The Singular Mystery of "Dr Moriarty"
Or, how many South African Hermetic Theosophists studied at
Trinity College Dublin and Heidelberg University?
This article presents an unexpected finding from several years’ research into Irish occultists of the early 20th Century, which shows an unexpected connection between two enigmas from occult history:
It turns out that these two literary enigmas are inseparably linked. To begin with my conclusion: evidence uncovered while writing my forthcoming book suggests that Moriarty was probably the main author or inspiring figure behind the “7 Principles of Hermetic Philosophy” which appeared in The Kybalion and several later works, as well as certain similar texts attributed to other authors. To share the complete evidence, and the complex chain of argument on which this claim is based, would take us far beyond the remit of this article. A full account is contained in my book and depends on analysis of the style and inner structure of these writings. However, I aim to present enough information in this introductory article to show that this identification explains the available facts better than other theories, and also casts an important light on the broader occult movement of the early 20th Century.
The key piece of evidence I will share demonstrates that another well-known occult author of the early 20th Century unmistakably identified Theodore Moriarty as the main author of Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism (1904) and Advanced Course in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism (1905), supposedly written by “Yogi Ramacharaka”. These books were published by the Yogi Publication Society (YPS). The author most commonly associated with the YPS was William Walker Atkinson, and many people have repeated the assertion that Atkinson was the sole or chief author of its countless books on New Thought subjects, to the extent of making him out to be a one-man publishing house. Atkinson is usually stated to be the main or leading author of The Kybalion and related works. Evidence that Moriarty wrote two “Eastern” books usually attributed to Atkinson is obviously significant in view of the parallel reasons for believing that Moriarty was behind some of the YPS’ “Western” publications.
In the course of my research into Moriarty I had already concluded that, contrary to the view that Atkinson was the sole author of certain YPS works, Moriarty had, at the very least, a major hand in more than one of these publications. Lacking conclusive proof, this was for some years only a strong hypothesis, but crucial evidence came in an unexpected way.
Nevertheless, I am not overly concerned here with the works of “Ramacharaka” or Atkinson’s work as a New Thought author, but rather with why a learned occultist like Moriarty published his blend of Hermetic philosophy in the garb of Eastern philosophy, under both “Yogic” and “Rosicrucian” pseudonyms, and in a much-simplified form.
Who was Theodore Moriarty?
Theodore William Carte Moriarty (1873-1923) is one of the most intriguing figures in early 20th Century occultism. Readers of Dion Fortune know that he was one of her first teachers, and even more than the teachings of the Golden Dawn, a leading influence on her early philosophy. She based her literary character Dr Taverner on Moriarty: the stories contained in The Secrets of Dr Taverner are exciting and lurid, and the sensationalist image they create is probably true to the impression Moriarty liked to give of himself. The combination of the characterisation of Dr Taverner with the various remarks Dion Fortune made about her teacher in her non-fiction works suggest that Moriarty was an erudite Freemason with practical occult powers, as well as an interest and expertise in “unusual pathologies”. He was also charismatic, secretive, and in common with the older generation of Masonic occultists used a certain amount of glamour and deception to protect and further his esoteric work.
The most useful summaries of the few facts and the assertions made about Moriarty by his students may be found in Alan Richardson’s biography of Dion Fortune Priestess, and Gareth Knight’s lecture delivered to the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre in 2006[i]. I reveal more details about his life and occult affiliations in my book, but the key facts for the present discussion are as follows.
Not much is definitively known of Moriarty’s early life, but there are reports that he contracted tuberculosis as a young man. This may be why he ultimately chose to work in the healthier climate of South Africa around 1897. At this stage he was already a keen student of Theosophy and some forms of Western practical occultism. Moriarty claimed to have been educated in Dublin and Heidelberg; it seems he also styled himself a doctor. He certainly never attended Trinity College Dublin (the usual assumption) or the University of Heidelberg, nor did he qualify as a medical doctor.
Moriarty was employed in South Africa as a customs officer. which cannot have been a particularly exciting or fulfilling role for a man of his intelligence and talents. While there, he married and had children, but the major outlet for his social ambitions was evidently his Masonic career. He co-authored two well-known works: Notes on Masonic Etiquette and Jurisprudence (1908) and The Freemason’s Vade Mecum (1909). He also took an anthropological and sympathetic interest in the culture of the African Tribes accessible to him, particularly the Saan, known in his time as Bushmen. Some of his observations were unusually insightful and free of racial prejudice for an early 20th Century European author.
