by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been discussed here in previous posts, early 20th century Los Angeles had no shortage of alternative spiritual and religious organizations, many often characterized as cults and some undergoing extraordinary scrutiny by government and legal officials and officers for often wild charges.
Today’s post features one of these and highlights, from the Homestead’s holdings, a 4 June 1918 wanted poster issued by Los Angeles County Sheriff John C. Cline for “Dr. Otoman Zar Ardusht Hanish,” the founder and leader of the Mazdaznan Master-Thought sect, recently established in Los Angeles. The poster, offering a $250 reward for information on the whereabouts of the religious figure, wanted for rape, provided much detailed information on him.
Among these was that he “claims to be [a] Persian Prince” and was head of a cult and, after noting his physical characteristics, including height, facial features, bearing and the like, it added that he was “affiliated with spiritualists and New Thought religious cults” and that he “lectures on New Thoughts and [a] better mode of living.” More relevant to the charge preferred against him was that Hanish was said to be “quite a ladies’ man,” though the issue here was the assertion that he’d sexually assaulted a teenage girl who was part of the Mazdaznan sect.
It turned out, hardly surprisingly, that Hanish was not Persian, but was, instead Otto Hanisch, born in 1856 in Leipzig in what became part of a united Germany when he was mid-teenager and whose father Richard was a music teacher. In 1880, the family sailed from Bremen with a stop at Southampton, England, before landing in New York and resided at Mendota, Illinois, west of Chicago, and then for many years in Milwaukee, a popular destination for 19th century German migrants.
Later, it was reported that Hanisch spent some years in Utah working as a sheepherder, but also learned the printing trade with a German/Swedish newspaper at Salt Lake City, where he appears to have joined a Mormon sect. After conflict in that group, he purported decided to establish his own religion and a fellow printer who joined the Mazdaznan sect added that Hanisch was known in the mid-1890s as “Herr Otto Hanisch, Illusionist” with a fellow magician’s traveling sideshow that roamed Utah. Hanisch was then was said to have gone to Chicago in 1898 to try out his new religious concept, based on inspiration from his partner, a man known only as Dittman in one account.
In the opening days of the 20th century, Otto became “Otoman” and adopted the middle moniker of “Zar-Adusht” [he was sometimes shown with a middle initial of the last letter of the alphabet) and dropped the “c” from his surname and inserted an apostrophe after the “a” to give the impression that he was a Persian. In fact, Hanisch later claimed that, while his father was German and his mother was Russian, he was raised in Persia, though what looks to have happened is that he was loaned books on Persian and Indian history and philosophy, from which he constructed his Mazdaznan religion.
Part of his emerging teachings was the use of a “Bauenscheldt Resuscitator,” a “counter-irritant” instrument evidently using a needle and hot oil on the skin to treat spiritual crises and which the budding religious leader purchased from a sales agent for the creator. Crucial was the worship of the power of the sun, esoteric breathing techniques, unusual diets and, some claimed, tantric sexual rituals which Hanish used upon young boys and girls under the guise of spiritual teaching—of course, sexual predation on children by religious figures has always existed.
Probably the earliest detailed mention of Hanish in his new guise was in the 29 December 1901 edition of the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper, which stated that “sun-worshiping, the oldest form of religion known to history, is being revived in Chicago. In a fine house on fashionable Prairie Avenue, the front parlor was “fitted up [as] an altar” by a “Parsee priest” and containing “a weird assortment of relics and idols.” Services were conducted on Sundays at a rented hall “and on week days he conducts classes where his prehistoric beliefs are expounded.”
Among these was the teaching that the spinal cord was the location of the soul and the breath was the life principle and the paper went on that “this strange Iranic priest is the Rev. Dr. Otoman Zar-Adusht Hanish” who, moreover, “has a string of titles long enough to fly a kite with.” These included the “Rab-Magi of Mathel-Karman” and the “Apta-Perest of the Mazdaznan philosophy,” not to mention the “Dashtur of the Ben-Din science of [the] Breath of Life.”
