The Great American Fraud/Series 2:Chapter 3

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THE GREAT AMERICAN FRAUD: Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quacks  (1907) 
by Samuel Hopkins Adams

Reprinted from Collier's Weekly, Sept. 1, 1906.



Specializing is the modern tendency in medical practice. Hence the quack, who is but an exaggerated and grotesque imitation of the regular practitioner, smells money in devoting himself to specific fields of endeavor. Sedulously he perfects himself in his own department; not by acquiring knowledge of the nature and treatment of diseases, indeed, but by studying how most effectively to enmesh the sufferer from a certain class of ailments in the net of his specious promises. Upon his skill here depends his success. Experiences teaches him nothing of professional value, for the vast majority of his "patients" he never sees. He diagnoses by mail and doses by express. His "consultation" correspondence is carried on through a series of ingeniously devised form-letters, worded to suit every case and turned out by a corps of typewriters. The average advertising specialist concern would work just as well if the "doctor" himself spent his time fishing for finned suckers and left his trained stenographers to attend to the human variety.

Blindness and deafness are fattening afflictions for the medical guerillas. With a little reading, a few borrowed scientific phrases and illustrations wherewith to garnish his booklet, and an apt catchword for his advertising, your eye or ear specialist, or eye and ear specialist - for some of them combine the two - is ready for business. To get his patients he appeals to a deep-rooted and universal instinct, the piteous shrinking of the flesh and spirit from cold steel, so often the cruel necessity and the merciful hope of the afflicted.

Like Mending Chimneys by Mail

"Don't undergo an operation. Come to me and spare yourself the torture of the knife," loudly invites the quack. What matters it to him, that the time wasted in his futile processes may mean sight or hearing wasted, also, and beyond chance of recovery! He gets his pay; that's his whole concern. For this he will promise to cure you, not only without operation, but without even seeing you. Can the mind conceive anything more preposterous? Hera re two instruments of nerve and muscle, infinitely delicate, inscrutably efficient and accurate. The eye is a marvel of mathematical adjustment in angles and curves of vision. Our previous quack proposes to solve the problem of its distorted equations without the slightest study of the figures. Could he work out a geometrical thesis without a diagram? Could he survey a field by mail? The problems of hearing are almost as intricate and far more obscure than those of seeing. The self-styled "Eminent Aurist" will remedy the most difficult defects without a personal examination. Would he essay to repair a defective chimney flue by "home treatment?" The proposition is a far more reasonable one. Yet the eternally hopeful, eternally credulous fill the mails with trusting appeals and dollars addressed to these swindlers, and thus lighten themselves for a swifter flight to darkness and silence.

If I were organizing an American Institute of Quack Specialists I should select Dr. Oren Oneal of Chicago as the first president. The artful plausibility of his advertising, his ingenuity in "jollying along" the patient for his reluctant dollars, the widespread familiarity of his features through the magazine advertising pages, and, above all, his sleek and polished personality, make him the natural candidate. A high-class exponent of the charlatan's art is Dr. Oren. No raw newspaper advertising for him. He prefers the magazines, and the bane of his business existence is that, one by one, they are closing their pages to him. But he is usually the last of the patent medicine and quack ilk to go. McClure's stood by him long after all the other medical advertising had been expunged from its pages. His bland and benevolent features shone forth like a benison from the rear of Collier's for year. Harper's still harbors him, and he is a particular pet of the religious weeklies - at special rates.

"Dissolvent Method" is the Oneal slogan. No matter what the trouble may be, he "dissolves" it away. "How I Make the Blind See and Cure All Eye Diseases in Patient's Own Home Without the Knife," is the modest heading of one of his advertisements in that model of religious journalism, the Christian Endeavor World. "By this mild and harmless treatment," he announces, "I have restored sight to thousands in all parts of the world. With it I have cured cataract, optic nerve paralysis,


A high-class eye quack who will undertake to cure incurable blindness

granulated (sic) lids, paunus, pterygium, glaucoma, conjection (sic) of the optic nerves, weak, watery eyes and all other eye diseases." All this he will do for the moderate price of fifty dollars-sometimes for twenty-five, but the patient must put down part of the money in advance. Give him his pay and Oneal will undertake the impossible on any one's eyes; not only this, but he will undertake to cure cases which he himself knows to be incurable. His "Dissolvent Method" is a high-sounding name for a cheap eye-wash which can no more cure any serious derangement than can plain water. This he sends out by express with impressive directions as to use.

