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Hugh Manity, Depression-Era Love Cult Leader, Caught in the Garish Grip of the Law

Hugh Manity. Photo courtesy Boston Public LIbrary, Leslie Jones Collection.
Hugh Manity. Photo courtesy Boston Public LIbrary, Leslie Jones Collection.

Hugh Manity. Photo courtesy Boston Public LIbrary, Leslie Jones Collection.

Boston’s own love-cult leader, Dr. Hugh Manity, gave New England’s newspapers plenty of fodder in 1933 when he was arrested in his Cathedral of Cosmos for practicing medicine without a license.

“Cosmical harmony becomes discord upon arrival of state police,” announced the Boston Globe on March 25, 1933.

Manity followed a long New England tradition of crackpots and visionaries, from the Live Forevers, who believed the dead could be brought back to life, to the Millerites, who believed everyone was going to die on Oct. 22, 1844. (They were wrong.)

Hugh Manity led a cult from a four-story building in Boston's Back Bay, where he intrigued a 'certain coterie of matrons' as well as servant girls and the police.  His mistake was to spurn one of his female followers.

Becoming Hugh Manity

He had changed his name from William Shanahan, 'for business reasons,' he told a judge in 1924. His business? Conducting ‘electro-medical baths’ in Lynn, Mass. That business apparently was destroyed by a fire in 1925.

He offered treatment in 'egoatrics,' which he called a new science of personal magnetism to heal the body, regenerate the nerves, renew youth and make dreams come true. His fee ranged from 50 cents to $5.00.

At the time of his arrest he was 43 years old with 'definitely mystical mannerisms,' according to the Boston Globe. He told the newspaper his First Universal Humanitarian Society was formed in his mind in 1915 when he cured himself from illness in the California mountains.

By 1933, he attracted enough followers to rent a large building in Brighton for $100 a month. Signs behind the plate glass window at street level proclaimed 'a new era in atomic vibration based on rhythmic cosmos, teaching you how to vibrate in unison with infinity.’

He explained his First Universalist Humanitarian Society was a nondenominational spiritual movement dedicated to self-improvement. "It is not a charm school; it is based on cosmic love and the exact sciences," he said.

He said he lived at the YMCA and lived on a $7-a-week salary, plus $5.50 for his room and $1.50 for his one meal a day.

He Done Her Wrong

Manity told reporters his arrest resulted from a vengeful employee he refused to marry. She had wanted to run away with him to an island paradise. "I saw her and one of her friends standing across the street laughing at me when the police led me from the cathedral under arrest on Friday," he told a reporter, adding he ‘always tried to be good.’

He was released on bail and returned to his Cathedral of Cosmos, where newspaper reporters poked fun at him for conducting a service for 12 people with an invisible choir (presumably a recording) in the background. A soft amber light shone on the cult leader. Manity asked his devoted followers not to call him doctor because he didn’t want any more trouble with the State Police.

A month later, Municipal Court Chief Justice Wilfred Bolster acquitted Hugh Manity.

At his hearing, Hugh Manity said he knew nothing about medicine, but he did know something about harmonic healing. "Thereupon, he demonstrated a thyroid treatment by rubbing his neck," reported the Boston Globe.

The Nashua Telegraph on March 28, 1933, wrote a tongue-in-cheek defense of the cult leader, arguing he was charging too little for his services to humanity. "The high back chair with the paraphernalia like a throne, the pillars inscribed love and truth, the atmosphere of the interior of the cathedral, are worth more, for Boston's self improvement seeking servant girls and wealthy matrons," editorialized the Telegraph.  The newspaper objected to the 'garish grip of the law' seizing Manity, all because of the complaint of 'at least one dissatisfied customer.'

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