“A thousand kisses darling”: Sex, scandal and spirituality in the life of Charles Webster Leadbeater – II
For this post, I will further explore the unfolding of the 1906 scandal, the Theosophical Society’s response and the efforts to contain it.
the “horrible astral affects of perpetual desire”
On the 27th of February 1906, Leadbeater wrote a letter to Alex Fullerton, 1
elaborating his beliefs regarding the “advice” he gave:
“I know that the whole question of sex feelings is the principal difficulty in the path of boys and girls, and very much harm is done by the prevalent habit of ignoring the subject and fearing to speak of it to young people … Therefore I always speak of it quite frankly and naturally to those I am trying to help, when they become sufficiently familiar with me to make it possible.” 2
Leadbeater disagreed with the conventional idea that as long as ‘impure thoughts’ did not lead to overt action, they were of no consequence. His “occult” view was that:
The conventional idea that such thoughts do not much matter so long as they do not issue in overt acts is not only untrue; it is absolutely the reverse of the truth. I have seen literally hundreds of cases of this horrible condition, and have traced the effects which it produces in after-life. … Much of this trouble is due to the perfectly natural pressure of certain physical accumulations, and as the boy grows older this increasing pressure drives him into associations with loose women or sometimes into unnatural crimes. Now all this may be avoided by periodically relieving that pressure, and experience has shown that if the boy provokes at stated intervals a discharge which produces that relief, he can comparatively easily rid his mind of such thoughts in the interim, and in that way escape all the more serious consequences. I know this is not the conventional view, but it is quite true for all that, and there is no comparison between the harm done in the two cases even at that time – quite apart from the fact that the latter plan avoids the danger of entanglement with women or bad boys later on.
Leadbeater conceded that doctors did not agree with teaching controlled masturbation, but pointed out that doctors could not see – as he could – the “horrible astral affects of perpetual desire”. Also in the letter, Leadbeater admitted teaching masturbation to Douglas Petit and Robin Dennis, saying that Douglas had asked him for advice about the effects of the onset of puberty. Leadbeater said he could tell from the boy’s aura that he was experiencing feelings that disturbed him, and that he offered masturbation as a natural outlet. As for Robin Dennis, Leadbeater claimed that Mrs Dennis had concerned about the influence of another boy on her son and that Robin had confessed to him the ‘relations’ he had entered into with the other boy. Leadbeater had again recommended masturbation – “regular discharges” but gave this advice by letter, after he had left America.
Leadbeater’s view was that masturbation was not so much a sexual act as a prophylactic – a practice which, when correctly disciplined, would save a boy from “worse perils”( i.e. seeking sexual relief from prostitutes) – and the resulting karmic and psychic consequences.
Douglas Pettit later made a sworn statement to the effect that he and Leadbeater had “habitually” shared the same bed; that Leadbeater, after their first night had “explained to me the practice” (i.e. masturbation) and “urged me to engage in the practice, giving as a reason therefore that it would aid me in overcoming any desire to have sexual intercourse with women – which desire, he told me, would develop in the course of nature at my age very soon.” Douglas also asserted that Leadbeater had “told me that the practice was recommended by his Master and teacher for that reason and advised me not to speak of the matter to anyone. This reciprocal practice continued for the greater part of seven months” (Tillett, 1986, p251).
Leadbeater’s views on masturbation were indeed, as he himself admitted, unusual at the time. The popular view of “self-abuse” was overwhelmingly one of condemnation. Medical warnings about the emotional and physical consequences of masturbation were reinforced by the clergy, and popular books and pamphlets warned of the dangers and exhorted young men and boys to seek high standards of chastity. Quack cures and patent restraint devices abounded. Douglas Pettit was examined by one Doctor Dyer, an American physician, who concluded that the boy’s epileptic fits were brought on by “self-abuse”, and suggested that it would have been better to take the boy to a prostitute (Dixon, 2001, p99).
