In the 19th century, the spiritualist movement was all the rage. It was a time when séances, spiritual mediumship, Ouija boards, and other ways of contacting the spirit world were incredibly popular, and it seemed as it every street corner had a medium or fortune teller on it. The scene was populated by an eclectic mix of mediums, mystics, sorcerers, and seers, as well as all manner of fakes and charlatans giving their gaudy, often tacky séances and spiritualist shows to the gullible masses, but among these some stood out as particularly imbued with strange powers and perhaps even being the real deal. One of these was a mysterious mystic from India who took Victorian era Europe by storm and displayed vast powers that caught the attention of spiritualists around the world, and it was all thanks to his entourage of servant Djinn spirits.
The man known as Hassan Khan was a Muslim from India who burst onto the scene seemingly from nowhere. There is very little known about his life before his appearance in spiritualist circles. It is known that he was born in around 1841, that he was from Hyderabad, and that he had spent a lot of time in Calcutta and Alighur, Uttar Pradesh, but that is about it. There is not much known about his prior life or how he managed to suddenly appear and begin wowing all those around him, but we do know from numerous sources at the time that his powers were considered to be vast and potent, and according to Hassan Khan himself this was because he had a cadre of Djinn at his beck and call ready to do his bidding at his command.
The Djinn, also often spelled as Jinn, or Genie to the Western world, are basically supernatural creatures from pre-Islamic Arabian folklore and later Islamic mythology and theology that are similar to angels or demons, but different in that they are not inherently good or evil, but are rather neither born as believers nor as unbelievers and are held accountable for their deeds or sins that they choose to pursue. The term Djinn covers a wide array of different types with different powers, and they can be either malevolent, causing misfortune and disease, or be benevolent. One common theme in the mythology of these creatures is that they can be summoned by a skilled enough sorcerer and subjugated to their will, a sort of spirit familiar in a sense, only generally considered way more powerful. In the case of Hassan Khan, he was said to have not one, not two, but a total of seven of these Djinn under his command, which he had been supposedly gifted by a wise teacher, and he would say of how he had acquired these spirits:
When I was a mere lad, there came one day to my native village a gaunt sadhu with matted locks and altogether repulsive aspect. The boys crowded round him and mocked him, but I reproved their rudeness, telling them that they should respect a holy man, even though a Hindu. The sadhu observed me closely, and later on we met frequently, for he took up his abode in the village for some little time. On my part I seemed to be drawn towards the strange man, and visited him as often as I could. One day he offered to confer on me an important secret power, if I would follow his instructions faithfully and implicitly. I promised to do whatever might be required of me, and under the sadhu’s directions commenced a system of discipline with fasting which lasted many, perhaps forty, days. My instructor taught me to repeat many mystic spells and incantations, and, after imposing a very strict fast, commanded me to enter a dark cavern in the hillside and tell him what I saw there. With much trepidation I obeyed his behests, and returned with the information that the only thing visible to me in the gloom was a huge flaming eye. “That is well — success has been achieved,” was the sadhu’s remark, and I began wondering what power I had acquired. Pointing to some stones lying about, the sadhu made me make a particular mystical sign upon each one. I did so. “Now go home,” said my mentor, “shut the door of your room, and command your familiar to bring these stones to you.”
Away I went, in a state of nervous excitement, and, locking myself in my chamber, commanded the unseen djinn to bring those stones to me at once. Hardly had my mandate been uttered, when, to my amazement and secret terror, the stones lay at my feet. I went back and told the sadhu of my success. “Now,” he said, “you have a power which you can exercise over everything upon which you can make the mystical sign I have taught you, but use your power with discretion, for my gift is qualified by the fact that, do what you will, the things, whatever they may be, acquired through your familiar spirit, cannot be accumulated by you, but must soon pass out of your hands.” And the sadhu’s words have been verified in my life, and his gift has not been an unmixed blessing, for my djinn resents my power, and has often tried to harm me; but happily his time is not yet come.
