Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky

Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky

On October 14, 1874, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott – attorney, military investigator during the Civil War, and skeptic on assignment to root out Spiritualist fraud in Vermont – met the woman who would change his life. Her name was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and she had captured the attention of the Western world with her strange mix of mysticism and Eastern rituals. Within a few short years, she and Colonel Olcott would find the Theosophical Movement, which still exists today. But on that day in Chittenden, Vermont, both Olcott and Blavatsky were there to see of the stories that were being told about the small town were true.

It seems that in 1874, some very strange things were happening in Chittenden. The bizarre happenings were centered around the home of William and Horatio Eddy, two middle-aged, illiterate brothers, and their sister, Mary. The Eddys lived in a house that was reported to be infested with supernatural beings of such numbers that had never been reported before, or since. The events at the farm were said to be so powerful and so strange that people came from all over the world to witness them.

Of course, not everyone believed the stories before they arrived. One of the most skeptical was Henry Olcott, who had read about the Eddys in a New York newspaper. Intrigued, he convinced the New York Tribune to send him to Vermont to investigate the wild tales. Olcott had no interest in the supernatural prior to this. Born in New Jersey in 1832, he attended college in New York City, studying agricultural science. While still in his early 20’s, he received international recognition for his work on a model farm and for founding a school for agriculture students. During this same time, he published three scientific works. He went on to become the farm editor for the Tribune. When the Civil War broke out, Olcott enlisted in the Union Army. He was appointed as a special investigator to root out corruption and fraud in military arsenals and shipyards. He was soon promoted to the rank of Colonel and after the war, was part of a three-person panel that investigated the assassination of President Lincoln. After the war, Olcott studied law and became a wealthy and successful attorney. 

He could never explain what prompted him to read the article about the Eddy brothers, or why he was interested enough to travel to Vermont to investigate the claims made about him. But whatever the reason, it changed his life. 

Olcott traveled to Vermont with newspaper artist, Albert Kappes. Together, they planned to investigate the strange events at the Eddy farm and if the stories were a hoax, they would expose the Eddy brothers in the newspaper as nothing but charlatans. His first impression of the Eddys was not a favorable one. The two distant and unfriendly farmers were rough-hewn characters with dark hair and eyes, and New England accents so thick the New York attorney and writer could scarcely understand them.

The story was that they came from a long line of psychics, including a distant relative that was convicted of witchcraft at Salem in 1692. Their grandmother had been blessed with the gift of "second sight" and often went into trances, speaking to entities that no one else could see. Their mother, Julia, had been known for frightening her neighbors with predictions and visions. Her gifts were unwelcome in the Eddy home. Her husband, Zepaniah, was a cruel and abusive man. He beat his wife and later, when it was discovered that this sons also had strange powers, he beat and whipped them. As children, the Eddys were unable to attend school. When they did, books flew, desks levitated, and rulers, inkwell, and slates flew about the classroom. 

Zepaniah continued to beat his sons, trying to make the disturbances stop. Instead, they grew worse. If they went into a trance, he would pinch and slap them, trying to wake them up. It didn’t work. They were bruised until they were black and blue. Once, on the advice of a sympathetic “Christian” friend, he doused the boys with boiling water. When this didn’t work, he also allowed this friend to drop a red-hot coal into William’s hand. He had hoped to "exorcize his devils." The boy never awakened from his trance, but he bore a scar on his palm for the rest of his life. Unable to control the boys, he sold them to a traveling showman who, for the next 14 years, took them all over America, Canada and Europe. It was a brutal and degrading life. As part of their “performance,” audience members were allowed to try and awaken the boys from their trances. The Eddys were locked into small wooden boxes to see if they could escape and hot wax was poured into their mouths to see if they could produce “spirit voices” when they were unable to talk. The skeptics poked, prodded, and punched the sleeping brothers, leaving them scarred and damaged for the rest of their lives. On several occasions, they were even stoned and shot at by angry mobs. 

