In any case, various sources agree that by 1873 Madame Blavatsky was living in New York, perhaps in a large cooperative house, perhaps supporting herself by making artificial flowers. This was during one of the periodic nineteenth-century revivals of spiritualism - communing with the dead and causing spirits to materialize. Among those deeply interested was Henry Steel Olcott, who had risen to the post of colonel in the army during the Civil War and subsequently become a successful New York attorney.
Olcott resolved to investigate these phenomena, particularly at the Eddy farm in Vermont, where many of them were taking place. It was there that he encountered Blavatsky. “My eye was first attracted by a scarlet Garibaldian shirt . . [She had] a massive Calmuck face, contrasting in its suggestion of power, culture, and imperiousness, as strangely with the commonplace visages about the room as her red garment did . . . Pausing on the door-sill, I whispered . . . 'Good gracious! look at that specimen, will you?’”
She apparently struck many people the same way. As Rick Fields characterizes her in How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America,
She did not put on spiritual airs. She smoked (tobacco continuously and hashish on occasion) and had a bawdy Rabelaisian wit. She was at once one of the boys (Olcott called her 'Jack’) and an aristocrat who knew so little about cooking that she once tried to boil an egg by placing it on the bare coals. She was a complex, moody woman given to sudden alternations between flirtatious charm and violent outbursts.
Olcott was to be Madame Blavatsky’s most important partner in her work. They even occupied the same apartment for a time, and wrote at the same table, though no one has linked them romantically. Olcott’s original interest was in spiritualism, but Madame Blavatsky let him know that the occult philosophy behind it was much more important. At a lecture one evening in 1875, Olcott passed her a note: “Would it not be a good thing to form a society for this kind of study?” Madam Blavatsky nodded. Thus was born the Theosophical Society, which formulated (not very grammatically) three goals:
1.To form a nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
2.The study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study; and
3.the investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man.
It was in New York that Madame Blavatsky wrote her first book, 1,200 pages of small print entitled Isis Unveiled, “the most extraordinary book any woman could have written,” according to Henry Miller. She insisted that not only did her teachers virtually write this book for her, they also did the research. “She herself told me that she wrote [the quotations] down as they appeared in her eyes on another plane of objective existence,” Hyram P. Corson, a Cornell University professor, was later to say, that “she clearly saw the page of the book, and the quotation she needed, and simply translated what she saw in English.” Olcott witnessed times when she truly seemed to be taking dictation, when even her handwriting would change. In this manner she composed at the pace of twenty-five pages per day.
The book was a success, but the Theosophical Society - at least in the United States - was not. People seemed interested only in spiritualist phenomena, not in the philosophy behind them, and Madame Blavatsky refused to demonstrate her powers in public, though she showed them rather freely in private. Then, for the first time, one of the Masters appeared to Olcott, telling him “that a great work was to be done for humanity, and I had a right to share in it if I wished,” and leaving behind his turban as proof of his existence. That experience was the chief factor in his deciding to leave with Madame Blavatsky for India.
The Society had a great impact there, where it actually inspired a revival of the ancient traditions. Both Gandhi and Nehru said that the Society helped lead them back to Hinduism. It was also instrumental in reviving Buddhism. “At that period,” the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze tells us, “European civilization, a blend of science and commerce, of Christianity and militarism, seemed immensely strong. . . . A growing number of educated men in India and Sri Lanka felt, as the Japanese did about the same time, that they had no alternative but to adopt the Western system with all that it entails.”