Albert Leighton Rawson is famous in theosophical history for two things; first, he is a major witness of HPB’s travels and second, he claims to have witnessed her taking hasheesh. I have seen a paper from Theosophical History (“The Travels of H.P. Blavatsky and the Chronology of Albert Leighton Rawson: an unsatisfying investigation into H.P.B.’s whereabouts in the early 1850s”) cited by critics of HPB to discredit her biography and by students of Theosophy who want to discredit Rawson’s hasheesh claim. Unfortunately for the later, if Rawson is discredited so is HPB for endorsing him.
I don’t have access to this paper but James Santucci summarizes it as follows:
All who are familiar with Blavatsky’s journeys realize that there is little evidence to substantiate her claims to be in the many exotic locales she claims. One exception is the testimony of Albert Leighton Rawson (1829 – 1902), who writes about her travels during the period 1851 – 1853. It is clear that there are divergent accounts of her whereabouts during this period if one compares this account to A.P. Sinnett’s Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, her own scattered accounts, and Rawson’s “Mme. Blavatsky: A Theosophical Occult Apology.” What is important, however, is Rawson’s claim that he and Blavatsky were in the Near East in 1851 and 1852 before arriving in New York in 1853 via Paris. This is very unlikely if for no other reason than the fact that Rawson was imprisoned for theft from September 15, 1851 to June 22, 1852. Yet, what are we make of Blavatsky’s acknowledgement of Rawson as an initiate into the Brotherhood of Lebanon, a traveler to Mecca, and his claim to be privy to the “mysteries of the Druzes”? Was she taken in by Rawson’s contention of being an initiate? She certainly accepted them in Isis Unveiled (II. 312 – 315) and did not deny Rawson’s observations of her own travels to Mecca in the Near East and Mecca. The implications of Mr. Deveney’s discovery of Rawson’s imprisonment cast doubts on his and Blavatsky’s travels during this time. All that can be stated is that if they had occurred it certainly would not be in the time frame given.
What are the possible motives for making these claims? It is obvious to me that Rawson was playing fast and loose with the facts of his travels and that he and Blavatsky wished to establish claims to have a special knowledge of the mysteries of the Orient—Rawson through his communication in the Spiritualist, the publisher of his “Two Madame Blavatskys – The Acquaintance of Madame H.P. Blavatsky with Eastern Countries,” and Blavatsky, by maintaining silence and by not challenging Rawson’s account or commenting on the claims.
First, we should consider the issue of Rawson’s character. Imprisonment for theft would go to witness credibility aside from anything else. Roderick Bradford writes, “Francis Abbot accused Albert Rawson of being a convicted thief… Rawson had an explanation for [the charge]. The ‘theft’ incident happened twenty-eight years earlier in 1851, when the artist bought some clothes to help some people ‘who seemed to be in need.’ Subsequently, he was arrested and persuaded to plead guilty. However, he eventually was given a pardon. (A facsimile was printed with his explanation.)” (D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker).
Secondly, we have the major issue of dates. Both primary sources for Rawson cited above are available for reading online. The communication to the Spiritualist may be read here and his “Theosophical Occult Apology” may be read here.
In the first source, he does not even describe his own adventures with HPB but only cites other witnesses to her travels. Nor does he provide dates, even for his own independent journeys. It is a very interesting source that is relevant to her biography but it tells us almost nothing about his own relationship to her. So we may put this source aside.
In the second, written in 1892, he writes of his time in Egypt with HPB and of his subsequent meeting with her in New York. He says he has known her “nearly forty years” which could allow for a date as early as 1852, but probably not 1851. Only her arrival in New York is dated at 1853 and he does not state or imply that he was with her in the interim between Egypt and New York.
This does not exhaust the primary sources from Rawson however. Apparently he was friends with the famous Sir Richard Burton and wrote about his relationship with him in another article which may be read here. He describes spending time with Burton in Cairo before his famous visit to Mecca, as well as introducing him to HPB. Burton’s trip to Cairo took place in 1853 and K. Paul Johnson writes that this “fits what Deveney found to be plausible times when he might have been in the Middle East.” I would add that this also appears to be plausible for HPB. Additionally, Sylvia Cranston writes that HPB’s arrival in New York where she reconnected with Rawson likely took place in 1854 rather than 1853 so it all seems to mesh pretty well. Burton’s itinerary is pretty well documented, which would make this the most solid time stamp in the confusing chronology of HPB’s early life.
But we still have contradictions from other sources. A.P. Sinnett in his Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky writes of her travelling “for a time in Egypt, Greece, and other parts of Eastern Europe” (59) with Countess Kiselev shortly after her first marriage. W. Dallas TenBroeck’s chronology of HPB’s life dates her first sojourn in Egypt to 1849 and Marion Meade’s biography puts it at 1850. So there definitely seems to be a conflict of dates here. However, I think this can be easily resolved if we postulate two different periods of time in Egypt, the first with Countess Kiselev and the second with Rawson.
As for Rawson’s claim that H.P.B. took hasheesh in Cairo and in New York under the care of himself and a physician, I don’t find this to be particularly distressing. Nor do I see what his motive was to lie about this. This was very early in her life and there is no evidence that she repeated this experiment later. Its also undisputed, so far as I’ve seen, that she consumed meat for most of her life and that is also not exactly heavily encouraged in Theosophy.