According to Gregory Tillett, although a few Theosophists had their suspicions about Leadbeater’s conduct, many came to regard the charges as false, possibly connected with black magicians and the enemies of the Masters.
The cipher letter
However, the case against Leadbeater was fuelled by the discovery of the so-called “cipher letter”. This letter, partially written in code, was allegedly from Leadbeater to one of the boys. Beginning: “Private, my own darling boy … it is better for me to write in cipher about some of the more important passages.” Whilst the majority of the letter concerned astral experiences, in the midst of it there was a passage in a simple code 3 which when transcribed, read:
“if it comes without help, he needs rubbing more often, but not too often or he will not come well. Does this happen when you are asleep? Tell me fully. Glad sensation is so pleasant. Thousand kisses darling.”
This cipher letter was widely discussed and circulated. Leadbeater, on being shown a legally attested copy, apparently said that he recognised it, but “did not know it in its present form”. A pamphlet circulated amongst British members called for a full investigation, and an unequivocal denial or admission from Leadbeater. He refused, saying that it was a “gross impertinence” that he should do so. The American section of the TS began agitating for Leadbeater to be expelled from the Society, a suggestion to which Mrs. Besant was strongly opposed, as she considered the cipher letter to be a forgery.
“Certain Charges” – the 1906 Committee
In May 1906, Colonel Olcott 4 appointed a committee to advise him on the matter. It was to consider the American allegations, and the more general question of Leadbeater’s relations with his pupils. The “Report of Meeting called by Colonel Olcott to discuss Certain Charges against C.W. Leadbeater” (Grosvenor Hotel, Buckingham Palace Road, London, Wednesday May 16th, 1906) 5 takes a distinct quasi-legal approach to the problem, and reading the transcript, it’s no wonder that the committee’s deliberations were, later, frequently referred to as a “trial” and its report acquired a semi-legal status.
In addition to Colonel Olcott and Executive Committee members of the British Section, there were senior representatives from America and France present too. The committee members (and Leadbeater) were concerned that the matter should remain internal to the TS, and highly aware of the possible damage that it could do to the public image of the TS. It was proposed at one point, that a notice be published in Theosophist magazine “intimating that in consequence of charges of teaching boys self-abuse having been made and admitted, Mr. Leadbeater was no longer a member of the Society.” Percy Sinnett remarked that “It would be the end of the Theosophical Society.” Bertram Keightley argued for a firm stand on the matter – “We have to face the world. The thing must come out”. Committee members such as Sinnett were strongly opposed to the publication of phrases such as “self-abuse”, whilst others were clearly aware that a person of Leadbeater’s standing within the TS could not simply resign without some explanation being given out. In the end, Sinnett proposed that the notice of Leadbeater’s resignation should only refer to “certain charges”.
During the Committee’s proceedings, Leadbeater more or less reiterated the explanation he gave to Alex Fullerton earlier in the year. He admitted to have taught prepubescent boys masturbation as a prophylactic, and did so on the basis what he saw on “other planes” and not always as a result of them asking for advice. He also admitted that this teaching may have included a certain amount of “indicative action” or “touch” on his part, although he refused to elaborate on what that might mean.
Leadbeater maintained, throughout the cross-examination by the committee members, a stance in which he was “above suspicion” – his replies to the questions about his habit of sharing both beds and baths with the boys in his care seem to imply that it never crossed his mind that these actions could be misinterpreted. In response to a question from Mr. Burnett 6 about why Leadbeater did not consult with the parents of the boys concerning his “advice”, Leadbeater responded:
Leadbeater: I don’t understand all this talk about concealment. If asked about the thing I should not have hesitated in speaking.
Burnett: The talk is because all the world condemns it but Mr. Leadbeater, so far as my knowledge is concerned.
Leadbeater: Your knowledge does not go very far.
Burnett: There is no treatise on physiology which supports this. I asked your friend Dr. …. in Chicago, if he had ever seen it advised. He had never advised it and had never known it to be advised. You are flying in the face of the whole world, and why then did you not tell the boy’s parents?
