Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America

Peter Washington

Washington traces the roots of New Age philosophy from Helena Blavatsky to Rudolf Steiner to Gurdjieff onward. Along the way he probes into the in-fighting and scandals that seemed to be a common occurrence among occult groups, such as C.W. Leadbetter’s passion for young men, Blavatsky’s chain smoking and general neglect of her health, and Krishnamurti’s shrugging off his mantle of world teacher. Throughout the book Washington also makes connections with Theosophy and other occult group’s influence on such people as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Frank Lloyd Wright and others.
One striking illustration of the old New Age meeting the new New Age is the instance when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM fame met Krishnamurti while leaving a plane in India. The Maharishi rushed to greet Krishnamurti clutching a flower. Krishnamurti rapidly made his apologies and left. Some time after this encounter he told his friends that he would like to see the Maharishi’s balance sheet.
Washington tends to focus on the inside dope and scandals within these groups but neglects to see any positive influence that they have had on our culture, such as Blavatsky’s reacquainting Indians with their own tradition, generally questioning the materialism of our society and worship of science as God, and fostering the rediscovery of the wisdom of ancient civilizations. The book is a lot of fun to read and many loose threads are connected, but it remains basically one-sided and lacking in wisdom about the subject matter. Incidentally, the title refers to a stuffed baboon Blavatsky kept in her parlor dressed in wing collar, tail and spectacles and holding a copy of The Origin of Species in its hand, a reminder to all who came in that in Blavatsky’s opinion Darwin was wrong: man was not descended from apes but from spirit beings. TC

Publisher: Schocken
Paperback: 470 pages

Serpent-Handling Believers

Thomas Burton

A history of the snake-handling churches of Tennessee which is both academic and insightful, containing 178 photos of people handling snakes and drinking poison. There is a general tendency to view the Southern snake-handlers as simple-minded or insane. Such a condescending attitude is, thankfully, absent from this book. Author Thomas Burton seems to have a liking for the subjects of his study, and reports that one of the reasons he stays in contact with them is that “they are good friends. They are strong, courageous, ethical people… I am proud of their friendship.”
Whenever a snake-handler dies of a snake bite, it makes the papers. This helps create the impression that snake-handlers are crazy people who drop dead whenever they perform their insane ritual. This book makes clear that although a practitioner will drop dead now and then, snake-handlers generally are bitten again and again with little or no effect. Even more amazing is their ability to consume poison. It is tempting to dismiss snake-handlers by speculating that they milk the snakes of their venom and switch the jars of strychnine with plain water. Every investigation that I am aware of shows that this is not so.
The snake-handlers take Mark 16:17-18 (and some other Bible verses) literally. They believe that the best way to show their faith is to handle deadly snakes and drink poisons. Also described are their fire-handling abilities, which are completely different from New Age-style firewalks. They have an obsession for filling Coke bottles with kerosene, stuffing a rag in the end and lighting it on fire. This potential Molotov cocktail is then held under the chin and other parts of the body. Removing hot coals from a furnace with the bare hands is not an unknown occurrence.
Particularly interesting is the section of biographical essays of various snake-handlers. These accounts could be dismissed as the product of someone’s imagination if it weren’t for the fact that the author has done such a thorough job of documenting everything in the book. Snake-handlers are as close as the United States gets to a home-grown mystic order (excluding Native Americans, of course). Although only briefly mentioned in the book, parallels to certain Sufi dervish groups are noticeable. There is an emphasis on good behavior (adab in Sufi terms), a disconnection from a “main” or central church body, a transference of powers of immunity (what the snake-handlers call “anointment”), dancing and rhythmic moments that turn into a trancelike state while accompanied by music played on the instruments of the common folk. The appendixes include an electroencephalograph test on an “anointed” person and a technical report on the music used during snake-handling services. The list of references is extensive and complete. TC

Publisher: University of Tennessee
Paperback: 208 pages

The Myth of the Virgin of Guadalupe


Rius, the cartoonist responsible for this booklet, is described on the back cover as the Mexican equivalent of Doonesbury. Don’t let this scare you away. Rius attempts to destroy the story of the alleged miraculous appearance of the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) on a piece of cloth on December 9, 1531. The alleged relic is still on display and has become a unifying symbol of the Mexican people, as well as a favorite tattoo image for for Hispanics in prison.
Rius makes his case, for the most part, not by attacking the image itself, as others have done. Instead, the bulk of his argument is the lack of historical record supporting the origin of the artifact. He shows that a number of attempts to verify the timeline of the relic have come to the same negative conclusion, regardless of the religious feelings of the investigators. In the end, Rius makes a strong case to doubt the artifact’s authenticity without even having to examine the image in question. The entire booklet is written in longhand and profusely illustrated with Rius’ cartoon illustrations. Although the style is meant to be informal, after a while it becomes distracting and feels like you are reading a friend’s way-too-long letter about his summer vacation. Perhaps the most annoying part is when he prints a long account of the appearance of the image, and interrupts the telling every few lines to belittle the story. Here he comes off like Courtney Love reading Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. The booklet is published by the fundamentalist atheist publishing house American Atheist Press, the publishing arm of the mysteriously missing Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. TC

