Episode 42: The Answer To Nothing

Feb 26, 2021

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Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that records the A and B segments out of order, so only patrons will get the call forwards… sorry.

Hosting this week is Madam Jenn but she can’t raise listener spirits alone, for that we’ll need Sir Steve the Serious, and Shea the Buttery. I’m Aaron, and this week….

Show Story- The Flim Flam Femme Fatales

This week I have decided to share with you all the story of someone that, perhaps surprisingly, I find very fascinating and in many ways inspiring. It would require too much unpacking to get into the why’s now, but I’m sure you may see them unfold as we go along.

So again, welcome to a story of weird…history…eee…eee

The tradition of charlatans, chicanery and snake oiling (ewwww….) is often thought of as a man’s game. (I mean, the term wasn’t Flim Flam Female.) But, as unlike so many professions (except for the original, seems like we get to keep the banner for that one), the ladies could totally get in on this game throughout the ages. Sometimes whether they wanted to or not, as I think some of the Oracles at Delphi weren’t there of their own free will for the free tripping.

Also, depending on the time period, these kinds of pursuits could dramatically backfire. As in, during several points throughout history it was found that ‘wise women’, healers, seers and anything other than a spirit-broken housewife were highly flammable and/or hangable.

So with that in mind, and the fact that I can never get enough of Aaron’s Russian accent, I would like to introduce the Ukranian-born Helena Petrova Blavatsky. Or perhaps you might recognize her by the more common nomenclature, Madame Blavatsky.

The Cambridge-based Society for Psychical Research had this 1885 respect-tinged quote about the eerily Jake Gyllenhall-resembling Madame B:

“For our part, we regard her as neither the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.”

(Now, before I continue, a quick bit of housekeeping bc of my rant last week and my constant fear of plagiarism: I’d been aware of and interested in Mdm. B for quite some time, but didn’t know exactly how absolutely riveting her story was until I listened to the amazing 3 part podcast series on her by Our Fake History, which started in May 2018. Full disclosure, I haven’t listened since it originally ‘aired(?)’ but I will go ahead and tell you right now that it was more complete and historically-contextual than what I’m going to provide. Please do check it out, but for my sake wait until after I’m done with my take bc that’s just polite and you would never hear the reactions of the boys in Sebastian’s episodes.)

Now, back to our main character Mdm. B: Helena was born in 1831 to an apparently well-to-do aristocratic family (which immediately takes away some of the mythos, as this would have so much better if she had been born in a frozen Siberian alley). The aristocracy in her family apparently came from her mother’s side, and her mother was a published author (much more impressive in the early 1800’s than today). Unfortunately, when Helena was 11 her mother died at 28 and I can’t understand if I think that’s too old or too young considering the time period. Anyway, her military-minded father decided to send her to live with her maternal grandparents at what was, with no irony, described as a ‘feudal estate’.

From this early age, and apparently encouraged by the old Russian, superstitious servants who were the stand ins for actual parents, Helena began to exhibit her ‘supernatural powers’. (Per newworldencylopedia.com these powers included:

physical and mental psychic feats which included levitation, clairvoyance, out-of-body projection, telepathy, and clairaudience. Another alleged skill of hers was materialization, that is, producing physical objects out of nothing.)

As an only child myself who had access to books (which at the time of Helena meant aristocracy) and often sickly, which gave me plenty of time for more…eclectic reading, I can totally understand why she turned out the way she did, seeing as how she was considered ‘traveled and largely self-educated’. As a teenager she became interested in Western esotericism and, in my interpretation, realized the world was ripe for the plucking.

Leaping quickly through her early life (it’s difficult to pin down her movements in her formative years, but I’m voting that’s at least partially part of her plan), here are a few (supposedly true) highlights. Three weeks before her 17th birthday she was married to a 40yr old politician. That apparently went so well that after 3 months she stole a horse and fled back over the mountains to her grandparent’s home. (LOVE. IT.) Her grandfather, scandalized, immediately tried to send her back to her soldier-father, but after a taste of mountain-horse-stealing-freedom, Helena was not going to be stopped. (The more I say, the less I feel any of this is real, but bear with me.) Instead of meeting her father at the appointed port, she dodged the continent completely, supposedly taking up with an English skipper on a ship bound for Constantinople.