Leadbeater: I wish I had. But one does not talk of these things. I told every parent it was my practice to speak freely about sexual matters. I was asked by one of the parents to tell the boy about such things because he was not pure enough himself.
Burnett: True, but he did not know it was to teach the boys self-abuse.
Shortly after this exchange Leadbeater gave the committee a further shock when he stated that “One of the great Church organisations for young men deals with the matter in the same manner.” Although when challenged to name this body, in the face of the frank disbelief expressed by some of those present, Leadbeater refused to elaborate, stating that the matter was secret.
Following the Committee’s deliberations, Leadbeater resigned as a member of the TS, and said that he would not give out this particular course of teaching any longer. Any hopes of keeping the affair quiet though, were soon dashed when Alex Fullerton sent an “official circular” (18 May) to all American TS members. This document stated that rumours had been circulating for years about Leadbeater teaching self-abuse to boys in his charge – in England, India and Ceylon, and that these rumors had been verified by direct testimony from boys in the United States. The circular went on to say that: “the discovery of two notes from X. (Leadbeater) to two boys. It is impossible to put such writings in print; but their pruriency, their cold-blooded injunctions as to methods and times of indulgence, and the personal satisfaction expressed in the remark all make impossible the defense that the prescriptions were given from honest desire to save the victims from sex relations.”
Mrs. Besant wrote to Colonel Olcott on 23rd May 7 expressing her disapproval of Leadbeater’s “advice” but that she believed that it was given “with good intent and with good faith”. However, she was dismayed by the actions of the American T.S., called into question Mrs. Dennis’ letter, and opined that “It would have been easier for Fullerton to have sent you the charges, and for you, if you thought it best, to have asked Charles for his resignation. The whole thing would have been done quietly and the T.S. would have been safeguarded. Now God knows what will happen. … Any sane person, caring for the T.S. would have acted thus, instead of shrieking all over the place.”
After his resignation, Leadbeater continued to defend his actions, and alleged that his opponents in America were under the influence of black magicians, that the facts of the matter had been misconstrued and he most definitely did not represent the “advice” as emanating from the Masters. He left England shortly afterwards (a not uncommon consequence for men accused of sexual immorality) never to return, and stayed in various parts of Europe until his subsequent return to Adyar, and finally, later in his life, Australia.
More fuel was thrown on the fire by one C. Jinarajadasa 8 – who privately circulated a pamphlet amongst senior male American Theosophists in support of Leadbeater. Jinarajadasa was himself a former protégé of Leadbeater. Leadbeater had met him in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) when he was thirteen, and brought him to England in 1889. Leadbeater later claimed that Jinarajadasa was the reincarnation of his younger brother Gerald who had been murdered in South America and – having been informed by ‘higher powers’ that Gerald had reincarnated in Ceylon – he had psychically examined a number of Singhalese boys until he discovered Jinarajadasa (Tillett, 1986, p175).
Leadbeater told Jinarajadasa that his Karma required that he move to England for occult training and to enter the service of the Masters. Needless to say, the boy’s parents objected to this plan. Leadbeater arranged for Jinarajadasa to be picked up by a schooner and hidden on board until the ship sailed for England. The boy swam out to the boat and was hidden in the captain’s cabin for thirty-six hours. His father, suspecting that Leadbeater had played a part in his son’s disappearance, threatened him with a revolver. 9 The family eventually relented, and decided that if Jinarajadasa was returned to them, they would give Leadbeater their formal blessing and allow their son to be educated in England. Leadbeater biographer Gregory Tillett points out however, that Leadbeater did not have a brother, and that he was fond of rewriting his own history.
