Crazy Cults of the 1920s and 1930s!

Women became slaves to a man they believed couldn’t die – until he did. A top champion boxer got into yoga so he could deliver “cosmic” punches in the ring. Worship of a guru known as Oom the Omnipotent. We often think of far-out cults as being a product of the 1960s and 1970s. But really, trippy cult behaviour was all the rage nearly half a century before in the 1920s and 1930s. In the era of flappers, Prohibition, and jazz – the Roaring Twenties followed by the Great Depression – crazy cults proliferated replacing old-style religion.

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The cult of Lahissa

One of the craziest cults of the 1920s and 1930s crashed spectacularly thanks to an intrepid female journalist.

In 1932, a man who said he couldn’t die – went and died. For three months, his followers in Chicago waited for him to send a message back to them from the next world. But no communication arrived. Instead, his mouldering body lay under a curious tombstone in the Arizona desert. The self-styled man of destiny and teacher of women was very definitely deceased. And he wasn’t coming back.

Three years earlier, this charismatic showman had been exposed as a charlatan by the journalist, Jane Logan. She went undercover at his headquarters on Sheridan Road in Chicago. There had already been an investigation by Chicago police over misappropriated funds. And the medical authorities had no knowledge of his claims to be a psychologist. But it was Logan who would sink this strange cult.

Lahissa, also known as Dr Louis Conde, preyed on rich Americans promising cures for their illnesses and insecurities. Among Lahissa’s extraordinary Christ-like claims were to have made 36 cancers disappear from a sick man; curing a woman of dropsy before even meeting her; and causing another woman to lose 20 pounds in weight because he willed it.

Lahissa was attended to throughout the day by his wife and a harem of compliant women. His libido seemed to be out of control from the moment he awoke. Dressed in his double-breasted suit, bat wing collar, cane, and immaculately coiffured beard. His sordid behaviour would have landed him on a sex offenders’ register today.

The undercover journalist – using an assumed name, Vera – pretended to the great Lahissa that she was a misunderstood, neglected wife. She had lost her husband’s love and wanted to regain it. The master explained to Vera she was repressed and only he could help bring out her true nature. This involved a great deal of groping that she fended off continuously.

He suggested everybody join him on a “love picnic”. The location was the estate of the wealthy man whose multiple cancers he had apparently cured. While being driven there, Lahissa – the “liberator of mankind” – threw himself all over Jane Logan aka Vera. She attempted to resist but the master’s wife, Ethel, insisted she give in:

“When he attempted to throw a necking party with me in his impressive town car, on our return from a picnic, she urged me to accept his caresses – many would like the chance to kiss him, she chided me.”

The “temple” was based at a very swanky address on Sheridan Road. Lahissa was referred to by the press as The Sheik of North Shore Drive. He groomed his female clients, the wives and daughters of male clients, and any other young women who crossed his path with stories of his powers and the importance of being “bohemian”.

Lahissa reminded Jane Logan of Rasputin and the way he hypnotised young girls into submission. She summed up the phoney healer as “a depraved man, superficially intelligent”. At one point, he informed the undercover journalist he was the Tibetan Dalai Lama during the love picnic. Then grabbed her for a dance – “but forgot to dance”. More groping. More fending off.

Logan’s exposé was devastating for Lahissa who fled with his wife Ethel (both pictured below), ending up in Arizona. By 1933, the cult leader had seen his fortune drain away and was dying from tuberculosis. Once in the grave, his name was swiftly forgotten.

Oom the Omnipotent and a champion boxer

One of the biggest cults of the 1920s and 1930s still has an impact today. If your local gym runs yoga classes, thank the amazing Oom the Omnipotent. I’ll explain why!

Lou Nova was the American and World amateur boxing champion in 1935 kicking off a glittering professional career leaving him undefeated in his first 22 matches. In 1939, he faced Max Baer in what would be the first ever televised heavyweight prizefight on June 1 of that year (see video below). But to prepare himself, where was he going to train?

Sports journalists were aghast when it emerged that Nova was basing himself at the headquarters of a guru widely known as Oom the Omnipotent. Oom’s real name was something of a mystery. The guru told folks he was Pierre Arnold Bernard, born in France. More likely, he was Perry Arnold Baker from Leon, Iowa. Or, he might have been, as some thought, Peter Coon from Seattle or Chicago. Just to keep everybody guessing, he later used the name Homer Stansbury Leeds.

Nova trained ahead of the Baer fight at a country club and health resort run by Oom, Loving Guru of the Tantriks. Since the 1880s, Oom had studied yoga and Hindu philosophy. He claimed to be able to induce a trance in a patient to the point where they could be operated on without anaesthetic. In the decades that followed, this eccentric helped to popularise yoga in the United States while also getting people to loosen up about sex.

Inevitably, given the track record of so many gurus, there were accusations of abuse although criminal charges of indecent assault involving two teenage girls were dropped in 1910. That allowed Oom to carry on expanding his spiritual-physical culture cult, which had moved from San Francisco after local police took an interest in the funding of his temple. Now based in New York, things really took off. Yoga and “tantrik” (his spelling) mysticism – plus sex – became all the rage.

Oom then shifted his growing operation up the Hudson river to the town of Nyack in upper New York state. About 200 devotees chose to live there with the master who occasionally would grace them with his presence, riding one of his pet elephants. One journalist described the scene:

“Here amid ideal surroundings the brothers and sisters disport themselves in gorgeous garments, singing ecstatic hymns of love or listening to the ministrations of Oom.”

Nova, the boxer, became a lifelong yoga enthusiast and, to the mockery of fellow boxers, claimed to deliver a “cosmic punch”. Well, he wiped the smirk off Baer’s face by defeating him comprehensively.

As an interesting sidebar, Oom’s half-sister – Ora Ray Baker (assumed name: Pirani Ameena Begum) – married the Indian Sufi mystic and philosopher, Inayat Khan. Their daughter, Noor Inayat Khan, went on to become a famously courageous British spy during World War Two, was captured by the Nazis, and died in the Dachau concentration camp.

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