Imagine a short, stout, forceful woman with unruly dark hair, strong arms, large eyes, a grave expression, and several chins, her ample form wrapped in a loose robe, her fingers adorned with rings. A chain-smoking woman who talked incessantly in a guttural voice with a bit of Russian accent, sometimes wittily and sometimes crudely, a persuasive storyteller who could fascinate others. A welcoming and unpretentious woman, but capricious, noisy, impulsive, perhaps a bit scandalous, and above all firm in her own opinions and indifferent to those of others. A woman who, when it came to sex, claimed to be glacially cold, never having slept with her estranged husband, but who professed to have a volcano in constant eruption in her brain.
And out of that volcanic brain came stories. A woman said to have smoked hashish with the Universal Mystic Brotherhood in Cairo, studied voodoo in New Orleans, discovered a lost Incan treasure in South America, performed as a concert pianist in England, visited the Mormons in Salt Lake City, and fought beside Garibaldi in Italy and been wounded and left for dead. A woman who had reputedly survived two sea disasters, had an affair with an Italian opera singer (in spite of glacial coldness!), discovered an ancient language, and studied with a group of Masters of the Ancient Wisdom in Tibet who practiced clairvoyance and telepathy, and could dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects, and project their astral bodies.
A woman who obviously – or purportedly – got around, and who after experiencing all these adventures and misadventures throughout the world, at age forty-two is known for certain to have arrived by ship on July 7, 1873, in New York City. Here, after a sojourn in a women’s housing cooperative on the Lower East Side, she lived simply in furnished rooms at the corner of West 47th Street and Eighth Avenue amid stuffed animals and images of spiritual figures, and from there set forth her beliefs about the spiritual structure of the universe, soon to be expressed in print. An eccentric and unique woman who was soon, in the America of that time, to splash big and become all the rage.
Meet Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, occultist, spirit medium, and cofounder in New York City in 1875 of the Theosophical Society, whose esoteric ideas she expounded thereafter, acquiring international fame … and notoriety. If ever there was a mystery woman of New York, it was, for a few short years in the 1870s, Madame Blavatsky.
Her life before coming to New York is a mix of fact and fiction that even today cannot be untangled. Born to an aristocratic Russian-German family in the Ukraine in 1831, in her childhood she traveled widely with her family throughout the Russian Empire, and from an early age developed an interest in Western esotericism. In 1849 she married a vice-governor but soon deserted him and then, by her own account, at age eighteen began traveling the world, perhaps financed by her father. She seems to have visited Constantinople, Egypt, and various countries in Europe, and may have visited Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and the Andes, before returning to Europe, following which she allegedly revisited the U.S. and then regained India via Japan, and succeeded in reaching Tibet. In the course of these wanderings she claimed to have encountered magicians, Mesmerists, swamis, shamans, Buddhist monks, and a mysterious Hindu who urged her to visit Tibet, all of them encouraging her in her pursuit of esoteric wisdom.
The America she came to was – in certain intellectual circles, at least -- impatient with scientific materialism and mainstream Christianity and deep into spiritualism, into séances and speaking with the dead. In this adventurous and somewhat soupy environment she thrived. How could she not, when she professed to be reviving an “Ancient Wisdom” underlying all the world’s religions, and to herself possess mysterious powers that caused strange rappings and creakings in her presence, and made furniture move of its own volition. Joining forces with journalist and lawyer Henry Steel Olcott, in 1875 she cofounded the Theosophical Society, where she expounded her beliefs in a universal religion of wisdom, an occult guide to the cosmos, nature, and human life, a secret doctrine known to Plato, the ancient Hindu sages, and the adepts of Hermeticism, a doctrine from which all religions derive, and which would become the future religion of the world. When she advanced these ideas in her first book, Isis Unveiled, published in New York in 1877, the work attracted negative reviews but became a bestseller, the initial printing of a thousand copies selling out in a week.
|Madame in later life.|
Despite this success and her becoming a U.S. citizen in 1878, Madame was not happy in this hotbed of materialism. Sensing a kinship with certain Hindu thinkers, she and Olcott sold off their possessions and, with a phonograph given them by its inventor, Thomas Edison, set sail in 1879 for England on the first leg of their journey to India. In that British colony they met various swamis, championed Hinduism and thus antagonized both the British government and Christian missionaries, stayed at one point in a maharajah’s palace, and converted to Buddhism in Ceylon. Deteriorating health in time forced her to return to Europe, where the Theosophical Society now had numerous branches, and where a disaffected follower alleged that Blavatsky’s paranormal abilities were fraudulent, an assertion that garnered international attention, despite the accuser’s own apparent history of crime and extortion. More travels and more controversies followed, and more books expounding her ideas. She died of influenza in London in 1891.