Jinarajadasa wrote to dispute the assumption, which he believed to be common in Theosophical circles, to the effect that Leadbeater had been charged with committing sodomy. Citing his long and intimate association with Leadbeater, he strongly refuted this charge. He acknowledged that Leadbeater’s liking for boys; his sensitivity; and his antipathy for women could be read as signs that Leadbeater was a sexual pervert, but he insisted that they could be explained in other ways too. Jinarajadasa also went onto to say that ‘accusations’ had been circulating about Leadbeater in Ceylon during the 1880s 10 and that he himself had heard these rumours before he met Leadbeater, but explained this as local hostility to TS activities: “it seemed difficult for the Sinhalese to imagine that a man could, out of pure affection, do so much for a boy as Mr. Leadbeater did for some boys. That they had to postulate an ulterior motive, and that they did nothing more than their inborn suspicion made possible.” Jinarajadasa also opined that Leadbeater deserved to be heard on the matter of having taught some boys “onanism” and that, in his view, although Leadbeater’s “advice” was mistaken, there was no “immoral intent”. 11
Olcott, on hearing about Jinarajadasa’s defence of Leadbeater, issued an Executive Order expelling Jinarajadasa from the TS, although he was later reinstated.
In the next part of this series, I’ll examine the return of Leadbeater to the Theosophical Society, the public airing of his “advice” in the press, and the discovery of Krishnamurti.
Joy Dixon Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Joscelyn Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (State University of New York Press, 1994)
Elizabeth J HarrisTheravāda Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka (Taylor & Francis, 2006)
Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality Manchester University Press, 1990
Alex Owen The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in late Victorian England (University of Chicago Press, 1989)
Alex Owen The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Frank Reynolds The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion (Walter de Grutyer, 1976)
Sangharakshita Facing Mount Kanchenjunga: An English Buddhist in the Eastern Himalayas (Windhorse, 1991)
Gregory Tillett The Elder Brother (Routledge Kegan and Paul, 1982)
Alan Trevithick The Theosophical Society and its Subaltern Acolytes (1880-1986) (Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No.1, May 2008, accessed 22/09/2009)
Peter Washington Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru (Secker & Warburg, 1993)
Chronological Listing of CW Leadbeater’s Books and Pamphlets
Gregory Tillet Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 : a biographical study (University of Sydney eScholarship Repository, Ph.D Thesis 1986)
Archive of documents pertaining to the 1906 scandal
- See Tillett, 1986, pp247-250. Fullerton was then General Secretary of the American Theosophical Society. The letter was subsequently circulated amongst American TS members. ↩
- Tillett, 1982, p80 ↩
- A reference to this code is made in Leadbeater’s story The Perfume of Egypt ↩
- Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) was the co-founder, and first president of the Theosophical Society ↩
- see reportmeetingchargesleadbeaterfull.pdf ↩
- The representative of the American TS. ↩
- see besantleadbeaterlettersfull9.pdf ↩
- Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa (a.k.a “Raja”), later President of the TS, 1945-1953. ↩
- Tillett, pp177-178. Sangharakshita, in a biographical sketch of Dharmapala (1952) described this incident as a “kidnapping” – which Jinarajadasa hotly contested. Sangharakshita (1991, p476-477) comments that: “The Dharmapala Diaries showed that he incontestibly had been kidnapped, Dharmapala having been involved in the subsequent fracas…” Harris, 2006, p238 cites this diary entry made by Dharmapala (1864 – 1933) who knew both Olcott and Leadbeater in Ceylon: 21 November 1889 ‘General Meeting of the Theosophical Society – CWL’s departure and the kidnapping of the boy by him discussed at the meeting. Resolved to take measures to stop the scandal being public.’ ↩
- Trevithick (2008) cites two entries from the diaries of Anagarika Dharmapala: “Scandalous reports about C.W.L again current” (June 7, 1889) and “Pity that C.W.L does not take that interest that he ought to take. The time that he spends in the company of boys could well be utilized in a better way” (July 21 1889). ↩
- Jinarajadasa’s letter was circulated again during the later scandals, although references to sodomy and onanism were replaced by asterisks (Dixon 2001, pp105). ↩