Purportedly, Hanish first visited the United States in 1890 and, having found enough interest in his teachings, returned and established himself in New York for several years before settling in Chicago, where he claimed to have 600 adherents in what was also known as the “St. Omar Club.” Estimating that there were 128,000 sun-worshippers on the planet, Hanish stated there were three main temples for this system, in Persia, Tibet and Mongolia, with the first being 58,000 years old and in which sacred writings were preserved that dated to 142,000 years before the construction of Rome.
Notably, the article recorded that Hanish lived in the Prairie Avenue house with Adolph Dittman, accounted as the general secretary of the club and who was, undoubtedly, Hanish’s partner in the traveling magician act in Utah. In addition to the parlor, filled with photos of the two men as well as the ivory altar, the basement included a printing press for distributing the Mazdaznan sect’s literature, including one called “Inner Studies.” In succeeding years, Hanish made news for reports that some of his women congregants went insane, with one apparently having died.
In its “Society Notices” section, the Los Angeles Herald of 5 May 1907 ran an advertisement that Hanish, the “kalantar of Zoroastrian communities and Mazdazanan temples in America” was to speak at Blanchard Hall on “America, the Savior Nation.” Not only that, but the reverend doctor was to “wear one of his costly garments” that “is the identical pattern of the bridegroom robe Jesus wore the day he entered Jerusalem.
A few days later, he was to lecture on “Zoroaster, the Father of Fraternalism and Masonry,” while also on offer were private classes, a “University course,” inner studies, and a Harmony Healing session. Hanish returned to the Angel City in October 1908 to speak at a hall on Broadway south of Fifth Street to speak on the topic of “Love Your Enemies.” It was added that those considering attending should “let reason be our guiding star,” while questions were to be “considered” and voluntary contributions welcomed.
Hanish remained in Chicago until he was indicted in March 1912, after an investigation of a variety of matters, including the alleged disappearance of a wealthy Philadelphia woman and her child, said to have joined his Mazdaznan sect, for sending his “Inner Studies” pamphlet, containing obscene material, to a young woman in Missouri.
This federal charge, for violating interstate commerce prohibitions, led to a conviction at the end of December 1913. Hanish appealed, but the ruling was confirmed, though he tried to get a hearing before the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear the matter. At the end of 1915, Hanish, who was also fined $2,500, was committed for six months at the Bridewell Prison in Chicago. In December 1914, while out on bail and awaiting the ruling on his appeal, Hanish was at the San Francisco Mazdaznan temple when a bomb was set off, sending him flying through a window and causing a broken arm and leg.
Not long after his release from prison, Hanish headed for Los Angeles, where his elderly father moved to teach music, to establish a temple there, though much of the public speaking from September 1917 onward was done at Blanchard Hall by his associate, “Dr.” Gilman Beeler on such topics as “Regeneration and Rebirth,” “Health and Breath Culture,” “Scientific Food Combinations,” “Egyptian Postures,” “Curative Exercises,” “Heathen Churches in Christianity,” and on eugenics. Within months, however, more legal trouble loomed for Hanish.
In late April 1918, an arrest warrant was issued for practicing medicine without a license, though the Los Angeles Record reported that investigators were looking into “a mass of amazing evidence” and that “the details are unprintable.” Describing the Mazdaznan sect as being “a religious cult, based on sex principles,” the paper added that “at least 27 boys and girls are being sought to testify,” though it was noted that the main charge was dependent on the testimony of a 13-year old boy, whose father was enraged about the investigation and who “spoke glowingly of the high and holy character of Hanish.”
There were further accusations that the leader had at least two wives, that he had boys captive at a Montana ranch (to where Hanish was said to have fled) and the Chicago temple and that he sexually abused the Los Angeles boy at the Rosslyn Hotel. The Los Angeles Times added that the boy’s father was “a registered alien enemy,” which was a classification for those living in the United States but came from a country, such as Germany, that was an enemy during the First World War, which America entered about a year prior.
