Sweet Extract Of Hokum
Patent medicines were usually neither patented nor medicinal, which is not to say they didn’t (and don’t) have any effect
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
There were also skillful women practitioners of tailgate medicine. Among them Madame DuBois should at least be mentioned. She travelled with a brass band and pulled teeth; also Princess Iola, née Eva Billings, of Quincy, Illinois, who pitched complexion soap, which was whatever soap was sold at the local dime store, cut up into small chunks and rewrapped in foil. Another exotic princess, Little Lotus Blossom, was in fact a Minnesota farm girl who lectured on Tiger Fat, a salve, and on Vital Sparks, a remarkable discovery from faraway Outer Mongolia that pepped up aging males who were getting worried about the performance of marital duties. For this charade Lotus Blossom wore a mandarin coat and a little Chinese skull cap. Later she developed a scientific spiel under the name Madame V. Pasteur. The V. was authentic since her name was Violet. Madame never mentioned Louis Pasteur, but she had a cultivated manner, and for this routine she wore an academic cap and gown and referred frequently during her discourse to Ponce de Léon, the bacteriologist Elie Metchnikoff, and the body toxins. In each of her roles Violet followed the stern law of social Darwinism as practiced by such star performers on the gasoline-torch circuit as Prince Nanzetta, Big Foot Bill Wallace, and Hal the Healer: “Take the easy dough and get out of town fast.” The guys and dolls who were masters of long con (slow, deliberate persuasion) and short con (snappy, aggressive delivery) are album memories now, retired by burdensome taxes and local regulations, closed towns, and the competition of more sophisticated forms of mass entertainment.
Curiously enough, the advances made in chemistry, technology, and medical research have created vastly increased opportunities for the operations of charlatans, as it has become more difficult for the laity to discriminate between genuine achievements and clever frauds. Whatever is new and interesting to the general public has always provided a topical approach for quackery. Electricity led on to Electric Bitters; the germ theory of disease, to Radam’s Microbe Killer. Publicity about the newer knowledge of the glands of internal secretion suggested to the imaginative proprietors of the Capricorn Chemical Company the idea of goat gland tablets.
The serious objection to quack medicines was that they were useless, that they delayed or prevented the patient from getting proper treatment, and, at the worst, that they contained deleterious substances, including narcotics. The effort to establish some federal control in this area dates as far back as 1879. It built up rapidly in the period 1898-1904, and a consumer-protection law, despite bitter opposition from the powerful Proprietary Association, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt under the name of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This was the most significant legislation of the Progressive Era in the field of “consumerism,” subsequently strengthened by amendment and legal interpretation and enlarged to cover therapeutic mechanical devices, such as the electric-belt fake, the wire-and-gas-pipe Oxydonor, brain child of Dr. Hercules Sanche, and the magic black box of Dr. Albert Abrams, which gave off a humming sound. Abrams, a licensed physician prominent enough to be listed in Who’s Who in America , had wandered, alas, down the primrose path of quackery, but he was solaced by the number of tax-free dollars in his bank account.
Some of these gaudy deceivers have left permanent monuments in one form or another. Gaylord Wilshire, who invented a contraption called the I-On-A-Co, a sort of magic horse collar worn around the neck, was one of the great con men of all time and is memorialized in Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles. And Dr. J. C. Ayer, an astute businessman who channelled his hair-restorer and cherry-pectoral money into paper and cotton mills, had a town, Ayer, Massachusetts, named after him. Specimens of the gadgets that flashed lights and made interesting noises still exist, as memorials to the fool who could not be saved from his folly, in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the American Medical Association, the California Department of Public Health, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Each exhibit testifies to the selling power of pseudoscientific jargon.
The masters of medical humbug have been inconvenienced but not eliminated by the authority that has been confided to various governmental agencies: the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Post Office Department. A few years ago we saw the spectacular rise, and fortunately the steep decline, of Dudley Joseph LcBlanc’s Hadacol. Hadacol consisted of vitamins, minerals, honey, and firewater and was brilliantly promoted by the old, reliable medical con methods. There was a moment of truth, mingled with levity, when Groucho Marx once asked LeBlanc on a television program what Hadacol was good for. Its pappy replied in a flash of misunderstanding, “Hadacol was good for five million dollars last year.”
Grandfather was a mark, and no mistake about it ( mark . Synonyms: rube, chump, simp, goof, gill). Yet the take in violation of federal laws even today is around one billion dollars a year, and the depredations of medical banditry get less amusing as they come closer to us.