When I called upon Dr. Oneal at his office he assured me that he was doing a perfectly legitimate business, and that I was making a grave error in listing him with the quacks. As he spoke he was facing a wall on which hung a number of framed documents. One was a certificate of membership in the American Medical Association, which is the standard medical body of the country. Dr. Oneal was forced out of it several years ago for unprofessional conduct. Nevertheless, he keeps the old certificate on exhibit. Neighboring the outlawed certificate were two others, one of a high-sounding organization whose whose sole purpose is to issue framable parchments to doctors of dubious standing, the other certifying that Dr. Oren Oneal was a member of the staff of St. Luke's Hospital at Niles, Michigan. Dr. Oneal has never been in Niles, Michigan. he has had no relation with St. Luke's Hospital of that town, because there is no such institution. The document he purchased from a quack named Probert, who did a little peddling business in this line, charging $20 for the framed article when he couldn't get $25. Dr. B. F. Bye of cancer fame has one of these, and I have seen them decorating the offices of other quacks.

For the conduct of a perfectly legitimate business these were three obviously rotten props. A fourth was supplied by a copy of the New York Health Journal, used by Dr. Oneal as a warrant of professional standing, and containing an "unqualified editorial endorsement" (leading editorial) of that gentleman's method and practice. Now, the New York Health Journal (since happily defunt) was, as I have observed before in the Liquozone matter and elsewhere, a fake, pure and simple. It printed no "editorial endorsements" except for cold cash. As Dr. Oneal doesn't remember paying for his puff, I assume that the firm which place his advertising did it for him. one other bit of suggestive evidence is found in the Nebraska State Board of Health Records, showing that in 1899 the Board secretaries recommended the revocation of Dr. Oren Neal's license "on the ground of unprofessional and dishonorable conduct."

Invents Unknown Diseases.

So much as to Oneal's standing. Now as to his methods. A bout a year ago a certain Mrs. Price wrote him, giving the details of an incurable case and asking if he could cure her. He replied:

"I find the trouble to be paralysis of the optic nerve. (There is no such condition; he meant, as he afterward admitted, atrophy of the optic nerve.) I have been especially successful in curing such troubles as yours. (In a letter to another prospective patient, shown me as evidence that he would not take money from hopeless cases, he distinctly states that paralysis of the optic nerve "will not respond to any treatment.") So positive am I that your case is curable and that you can be cured in a short time, that I will promise to continue the treatment free of charge after five months." (Her condition, as described by her, was obviously and hopelessly incurable.)

Here, then, is "the most successful ocultist of modern times" (vide his own modest claim) diagnosing a condition which doesn't exist, and promising to cure a disease which he himself admits elsewhere to be incurable. The matter of Mrs. Price's eyes never came to a test, because she offered to deposit one hundred dollars (twice his price) to be paid to him when a cure was effected, whereupon he wrote her one epistle replete with pained dignity, and charged up his letter-forms and postage to profit and loss.

An Eastern ophthalmologist filled out of Dr. Oneal's diagnosis blanks with the unmistakable description of an incurable case of atrophy of the optic nerve, which the learned specialist promptly diagnosed as cataract, and offered to cure for fifty dollars. Strabismus (cross-eyes) is one of Dr. Oneal's specialties. I asked him how he cured this trouble without the knife to which he replied that he had never made such a claim. On the following day he sent to my hotel (for the purpose of proving that his methods were perfectly upright) a quantity of advertising matter, which he had apparently not censored, as it contained a diagnosis blank bearing these words: "Cross-eyes straightened in two minutes without knife, pain, or inconvenience." When this slight discrepancy was called to his attention he tried to explain it away by saying that he used "an instrument of my own invention." Technically, this instrument is a kind of scissors; but I fail to see how the patient who is lured to Dr. Oneal's office by promises of non-surgical cure ("Eye Diseases Cured Without Surgery" is the title of his book) suffers the less because the operator's instrument has two blades instead of one. Oneal says:


A strongly endorsed long-distance healer.

"I make no guarantee to cure." I have his letter guaranteeing a cure. He says: "Neither do I charge for a cure." I have his letter naming fifty dollars as the price of a cure. He says: "I will not under any circumstances treat a case or take money when I think there is any doubt of effecting a cure." I have his letter offering to treat hopeless cases and other letters from him offering to take cases which he admits are probably incurable. In the face of all this, Oneal writes me a personal letter deprecating any attack upon him, and saying: "All you have against me is a few technicalities - a few words which have crept into my literature to which you take exception." Dr. Oneal is proceeding on a false premise. I have nothing against him; I found him a singularly agreeable and frank specimen of the genus Quack. But every man, woman and child who reads his advertisements has this against him and against the magazines that print his stuff; that he is a maker of lying promises, a deliberate swindler, and a tamperer with blindness at the peril of others, for a fifty-dollar fee.

