Blog Genevieve Stebbins Norman Astley Sarah Stanley Grimké Thomas H. Burgoyne

The Light of Egypt Mystery



Thomas Henry Burgoyne

The presentations at the June 24 history preconference sponsored by the Church of Light were recorded, and a DVD of all proceedings will be available to members.   I went into many different avenues not mentioned in this sketch of a narrative, but am sharing it along with the slides to give a basic introduction to the mysteries associated with the authorship of The Light of Egypt.

The Light of Egypt Mystery

The Light of Egypt Mystery

Presentation for the Church of Light preconference, June 24 2011


With Marc’s presentation on Emma Hardinge Britten, you have seen the result of many years of research, which brought solutions of several longstanding puzzles.  My talk is about ongoing investigations which are far from being resolved.  It turns out that The Light of Egypt, the primary doctrinal book of our parent group the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, is just as mysterious in terms of pseudonyms as anything produced by Theosophists, Rosicrucians, or Spiritualists.(screen 1-title)  Its authorship presents a yet unsolved literary mystery. The Light of Egypt was published in 1889 under the pseudonym Zanoni.   With publication of a second volume in 1900, it was revealed that Zanoni had been the pen name of T.H. Burgoyne, secretary of the HBofL.  TLOE has generally been considered Burgoyne’s book , although CofL tradition credits others with assisting him.   Burgoyne himself is just as elusive as the book attributed to him.(slide 2, slide 3)  The HBofL was remarkable not just for its leaders’ use of pseudonyms, but for the success with which their secrets were kept.  Even what HBofL stood for was long concealed, with wrong guesses like “Hindu Brotherhood of Luxor” suggested by critics of the group.  Several outsiders, often writing under pseudonyms themselves, came up with wild guesses about the HBofL leadership, and Max Theon, “Grand Master of the Exterior Circle,” inspired the greatest confusion.(4-Theon screen)  Although the name was actually a pseudonym of Louis Bimstein, son of a Warsaw rabbi, Theon was confused with two other individuals of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. (slide 5)


The name T.H. Burgoyne was itself a pseudonym adopted around the time the HBofL was founded in 1884.  But within a short time it was revealed that his real name was Thomas Henry Dalton (sometimes d’Alton), and that he had served six months in prison in England in 1883 for advertising fraud.  This news was spread broadcast by Theosophists who saw it as a way to discredit a rival organization.  (slide6—arrest—slide7 mug shot—slide8 closeup) It destroyed the HBofL in England, but not in France (where it continued to thrive under Max Theon) nor in America where Dalton arrived as Burgoyne with Peter Davidson and family in 1886. (slide9, ship passenger list)  Although he arrived in the US as Burgoyne, the pseudonym had been damaged by the Theosophists and we see no evidence of him using it for the rest of his life, other than a couple of articles published in The Platonist in 1887 and 1888.    Burgoyne had been using Zanoni as a pen name ever since the HBofL journal The Occultist was established in 1885.  Zanoni was a Rosicrucian themed novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which the adept teacher of the title character was named Mejnour.  Peter Davidson, Provincial Grand Master of the North of the original HBofL, wrote under the latter pen name.  Zanoni’s identity was so well concealed that Emma Hardinge Britten was twice accused by Theosophists of authoring The Light of Egypt.  (The book drew heavily on her Art Magic which might have contributed to this false accusation.)  In response, Emma heaped praise on Burgoyne and scorn on his attackers, and later wrote a glowing review of his book. (slide10, Emma quote)  In her introduction to the second volume of The Light of Egypt published in 1900, Belle Wagner attributed the text to Burgoyne who had allegedly died in 1894.  But the language used in describing him is so circuitous as to make one wonder why the subject of his death is being treated this evasively. (slide11, slide 12 TLOE II)