By all accounts, Hassan held a remarkable hold over his Djinn charges, and was able to command them to do a wide array of seemingly impossible feats. Some of the many powers associated with him include causing objects to materialize out of thin air or conversely dematerialize, moving objects, and many others. One of his most famous powers was his ability to teleport objects from place to place, such as items out of or into locked rooms or safes, objects from across the room that would instantaneously appear in his hand, as well as conjuring up requested items to appear at will. He could conjure up food, drink, and even fruits that were not in season from faraway lands. There are numerous accounts like this of witnesses to Hassan’s powers, and one of these reads:
A favorite kind was to command his spirits to bring fruits of different distant countries, bottles of wine and other drinkables, and other articles. He would extract jewels or money out of locked burglar-proof safes, or out of the innermost box of a nest of boxes, locked or sealed. He would tell you to gather the finger-rings of the company and cast them into a well, and presently either produce them to you out of his hand or somebody’s pocket; or would tell you to go and pick an orange or lime off a tree in the garden — he not touching it —and upon cutting it open you would find the rings there. In short, his phenomena were the prototypes of the familiar illusions of our Western conjurors, effected by them by the help of confederacy and sleight of hand.
He was so adept at controlling his supposed Djinn minions that he gained the name Hassan Khan Djinni, but although he was able to display great powers, they were not without limitations, as it seems that his Djinn had to be treated well or they were liable to sometimes get out of line. They would sometimes disobey him in subtle ways, get angry, or even refuse to do what was asked, suggesting that Hassan’s power over them wasn’t completely unbreakable, and that they could rebel to some extent if they felt they were not being respected or were in a bad mood. The Theosophist, May, 1882, held a statement by a Dr. Abdul Rahman Khan that speaks of one such incident:
I knew Hassan Khan Djinni in Lucknow in the year 1876, during which year he passed some months here, and, in the presence of many witnesses, performed many feats of sorcery or magic. Besides those already described—such as the bringing of ripe fruits out of season and from Kabul and other distant places instantaneously—he did a feat which I will describe. One day he entered my dispensary where I Had been occupied at my work for some time. He seated himself, and suddenly a large brick fell just close to my feet. I was much startled, for there were no bricks in or about the place, and no reasonable way to account for the phenomenon. I walked out with him into my garden, when suddenly a number of bricks and clod sof clay began dropping from the air all about us. I told him that, if this sort of thing were to go on, I should certainly leave him, for I had no desire to have my head broken. He laughed, looked up at the sky, made a deprecatory gesture, and said in Hindustani—“Stop! Stop!—that’s enough!”
We walked on for some paces, when other bricks fell. He again made a gesture and said,—“Bas, bas!”—“that will do,”—but his djins evidently did not agree with him, for there began to fall a shower of dust or sand upon our heads. Then he seemed to get angry, and peremptorily ordered the thing to stop:—and it did stop. The same thing occurred on another occasion when he came to my house for a medical prescription. The brick-shower ceased after he has twice commanded the invisibles to stop their nonsense. The missiles did not seem to fall according to any attractive force proceeding from his own person; sometimes they dropped very close to him, and sometimes at a distance. Their fall was sometimes vertical, sometimes diagonal, and sometimes in a parabola.
Interestingly, it seems as though Hassan never tried to make a show of any of this power, and did not hold performances for money or in front of large crowds. Indeed, he seems to have been rather modest and humble about his abilities, never making money off of it or acting the showman, but rather would just go around randomly performing these feats for strangers or for small gatherings. He also was known for not employing any gimmicks such as darkened rooms or spooky settings and theatrics, instead conjuring up his magic on command in broad daylight anytime or anywhere and without any assistants. One account in an issue of The Theosophist in 1880 says of this:
HassanKhan was not a professional wizard, nor even a performer, but he could be persuaded on occasion to display to a small circle his peculiar powers, and this without any pecuniary reward. At many different places in the presence of many witnesses, his wonders were performed. He required neither darkness, nor‘ cabinets’, nor the singing of hymns. He would go to any stranger’s house, and do his feats in broad daylight; without apparatus or confederates.
Despite not pursuing fame or fortune, fame found him, and as his reputation spread throughout Europe he became a sensation. Unfortunately, this newfound attention and fame seems to have gone to his head and changed him somehow. Instead of the soft-spoken, modest man living a moral life that he had once been, he began to spiral into a life of sin and debauchery. Fully going to the dark side, he became known as a drunken womanizer and boisterous braggart, and at one point it seems as if he had actually gone a bit mad, as he was briefly locked away in an insane asylum for a time. Even at the asylum he continued to perform his magical feats, with Babu Girdharilal, Assistant Superintendent of Police in the North West Provinces saying of one of these occasions:
Hassan was then conﬁned in the lunatic asylum; but the power was apparently not impaired. I obtained permission from the medical ofﬁcer in charge of the asylum, and Hassan was brought to my house, direct from the asylum, by the chuprassies or keepers who watched him. It was perhaps 2 o’clock P. M., and I had gathered a number of friends to witness the performance. Nothing especially strange could be noticed in his face, nor did he make any ceremonies, but when we told him we were ready for him to begin, he crossed the hall and standing on the threshold of a side room, raised his hands backwards above his head so as to conceal them temporarily from our View, and the next minute, bringing them down again, showed a large pomolo.