Publisher: American Atheist
Paperback: 69 pages

Cult Rapture

Adam Parfrey

At first this seems as though it might be a sequel to Apocalypse Culture with an emphasis on “last days” cults, perhaps a written extension of Parfrey’s “Cult Rapture” art exhibit in Seattle. In fact, although there are chapters on real “cults,” such as the followers of Indian God-man Sai Baba and the much-ridiculed Unarius flying-saucer contactee group, much of this book has little, if anything, to do with any type of cult.
The majority of this book reprints Parfrey’s writing that has appeared in such diverse publications as the Village Voice, the San Diego Reader and Hustler. The non-Parfrey material includes Jonathan Haynes’ treatise “The Sex Economy of Nazi Germany,” the weirdest, if not the most bizarre, chapter in the whole book. Haynes is a white supremacist who is convinced that there is a Jewish conspiracy to stop him from getting laid. He gets so mad about it that he kills a hairdresser (for creating fake Aryans by turning hair blonde) and then a guy who sells blue-tinted contact lenses. Before he did this, he sent Parfrey a screed about the Nazis’ policy of government-run Free Love. Parfrey reprints this along with a rundown on the antics of the Cult of One. Also included are chapters on the big-eyed children painters (Walter and Margaret Keane), shock treatment, and James Shelby Downard’s hyperparanoiac Mason-directed mail-order bride exposé, a critique of anti-masculinist Andrea Dworkin, a G.G. Allin interview, and a chapter on human oddities that contains many previously published accounts of questionable authenticity that seem to be repeated solely for the shock value. The second half of the book turns into Militia Rapture as Parfrey turns his attention to right-wing spokesman Bo Gritz, SWAT training camps, Waco conspiracy theorist and hornets-nest-stirrer Linda Thompson, and a low-down on the Oklahoma-bombing conspiracy evidence. TC

Publisher: Feral House
Paperback: 371 pages

The Hoffman Newsletters

Michael A. Hoffman II

Michael Hoffman is an interesting fellow—a self-described white separatist, Fortean, Holocaust revisionist and anti-Masonic researcher. He has also been a stringer for AP and news editor and radio commentator for WEOS-FM. It is hard to dismiss him as a simple bigot. He is obviously highly intelligent and very literate, if pedantic. He has his own world view that he has been sharing over the years in his sometimes interesting and always high-priced newsletters.
This is a complete collection of his newsletters from 1987 through 1995. Hoffman is his least interesting when he is discussing race issues. He obviously has an ax to grind, but it reads like the editorial page of your local paper. And considering that he is often opining on current events, it’s like reading yesterday’s paper. More interesting is his historical research: he is dedicated to revealing the hidden history of white slavery in America. Although his research into this subject has gained him some positive attention from some mainstream historians, one doubts that this is true of his other historical interest—the denial of the reality of the Holocaust. Hoffman once worked for the infamous Institute for Historical Review. Jabs at the Holocaust, which run throughout the newsletters, are sure to offend many.
Hoffman’s exposé of the “psychodrama,” the molding of major events to enact Masonic rituals, is the most interesting thread running through the newsletters. Apparently he thinks that some of the major events of recent history have been adulterated with Masonic symbolism in order to cause some kind of change in mass society. This happens in such a way that the ritual is obvious to the Mason/Controllers (and people like Hoffman) and has a kind of subliminal effect on the public at large. “Dismiss me as a tree-hugger or a kook, as you like. But you’ll never dismiss the fact that three days after the U.S. started the war on Iraq, NASA turned the sky red over America. Canisters of barium were released in the air to achieve this awesome blood effect necessary to the pageantry of the alchemical show through which we are processed mentally and spiritually. On February 4, 14 bald eagles were ceremonially slaughtered in Oklahoma, in the heartland, their feet chopped off. The bald eagle is the national symbol of America. Must I spell it out for you? P-s-y-c-h-o-d-r-a-m-a; and on a huge scale here in the funhouse, where the real game is several magnitudes above the suit-and-tie talking heads.” TC