What is one to make of this woman today, a woman who was vibrantly New Agey decades before New Agey became a frothy fad and a serious commitment? Many of her claims, including the visit to Tibet, have been questioned, but there is little doubt that some of her travels were authentic, the problem being to know which ones. The same ambiguity besets her claims to paranormal powers, some observers dismissing them completely, and others registering a more nuanced opinion. What one finally thinks of her inevitably reflects one’s own opinions: if you reject the paranormal, you will label her a fake; if you don’t, you will cautiously concede that some of her assertions merit consideration. The Theosophical Society still exists and can be accessed on the Internet. One thing is certain: she was indeed a woman of mystery, the like of which few will ever match. And since she appeared on the scene, the world hasn’t been the same.
Now we will fast forward to 2016 and have a glimpse at a sorceress in a black velvet cape, her straggly dark hair hanging to her waist, her eyebrows black crescents over narrow eyes, her lips with not a trace of lipstick: a woman of distinctive – I would almost say haunting – appearance. She awaits her clients in a dimly lit conjuring room on the third floor of a tenement at 365 West 48th Street, but a few blocks from Times Square. The walls of the room are red, the curtains green velvet, and one entire wall is lined with shelves of books of arcane knowledge. Into this hushed sanctum come visitors paying $65 or more to watch her read cards, perform sleight of hand, and command spirits of the dead.
A contemporary Madame Blavatsky, exhibiting her paranormal powers? Not at all. A run-of-the-mill medium or clairvoyant or fortuneteller with a dash of flair? Wrong again. The sorceress is Belinda Sinclair, a magician giving a performance entitled “A Magicienne Among the Spirits,” which is also a kind of history seminar on women and magic, and on the female mediums, clairvoyants, and psychic healers – some of them out-and-out frauds – who flourished in nineteenth-century New York in apartments much like hers. Crammed in that apartment are more than 3,000 pieces of “female magician ephemera,” which constitutes only a part of her collection.
“Women, in one way or another,” she explains, “have been the quintessential Magi forever.” Nineteenth-century New York witnessed séances and trance demonstrations in concert halls and private parlors, magazines on spiritualism were widely read, and some scientists opined that the spiritualists’ conjurings – some of them, at least – were legitimate. The Spiritual Register of 1861 listed dozens of mediums in the city, and there were certainly many more who preferred to remain clandestine … and not pay taxes. Some were certainly charlatans, but some, according to the press of the time, actually exerted a good influence on their neighborhood, dispensing advice much as a priest or confessor might. This world, invoked so vividly by Belinda Sinclair, is the one into which Madame Blavatsky burst with such command of spiritual authority and such a bag of tricks (if tricks they were). According to Ms. Sinclair, they were indeed tricks, for she declares that “the whole room was rigged” – an opinion not fully shared by historians today.
A magician since the age of nine, Ms. Sinclair, who grew up in Chelsea, is also an ordained minister and certified paramedic, has studied herbology, homeopathy, and hypnosis and has traveled widely. She has been building her collection of female magician ephemera for over 30 years. Comprising documents, apparatus, spiritualists’ memoirs and how-to books, it is, according to her, the largest library in the world of female magician ephemera, and one she would like to turn into a traveling museum exhibition. Also in her sanctum, though well concealed, are the switches and wires that cause things to move or explode, and make books fall off shelves, thus enlivening her act. Her goal is not to hoax people, but to simulate the hoaxes of the past, which she does with skill and flair. She proclaims her act “a lost art,” one that makes people feel better about themselves – a goal that Madame Blavatsky herself, whether authentic or not, surely shared.
Whether a woman is a Wise One and a true gateway to the Unknown may well depend on the observer, who projects these qualities onto a likely subject, with her complicity or not. In a subway car I once saw a woman in a black dress who immediately grabbed my attention and fascinated me as a study in silver and black. She was in her forties with long black hair, thin black eyebrows over eyes with long dark lashes, a prominent nose, full lips with dark red lipstick, and a slight double chin. Silver earrings with tiny red stones dangled from her ears, she wore a silver chain around her neck and silver rings on her fingers, and her black dress was edged around the bosom with silver. In addition, she had silver fingernails and, visible in her open-towed sandals, silver toenails. She looked exotic, though her ethnic origin was unclear.
So striking was this woman’s appearance that I scribbled a description of her and so, years later, can bring her vividly to mind. I took her for a fortuneteller, though this was only a guess. I could well imagine her sitting in some shadowy den here in the West Village or Chelsea or Soho, waiting for a customer seeking reassurance, guidance, or a glimpse into the future. These women are still all about, and she could well have been one of them. I never saw her again, so I’ll never know. But she was clearly a woman of mystery, and dressed for the part.