In the same way he produced a number of other fruits, some, as I remember, out of season, and some from a distance, as, for instance, grapes that grow in Kabul. He then in like manner produced for us toys for the children, and last of all did the feat with the rings. In this instance he himself collected the rings, but when we expressed some apprehension lest our property should go to Patal, or the Christian hell, he laughingly told me to take them into my own hand and throw them into my well. I looked wistfully at my own costly ring which was among the number, but ﬁnally concluded to see the thing through at all hazards. So, I went out to the well and cast the jewels in and saw them sink in the water. Coming back into the hall, I reported to Hassan what I had done. Thereupon he again placed himself in the doorway, raised his hands as before, muttering his charm or mantram—which I omitted mentioning before—and in an instant held out for our inspection an orange. It was cut open, and—there were our rings packed snugly inside and quite uninjured.
Hassan would eventually be released and continue his antics, but it seems as if his descent into debauchery, drunkenness, and madness had begun to loosen his grip on his Djinn charges. One part of his agreement to inheriting his Djinn had been that he had to lead a just, righteous, and moral life, so considering this and the fact that the Djinn were sometimes a bit rebellious to begin with, in addition to his increasing debauchery and misbehavior, his power over them began to deteriorate and fade considerably. The Djinn would more and more often defy his wishes, toy with him mischievously, disobey his direct orders, or on some occasions even lash out in a violent manner. One account from the Theosophical Society in 1880 gives a curious case of Hassan’s Djinn getting a bit ornery and acting up in a somewhat violent way:
He would produce articles of food, such as biscuits or cakes, and cigars too, enough for the assembled company. Ona certain occasion, so I was informed by one who was present, the supply of comestibles seemed to be exhausted. Several members seated round the table raised a laugh against Hassan Khan, and jeeringly challenged him to produce a bottle of champagne. Much agitated and stammering badly — he always had an impediment in his speech — Hassan Khan went into the verandah, and in angry tones commanded some unseen agent to bring the champagne at once. He had to repeat his orders two or three times, when, hurtling through the air, came the required bottle. It struck the magician on the chest with force, and, falling to the floor, broke into a thousand pieces. “There,” said Hassan Khan, much excited, “I have shown my power, but I have enraged my djinn by my importunities.” From then, if a bottle of wine or other heavy object was called for, he would give the command, but put up his hands to guard his head from the projectile the angry spirit would now invariably make of it.
He apparently did not change his ways even in light of this, and he would later lament that his Djinn were leaving him altogether, his command over them disintegrating more and more. His powers began to wane as the Djinn left him one by one, and he began to be unable to perform the feats he once did with the few that remained. When they did perform, they often acted up by throwing objects around, knocking over furniture, and other poltergeist-like activity, and they would often do exactly the opposite of what Hassan asked them to do. With his powers rapidly dwindling and his growing fear of using them in the first place, Hassan became a recluse, refusing to use his Djinn anymore and eventually left with just one of the spirits remaining, which seems to have stayed behind more to taunt and torment him then out of any sense of loyalty. He was apparently constantly accosted by this remaining Djinn, with it turning lights on or off, whichever was more inconvenient for Hassan, moving objects so that he could not find them, hurling items at him, and banging incessantly on the walls and floors at night when he was trying to sleep, in addition to all manner of other mischief. This was all enough to apparently drive Hassan mad once again, and he was again incarcerated in an asylum, after which the sole remaining Djinn bid its farewell and left Hassan to languish there in his dark cell until his death in 1876.
Whatever secrets he had he took to the grave with him, and the Djinn are not talking, so we are left to wonder just what was going on with this enigmatic man and how he was so able to impress so many. He was never officially outed as a fraud and always stuck by his story, so what is the deal? Was this just some particularly clever and talented street magician fooling those around him, and if so why did he never seek fame or fortune for any of it? If these were just fancy parlor tricks, then how was he able to pull off such elaborate stunts in on demand, anytime and in broad daylight, stumping even the most hardcore spiritualists and skeptics? Was there perhaps something to his bizarre story? Whatever the case may be, Hassan Khan Djinni is a curious historical oddity and very strange feature upon the landscape of spiritualism, as well as possibly a sinister warning of what happens when someone abuses their power or messes with forces they are unable to control.