William Emmette Coleman’s Accusations of Helena Blavatsky’s Plagiarism

The accusation that Blavatsky’s writings were a hodge-podge of uncredited sources and a work of plagiarism has long already been challenged, but modern critics do not dig sufficiently. The very bottom material is taken from the 12th chapter in Sylvia Cranston’s HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993).

The only source of claimants of her plagiarism derive from William Emmette Coleman’s supposed “exposure” of her sources, published in 1895. A rare pamphlet of 15 pages was published in Bombay, India in 1892, called Blavatsky Unveiled by Coleman before The Sources of Madame Blavatsky’s Writings.

The libel of William Emmette Coleman is not credible and the issue was solved and concluded.

The expose was written in an Appendix C section of a work sponsored to discredit Blavatsky. He originally had brought two false accusations against her, and frequently attacked theosophy in spiritualist journals. The content of the accusations are another issue. It gives the impression that the whole of Blavatsky’s work is derived from uncredited sources.

Coleman had forgotten that Blavatsky stated:

“‘I have here made only a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them'”

In analyzing the content, as Sylvia Cranston and others have noted, in actual fact, what Coleman does is this, as noted in Dr. Ilias Chrysochoidis letter to the Greek newspaper “Βήμα”, Tuesday, 24 February 1998:

  1. He gives the impression that the whole of Blavatsky’s work is derived from uncredited sources.
    • Coleman’s accusation of plagiarism is actually a construction based on his disregarding of bibliographic conventions.
  2. He accepts as plagiarism, the crediting (for any citation) not only of primary sources (e.g. Plato, Aristotle) but also of secondary ones (e.g. Professor X’s book quoting Plato).
    • “Today, this is done in the bibliographic index given at the end of a book or in foot- or endnotes; at that time, however, it was not the norm, and this very practice was followed even by Coleman himself in his writings. For example, “Coleman accuses HPB of using forty-four passages-he should say quotations-from C.W. King’s book The Gnostics and Their Remains in Isis without acknowledgement. Yet, when using Gnostics as a primary source, she credits it and its author on thirty-two occasions” (381). So, the issue is not whether Blavatsky acknowledges her sources but whether she does so every single time she uses them as secondary sources (moreover, in books running hundreds and thousands of pages).”
  3. Only 22% of Isis Unveiled is quoted material and the rest 78% Blavatsky’s own writing.
  4. Never gives pagination to verify his claims. Sylvia Cranston checked this.
  5. He repeats that the plagiarized passages and exact page numbers will be given in his forthcoming book on the subject. In the remaining 16 years of his life, no one heard anything about it and no book was ever published. He claims it was because of the burning of San Francisco.
  6. Sylvia Cranston verified that in the whole Secret Doctrine, a work of more than 1500 pages, there are only six cases of “unacknowledged borrowings from secondary sources”.
  7. In rejection that the work is all hog-wash, because the critic is too lazy, “many ideas in Blavatsky’s writings have been confirmed by 20th-century science: “The Secret Doctrine contains many teachings that were denied by the science of HPB’s day but were subsequently proved true” (434). As examples are given: “atoms are divisible”; “atoms are perpetually in motion”; “matter and energy are convertible” (435-37).” 
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Chapter 12 of “HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky” by Sylvia Cranston

“In 1890, when the Sun published Coue’s professed exposure of HPB, another assault on her character was being silently prepared by a man named William Emmette Coleman, who was soon to spread far and wide the accusation that in all her writings Blavatsky plagiarized on a grand scale. It is impossible to calculate how many people have refused to read Blavatsky’s writings as a result of this charge. Incidentally, it seems rather amazing that we now have another “Co” to add to Coulomb, Coues, and Collins!

Coleman was involved in both the Coulomb and the Coues-Collins cases. It was he who journeyed from the United States to London to obtain from the Scottish missionary Patterson the purportedly original HPB-Coulomb letters that Coues had hoped to use in defending himself in HPB’s libel suit; it was also he who supplied Coues with the information circulated in a Sun “interview” that HPB’s supposed illegitimate child was fathered by Wittgenstein. Coleman’s letter on this subject, dated March 31 1889, is in the Coues collection.

