Friday, October 30, 2009

HPB & The Chittenden Mysteries

Part Four of Out of This World: Death, Ghosts, and the Roots of Theosophy

In 1874, Helena Blavatsky followed Henry Olcott to Chittenden, a small Vermont town, to see the “manifestations” of William Eddy, an alleged medium. Their resulting alliance led directly to the launching of the US Theosophy movement, an impressive synthesis of Buddhism, occultism, and Western philosophy that became enormously influential in subsequent decades.

A century after they met, I began to weigh the evidence, and wrote a series of accounts for Vermont and national publications. To further explore the possibilities, I wrote Spirits of Desire, a novel about the spiritualist craze of that bygone era and the trail that led Blavatsky, Olcott and many others into a world of séances, elemental forces, astral projection, and past lives.

Here is a final scene from the book, picking up just moments after Helena and Henry meet:


A good start, she decided. Yet she also had to wonder: what exactly had begun? Her teachers had sent her from Cairo to Paris and then to America. And now to Henry and Vermont. Why? He and the spiritualists were lost in a fog. Even the way they talked about all of it was wrong. They spoke of "materializations" when spirits of the dead don't take "material" form. They talked about spirit and soul as if there was no difference between the immaterial, divine principle and that vital breath of life shared with humans by every animal.

Spirit materializations! The proper description was spiritless materialism. Still, she knew that Henry was the key. At least he was searching for real answers – natural laws rather than gross superstitions.

At his request, she outlined her background: granddaughter of princes and generals, Kourland family of the Hahn-Hahns, birth in Ekaterinoslav, father a Captain, mother a writer, plus a family line that stretched back to the Crusades. She explained how, according to legend, the von Hahn name had been taken by a knight when the crowing of a hahn, or cock, awoke him just in time to prevent an ambush in the Holy Land. She described her youth, spent in St. Petersburg, Odessa and Saratov, but added that her real life had begun only when she left home for Egypt, India and Tibet.

Had he seen the dancing dervishes, she asked, or the serpent charmers of Damascus and Benares? Did he know that fakirs could tame animals with their eyes? During her wandering years she had witnessed these wonders and many more.

In Bengal, for example, she had seen an adept create a photograph of the local landscape on a dish just by staring at it. His full-color copy of nature had lasted for several days before fading away.

"How did he do it?"

"With a powerful will, I expect. Marvelous, no? Like what you've seen here."

"But you make it sound easy."

"It can be -- for those of who know how. Some people, I think, develop mental abilities that the rest of us ignore. Basically, it's a question of attitude."

"That's too simple."

"It isn't simple at all."

"And you know about these things?"

"I've seen enough to know there is a great difference between being sensitive and having real power. Let us say that a group of fakirs gathers around a lake full of alligators. I've actually seen something like this. The monsters are harmless as kittens. Why? Because the holy men can communicate with them – in fact, they can subdue the beasts. But if a foreigner, someone who is insensitive, comes within a few paces, those alligators will likely get an early dinner. What's the difference? I say it's the foreigner's attitude."

She was trying to convey the basics – awareness and regulation of the life-principle. Although Henry suspected that mediums were no more than vehicles of some greater power, he didn't yet understand the essential difference between being passive and controlling the process, the active mediation that separated the levitation of a primitive sensitive from the miracles of a sorcerer or Jesus Christ. No, he knew nothing about spiritual evolution or the astral light. This was going to take time. But at least now she had his attention.


During visits to Chittenden in the late 1970s, I contacted two women who knew William Eddy and his brother Horatio in later years. Agnes Gould, at 96 the oldest Chittenden resident at the time, told stories suggesting that what might have begun as a sincere pursuit descended into fakery.

“If they’d kept honor among themselves, they would have been the richest people in the world,” she said. But, “then they got jealous of each other and began telling lies about each other.” After the séances of William Eddy ended, she told me, one of his sisters, Mary Eddy Huntoon, capitalized on the family’s fame with performances that were far less convincing.

Another local resident, 80-year-old Mabel Potter, was undecided. There might have been some tricks, she said, “but I don’t know. I think a lot of it was genuine, because they’d been all over that house to find out about cupboards or closets that they could use to be doing something tricky.” Although Potter moved into Horatio Eddy’s house in the 1920s, she didn’t see any ghosts. But she knew others who did. One account involved a sewing machine in the house that started up unassisted in the middle of the night.

