A More or Less Respectable Occultism

My great-grandfather Leonard Knowlton lived in Butte, Montana, where he was clerk of the Butte Miner newspaper. Back then, Butte’s copper mines were a main source for the electrical copper wires which kept the country running. We now know that they “delved too greedily and too deep,” and when the mines closed many decades later the area became a major Superfund site. But while the mines were up and running, they attracted a population of rowdy miners, saloonkeepers, prostitutes, journalists, corporate executives, and professionals like Leonard. 

And occultists were attracted to Butte too. 

My great-grandfather spoke on many topics during the Butte Theosophical lodge’s public meetings on Sunday. He explained about “The Masters and the Way to Them,” he expatiated on “The Purpose of Life,” he expounded upon “Reincarnation.” But for these speeches I could only find the newspaper announcements that he would speak in future; I couldn’t find a text or even a summary of what he said. However, there are three talks he gave for which the press (sometimes the Butte Miner where he worked) gave at least some excerpts from his speeches.

He talked in January 1919 about “Occultism as a factor in Civilization.” He contrasted the “Orient,” especially India, with its supposed subjective/philosophic atmosphere, and the Occident, especially the United States, with its “physically active” mindset. Each civilization could learn from the other, but my great-grandfather focused on a story he told against the “Occident,” as related by the late Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, the cofounder of Theosophy. It seems the Theosophical leadership, headquartered in Adyar, India, near Madras (which is now Chennai), hired an Indian artisan to make doors for the headquarters building. When the artisan presented his finished project “there appeared in all their [a]esthetic beauty a pistol, a padlock and a corkscrew! And why not? The pistol, emblematic of physical force, of warfare, has been a dramatic factor in our civilization, while in the orient it is hardly known. The lock is everywhere in evidence with us … the corkscrew has ever followed Christian missionaries into ‘heathen’ countries.”

The Theosophical movement was cofounded in 1875 by two individuals—Olcott, who left his family and law practice for the movement, and Helena Blavatsky, a Russian-born woman who claimed special spiritual powers and wrote what amounted to the Theosophical scriptures—Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. Bruce Campbell (an academic historian, not the actor) says that many people were receptive to the new religion’s mystical, occult message which invoked evolution—about which there was a great dispute within Christianity—as well as appealing to some post-Christians. As they say, giving up traditional beliefs doesn’t mean you’ll believe in nothing, but that you’ll replace the old beliefs with something new.

After the two founders died (or passed to higher spheres), the movement divided into factions. Outside of America, from headquarters in Adyar, Theosophists were under the leadership of the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Besant ended up as a spiritual world leader after a career as a pastor’s wife, a freethinker, a birth-control advocate, and a socialist. The American Theosophic faction was at first headed by Katherine Tingley, who, it turns out, paid more attention to a commune she ran in California than to her scattered Theosophical lodges throughout the country.

When the Tingley faction tried unsuccessfully to win over Besant’s followers in India, the Besantines replied by raiding Tingley’s territory. Besant and her associates toured America, founding Theosophical lodges (and winning back some Tingley-supporting lodges). In 1896 Countess Constance Wachtmeister came to Butte with Besant’s gospel, and inspired the founding of a Butte Theosophical lodge. Besant herself came to Butte in 1897 to provide extra inspiration. 

From Butte, one zealous convert, Havilah Squiers, went out through Montana, venturing into other northwestern states, everywhere founding new lodges. The first female attorney in Montana, Ella Knowles Haskell, a Butte resident and Populist, was also in the Butte lodge. One of the earlier presidents of Butte’s Theosophical lodge was the wife of a prominent judge, also a member, named W. O. Speer. 

My mother didn’t think it was in Leonard’s character to belong to a religious society headed by a woman. Technically, though, according to Theosophical tenets, Besant was simply a channel through whom advanced spiritual “Masters”—apparently male—communicated with Theosophists, just as they had done with Blavatsky and Olcott. And in 1909, Besant discovered that Jiddu Krishnamurti, the teenage son of one of her employees, was a spiritually-endowed being destined for world leadership—Besant deemed herself responsible for preparing the way for him, and many lodges, including Butte’s, promoted the cause. Only to the unbeliever would it appear that it was actually Besant running the entire show.

Speaking of The Larger Consciousness and its Value in November 1916, my great-grandfather said:

This consciousness exists in all things. It sleeps in the mineral, it awakes in the plant, it is active in the animal, it is transcendent in the man … The only fundamental difference between people is the different degrees of consciousness they possess. Some souls are older than others, though the older soul may at present be occupying the younger body.

As my great-grandfather’s speech hints, Theosophists believed in reincarnation and karma. Of course, they believed in the astral plane and astral bodies too. 

For an occultist sect which should have been expected to shock Butte’s staid residents with talk of reincarnation, Asian spiritual Masters, and astral bodies, the Theosophists seemed to be attaining a kind of respectability.

How did the hard-bitten citizens of Butte react to this new esoteric group in their midst? The Butte Inter Mountain was interested in finding out. In February 1902, noting that “many of the most intellectual people in the city” were members of the Theosophical lodge, the paper’s reporter interviewed an unnamed “well known member.” This member was quite reassuring to the reporter and his readers. No, the Butte Theosophists did not believe in “free love” (sexual promiscuity), but they believed in brotherhood, the Golden Rule, the avoidance of dogma, and the “light within.” Members were “law abiding” and only a few “fanatics” (such as could be found in any group) would blindly follow their organization’s leaders in the unlikely event that those leaders required anything wrong.

In 1903, the Inter Mountain was back with questions. There was a scandal all over the nation’s newspapers over Katherine Tingley’s California commune in Point Loma. Judge William O. Speers, husband of the head of the Butte lodge, assured the reporter that Tingley’s organization was “in no way connected with us.” Quoting (or paraphrasing) Speers, the newspaper called Tingley a “fakir” and “hypnotist.” 