Why did Coleman thus involve himself? And why did he circulate the charges of plagiarism? Was he a disinterested person in pursuit of truth? One might think so when reading his credentials provided in a footnote to his research paper on the source of HPB’s writings. Yet where was this paper printed? Of all places, it appeared as Appendix C in Solovyov’s A Modern Priestess of Isis, published in 1895 on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research; (Chapter 2 of the present section). In Solovyov’s book, it achieved an immortality it was not otherwise likely to receive. Coleman’s credentials in the footnote include memberships in the American Oriental Society, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the Pali Text Society, and the Egyptian Exploration Fund. One would hardly imagine he was a clerk in the Quartermaster Department of the U.S. Army, first at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and later in San Francisco. But more importantly, what the SPR carefully concealed – which ever since HPB’s detractors have refrained from mentioning – is that Coleman was a leading spiritualist of his day who wrote scathing denunciations of Theosophy and HPB in the spiritualists’ journals.

Nothing can be clearer on this than what Coleman himself wrote to Coues on July 8, 1890, on the letterhead of the Chief Quartermaster office: “I emphatically denounced and ridiculed the theory of occultism, of elementary spirits, etc., before the Theosophical Society was organized [in 1875], and from that time to this I have strenuously opposed Theosophy all the time.”

HPB’s article “My Books” speaks of the “libelous matter emanating from America” and that “it has all come from one and the same source, well known to all Theosophists, a person [Coleman] most indefatigable in attacking me personally for the last twelve years.”

As to the plagiarism charges, it should be understood that as applied to HPB, Coleman’s use of the term extends far beyond its dictionary definition: “To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” This Blavatsky did not do. [When Ralston Skinner gave HPB, as a gift, his manuscript of Part Three of Source of Measures, he said she could use it as her own work. She refused, saying, “How can I quote without quotation marks? … How can I quote and let out your name?” (Feb. 17, 1886, Ralston Collection, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard University.)] But surely she must have been guilty of something dreadful, for reading Coleman’s opening paragraph in his paper of August, 1893, we find

“During the past three years I have made a more or less exhaustive analysis of the contents of the writings of Madame H.P. Blavatsky; and I have traced the sources whence she derived – and mostly without credit being given – nearly the whole of their subject matter.”

HPB’s so-called plagiarism is a practice followed by practically every author who publishes the fruits of his research – even by Coleman himself. To understand the foregoing, one must be able to distinguish between primary sources and secondary sources. If you were to quote from an Emerson essay, for example, that essay would be your primary source. If, however, you quote Emerson quoting Shakespeare, that portion of Emerson’s essay would be called your secondary source. In Coleman’s view, you must credit right then and there – in a footnote or endnote – not only Shakespeare, but the secondary plagiarism, for you are misleading your readers into thinking you yourself found the reference in the works of Shakespeare. However, citing only primary sources is a legitimate practice that most authors of scholarship follow all the time. In Isis Unveiled, HPB frequently gave credit to the original author but not to the secondary source.

Writers today acknowledge indebtedness to secondary sources indirectly by including in their bibliographies the names of books they drew upon in their research. To list all would be unwise, for among the numerous volumes researched only a few may be considered worthy of mentioning. If Coleman were to apply to these hundreds of thousands of authors the rules he demanded HPB to abide by, he would call them all plagiarists.

As was common in books of her day, HPB’s works had no bibliographies. However, her secondary sources were often referred to in the text when quoting primary material; thus the reader became aware of the book as a worthy source of information…”

Read more Was Blavatsky A Plagiarist?


Sources

[1] Sylvia Cranston, HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993).
[2] Dr. Ilias Chrysochoidis, Letter to the Greek newspaper “Βήμα”, Tuesday, 24 February 1998.
[3] Was Blavatsky A Plagiarist http://blavatskytheosophy.com/was-blavatsky-a-plagiarist/.
[4] William Emmette Coleman, Blavatsky Unveiled
[5] William Emmette Coleman, The Sources of Madame Blavatsky’s Writings.

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