Henry Steele Olcott was for thirty years the President of the Theosophical Society which he co-founded with Helena Blavatsky and William Quan Judge in New York City in 1875. Within a few years, Olcott and Blavatsky moved to India for a number of reasons. While there, Blavatsky spent the bulk of her time writing books and editing The Theosophist. Olcott did administrative duties and traveled widely in southern Asia to promote the Society and stir the natives to promote their Hindu and Buddhist knowledge. The Indian people practically worshipped Olcott especially when he took to magnetic healing. This work just happened - see below - and continued for many months in the midst of his travels. As suddenly as it began, the spigot was turned off. Thousands of Indians benefited from his touch. The following writing is extracted from volume II of Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves. [Note that Colonel Olcott was by this time a confirmed Buddhist and was disturbed by the treatment of his Buddhist friends by the colonial missionaries.]
An incident occurred on the 29th of August (1880), at China Garden, a quarter of Galle [southwestern Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka], which has become in Ceylon historic. After my lecture, the subscription paper was laid out on a table and the people came up in turn to subscribe. A man named Cornelis Appu was introduced to me by Mr. Jayasakere, the Branch President, and he subscribed the sum of half a rupee, apologizing for the pettiness of the amount because of his having been totally paralyzed in one arm and partially in one leg for eight years, and therefore unable to earn his livelihood by his trade. Now at Colombo, on my arrival from Bombay, the High Priest had told me that the Roman Catholics had made their arrangements to convert the house-well of a Catholic, near Kelanie, into a healing-shrine, after the fashion of Lourdes. One man was reported to have been miraculously cured already, but on investigation it proved a humbug. I told the High Priest that this was a serious matter and he should attend to it. If the hypnotic suggestion once got started, there would soon be real cures and there might be a rush of ignorant Buddhists into Catholicism. “What can I do?” he said. "Well, you must set to work, you or some other well-known monk, and cure people in the name of Lord Buddha." "But we can't do it; we know nothing about those things," he replied. "Nevertheless it must be done," I said. When this half-paralyzed man of Galle was speaking of his ailment, something seemed to say to me: "Here's your chance for the holy well!" I had known all about Mesmerism and Mesmeric Healing for thirty years, though I had never practised them, save to make a few necessary experiments at the beginning, but now, moved by a feeling of sympathy (without which the healer has no healing power to radically cure), I made some passes over his arm, and said I hoped he might feel the better for it. He then left. That evening I was chatting with my Galle colleagues at my quarters on the seashore, when the paralytic hobbled in and excused his interruption by saying that he felt so much better that he had come to thank me. This unexpected good news encouraged me to go farther, so I treated his arm for a quarter of an hour and bade him return in the morning. I should mention here that nobody in Ceylon knew that I possessed or had ever exercised the power of healing the sick, nor, I fancy, that anybody had it, so the theory of hypnotic suggestion, or collective hallucination, will scarcely hold in this case—certainly not at this stage of it.
He came in the morning, eager to worship me as something superhuman, so much better did he feel. I treated him again, and the next day and the next; reaching the point on the fourth day where he could whirl his bad arm around his head, open and shut his hand, and clutch and handle objects as well as ever. Within the next four days he was able to sign his name with the cured hand, to a statement of his case, for publication; this being the first time in nine years that he had held a pen. I had also been treating his side and leg, and in a day or two more he could jump with both feet, hop on the paralyzed one, kick equally high against the wall with both, and run freely. As a match to loose straw, the news spread throughout the town and district. Cornelis brought a paralyzed friend, whom I cured; then others came, by twos and threes first, then by dozens, and within a week or so my house was besieged by sick persons from dawn until late at night, all clamoring for the laying on of my hands. They grew so importunate at last that I was at my wits' end how to dispose of them. Of course, with the rapid growth of confidence in myself, my magnetic power multiplied itself enormously, and what I had needed days to accomplish with a patient, at the commencement, could now be done within a half hour. A most disagreeable feature of the business was the selfish inconsiderateness of the crowd. They would besiege me in my bedroom before I was dressed, dog my every step, give me no time for meals, and keep pressing me, no matter how tired and exhausted I might be. I have worked at them steadily four or five hours, until I felt I had nothing more in me, then left them for a half hour while I bathed in the salt water of the harbor, just back of the house, felt currents of fresh vitality entering and re-enforcing my body, gone back and resumed the healing, until, by the middle of the afternoon, I had had enough of it, and then had actually to drive the crowd out of the house. My rooms were on the upper storey—one flight up—and most of the bad cases had to be carried up by friends and laid at my feet. I have had them completely paralyzed, with their arms and legs contracted so that the man or woman was more like the gnarled root of a tree than anything else; and it happened sometimes that, after one or two treatments of a half hour each, I made those people straighten out their limbs and walk about. One side of the broad verandah that ran around the whole house, I christened "the cripples' race-course," for I used to mate two or three of those whose cases had been worst, and compel them to run against each other the length of that side. They and the crowd of onlookers used to laugh at this joke, and wonder at the same time, but I had a purpose in it, which was to impart to them the same unflinching confidence in the effectiveness of the remedy that I felt, so that their cures might be radical. Quite recently, while in Ceylon, on my way to London, I met one of my bad patients of those days, whom I had cured of complete paralysis, and asked him to tell those present what I had done for him. He said that he had been confined to his bed for months in a perfectly helpless state, his arms and legs paralyzed and useless. He had been carried upstairs to me. I had treated him a half hour the first day, and fifteen or twenty minutes the next. I had cured him so effectually that in the intervening fourteen years he had had no return of his malady. Fancy the pleasure it must have been to me to have relieved so much suffering, and in many cases to have restored the invalids to all the enjoyments of good health and all the activities of life.