"Absorption Method" is the professional catch-phrase of Dr. W. O. Coffee of Des Moines, Iowa, where he runs an eye-and-ear infirmary, and does an extensive bunco business by mail. Dr. Coffee's stock in trade as an oculist is a large supply of cheek and a copy of "External Diseases of the Eye," by Haab of Berlin. Professor Haab is a genuine authority and his book is an excellent foundation for eye practice, but not as Coffee uses it. The Des Moines expert's interest in confined to the pictures, which are in color and are rather painful to look at; just the sort of thing to set one worrying about his own eyes. Herein lies their value to the shrewd Coffee. He gets up a book of his own, all about himself and his successful Absorption Treatment; and, applying the treatment to the Haab volume, absorbs the illustrations whole.

Stolen Goods Improved.

For instance, Table 19 in the Haab book shows a badly mutilated eye labeled "Lime-burn, caused by the explosion of a bottle." That is what Haab thought of it. Deluded Tenton! This same picture transferred to Coffee's classic work is described in the following bold and masterly strokes. "This eye was afflicted with granulated lids and ulcers, following inflammation. There is no known remedy that will remove these spots except Dr. Coffee's absorption treatment, and it will do it completely. This case required three months to absorb the scum and sear and clear up the sight." On the same plate of Haab's book appears an illustration of "Lime-burn of longer standing in the case of a mason mixing lime." How tame, compared to the spirited Coffee version of the same eye! "Chronic ulcers of the eye eye and cataract . This eye had been diseased for four years, but only bad about one year. It had been treated by two different oculists with but temproary relief, and they wanted to operate, but the patient would not submit, and, hearing of Dr. Coffee, came to him, and in five months' use of the absorption treatment, sight was restored almost completely." It is impossible to withhold a tribute to the calm and logical mind of the mason who owned the eye. An ordinary man, into whose optical cavity lime had spurted, would, in the instancy of his pain, rush to the nearest doctor. Not so our German friend.

"Wait," says he to himself, "don't be hasty. This is a case for Coffee. Me for Des Moines, U. S. A."

So he changes his clothes, buys him a ticket and comes over to be examined. Probably he tells Coffee about the lime incident.

"Lime?" says that Eminent Authority. "pooh! Not at all. The trouble was caused by a general practitioner using sugar-of-lead eyewater in the eye. (This last is quoted direct from the Coffee book.) Ulcers. Also cataract. I'll cure you."

And he did it, so he says, in five months.

Imagine the surprise and relief of the mason at discovering that what he had supposed was a splash of lime from the mixture he was working, was really a dose of sugar-of-lead eyewater surreptitiously introduced into his optic by a villainous general practitioner presumably operating a squirt-gun from a neighboring window. (Query: Could it have been Haab himself, scheming to get a picture for his book?)

Eyes Repaired by Mail.

Again, Plate 32 of Haab's book shows two specimens: (A) Senile cataract in a woman seventy-two years old; (B) cataract in a fourteen-year-old boy caused by falling against a table. In the Coffee tome, this identical Picture A appears as a before-using and Picture B as an after-using exhibit: "The Patient," says Dr. Coffee, "made the fatal error of submitting to an operation," with the result as shown in A; but afterward came to Coffee, who repaired the damage as in B. Resoning from the Coffee statement, it is plain that the aged lady and the unfortunate youth, having heard in their German homes that Dr. Coffee cured cataract by mail, promptly removed the injured organs and sent them, postage prepaid to Des Moines, where the specialist fixed one and returned it, but unfortunately mislaid the other, so that one of the senders must still be short of vision. But whether the venerable Fran is now cocking eye of budding manhood at the village belles, or the youth peering cautiously at the world with the seasoned and saddened outlook of seventy-two years, is a matter requiring further investigation.


Residence of W. O. Coffee in Des Moines, built from the dollars of dupes.