The Eddys eventually returned home after their death of their father. Along with their sister, Mary, they turned the family farm into a modest inn called the Green Tavern. It was there that Olcott first met the brothers and it was there that they began holding seances for Spiritualists who traveled to see them from across the country and overseas. 

During Olcott’s first night at the farm, he was witness to an outdoor séance. He was led through the woods with a few other participants to a natural cave in a deep ravine. Olcott later learned that it was called "Honto’s Cave," in honor of the Native American spirit who often appeared there. Olcott suspiciously investigated the cave but found it was little more than a few rocks on top of one another, forming a natural arch. There was only one way in or out. He determined there was no way that anyone could slip in or out of the cave without being seen.

Horatio Eddy acted as the medium for the séance. He sat on a camp stool under the arch and then was draped in a makeshift "spirit cabinet" formed by shawls and branches that had been cut from small saplings. As Horatio rested there, a gigantic man, dressed as a Native American, emerged from the darkness of the cave. A few moments later, more spirits appeared above the cave entrance and in the surrounding rocks. Olcott counted 10 different spirits at the site. The last, the spirit of William White, the late editor of a Spiritualist newspaper, emerged from within Horatio’s cabinet. He was dressed in a black suit and white shirt was supposedly recognizable to some who had read the newspaper and recognized his picture from it. He vanished at the same time the others did. Moments later, Horatio appeared from the cabinet and signaled that the séance was at an end. After the bizarre display was over, Olcott and Kappes carefully searched the cave and the surrounding area for footprints in the soft earth. 

They found no footprints – there was no trace that anyone had been there.

Olcott was intrigued, but not convinced. The whole thing would have been too easy to stage, he believed. It would be different when he could see one of the seances inside of the house. The Eddys had built a séance room on the second floor of the inn. Olcott and Kappes thoroughly examined it. They drew charts and diagrams and took numerous measurements, sure that they would find false panels, secret doors, or hidden passages – but found nothing. Determined not to give up, Olcott hired carpenters and engineers to come and search the place, but the experts found nothing unusual. The walls and floors were as solid as they seemed. There was no trickery taking place with the structure of the house – which made what Olcott witnessed on the following nights even stranger. 

Each séance was basically the same. On every night of the week -- except for Sunday -- guests and visitors would assemble on wooden benches in the séance room. A platform, which had been assembled there, was lit only by a kerosene lamp, recessed in a barrel. William Eddy, who acted as the primary medium, mounted the platform and entered a small cabinet. A few moments later, soft voices began to whisper in the distance. Often, it would be singing, accompanied by spectral music. Musical instruments came to life and soared above the heads of the audience members, disembodied hands appeared, waving and touching the spectators, and odd lights and unexplained noises appeared and filled the air. 

Then, the first spirit form emerged from the cabinet. They came one at a time, or in groups, numbering as many as 20 or 30 in an evening. Some were completely visible and seemed solid. Others were transparent and ethereal. Regardless, they awed the frightened spectators. The spirits ranged in size from over six feet to very small (it’s worth noting here that William Eddy was only five feet, nine inches tall). Most of the ghostly apparitions were elderly Yankees or Native Americans, but many other races and nationalities also appeared in traditional Russian, African, and Asian garb. 

Olcott could not explain where they had come from! He had examined the spirit cabinet and platform and had found no trap doors, nor hidden passages. In fact, there was no room in the cabinet for anyone other than the medium himself. Olcott was familiar with the workings of stage magicians and fraudulent mediums, but could find none of their tricks present at the Eddy house.

The apparitions not only appeared but they also performed, sang, and chatted with the sitters. They produced musical instruments, clothing, and scarves. In all, nearly every type of supernatural phenomena was reported at the Eddy farmhouse. These included rappings, moving physical objects, spirit paintings, automatic writing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, healings, unseen voices, levitation, remote visions, teleportation, and more. And of course, the full-bodied manifestations of which Olcott observed more than 400 during the weeks he visited the house! He concluded that a show like that which he had seen would have required an entire company of actors and several trunks of costumes.