I see that the first patient that Cornelis brought me, after he was cured, had the thumb and fingers of his right hand clenched with paralysis so that they were as stiff as wood. They had been so for two and a half years. Within five minutes the hand was restored to its flexibility. The next day he returned with his hand all right, but the toes of his right foot constricted. I took him into my room and made him as good as new, within a quarter of an hour. This sort of thing went on even at the country villages on my routes through the Southern Province. I would reach my stopping-place in my travelling-cart, and find patients waiting for me on the verandahs, the lawn, and in all sorts of conveyances—carts, spring-waggons, hand-carts, palanquins, and chairs carried on bamboo poles. An old woman afflicted (how much, indeed!) with a paralyzed tongue was cured; the bent elbow, wrist, and fingers of a little boy were freed; a woman deformed by inflammatory rheumatism was made whole. At Sandravela, a beggar woman with a bent back, of eight years' standing, gave me a quarter-rupee (about 4d. [pence]) for the Fund. When I knew what she suffered from, I cured her spine and made her walk erect.
Baddegama is a noted centre of Missionary activity and—so far as I was concerned, and Buddhism generally—of malevolence. It was the view of this lovely landscape—so it is said—which suggested to Bishop Heber the opening verse of his immortal Missionary Hymn. There had been threats that the Missionaries were going to attack me at my lecture there, and the Buddhists naturally thronged to hear me. Several of our members came out from Galle, and whom should I see there but Cornelis Appu, who had walked the whole twelve miles. No doubt, then, as to his having been cured! The gentle Missionaries were conspicuous by their absence, and I had the huge audience all to myself.
I was amused by a case that came under my hands at the little hamlet of Agaliya. An old, wrinkled native woman of seventy-two years of age had been kicked by a buffalo cow while milking, some years before, had to walk with a staff, and could not stand erect. She was a comical old creature, and laughed heartily when I told her that I should soon make her dance. But after only ten minutes of passes down her spine and limbs she was almost as good as new, and I seized her hand, threw away her staff, and made her run with me over the lawn. My next patient was a boy of seven years, whose hands could not be closed, on account of a constriction of the tendons of the backs. I cured him in five minutes, and he went straight away to where the breakfast was ready for the family, and fell to eating rice with his right hand, now quite restored.
In due time I got back to the Galle Headquarters, where a second siege by the sick had to be undergone. I have noted down an incident which shows the uncharitable and selfish spirit which actuates some of the medical profession—happily, not all—with regard to the curing of patients by unpaid outsiders; for, remember, I never took a farthing for all these cures.
A number of former patients of the Galle General Hospital, who had been discharged as incurable, came to me and recovered their health; and, naturally, went to shouting the news on the house-tops, so to say. The medical profession could not very well remain blind or indifferent to such a thing, and one day my doings with my patients were overlooked by one of the civil surgeons of the district. On that day 100 patients presented themselves and I treated twenty-three; making, as I see it noted, some wonderful cures. Dr. K. recognizing one of the men, brought him to me with the remark that he had been pronounced incurable after every treatment had failed, and he would like to see what I could make of him. What I made was to enable the sick man to walk about without a stick, for the first time in ten years. The Doctor frankly and generously admitted the efficacy of the mesmeric treatment and remained by me all day, helping me to diagnose; and doing the duties of an hospital assistant. We were mutually pleased with each other, and at parting it was agreed that he should come the next day after breakfast, and help me in whatever way he could. He, himself, was suffering from a stiff ankle or something about his foot, I forget just what, which I relieved. The next day he neither came nor sent any word. The mystery was explained by a note he wrote to the mutual friend who had introduced him to me. It seems that on leaving me, full of enthusiasm about what he had seen—as any open-minded, unspoilt young man would naturally be—he went straight to the Chief Medical Officer and reported. His superior coldly listened, and, when he had finished, delivered himself of the sentence of major and minor excommunication on me. I was a charlatan, this pretended healing was a swindle, the patients had been paid to lie, and the young doctor was forbidden to have anything more to do with me or my money-tricks. To clench the argument, he warned the other that, if he persisted in disregarding his orders, he would run the risk of losing his commission. And if he could find that I took any fee, he should have me prosecuted for practising medicine without a licence! So my quondam assistant and admirer, forgetful of his duty to perfect himself in the healing art, of the paramount claims of Truth to his loyalty, and of science to his professional devotion, of all he had seen me do and its promise of what he could, in time, himself do, not even remembering his relieved foot, nor the claims of politeness upon those who make appointments and are prevented from keeping them, did not come the next day nor even send me one line of apology. I felt sorry for him, because all his future prospects in Government service were at stake, at the same time I am afraid I did not respect him as much as I should if he had manfully stood out against this pitiful and revolting professional slavery; this moral obliquity, which would rather that the whole of mankind should go unhealed unless they were cured by orthodox doctors, in an atmosphere of medical holiness and infallibility. The acquisition of the power to relieve physical suffering by mesmeric processes is so easy that, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, it would be one's own fault if it were not developed, but I think that is too important a question to broach at the end of a chapter, so let it stand over for the present.
End of Chapter XXIV. Olcott went on in future chapters interspersing stories of his travels with many tales of healing of all sorts of human ailments, injuries and problems. After twelve months of this work of treating around 8,000 patients, the Colonel was ordered to suspend all healings. “The prohibition came none too soon, for I am persuaded that I myself should have become paralysed if the strain had been kept up.”