Another Irishman with a deep interest in Theosophy, occultism and the wisdom of the African tribes was also living in South Africa. This was P.G. Bowen (1882-1940) who much like Moriarty was an intelligent but sometimes mischievous literary rogue, and whose story intersects with Moriarty but also holds its own enigmas.
Around 1910 Moriarty left South Africa, and settled with his family in London. He presumably established himself as an alternative doctor and esoteric teacher soon after, for by the beginning of World War I it seems that he was already acting as a charismatic teacher to a group of female students, who enabled him to make a career as an occult teacher and therapist. This was the group which Dion Fortune joined, and which Moriarty was attempting to develop along Masonic and ritual lines when he died at the age of 50 in 1923.
Moriarty’s Theosophy and Practical Occultism
Moriarty’s only published writings - at least under his own name - were the two Masonic works previously mentioned. However, his students preserved two dense and profound works of Hermetic Theosophy, The Aphorisms and The Seven Cosmic Principles, and a lengthy series of lectures called The Mystery of Man, which runs to almost 300 pages. The Mystery of Man is an underrated masterpiece and in conjunction with the other two works gives a clear picture of Moriarty’s mind. His language is very precise, abstract and philosophical. If he was not educated at a University, he must have had a good school education, as his writing style suggests training in logic and also knowledge of Latin.
Moriarty’s works The Aphorisms and The Seven Cosmic Principles contain material that is presented in a much more popular and accessible, but less logical and profound manner in The Kybalion, The Secret Doctrine of the Rosicrucians and other works of the YPS. Either Moriarty borrowed his material from those works, or they borrowed from him, or there was a third as yet undiscovered source for all of these texts. As Mary K Greer has pointed out[ii], the earliest identifiable prototype for Moriarty and/or Atkinson’s 7 Principles may be found in the writings of Anna Kingsford. As such, they are typical of the late 19th Century Hermeticism that is common to Kingsford and Blavatsky, and have far less in common with the teachings of the Golden Dawn or indeed the later Theosophy of Besant and Leadbeater. In short, Moriarty’s writings contain a detailed development of Hermetic Theosophy, and the YPS popularised the same concepts for the New Thought mass market.
Moriarty called his system Universal Theosophy. In this respect his philosophy was in keeping with the original roots of the Theosophical movement, which stated that the Ancient Wisdom was a coherent and profound teaching implicit in all traditions and religions of East and West. As well as the influence of Blavatsky, Anna Kingsford and other 19th Century occult authors, Moriarty’s Theosophy drew on contemporary Westernising “Rosicrucian” Theosophical authors like Rudolf Steiner and Max Heindel, as well as authors on science, philosophy and psychology of his time. Throughout his writings, Moriarty attempts to translate ancient esoteric intuitions into modern philosophical and scientific concepts: this was in keeping of the aspirations of the late 19th Century Theosophists and Hermeticists, though it was already somewhat out of fashion in the early 20th Century occult mainstream.
For Western writers on Hermeticism, Theosophy was a useful language for teaching occult theory, particularly of the more basic and general kind. However, Moriarty never talked about ritual, magic or esoteric technique in public, or allowed his practical teachings to be shared. He applied to his Masonic superiors for permission to create a mixed Lodge, which it seems he envisaged as a Mystery School capable of accommodating his female students. Permission was withheld, but Moriarty pressed on and created a secret Lodge in his house in Hammersmith, which according to Dion Fortune never fully established its work in the Greater Mysteries due to his premature death.
Moriarty’s Theosophical and Rosicrucian writings give virtually no details about practical occultism, but we can infer from Dion Fortune’s writings that he practised clairvoyance, breathing techniques, and the magical direction of energy with specific relation to medical conditions with psychic causes. These methods appear to have owed more to Western than Eastern teachings, and to have been kept secret in line with the traditional Western policy.
After Moriarty’s death, Dion Fortune put herself forward as the new leader of his group, but the remaining students did not accept her. Instead, she adapted many of his ideas about the Mysteries and esotericism to her Fraternity of the Inner Light and helped turn her deceased teacher into a semi-legendary figure in 20th Century occultism. This also had the effect of obscuring the distinct differences between Dion Fortune and her teacher, who remained unknown and obscure, as seems to have been his intention.
