton and wrote
about his relationship with him in another article which may
be read here.
He describes spending time with Burton in Cairo before his
famous visit to Mecca, as well as introducing him to HPB.
Burton's trip to Cairo took place in 1853 and K. Paul
what Deveney found to be plausible times when he might have
been in the Middle East."
I would add that this also appears to be plausible for HPB.
Additionally, Sylvia Cranston writes that HPB's arrival in
New York where she reconnected with Rawson likely took place
in 1854 rather than 1853 so it all seems to mesh pretty
well. Burton's itinerary is pretty well documented, which
would make this the most solid time stamp in the confusing
chronology of HPB's early life.
But we still have contradictions from other sources. A.P.
Sinnett in his Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky
writes of her travelling "for a time in Egypt, Greece, and
other parts of Eastern Europe" (59) with Countess Kiselev
shortly after her first marriage. W. Dallas TenBroeck'schronology
of HPB's life dates her first sojourn in Egypt to 1849
and Marion Meade's biography puts it at 1850. So there
definitely seems to be a conflict of dates here. However, I
think this can be easily resolved if we postulate two
different periods of time in Egypt, the first with Countess
Kiselev and the second with Rawson.
As for Rawson's claim that H.P.B. took hasheesh in Cairo and
in New York under the care of himself and a physician, I
don't find this to be particularly distressing. Nor do I see
what his motive was to lie about this. This was very early
in her life and there is no evidence that she repeated this
experiment later. Its also undisputed, so far as I've seen,
that she consumed meat for most of her life and that is also
not exactly heavily encouraged in Theosophy.
Nice research! Rawson is an interesting character - Those
theosophical historians do some interesting work, but they
have a lot of strange theories about hpb - I can't consider
Marion Meade's biography to be very reliable - I'm guessing
the reason why hpb shows such amazing knowledge about the
Ginza (Codex Nazareus) stems from her experiences with the
Thanks Casady! Rawson is indeed fascinating. An interesting
short book (or at least a pamphlet) could be written about
I think a lot of the work in theosophical history needs to
be sifted critically. For instance, K. Paul Johnson's major
thesis (about the Mahatmas) is very arbitrary and contrary
to evidence. But he digs up a lot of interesting info on the
more obscure figures of theosophical history. As for Meade,
her biography is indeed mostly junk but for basic chronology
I think she's fine.
I never said that the physical movement is "more important"
than its goal. But it is a fascinating subject in its own
right. And aside from that, few people are going to ever get
to the goal if they think the physical movement that leads
to it was started by a con artist who lied about her life
story, invented mahatmas, and performed bogus phenomena.
Thus the importance of good theosophical history.
Thanks for the reply. I do agree that it might be an
important subject in its own right, however, if I might
respectively say, it just appears as a game of convincing.
I suppose I never considered peoples opinion about Mahatmas.
The majority of eastern philosophies speak of the Great
Ones as afact obviously
far, far, far before the times of the Theosophical Movement.
One doesn't need to do very much work to find this out. It
seems once the ideas were introduced to the western world,
speculation arose, as they had little to no understanding of
the Occult Sciences and the relation to the practitioner.
It is a sacred subject and the speculation regarding Them
caused a lot of problems in the early years of the Movement
as I'm sure your aware of. Hindus revered Them to the point
of sacred silence, while the Westerners believed it to be
trickery and laughed at the very idea. Such a divide of
I suppose, if people were to consider the workings and
philosophy of the Mahatmas, then judge the Theosophical
writings based on philosophical Truths from the Esoteric
Traditions, less debate would arise. I've always had the
opinion that Theosophywas
never about the life of HPB or any other individual.