Thus began her years of dubiously reported traveling. She claims to have spent the next 10 years on a pilgrimage towards enlightenment. Among the areas she is said to have traveled: Egypt, France, Quebec (on the hunt for Native American magicians), England, South America, Germany, Mexico, India, Greece and most especially, Tibet. Whilst in Tibet she super-spiritualized herself an introduction with the spiritual adepts known as ‘The Masters of Ancient Wisdom’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masters_of_the_Ancient_Wisdom (See the show notes for a link to more info on that because there is literally only so much time in life given to a single podcast host.)

Now a lot comes from her time studying Eastern mysticism, but in the name of time and sanity, I’m going to jump ahead just a bit, for context. Blavatsky became known as the mother of the Western Theosophical movement. In the broadest of terms, Theosophy maintains that the mysteries of the universe can be granted to particularly attuned people, and by attuned this means ‘finger on the pulse of gullible bored rich people’.

She supposedly demonstrated her powers in a variety of ways, for everyone from wealthy socialites to wary, superstitious peasants. One great anecdote that I heard on Our Fake History’s series involves her spending time finding lost jewelry and other valuables for her aristocratic friends. I won’t go into detail because he tells the story so well, but my money is on she had light fingers and dug up ‘so and so’s’ brooch from the backyard because she is the one who buried it there.

Madame B also seemed to be able to manifest a most pointless talent: making furniture impossible to move. From AP Sinnett’s book ‘Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky’, “Through the exercise of her own will directing the magnetic currents so that the pressure on the table became such that no physical force could move it.” Now Mr. Sinnett was a full on fangirl for Helena, so his writings should be taken with a small boulder of salt, but she did visit him extensively and he spent a lot of time with her, so there is at least first hand accounting. Plus, his books are old enough they are all free online! (The one I mentioned also contains the story/legend of a character named Count Rottenstern von Rott Hahn who could summon a giant raven, so that’s amazing and a cartoon supervillain.)

If you’re a patron, you heard from Aaron about a particular spiritual craze which was sweeping countries on both sides of the Atlantic known as ‘rapping’. The old, Victorian white people kind, where ghosts thumped answers in a basic alphabet. The most famous and supposed creators of the movement were the Fox sisters, who in actuality turned out to have creaky toe joints. But of course, Mdm. B got in on this action as well, confounding police detectives and laypersons alike (criminal investigators were less…sophisticated, at this time), and causing quite a stir in Chittenden, VT, said to be the era’s “epidemic of raps.” In fact a news article at the time noted, “On her arrival, the spirits became more spectacular than ever before.” I bet the Fox gals were supes jealous.

Anyway, after returning from her supposed enlightening among the Tibetans and spiritual masters, she moved to the back to Russia in 1858, and by 1870 immigrated to the US. She lived in various parts of New England, but a huge moment in her life took place in Pennsylvania. It was here her health took a turn as she developed a serious infection in her leg. Now in West Philadelphia, sick and dazed, the fever took up most of her days. Fucked up in the head but remembering her rule, she channeled Atlanteans before it was cool. Per the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: “During a period of delirium she underwent a spiritual transformation, and was inspired to found the Theosophical Society.

To deeply dive into the Theosophical society would require its own episode, but it’s a gathering of folks dabbling in the kind of woo you would expect and honestly not that interesting.

Anyway, back to her new fever dream combined with what she learned in Tibet from the ‘Masters of Ancient Wisdom’, eventually in 1888 she published her and early theosophy’s magnum opus: the 6 volume The Secret Doctrine. Goddess bless the Penn Museum’s page because it breaks down the lesson perfectly:

“she wrote about seven root races of humanity. The first consisted of invisible astral jellyfish. The second, the Hyperborean,lived near the North Pole and were also bodiless. Next came a race of egg-laying lemurs, who had eyes in the back of their heads. They lived on the continent of Lemuria, located in the Pacific Ocean. The Lemurians were naughty. They discovered sex, which was their downfall. Their continent was destroyed, leaving only remnants that we know as Easter Island and Australia. The people of Atlantis were the fourth of Madame Helena’s races, and the fifth were ourselves. The remaining two were, and still are, to come. The guardians for an infant humanity, their home lies in outer space, specifically Venus.”

It’s on this fabulously nutty note that I’m bringing this week’s portion of this story to a close. Next week I’m going to pick up from here and discuss some of her more…controversial beliefs and the lasting historical repercussions of Madame B’s life, writings and, of course, Nazis.