Potter also described William Eddy in his 90s, working alone in his garden, a tall, solidly-built man who still sported a full black beard. He spent most of his life alone, living an interior existence, never marrying, and declining to indulge in the theatrical spiritualism evidently practiced by his brother and sister.

Will he be back? I asked Agnes. Although she did believe some people can see into the future, she replied, “I don’t think anybody can bring a person back to this earth. Nobody but God.” When I pressed, she added, “And who’d want to come back?”

It remains a good question, along with several others that have yet to be definitively resolved. Are spirits of the dead real? Is material existence a one shot deal? Are all such unexplained phenomena merely the result of suggestion, wish fulfillment, and clever manipulation? Or was Blavatsky on the right track?

Even today my personal quest isn’t over, in part because I still haven’t been able to explain the “journey” I mentioned at the start of this essay. It happened in October 1974, precisely a century after Blavatsky and Olcott met in Vermont.

One evening, while I was napping with my partner, she felt my body grow uncommonly cold and couldn’t wake me up. As far as I knew, however, I wasn’t lying there. I was at the other end of the house, reading one of Blavatsky’s books.

It wasn’t the usual dream state. I felt completely present, as if it was just a normal experience in daily life — that is, until something pulled at me, and I felt myself zooming up and backward. Suddenly, I was back on the bed, being violently shaken by my panicked partner. Afterward, she told me that she feared I was dead.

Was it a vivid fantasy? Or was I taking a brief astral stroll, somehow drawn to Blavatsky and her ideas? I still can’t say for sure. But I’ve decided to keep asking questions. And, in the meantime, I choose to believe that not everything in life — or afterward — can be neatly explained.

On November 8 from 1-4 p.m., I will discuss Spirits of Desire at The Sacred Bean in Prescott, Arizona. To purchase a copy of the book or find out more, post a comment to this website.

Previous parts:

Out of This World

Attack of the “Electric Eel”

Helena Blavatsky’s Astral Solution

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Peru Shoot Down

The CIA, DynCorp, and Why the Truth May Not Come Out

Among the five cases of intelligence operation cover up currently being investigated by the US
House Intelligence Committee is the 2001 shoot down of a small plane in Peru, resulting in the death of a Baptist missionary from Michigan and her 7-month-old daughter. The CIA inspector general has already concluded that the CIA improperly concealed information about the incident.

Intelligence Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, who is leading the investigation, says she hasn’t ruled out referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecutions if evidence surfaces that intelligence officials broke the law. On the other hand, she hasn’t guaranteed that the true story will ever be released, since the Committee’s report of its investigation will be classified.

So, what happened in Peru, and why? At first, of course, the CIA employed its usual tactics: denial and deflection of blame. The goal was not to reveal the real reason for the operation, most likely either a pretext or a diversion.

As I reported in August 2001, in an investigative article cited by Project Censored,
the incident occurred on April 20 of that year. After the plane carrying missionaries across the Brazilian border into Peru was shot down, the first version of the “official story” fed to the press was that Peruvian authorities had ordered the attack on their own, over the pleas of CIA "contract pilots" who initially spotted the plane. But that didn’t hold up for long, since Peruvian pilots involved in the program, supposedly designed to intercept drug flights, insisted that nothing was shot down without US approval.

Innocent planes were sometimes attacked, but most of them were low flying small planes that didn't file flight plans and had no radios or instrumentation. This plane maintained regular radio contact and did file a plan. Still, even after it crash-landed, the Peruvians continued to strafe it, perhaps in an attempt to ignite the plane's fuel and eliminate the evidence.

"I think it has to do with Plan Colombia and the coming war," said Celerino Castillo, who had previously worked in Peru for Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). "The CIA was sending a clear message to all non-combatants to clear out of the area, and to get favorable press." The flight was heading to Iquitos, which "is at the heart of everything the CIA is doing right now," he added. "They don't want any witnesses."

Timing also may have played a part. As journalist Peter Gorman noted at the time, the shoot down occurred on the opening day of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Uruguay's President Jorge Ibanez, who had proposed the worldwide legalization of drugs just weeks before, was expected to make a high-profile speech on his proposal at the gathering. The downing of a drug smuggling plane at this moment, near territory held by Colombia's FARC rebels, would help to defuse Uruguay's message and reinforce the image of the insurgents as drug smugglers.