I have never consulted fortuneteller, though a friend of mine did. A third-generation Italian American, Tony, a devout but lapsed Catholic (yes, one can be both simultaneously), was all impulse and intuition, and indifferent to reason. Always scant of funds, if he came into a bit of money, he might blow it on perfumes or clothes. On a rare visit to New York, he told me he had consulted a fortuneteller here and her answers had decided him: he was returning at once to California. That he could make up his mind in such a way, and so suddenly, so impulsively, baffled me, but off he went. I suspect that he is the type – or one of the types – that fortunetellers attract. And back in California he had a guru, too.
Once, long ago, briefly, I overheard a fortuneteller reading a customer’s palm. She was a genial older woman sitting in on a Friday night dance at the Y, and without intentionally eavesdropping, I heard her say calmly to the girl consulting her, “You want something very much, but be prepared: you won’t get it.” The girl blanched, nodded, looked wounded, but recovered her composure. I marveled at the fortuneteller’s astuteness; she had perceived accurately or guessed right, and the girl reacted accordingly. And in this case the fortuneteller wasn’t smoothing the client’s feathers, she was ruffling them. A good fortuneteller, I suspect, is skilled in perceiving a client’s needs and fears, and proceeds accordingly.
I once knew a healer named Lilith (a marvelous name for a woman of mystery), a woman who in midlife, with her children grown, had left her husband to go a bit New Agey and become a healer, treating patients apparently beyond the help of orthodox medicine. Learning of a famous female Zapotec healer in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, she went there to learn from her, even though she knew neither Zapotec nor Spanish. Something clicked immediately between them, and the healer agreed to teach her. Their sessions at first required two translators, one to translate from Zapotec to Spanish, and another to translate from Spanish to English. But after three sessions the two women had intuitively reached such an understanding that they could dismiss the translators and communicate on their own. As the native people of the area learned that she was being instructed by the Zapotec woman, they began following Lilith about, begging her to treat them, which she did not feel capable of doing. But she learned much from the healer and returned to this country to pursue her new occupation. Though not a New Yorker, she occasionally passed through the city, and I met her more than once for dinner.
Lilith had a soft, soothing manner that surely went over well with patients. A nomad, she went from place to place, offering her skills. I first met her on Monhegan, the little island off midcoast Maine where I and my partner often vacationed. Lilith was perceptive, intuitional, not governed by common sense or reason, which put some people off but attracted others. I never needed her services, but the moment she arrived on the island, she had a list of calls to make: people with aches and ills who, once she treated them with a blend of talk and massage, felt noticeably better. A Wise Woman, for sure, and a forager who knew which mushrooms were safe to eat and which were poisonous, and who once, for an impromptu meal with several of us, simply went down to the beach and harvested some edible seaweed that she cooked, creating a delicious dish for the party. After a week or two on the island, she was off again – to a remote town in distant Chiapas, in southern Mexico hard by Guatemala – a town that I myself had once visited, one situated near remote villages of native peoples not yet corrupted by hordes of tourists and the ravages of modern civilization. I’ve never known anyone quite like Lilith, a healer, a forager, a nomad, and certainly a woman of mystery.
|Gypsy Fortune Teller, a 1616 painting by Bartolomeo Manfredi. A favorite subject of artists.|
Is this world of strange healings and the paranormal, is there room for fraud? Unfortunately, yes. Recently a former fortuneteller named Priscilla Kelly Delmaro was released in a Manhattan courtroom after serving eight months in jail, with four years of probation under the terms of a plea agreement. Her crime? Fleecing a 33-year-old online entrepreneur of over $550,000 for promising to reunite him with a woman named Michelle who had rejected his advances, a promise to be fulfilled with the help of crystal balls, a time machine, and an 80-mile bridge made of gold. When the victim learned that Michelle had died, Ms. Delmaro promised to reincarnate her spirit in another body, and even identified the woman the victim was now dating as the new Michelle. The psychic even convinced her victim that, to help him, she had sacrificed her business, home, and car, had $100,000 of credit card debt, and had been living in a church for six months.
An audacious fraud, certainly, and deserving more than eight months in the slammer. Ah, but here’s the rub: she and her victim had sex on one occasion, so that the extorted sums might be viewed as gifts to an inamorata – a fact that undermined his credibility as a witness. The lady in question has no aura of the weird or paranormal; indeed, a buxom 26 with long blond hair (but not down to her waist), she looks like a young suburban mom, which she is, having children 4, 6, and 8 years of age. But as an extortionist she surely had exceptional skill. The absent victim was indignant at the case’s resolution and has vowed to start a website exposing psychic scams. His story is ample testimony to what delusions our feelings can expose us, and to what grandiose and preposterous frauds. Lovers, beware!
© 2016 Clifford Browder