Publisher: Independent History and Research
Spiral: 330 pages

Project Seek: Onassis, Kennedy and the Gemstone Thesis

Gerald A. Carroll

Project Seek is an attempt to verify the information contained in a document circulated samisdat-style named “The Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File.” The Gemstone File is an overview version of recent history in which Aristotle Onassis is the main figure in the JFK assassination and Howard Hughes is kidnapped and replaced by a double. “The Skeleton Key” purports to be a summary of a larger body of work, but is condensed so that it is easier to circulate clandestinely. The source of the information is supposed to be Bruce Porter Roberts, an artificial-gem manufacturer who claims that his work was stolen by the Hughes Corporation.
Gemstone was known to conspiracy researchers, but not examined by them. The first serious look at Gemstone was The Gemstone File by Jim Keith. Although this book brought forward new information and broadened public awareness of Gemstone, it was lacking in many ways. In particular it failed to shed much new light on Roberts. The best aspect of Carroll’s book is that he is a former newspaper reporter and follows up on as many facts as he can, and reveals that much of the information that sounds incredible in Gemstone has a factual basis. He tracks Robert’s paper trail extensively, and has even found a photograph that may be of the elusive whistle blower.
One oddity in Gemstone that Carroll leaves unexplored is Roberts’ use of the Canadian tabloid Midnight twice for verification of his claims. Why would Roberts taint his tale by using what is considered such an unreliable source? Perhaps his use of a tabloid source shows that Roberts knew something John Q. Public doesn’t. The connection of the CIA and Organized Crime to the tabloids is something that is only now getting scrutiny. TC

Publisher: Bridger House
Paperback: 388 pages

A Review of the Book Entitled “Morals and Dogma”

A. Ralph Epperson

In this booklet, a conspiracy-obsessed Christian attempts to prove that the Masons are worshipers of Lucifer. This charge has been made in the past and will, no doubt, be repeated. The author attempts to demonstrate that words used by the Masons, including sentences and oft-times fractions of sentences from a huge Masonic textbook authored by Albert Pike (notorious for his part in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan), have different meanings for Masons of high degree than to the initiates. The God of the Masons is not the Christian God but rather the Masonic God, “The Architect of the Universe.” Pull this mask off and one finds the secret Masonic God, the Light Bearer a.k.a. Lucifer. One thing about this booklet, the price is right. “Mr. Epperson is not charging for this review, because he is uncertain about the copyright laws and how they might apply to this review of a book still being printed. So, he is asking that each reader who wants one only order one copy.” TC

Publisher: Publius
Paperback: 61 pages

The Eye of the Needle

Essay by Ralph Rugoff

File this one under Curiosities and Wonders. The focus of this book is the microsculptures of Halgop Sandaldjian. The artistic renderings of this Egyptian-born, Armenian- raised transplant to Los Angeles literally fit inside the eye of a needle.
“An unexpected sneeze or misdirected breath could blow away a microminiature with hurricane force… Early in his career he would spend hours hunting for these missing children, carefully combing every inch of desk and floor space in his study, but eventually he realized that such searching was futile. Once a piece was lost, it was lost for good.”
This booklet was produced to complement an exhibit of his “microminiatures” at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and covers a lot of ground, as it includes the story of an intuitive and self-driven would-be violin virtuoso, a history of micro-art—including methods, philosophical ponderings, and instruction in learning to play the violin using Sandaldjian's self discovered “Ergonomic” techniques. Last but not least, the book is a work of art in itself, beautifully put together—even its smell adds to it sunique character. Curiously, there is a strange omission from the author's tour of miniature art: the flea circus, the only micro-performing art… He mentions everything else, and gets close with a mention of fleas in dresses. TC

Publisher: Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information
Paperback: 95 pages

M.K. Jessup and the Allende Letters

The BSRF Philadelphia Experiment File

The tale of the Philadelphia Experiment, the secret Navy project to make a ship optically invisible, its disastrous effects on the crew and the possible teleportation of the ship, first surfaced in a series of letters sent to an astronomer turned UFO author Morris K. Jessup. Things took a strange turn when a hand-annotated copy of one of Jessup’s UFO books was sent to the Office of Naval Research. Strange because a Navy official became interested in the book, contacted Jessup and was given the letters. He self-published a retyped version of Jessup’s book (including the notations) along with the letters. Then, with extraordinary timing, Jessup killed himself.
This booklet is a collection of material from Jessup and about him, much taken from BSRF files. Does it give any insight into the events leading to Jessup’s death? For the most part, no. BSRF was very much into channeling entities back then, so most of this is speculation and channeled material. That which is neither of these is available from other sources. The hard-core Philly Experiment researcher may want this book, as it does have letters written by Jessup himself. It may also provide an insight into how the Experiment was perceived before it was muddied by later writers. TC

Publisher: Borderland Sciences
Pamphlet: 51 pages

Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History

Norman Anderson

Is too much information a bad thing? This Ferris-wheel history has more information than you will ever need about this staple of amusement rides. There are examples of wooden, four-seat, human-powered wheels that are still used in India; descriptions of Ferris wheel-like rides that never caught on; Ferris wheels within other rides (like a roller coaster with mini-Ferris wheel on tracks). The last part of this book consists of reprints of what is hopefully every Ferris wheel-related patent ever issued. TC

Publisher: Bowling Green
Paperback: 407 pages