If you doubt that the US would condone such an operation or cover it up, consider this: In 1967, Israel torpedoed the USS Liberty, a large floating listening post, as it was eavesdropping on the Arab-Israeli war off the Sinai Peninsula. Hundreds of US sailors were wounded and killed, probably because Israel feared that its massacre of Egyptian prisoners at El Arish might be overheard. How did the Pentagon respond? By imposing a total news ban, and covering up the facts for decades.

But the most crucial wrinkle in the Peruvian shoot down was the involvement of a private military company, DynCorp, which was active in Colombia and Bolivia under large contracts with various US agencies. The day after the incident, ABC news reported that, according to “senior administration officials,” the crew of the surveillance plane that first identified the doomed aircraft "was hired by the CIA from DynCorp." Within two days, however, all references to DynCorp were removed from ABC's Website. A week later, the New York Post claimed the crew actually worked for Aviation Development Corp., allegedly a CIA proprietary company.

Whatever the truth, State Department officials refused to talk on the record about DynCorp's activities in South America. Yet, according to DynCorp's State Department contract, the firm had received at least $600 million over the previous few years for training, drug interdiction, search and rescue (which included combat), air transport of equipment and people, and reconnaissance in the region. And that was only what they put on paper. It also operated government aircraft and provided all manner of personnel, particularly for Plan Colombia.

Will we ever find out what really happened in Peru, and specifically why a missionary and her daughter were killed? Not very likely, since it involves a private military contractor (PMC) that is basically beyond the reach of congressional accountability. DynCorp
began in 1946 as the employee-owned air cargo business California Eastern Airways, flying in supplies for the Korean War. This and later government work led to charges that it was a CIA front company. Whatever the truth, it ultimately became a leading PMC, hiring former soldiers and police officers to implement US foreign policy without having to report to Congress.

The push to privatize war gained traction during the first Bush administration. After the first Gulf War, the Pentagon, then headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, paid a Halliburton subsidiary nearly $9 million to study how PMCs could support US soldiers in combat zones, according to a Mother Jones investigation. Cheney subsequently became CEO of Halliburton, and Brown & Root, later known as Halliburton KBR, won billions to construct and run military bases, some in secret locations.

In the early 1990s, one of DynCorp’s earliest “police” contracts involved the protection of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, after he was ousted, providing the “technical advice” that brought military officers involved in that coup into the Haiti’s National Police. Despite this dodgy record, in 2002 it won the contract to protect another new president, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. By then, of course, it was a top IT federal contractor specializing in computer systems development, and also providing the government with aviation services, general military management, and security expertise.

Like other private military outfits, the main danger it faces is the risk of public exposure. Under one contract, for example, DynCorp sprayed vast quantities of herbicides over Colombia to kill the cocaine crop. In September 2001, Ecuadorian Indians filed a class action lawsuit, charging that DynCorp recklessly sprayed their homes and farms, causing illnesses and deaths and destroying crops. In Bosnia, private police provided by DynCorp for the UN were accused of buying and selling prostitutes, including a 12-year-old girl. Others were charged with videotaping a rape.

So far, DynCorp has avoided the kind of public scandal that surrounds the activities of Blackwater. In Ecuador, where it has developed military logistics centers and coordinated “anti-terror” police training, the exposure of a secret covenant it signed with the Aeronautics Industries Directorate of the Ecuadorian Air Force briefly threatened to make waves. According to a November 2003 exposé in Quito’s El Comercio, the arrangement, hidden from the National Defense Council, made DynCorp’s people part of the US diplomatic mission.

In Colombia, DynCorp’s coca eradication and search-and-rescue missions led to controversial pitched battles with rebels. US contract pilots flew Black Hawk helicopters carrying Colombian police officers who raked the countryside with machine gun fire to protect the missions against attacks. According to investigative reporter Jason Vest, DynCorp employees were also implicated in narcotics trafficking. But such stories didn’t get far, and, in any case, DynCorp’s “trainers” have simply ignored congressional rules, including those that restrict the US from aiding military units linked to human rights abuses.

In 2003, DynCorp won a multimillion-dollar contract to build a private police force in post-Saddam Iraq, with some of the funding diverted from an anti-drug program for Afghanistan. In 2004, the State Department further expanded DynCorp’s role as a global US surrogate with a $1.75 billion, five year contract to provide law enforcement personnel for civilian policing operations in “post-conflict areas” around the world. That March, the company also got an Army contract to support helicopters sold to foreign countries. The work, described as “turnkey” services, includes program management, logistics support, maintenance and aircrew training, aircraft maintenance and refurbishment, repair and overhaul of aircraft components and engines, airframe and engine upgrades, and the production of technical publications.