Butte’s loyalty to Besant was affirmed in Theosophist publications, too. A member of the Theosophical lodge in nearby Anaconda called Butte a “sister branch” which often held joint meetings with the Anaconda lodge. “Both lodges are devotedly loyal to our president, Mrs. Besant, and to Mr. [Charles Webster] Leadbetter, and we would go on record as faithful pupils of both these great teachers.” Leadbetter, who had stayed at Butte for some time on one of his tours, was Besant’s right-hand man in India and had discovered the boy Krishnamurti (Besant—and Butte—stayed loyal to Leadbeater despite scandals where (at minimum) he taught boys how to masturbate).

Press coverage in the local papers—the Anaconda Standard, the Butte Miner, the Butte Inter Mountain, and papers in Helena and Great Falls—was favorable and comprehensive enough as to elicit praise from the Butte lodge in its reports in Theosophical journals, avowing that “some of the prominent newspaper writers are Theosophists.”

One of Butte’s newspaper editors was a Theosophist—Adelphus Keith, editor of the Butte Miner, making him my great-grandfather’s boss. The paper was owned by William A. Clark, one of the imperious “copper kings” whose mining interests dominated Butte (Clark was brazen enough in his corruption that at one point the US Senate wouldn’t seat him). Newspapers which opposed Clark accused Keith of being a tool of the copper baron and mocked Keith’s practice of giving favorable, extensive coverage of Theosophist events. The Butte Reveille mocked Keith as “the high priest of Theosophy in Montana.”

For an occultist sect which should have been expected to shock Butte’s staid residents with talk of reincarnation, Asian spiritual Masters, and astral bodies, the Theosophists seemed to be attaining a kind of respectability. This comes through in a bestselling, scandalous book published by a young Butte lady named Mary MacLane only a few years after Theosophy came to Butte. Titillating readers with her simmering sensuality and her wish to have relations with the devil, MacLane noted her occasional incursions into respectable society: “I go among people occasionally because it amuses me. It may be a literary club where they talk theosophy, or it may be a Cornish dance … or it may be a lady-like circle of married women with cerise silk drop-skirts and white kid gloves.” MacLane contemptuously assigned Theosophy a sort of mundane status by lumping it together with the other items (MacLane may have become a Theosophist herself).

Speaking on “Social Problems: The Message of Theosophy,” in November 1917, my great-grandfather said:

Brotherhood means just the opposite of equality …. you do not ask the baby to guide the house …. Men are not equal, let people say what they will …. it is not inequality of opportunity which is so grave a disadvantage, as the inequality of power to grasp the opportunity when it comes …. some souls are younger than others and have less experience behind them …. we should have [in government] a council of the best men and women in the nation. With such a council we could well afford to abolish congress and the house of representatives.

The powers of a council such as my great-grandfather proposed were to be used for the “common good,” rather than having the strong oppressing the weak, as happened in this professedly Christian nation.

Why would my great-grandfather avow such anti-democratic sentiments during a war supposedly being fought to make the world safe for democracy? His views were derived from Theosophy and its version of evolution. The human soul has the potential to evolve from one lifetime to the next, via reincarnation, if only the soul accumulated good karma in each lifetime through good deeds. Likewise, the human race as a whole was evolving. There were seven “root races,” unknown to conventional science, to which different generations of humanity had belonged. Earlier there had been the Atlanteans and the Hyperboreans, and in the present era the Aryans were the focus on spiritual progress. This was such an important point to Besant that she took up her personal residence, not in the Theosophical headquarters of Adyar, but in Benares (or Varanasi), a great Hindu spiritual center and, to Besant, the center of Aryan spiritual influence. The Hindu caste system had been corrupted, thought Besant, with the higher castes oppressing the lower. The system needed to be purified, not abolished—the higher and more spiritually advanced castes ought to give wise and benevolent leadership to the lower castes. Besant even tried to bring this philosophy to bear on her Indian home-rule activism, leading to her internment by the British, who were not amused by her preference for the “native” population over the colonial power. She was elected (with her aura of political martyrdom) to a stormy and controversial period as President of the Indian National Congress, after which she was supplanted by new leaders like the anti-caste-system Mohandas Gandhi.

Butte’s working classes, as elsewhere, do not seem to have cottoned to the elitist Theosophical movement, but plenty of middle-class people like my great-grandfather were drawn to it. This continued popularity still existed in 1921, seven years before Leonard’s death. Reports said that a Theosophical lecture was “packed.” (By 1959, though, the Butte lodge’s force was spent and it closed down.)

Bruce Campbell opined that Theosophists joined the organization in “individual rather than family groups” of the middle and upper classes. The average Theosophist, to Campbell, was “alienated … from conventional social roles and practices.” I don’t know if this all describes my great-grandfather’s attitude. His surviving speeches indicate that he may have been a noblesse oblige sort of fellow, helping out others whom he deemed, through no fault of their own, insufficiently karmically developed.

Theosophists took the idea of equal opportunity and extended it over a considerable time. Equality of opportunity among members of one generation—who were in different states of evolution—was impossible, but over generations, a person could by striving and good works get the karma necessary to reach the fullness of spiritual development, and eventually bring humanity literally to a new world—a new planet, perhaps even a new dimension.

This sort of thought has a long history in America—though until recently I hadn’t known it had gained such a foothold in gritty Butte or among my own relations.


Max Longley


Max Longley is a writer in North Carolina. His two latest books are For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland: 2015) and Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, 2020). He has contributed to the publications HistoryNet, U. S. Catholic Historian, Modern Stoicism, Touchstone, Front Porch Republic, the St. James Encyclopedia of American Popular Culture, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, and others.