Moriarty’s Supposed Education – The Reason for the Dubious Claims
Let us now turn to the subtitle of this article. Moriarty implied that he was a doctor and had been educated at the prestigious universities of Trinity College Dublin and Heidelberg. The cynical explanation for this is that Moriarty had given up a steady career to become an occult teacher and what many would have regarded as a ‘quack doctor’. Thus, to enhance his prestige and credibility among his circle of admiring students, he claimed great educational and medical attainments, which he probably felt he deserved in view of his evident intelligence. It might have been bad for his business as a magical healer if his potential patients and students had known that he was in fact a civil servant.
However, it may be truer and more charitable to suggest that, much as authors use pseudonyms to represent archetypal qualities behind their work (such as “Gareth Knight”) Moriarty’s claim to education at Dublin and Heidelberg represented an allegorical description of his own path. For he was not just an occultist, but above all a reflective and erudite thinker. It may have been a deception, but it was a valid ‘cipher’.
Trinity College Dublin was (and is) an excellent University, but not known for teaching occultism. How then might a young man have encountered occultism in Ireland in the 1880s or 1890s? There was a thriving Theosophical scene in Dublin from the 1880s onwards, centred on the Dublin Hermetic Society. The leaders of it were George Russell (“AE”), William Butler Yeats who later joined the Golden Dawn, and Charles Johnston. It is not impossible that Moriarty first became acquainted with Theosophy in Dublin, although I have found no documentary evidence to suggest he was part of the Dublin Hermetic Society. One story suggests that he was introduced to occult philosophy while sailing in his early career with the merchant navy; but he clearly felt he had learned enough to ‘gild the lily’ and claim university education. His Theosophical writing has a quality of unsentimental clarity and philosophy that is typical of the Irish Theosophists, although his blend of Eastern and Western elements was unlike any of his Irish contemporaries. Another more likely possibility is that he encountered one of the many Masonic occultists of that period, who made up a little-studied subculture that went far beyond the Masonically-influenced, though non-Freemasonic, Golden Dawn.
The reference to Heidelberg is more revealing. Historically, the town of Heidelberg had been strongly associated with the Rosicrucian movement, and Germany was the centre of the fusion of traditional Western occultism and new information about Eastern Yoga that developed in the late 19th Century.
In short, Moriarty’s educational claims were a kind of code for his vision of himself as a well- educated Irish Theosophist who had also been schooled in the German Rosicrucian tradition.
The Extraordinary Story of P.G. Bowen, Sampson Dunn and Yogi Ramacharaka
Moriarty’s family hailed from the West of Ireland and had a long history of naval and military service. Appropriately for this naval family, the name Moriarty itself means Navigator. As chance would have it, at the same time as Moriarty was studying the African tribes, Hermetic Theosophy and Freemasonry, another young Irishman with similar interests was stationed in South Africa. P.G. Bowen came from a family based in Co. Kerry in the West of Ireland, although unlike Moriarty he came from an English Ascendancy family.
Around 1900 he went to South Africa to follow a military career. After World War 1, he travelled to England where he started to mix in Theosophical, occult and neo-Druidic circles.
Like Moriarty, Bowen had a deep interest in African folklore and customs. His two best known esoteric works, The Sayings of the Ancient One (1933) and the Occult Way (1935) are both masterpieces of the genre. He shared with Moriarty a love of embellishing his personal history, though unlike Moriarty his writings on the African tribes have strong elements of romance and unreliability. Nevertheless, his occult writings are profound.
For several years, I had wondered whether Bowen and Moriarty might have met in South Africa, in view of their shared interests and background and the possibility that as a military man, Bowen might have been a Freemason. I had also come to the conclusion that it was fairly likely that Moriarty was behind the teaching of the “7 Principles” and related works. I hoped that some direct evidence of a link between Moriarty and Atkinson or the Yogi Publication Society would emerge, but I did not think it was likely, as Moriarty obviously took his secrecy and smoke screen of obfuscation quite seriously, so even if my conclusion was correct it would still be buried too effectively to prove. To my surprise, it was through Bowen that the vital evidence emerged, and in relation to a work I had not yet considered.
After World War I, Bowen lived for a period in England, then returned to Ireland. There he met the aging AE, president of the Dublin Hermetic Society which still survived, teaching mostly Eastern philosophy and Blavatsky’s Theosophy. Bowen took over leadership of the Hermetic Society, obviously having impressed AE and other with talk of the Initiates he met in Africa, to whom he attributed the teachings in Sayings of the Ancient One.