The US government downplays its use of mercenaries, a state of affairs that could undermine the current efforts to find out about CIA activities that were concealed from Congress. But the reality is that private contractors perform almost every function essential to military operations, a situation that has been called the “creeping privatization of the business of war.” By 2004, the Pentagon was employing more than 700,000 private contractors. Who knows how high that figure has climbed since then.

How did it happen? In 1969, the US Army had about 1.5 million active duty soldiers. By 1992, the figure had been cut by half. Since the mid-1990s, however, the US has mobilized militarily to intervene in several significant conflicts, and a corporate “foreign legion” has filled the gap between foreign policy imperatives and what a downsized, increasingly over-stretched military can provide.

Use of high technology equipment feeds the process. Private companies have technical capabilities that the military needs, but doesn’t possess. Contractors maintain stealth bombers and Predator unmanned drones used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some military equipment is specifically designed to be operated and maintained by private companies.

In Britain, the debate over military privatization has been public, since the activities of the UK company Sandline in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea embarrassed the government in the late 1990s. But no country has clear policies to regulate PMCs, and the limited oversight that does exist rarely works. In the US, they have largely escaped notice, except when US contract workers in conflict zones are killed or go way over the line, as in the case of Blackwater.

According to Guy Copeland, who began developing public-private IT policy in the Reagan years, “The private sector must play an integral role in improving our national cybersecurity.” After all, he has noted, private interests own and operate 85 percent of the nation’s critical IT infrastructure. He should know. After all, Copeland
drafted much of the language in the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace as co-chair of the Information Security Committee of the Information Technology Association of America.

Nevertheless, when the federal government becomes dependent on unaccountable, private companies like DynCorp and Blackwater (now called Xe Services) for so many key security services, as well as for military logistics, management, strategy, expertise and “training,” fundamental elements of US defense have been outsourced. And the details of that relationship are matters that the intelligence community will fight long and hard to keep out of public view.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Helena Blavatsky’s Astral Solution

Part Three of Out of This World: Death, Ghosts, and the Roots of Theosophy

If George Beard was the archetypal rationalist quack, Helena Blavatsky was surely another archetype — the occult pioneer. By her own account, before reaching the United States in 1873 she had already delved into various mystical traditions, become a student of Tibetan adepts who sent her telepathic messages, and had a special destiny — to bring what she alternately called a wisdom religion, divine magic, and the “secret doctrine” to a materialistic yet psychically fertile Western world.

Once she started attending séances in rural Vermont, the cast of materialized spirits expanded dramatically — a Russian boy, a Kurdish warrior who had once been her bodyguard, an old Russian woman, and her dead uncle, among others.

But her explanation was a far cry from Beard’s denunciation and also different from Henry Olcott’s surmise. Although she declined to comment at the time, preferring to defend spiritualism against the attacks of people like Beard, she later argued that spirits of the dead rarely return, and that materializations are “usually the astral body or double of the medium or someone present.” The medium is often a passive participant, whose mind is attracted by the “astral light” while the physical body is in a trance, she offered.

She also issued a warning. Attempting to contact the dead “only opens the door to a swarm of ‘spooks,’ good, bad, and indifferent, to which the medium becomes a slave for life.” In The Key to Theosophy, a kind of “occultism for dummies” primer written shortly before her death in 1891, Blavatsky added that while some so-called spirits are just “poll-parrots” that repeat whatever they find in the medium’s or other people’s brains, “others are most dangerous, and can only lead one to evil.”

Here is another excerpt from Spirits of Desire, describing the first meeting between Helena and Henry Olcott:


From the instant she had seen him, Helena sensed that destiny was inexorably propelling her toward Henry Olcott. But destiny without will was surrender to fate – and she wasn't one to surrender in any situation. As a result, once she knew where he was, the only real issue was choosing precisely the right moment for them to meet.

The moment finally presented itself in mid-October, as she surveyed the scene at the Eddy farm. Although she kept him under surveillance once he entered the dining room, she wasn't ready yet to admit her interest; their first meeting should seem like his idea. And so, when his eyes finally settled on her that afternoon, she looked away.