The Times, which was vigilant in its coverage of alleged wartime alien enemies and took to calling him the “little master,” a term of endearment by his flock, soon claimed that Hanish “was the recognized leader of a strong faction of pro-Germans in Southern California and that he carried on a regularly-organized propaganda prior to his sudden departure for parts unknown.”
The reason for this assertion was that several of the children associated with the Mazdaznan sect and wanted for questioning on the abuse charge were suddenly found to have been sent away and the paper recorded that “the school-teachers of the entire seven children told the investigators that they were without exception pro-German in their sympathies and failed to manifest any patriotism at all during patriotic school exercises.”
It was reported in the local press that investigators were astonished to find that the parents of children said to have been sexually abused by Hanish uniformly defended him and one adherent, known only as “N,” wrote to the Los Angeles Record and asked the paper not to join in the persecution of the Mazdaznan leader. This person claimed that Hanish’s teachings “have always been of the highest intellectual and moral character” and wrote that “all this talk about this supposed ‘sun-worshiper’ and ‘fire-worship’ is bosh and nonsense.” It was concluded that, space permitting, the writer “would explain just why and how all such rubbish started.”
More than ten children were held at Juvenile Hall as potential witnesses against Hanish, but, when two woman doctors, Muriel Cass and Miriam Van Water, conducted physical examinations of the some of the girls, the parents responded by filing lawsuits claiming she hurt their children, though the pair were found innocent of any wrongdoing.
On 4 June 1918, the same date as the publication of the flyer shown here (and which was used in press accounts), five secret indictments were handed down by the county Grand Jury, with at least one of them said to be against Hanish. It was soon stated that the charges brought in all five of these indictments were concerning girls, not the 13-year old boy noted earlier.
Finally, at the end of December 1919, Hanish was captured in Chicago while attending a holiday party and the Times reported that the leader was purportedly planning to head for Switzerland before he was nabbed by Los Angeles Police Department detectives. Hanish waived extradition and returned to the Angel City by the end of the year, though his $20,000 in bail was supplied, it was said, by members of the sect, who waited outside the jail to celebrate his release.
A few days later, authorities raided the Mazdaznan temple on Hill Street south of Third Street on Bunker Hill, seizing “a large quantity of evidence,” recorded by Times, but also causing damage to the premises. The paper went into great detail in describing the “temple of the sun” but also claimed that there were papers discovered in a vault that were defined as “lascivious literature of a most vile character.
Meanwhile, Beeler and Arthur Gault, said to be president of the Mazdaznan association and whose daughters were among those held as potential witnesses against Hanish, were also arrested for practicing without a license and preparing false evidence, respectively, though the two were subsequently freed and no charges were preferred against them.
On 5 January 1920, the Times ran a lengthy article revealing “secrets” removed the vault of the “Sun Temple cult” that were expected to be used in the prosecution of Hanish, Beeler and Gault and it is, of course, remarkable by our standards that figures from the office of District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine would hand these over to the media while the investigation was ongoing and presumed legal proceedings yet to come. Expected charges were libel, false evidence, mail fraud, contempt of court and “committing revolting offenses against little boys and girls.”
Yet, while strange doctrines, commandments and other material relating to breathing, cleaning the body, food were described and a fund of $40,000 was purported to have been stockpiled for legal fees, nothing published actually was indicative of law-breaking. Still, the impression on the public mind could certainly have been considered prejudicial to any defendants when a trial was held.
Shortly after this, five children anticipated to be vital material witnesses for the state against Hanish could not be located and the Times editorialized on the 7th that
This is a great country for the sun cult, but not for a worship that is within upholstered walls and behind darkened doors. The Temple of the Sun we have with us always, but it is found in God’s own great outdoors. It is not in the dust-freighted atmosphere of the secret places. People who would hallow the sun are in the right place here in Southern California, but when they are in the secret assembly of the Mazdaznan they are in the wrong pew.