Bowen attracted a group of students in Dublin and further afield. His published works contain considerable romance and suspect details, but his private letters are usually factual and have the ring of truth. Here are some extracts from an unpublished letter from Bowen to a student, in relation to an acquaintance of his from his time in South Africa:
"Sampson Dunn was educated for the medical profession at Trinity College Dublin and afterwards at Heidelberg. At TCD he learned much from an Elder Brother of the Order with which I am associated and later, at Heidelberg, he came under the tuition of another, an advanced Raja Yogi, and developed extraordinary powers .......
In 1904 he (Sampson Dunn) and I delivered a series of lectures on Eastern Occultism. You have those lectures in the two books 'Fourteen Lessons' and 'Advanced Course in Yogi Philosophy'…Fourteen Lessons are altogether Dunn's own work. The first section of Advanced Course, consisting of a somewhat exoteric commentary on Light on the Path is mine, also the section dealing with 'The Riddle of the Universe'. The rest is his.
These lectures were submitted in various quarters for publication without success. Finally we secured a publisher in the Advanced Thought Publishing House (now Yogi Publications Ltd.) Chicago . ..A further offer for a series of works on Yoginism was refused by Dunn, whereupon the publishers hired a New Thought journalist named Walter William Atkinson [sic – JN] to write up a series under the name of Ramacharaka.
It surely stretches credibility to believe that there were two people in South Africa in 1904 who claimed to have been educated at Dublin and Heidelberg and who were teachers of Eastern philosophy, but whose teachings were actually more Western than Eastern. As explained in my book, the name Sam or Sampson Dunn was evidently a joke, typical of Moriarty’s rather waggish sense of humour, referring to his personal knowledge of the tribal peoples in South Africa[iii]. In short, my theory that Moriarty was a pseudonymous writer with a connection to the Yogi Publication Society had received a substantial confirmation, in relation to a different work from those I had been studying.
I had already concluded that Atkinson was a New Thought hack writer who specialised in popularising occult doctrines. Then, as now, there was a substantial market for books that taught self-help, positive thinking, mind over matter and mental healing. This literary trend began in 19th Century America and trends such as New Thought and Christian Science led directly to the modern New Age and continues unbroken to works like The Secret. Such books have often been more widely read and more popular than complex erudite tomes like Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine.
Granted that my assumption that Moriarty was the main influence behind these related YPS works was correct, this still left the question of why Moriarty had chosen such a “low-brow” publishing house. Bowen’s letter provides a simple explanation – it was their last resort, having failed to secure a deal from any of the other publishers they had approached. Then as now, mass publishers are interested in manuscripts which may be made to fit the ‘house style’. With his interests in alternative medicine and practical techniques of development, Moriarty’s work was close enough to New Thought, especially in view of the current fad for “Eastern wisdom”, to make this a useful addition to the YPS catalogue. The fact that the works of “Ramacharaka” arguably had little to do with actual Indian occultism could easily be passed over in an age of credulous enthusiasm for metaphysical teachings.
Conclusion – Spiritual Truth and Vulgar Falsehood
As the original “Yogi Ramacharaka”, one of sources of the Kybalion and the probable Magus Incognito of Secret Doctrine of the Rosicrucians, Moriarty’s work has had a strange afterlife. Apart from the background influence on the Dion Fortune tradition, his own works are little known and inaccessible. But his basic synthesis of Hermetics and Theosophy has entered the New Age and become inextricably bound up with all manner of works on self-help, energy healing and channelling. In a sense, this is quite true to the life and work of the enigmatic “Dr Moriarty” who operated in the demi-monde of alternative and psychic healers, thrilling students with tales of psychic illnesses, the blood lust of vampires, and occult cures.
Both Moriarty and his associate P G Bowen are major occult teachers in their own right. Both were tricksters, not above telling lies to advance their careers but both deeply devoted to spiritual truth.
From the Rosicrucian Furore and the myth of Christian Rosencreuz, to Cagliostro, to “Fraulein Sprengel” and the Golden Dawn, secret societies and occult teachers have used myth, glamour and misdirection to destabilise the grip of the ordinary. This is dangerously close to the work of the charlatan or con man, but correctly used with skill and good intention it is the magic of the Son of Hermes.
James North, April 2020
[iii] My forthcoming books contains further details about the extraordinary history of the Dunn family in South Africa.