Sarah Stanley Grimke was credited with coauthorship of The Light of Egypt by her sister, who wrote to Sarah’s daughter after her death. (slide 13 Emma Tolles).  This was partially endorsed by Benjamine, and her natal chart appears on our church website.(slide 14)  Daughter of an abolitionist clergyman who served in three denominations,  Stanley married Archibald Grimke in 1879 and the next year bore their only child, Angelina Weld Grimke. (slide 15, slide 16)   Archibald was the biracial son of Henry Grimke, a white slaveowner and Nancy Weston, a black slave.  His aunts Sarah and Angelina Grimke were leaders in the abolitionist movement who like Archibald had left their native Charleston and relocated to Massachusetts.  After the collapse of their marriage in 1883, Sarah took young Angelina to live with her in Michigan, but in 1887 returned the child to her father in Washington, D.C. due to the discrimination she faced as the mixed-race daughter of a white woman.  For the rest of her life Sarah wrote on occultism and mental healing and traveled widely.  Whatever the nature of the collaboration, it seems that Grimke played the role that our history has assigned to others– an HBofL member living in California and assisting Burgoyne in his writing.  But her stay in California was not long, as in 1888 she went to New Zealand at the invitations of a publisher, and remained there until a heart attack required her return to the US where she initially stayed with her parents in Michigan.  Sarah returned to California, still in poor health, and died in San Diego in 1898.


Another twist in the Light of Egypt story is that CofL tradition features one individual among Burgoyne’s associates whose identity is quite confusing.(slide17) None of the biographical data about Astley in this description, or in a published Stebbins genealogy checks out thus far. (slide18 of Stebbins bio on Astley.) The unconfirmed elements in our history include Astley’s military career, international travels prior to marrying Stebbins, and presence in California in the 19th century before the death of Burgoyne.   No Emma Hadden marrying a John Astley can be found, nor any Astley births in Monmouthshire in April 1853.  Genevieve Stebbins, unlike her husband, is well documented in genealogical records.  Born in San Francisco in 1857, she became an actress in New York in her twenties.  There are gaps in the record for Stebbins as well, most crucially in the mid-1880s when she studied in England and France and first encountered the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.  By the late 1880s she emerged as a public figure, becoming the most prominent American teacher of the Delsarte method of elocution and acting.  She combined Delsarte methods with yogic breathing learned from a swami at Oxford, as well as exercises involving stretches and postures adapted from yoga.  With her marriage to Astley in 1893 he became her business manager and they traveled up and down the east coast giving classes and performances.  Her approach to life contrasts vividly with that taught by Sarah Grimke. (slide19)   Between 1894 and 1906, the Astleys owned considerable property in the North Carolina mountains. (slide 20) After her retirement in 1907, Stebbins traveled with Astley, settling in England for several years before returning to the US in 1917.  The first evidence of any California residence since her youth is the 1920 census when she is 62 years old Here is Slindon as it now appears. (slide 21, Slindon today)  Norman Astley is far more elusive than his famous wife, and no record prior to their marriage can be solidly linked to him.  We find the couple in a boarding house in Asbury Park, NJ in the 1900 census.   They are found living in Slindon, England in 1913 and the town was listed as their most recent residence in the 1917 ship passenger list that recorded their return to the US.  Some time within the next 18 years Stebbins died, as in this 1935 ship’s list Norman Astley has a younger wife named Nellie.(slide22)


Since we find no evidence of Astley’s existence prior to 1893, and no evidence of Burgoyne’s death, I am far from confident that they are two different individuals.  Nor, on the other hand, can we be confident that they are the same person.   At this point the question must be declared unresolved, which rather complicates the task of revising and correcting our history.  That history, by the way, has been repeated in a great many published sources, respectable reference books and scholarly studies included, all of them citing the C of L.   For the time being, speculation will be the basis for further investigations… but here are some speculations.(slide24) Norman Astley was a character in a drama written and directed by Genevieve Stebbins, performed by Thomas Dalton.  With all that remains unknown, is there anything yet established worth knowing about the mystery?  In 1913, Stebbins published a book entitled The Quest of the Spirit, which is allegedly a distillation of many hundreds of manuscript pages given her by a longterm friend.  This person is never named, but the book’s dedication to “Fidelio, with thoughts too sacred for words” is a strong indication that it is her husband.   Some passages are consistent with that husband being the man formerly known as Burgoyne.–Slide25  book excerpt

I propose that the first portion of the passage refers to Sarah, the second to Genevieve. provided us with a great surprise ending for this story, thanks to Marc.  He has learned that Thomas Henry Dalton’s first (and only legal) wife Betsy Bella Dalton immigrated to America in 1922 with their daughter Veda, and that their family has descendants alive today in California. –Veda Dalton(slide26)  Dalton also had a son who left descendants.  While we cannot say with confidence when or where he was born, when or where he died, or who his parents or siblings were, we do know that his daughter and wife arrived in the US in the 1920s, a time their father and husband was living in California.