The bias in the Times was certainly laid bare for all to see and the paper could resist adding, the next day, in its “Pen Points” feature, that “forty thousand dollars has been raised for the defense of the Mazdaznan leaders, showing the poor uses to which money can often be put.” Yet, Beeler continued to have sect meetings.
On the 17th, the Times reported that prosecutors won an “all-day battle” in court when five depositions from the children mentioned above were to be read during the proceeding. Yet, by early March, charges against Beeler and Gault were dropped and, while a trial against Hanish was inaugurated in mid-April, the case quickly crumbled with the charges against him dismissed when Superior Court Judge Frederick W. Houser ruled that children could not be forced to testify against him and they arguing that previous affidavits were produced under undue pressure by police officers and other officials.
The Los Angeles Express, which treated the situation very differently than the Times, summed up the matter succinctly when it observed, “the prosecution of Hanish . . . aroused national interest, as he has figured in the limelight for a number of years by reason of his queer doctrines and the alleged practices of his ceremonials, which resulted in his indictment and arrest.”
The Mazdaznan sect continued on for a time, while Hanish occasionally the subject of more legal proceedings, including a 1924 case in which he sought to adopt a teenaged German boy, but the DA’s office sought to block it based on his previous alleged actions , even as another young man, Emanuel Bachmann, adopted by Hanish the prior year, testified that he was raised in an ideal environment.
In 1928, he was sued for $250,000 by former German Army officer Louis Arens, whose wife Helwig left him to join the Mazdaznan sect, while Hanish went to the city prosecutor’s office to press charges for a severe thrashing dealt to him by Arens. The matter was still being considered two years later when Helwig remained missing and, finally, in September 1931, the matter was dropped because of the expiration of the statute of limitations. By then, the sect was purportedly closed and Hanish said to have been in Europe.
Yet, in 1940, the Mazdaznan appeared again in the news, when a woman sued for $1 million claiming her underage daughter was sexually abused six years before by a reorganized version of the sect in Norco in Riverside Country. It was asserted that Hanish instructed the then-11 year old in a lesson and induced her to lie next to a nude young man, Henry Sorge, who was in the sect, as was Bachmann. The suit named Bachmann, Beeler, Gault and several others, though Hanish died on 29 February 1936 of pneumonia with little public notice.
Remarkably, the Mazdaznan sect continued in some form for at least another 40 years after his death, with the same Neoclassical house given as the location in the late 1950s and mid-1970s for programs. Perhaps it was one of Hanish’s devoted followers who kept the order going in spurts during those many years.
The Los Angeles Record of 20 May 1918 featured an article by Jerome Lynch titled “L.A. Becomes Mecca for Strange Cults” with the writer identifying several recent examples including Mazdaznan. Others included metaphysician George Edward Burnell; Ichabod Thomas, deacon of the Tongues of Living Fire; the “Sons of the Sun,” which was renamed “Sons of the Messiah;” the “Apostles of Peace;” and others in which there were a range of accusations from generalized immoralities to medical malpractice over flagellation to the taking of donations earmarked for buildings. An accompanying cartoon showed an elderly bearded man beating a hasty retreat and uttering “It’s Good Bye L.A.” because “organizers and prophets of strange cults, sects, and schisms, find the going hard in Los Angeles.”
With active investigations by the police and district attorney, unfavorable coverage by the likes of the Los Angeles Times and others, alternative spiritual and religious groups considered “cults” by mainstream churches and the like were often accused of the the most bizarre and wild teaching, rituals and activities, but, as we have seen before, much of this was simply overblown by a different form of zealotry. We cannot say for certain the Hanish wasn’t a predator of several types, but it also true that the often-hysterical claims against him simply did not hold up, whether or not he was guilty of the charges.
Do you have some more information about Ichabod Thomas, deacon of the Tongues of Living Fire, the “Sons of the Sun” and the others you mentioned at the end of your post?
Hi Roxana, thanks for your question; all we have is a newspaper article that refers to Thomas and we’ll send that over to you.