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The Fox Sisters

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Unfortunately, this isn’t about “foxy” sisters, or Megan Fox’s elusive, might-not-even-exist (don’t know, don’t care enough to Google) sister. The Fox sisters are one of the first people you’re likely to hear about if you look into Spiritualism, mediums, or psychics. However, until most of their contemporaries the Fox sisters didn’t shag people at seances. So, without any weird sex stuff to joke about, I’m well outside my usual wheelhouse.

And yes, female mysticism at the time was inexorably tied to the kind of freaky sex only available from the possessed. Because that’s how you know she’s a mystic! Contemporary spiritualists like Eva Carriere and Eusapia Palladino were famous for shagging clients and inspectors to maintain their business. Eusapia in particular was known for preemptively dispelling any notions that she might be a cheat by insisting each client inspect the seance with the old “nothing up my sleeves, nothing under the table, nothing in my cervix” routine.

Luckily our story begins in the early 19th century, so, much to Dustin’s chagrin, there will be plenty of yee-olde jokes. Because now it’s not just about anachronistic humor, now it’s a pod-in-joke too!

The sisters grew up in Hydesville, New York in 1848. Their farmhouse was allegedly haunted or some such. There were three sisters, Margaret, Kate, and Leah, who was the oldest. This matters because the younger two where the ones with special powers… and apples.

Hydesville was just outside modern Newark. At the time, Kate, 10, and Maggie, 14, were bored as fuck and very nearly spinsters having reached double digit ages without being married off, as was the yee-olde custom. It wasn’t until the end of March 1848 that the family finally accepted the haunted nature of their house, hearing sounds like furniture moving or knocking from empty rooms. On March 31st Kate challenged the invisible noisemaker to repeat her finger snaps, which it did, and then to count their ages, which it did. Shocked, the family, their neighbors, and the towns people became enamoured with communicating with the “entity” who would eventually be known as Mr. Splitfoot – surely the “cuddles” of the era.

Maggie Fox, in her later years noted:

“They [the neighbors] were convinced that some one had been murdered in the house. They asked the spirits through us about it and we would rap one for the spirit answer ‘yes,’ not three as we did afterwards. The murder they concluded must have been committed in the house. They went over the whole surrounding country trying to get the names of people who had formerly lived in the house. Finally they found a man by the name of Bell, and they said that this poor innocent man had committed a murder in the house and that the noises had come from the spirit of the murdered person. Poor Bell was shunned and looked upon by the whole community as a murderer.”

And so they took the show on the road. Using the Pike-esque communication method of one knock for yes, and two for no, they would answer people’s questions about the great beyond. The eldest sister, smelling profit, took the younger two to Rochester to visit a radical Quaker group who, once convinced of their ethereal powers, would form the base of Spiritualism.

Soon the sisters gave the first public demonstration of spiritualism in 1849 at Corinthian Hall. It took very little time for word and fame to spread. By 1850 they were well known mediums holding seances for hundreds of people. They had rabid followers, jealous imitators, and religiously connected protectors. Political affiliations also became common, though were often strained, as both young women frequently drank wine!

Wealthy and married to rich men the women would spend many years as on-again, off-again, mediums. Their breaks delineated by marriage or cross-atlantic trips and their returns to spiritualism conveniently coincided with relocations and/or dead husbands.

Eventually they ran out of credulous inspectors and fell to the scrutiny of well known engineers and magicians at the time. Harry Houdini was especially frustrated with their bullshit as they shamelessly defrauded the poor and vulnerable.

It was discovered that the table the sisters held their seances at had a hollow top, under which was a wooden block that acted as a fulcrum for a metal rod. The rod had a spring at one end and a nearly invisible handle that protruded out near where the sisters sat. With it, they could arm the rod like a mouse trap, allowing it to be snapped up into the table by handle or by release with a bit of thread. Apparetly, yee-olde people were real dumb.

In 1888, Margaretta told her story of the origins of the mysterious “rappings” at their family home:

“When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young.”

By the end of their lives they’d been exposed as frauds, run out of home and money, and died in alcoholic obscurity. Now they exist as footnotes in the history of charlatanism and spiritualism, their enterprise serving as an example of the cruel fraud mediums engage in by preying on the credulous and bereaved… or as the Catholic Herald says in it’s Heretic of the Week segment:

activities are condemned by the Church as a resurrection of necromancy; through the ages [the Church] has consistently taught that in conjuring the dead you are far more likely to make contact with demons disguising themselves as the dearly departed – and they mean none of us any good.

So yeah, demons… or, you know, an apple.

I’mAaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.

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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms.
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