Yet, Olcott’s inspection of the premises revealed no place to hide either actors or props. The idea of stage actors was further dispelled by the convincing manner of the spirits. One woman spoke, in Russian, to the alleged spirit of her deceased husband. A number of other dialects were also heard. How was this possible when the Eddy’s could barely read and write, and were scarcely capable of speaking coherent English?

In addition, such an elaborate show would have cost a fortune to produce each night. They would have had to pay actors, invest in costumes, and hire someone to create the "marvels" of the spirits. This would have been impossible given that the brothers were almost penniless. Most of the visitors who came to the farm did not pay and the rest only gave $8 per week for room and board at the inn. No admission was ever charged for the séances. In Olcott’s mind, fraud would have been physically and financially impossible. 

In fact, the whole thing was impossible, but it was real!

Olcott spent 10 weeks at the farm. He left the place disliking the house, the food, the weather, and the Eddy brothers themselves – but he also left convinced that the two men were making contact with the dead. He wrote this in the newspaper and then wrote a massive book about the Eddys called PEOPLE FROM OTHER WORLDS. It is filled with precise drawings of the apparitions, the farm, the house and even detailed plans of its construction, proving that no hidden passages existed. He also recorded over 400 different supernatural beings and collected hundreds of affidavits and scores of eyewitness testimony to the amazing events. He also reproduced dozens of statements from respected tradesmen and carpenters who had examined the house for trickery. A modern reader would have to look very hard to discover anything that Olcott did not investigate.

Eventually, the Eddys had a falling out and spent the rest of their lives apart. Horatio died in 1922. William lived to be 99 and died in 1932. He never participated in seances again. If either of the two men
had any secrets about the weird events at their home, they took those secrets with them to the grave.

What really happened at the Eddy farm in Chittenden, Vermont?

No one knows. To read this story today, we are first inclined to dismiss the events as fanciful tales from another time, but can we really? Colonel Olcott had impeccable credentials for investigating fraud, so we can’t simply dismiss his story out of hand. His extensive documentation, along with his investigative skills, suggests that the events were not part of a hoax. Olcott remained skeptical and analytical throughout his stay at the farm, and yet he came away convinced that the Eddy’s had the power to contact, and communicate with, the dead.

The full story of the Eddy farm can be found in my book,   AMERICAN HAUNTINGS  .

The full story of the Eddy farm can be found in my book, AMERICAN HAUNTINGS.

Colonel Olcott came away from Chittenden a believer. The once skeptical military investigator was convinced that the dead could – and did – communicate with the living. 

In fact, he was so convinced of the reality of the spirit world that he left his career and his wife and devoted the rest of his wife to the study of the occult and the arcane. He founded the Theosophical Society with Madame Blavatsky and moved to India, where they endeared themselves to the countless Hindu worshippers. Olcott spoke in temples and open squares in India and Sri Lanka, where he urged young people and their families not to relinquish their traditions and to argue against colonialist missionaries. He lobbied the English authorities to permit a national celebration of Buddha’s birthday, during which worshippers rallied around an international Buddhist flag that Alcott helped design. He raised money for schools and educational programs and wrote a book about Buddhism that is still read in Sri Lankan classrooms today. Within 20 years of Olcott’s first visit, the number of Buddhist schools in the island national grew from four to more than 200. After his awakening at the Eddy farm – and his introduction to Madame Blavatsky – Olcott understood himself to be on the mission of a lifetime. It was mission that touched Hindu and Buddhist cultures so deeply that Olcott may be the single most significant Western figure in the modern religious history of the East. Decades after his arrival there, the Buddhist nation of Ceylon enshrined his image on a postage stamp and marked his death with a national holiday.

And it started with a séance on a ramshackle farm in Vermont.

Whatever the reader chooses to believe, it cannot be denied that something amazing and mysterious occurred in Chittenden, Vermont, and on the farm of the Eddy brothers, although what this may have been -- we may never know for sure.