On the other hand, now she was positive: he must be the one They had sent her to meet. The pull of karma filled her with a sense of relief that finally, after half a life of restless wandering, the cosmic balance would be restored. She had felt it also in New York, but she'd held back then and lost track of him. Afterward she had waited, confident that a sign would confirm her instinct. Less than a month later, it had come – in the form of an article presented to her by a young libidinous doctor. Henry was back in Ghostland, and she was surely meant to follow.

She had no illusions. Henry's writing was superficial and glossy. He seemed to think William Eddy was some natural adept or master sorcerer. He believed his eyes without guessing the truth. But it didn't matter. She could change all that.

First, however, they had to get acquainted.

He had already noticed her; she'd made sure of that. Her scarlet shirt and short blonde hair were far enough from fashion to make her impossible to ignore. But when she saw him whispering to a young female, she wondered briefly if she'd miscalculated. He could have a taste for corseted beauty, and Helena simply might be too large and unusual. For a brief moment she felt like a teenage girl, eager for the attention of a new beau. It was an odd sensation, long forgotten but not entirely unpleasant.

He walked across the room, took a seat, and examined her. How bold, she thought, trying to ignore him. For several minutes she spoke in French with Celeste, waiting impatiently for his introduction. He did seem fascinated, but could summon no excuse to say hello.

After finishing her soup, she rose and went outside to enjoy the splendid foliage. Gold and crimson on the bright green hills had turned the landscape into a natural tapestry. She gazed at the mountains and grass-covered slopes.

"Is he still watching us?" she asked Celeste.

"Watching you, you mean."

Helena rolled a cigarette and searched for a match.

Olcott quickly moved to her side. "Permit me," he said in poor French.

Now it was her turn. "Have you been here long?"

"Too long. And then again, perhaps not long enough."

"But it must be thrilling, I mean, to keep you in such a remote place. So, what do you think? Is it really happening?"

He didn't need much prodding. Struggling with the language, he tried to describe what he'd seen so far. She was amused, but since her ploy was getting in the way, she suggested they continue in English. Henry was relieved, and clearly starved for good conversation.

He saw himself as a free thinker. She had to agree. He did have fresh ideas, rough but also creative and promising. Reviewing the seances, he ruled out fraud and mass delusion. Instead, he had deduced that the actions and will of the medium were under some hidden control.

Very perceptive, she thought.

"The issue isn't whether these things are real," he explained, "but what they are? Good, evil, or both? Have they lived on Earth before, or do they come from another planet? How much can they interfere with our affairs? Should we learn from them -- or run for our lives?"

These were reasonable questions, and Helena assumed she could provide the answers. But saying so – without solid proof – might not secure his admiration. And that was what she wanted.

"You know, I hesitated before coming here," she said instead.

"Oh? Frightened, were you?"

"Of meeting that reporter, yes. What's his name?"

"Olcott. Why be afraid of him?"

How precious. He was reacting like a rejected child.

"He might put me in one of his articles."

"Don't concern yourself," he said, straining to sound chivalrous. "I'm sure he won't do that-- unless you permit it."

"How can you be so sure?"

Because I am Colonel Henry Olcott. At your service."

"Oh, my! Then I must apologize."

"Your name will be more than sufficient."

"Blavatsky – Helena de Blavatsky," She replied, presenting one hand for a kiss.

To be concluded on October 30. Previous parts:

Out of This World

Attack of the “Electric Eel”

Next: The Chittenden Mysteries

On November 8 from 1-4 p.m., I will discuss Spirits of Desire at The Sacred Bean in Prescott, Arizona. To purchase a copy of the book or find out more, post a comment to this website.

Here’s what some critics say:

"Like E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, Spirits of Desire is a story that plays out against a tapestry of social, intellectual, religious, political and scientific forces.... Because this is a novel -- and a good one -- I don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that Mr. Guma has done a fine job of bringing these characters and their fascinating epoch to life."

– Joseph Citro, Vermont Public Radio

" of the most fascinating fictional Vermont-based true-to-history yarns I've read in quite some impressive debut novel, one that raises more questions than it answers, one that will stay with you long after you finish the tongue-in-cheek last sentence."

– Rob Williams, Valley Reporter

"Guma has retold the Eddy story in crisp, clear prose, keeping himself out of sight (like a good medium) and setting his plot against a backdrop not just of scientism and spiritualism, but also human emotion, individual quest, private doubt, sex, love and social turmoil. ... It's Guma's achievement that he doesn't belittle any of his characters, nor land dogmatically on either side of the "Yes?/No?" debate over parapsychology."

– Peter Kurth, Seven Days