In the view of the "Eminent Authority's" qualifications as an Eminent Thief and Pre-eminent Liar, the mass of testimonials which he offers fails to impress me particularly, though some of the local ones interest me. For instance, Mr. Nye, editor of the Des Moines News, goes on record in print to the effect that "Dr. Coffee is an honorable man; perfectly reliable in every particular" - an opinion which I venture to guess, is based on prompt payment of the Coffee advertising bills due the News. Advertising Manager Snyder of the News furnishes additional evidence in his letter. The owner of The Homestead and the manger of Successful Farming, both of which papers get part of the Coffee advertising fund, obligingly testify to the moral and professional worth of the eminent charlatan. And he has also got religious backing, an asset of the greatest value to any medical rogue, since it inspires confidence on the part of his prospective dupes. "Lawk, sirs, we keeps a ministers!" boast Quack & Co., and make the most of it in their advertisements. Dr. Coffee's minister is the Rev. J. Ernest Cathell, rector of St. Paul's Church, Des Moines, who lends his name to a personal endorsement. The processes underlying this endorsement are not difficult to conjecture. A not-too-inquiring, charitable-minded clergyman, a rich parishioner, an occasional pious word substantially backed up by a generous gift to the church: "Surely, this Dr. Coffee must be a worthy man." And so the rogue goes forth, tongue in cheek, with a cheaply bought blessing on his bunco business which he promptly puts into type as a shove to his trade. For the rest, the eminent Coffee just about parallels with his "Absorption Method" the eminent Oneal with his "Dissolvent Method." He undertakes to cure promptly and permanently incurable cases of cataract, atrophy of the optic nerve (which he calls "paralysis"), glaucoma, and other ailments, without ever seeing the eye he is maltreating.

Scientific Editors Cry for Him.

Singularly like Dr. W. O. Coffee is Dr. P. Chester Madison of Chicago, who is, if one may credit his own statement, "America's Master Oculist." Which one copied from the other I am unable to say; but both Coffee and Madison advertise an "Absorption Method," and both steal their illustrations from Haab. Madison's pictorial peculations are exhibited in the accompanying illustration. Madison has high-priced local endorsements. The Chicago Inter Ocean (having been paid for it) declares its patron "America's Greatest Oculist," and solemnly states that he "will be classed in history as an eminent scientist," and that "scientific and medical journals are clamoring for articles written by him." At least one religious journal seems to have "clamored" successfully, for "The Christian Century" prints, at advertising rates, doubtless, a touching article by the Doctor entitles "The Window of the Soul" (meaning the eye), and for good measure the managing editor of the paper writes him a letter, all about "little Ethel Chapman," who was cured by the Madison Absorption Method. "It reminded one of the sweet song of the skylark soaring to greet the morning sun," gurgles Editor Young ecstatically, "to hear little Ethel tell" how Dr. Madison saved her from blindness. It reminds one of the sweet song of the cuckoo to hear Editor Young chanting on his editorial page the praises of Dr. Madison as a healer and a member of the Jackson Boulevard Christian Church, which is profitable for Dr. Madison, but pretty tough on a presumably innocent church.

Any kind of eye disease is meat for Madison, but he makes quite a specialty of cross-eyes. "Why Remain Cross-Eyed?" he pertinently inquires, and explains that he can cure people afflicted with strabismus "almost instantaneously without the use of the knife, without confining them to a dark room, without the use of bandages, without the administration of anesthetics, chloroform or ether, and with absolutely no pain." The only drawback to this is that it is a lie. A few cases of strabismus there are, mostly those of young people, which can be corrected by slow and careful non-surgical treatment. But when Dr. Madison or any other doctor pretends to be generally successful in strabismus by an "Absorbent Method" or any such nonsense, he is obtaining patients and their money under false pretenses. "Cross-Eyed Forty-eight Years; Cured in Two Minutes" is the heading of one of his testimonials. Another reads: "Eyes Straightened; Was Cross-Eyed Twenty-six Years." This is sheer faking. If Madison straightens eyes in two minutes, he does it by cutting the muscle responsible for the uneven tension, and if he doesn't use the knife he uses scissors or clippers or some equally painful implement. His "no knife" claim is simply disreputable word-juggling. Of course, he undertakes to cure atrophy of the optic nerve, glaucoma, cataract, etc., as do all the eye quacks.

The Flitting Fakers

For the scores of petty fakers who flit from city to city doing a little business in eye lotions, I have no space. Their preparations are either boracic acid solutions, which are useful merely as a cleansing agent, and can be purchased at the corner drug store for one-twentieth of the quack's price, or cocain concoctions, extremely dangerous in unpracticed hands. In the semi-ethical field "Murine has made itself prominent. Its claims are preposterous. It is merely a fairly good cleansing solution. One (106)