A quackery sample

Kansas City newspapers made substantial advertising revenue from quack medical nostrums and treatments, at least until the publication of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ muckraking series of articles in Collier’s magazine in 1905 exposing the quack medicine industry. It was followed by passage of the Food and Drug Act in 1906 which led to many quack operators going out of business.

Here is a sample of quack, or misleading, ads that appeared in Kansas City newspapers in 1893, with extracts of Adams’ acerbic comments[1]:

Actina ad



“Easily first among the mechanical fakes is Actina, made by the New York and London Electric Association of Kansas City, which also manufactures "Magneto-Conservative Garments" (supposed to cure anything from indigestion to locomotor ataxia) and other bunco devices. Actina … is alleged to cure deafness and blindness, also catarrh, nervousness and a few pathological odds and ends of that sort. Its religious backers are the St. Louis Christian Advocate and the Central Baptist.

The Actina itself costs ten dollars. It is a small steel vial with screw stoppers at both ends. One end cures eye ailments and the other ear troubles. They work simultaneously. I live in hopes of seeing the Actina concern give a test, applying Blind Mary to one end and a deaf mute to the other, and curing both at one stroke of business for five dollars apiece.

The Actina, upon being unpacked from the box in which it is mailed, comports itself like a decayed onion. It is worth the ten dollars to get away from the odor. "Can be used by anyone with perfect safety," says the advertisement, but I should regard it as extremely unsafe to offer it to a person with a weak stomach.

Its principal ingredient is oil of mustard, an active poison, regarding which the United States Pharmacopeia prints this emphatic warning: "Great caution should be exercised when smelling this oil."  (p. 110)

(More on Actina and “Professor” Wilson at http://kansascitystories.com/Science/actina.html)

Bye cure - How Long

Bye Cancer cured ad

“In this department of quackery [cancer “cures”] the Bye family is pre-eminent. The family practice has split, owing to business differences, the father and one son conducting separate and rival establishments in Indianapolis and the two other sons operating from Kansas City.

The fountain-head of the Bye fakery is D. M. Bye, president of the Dr. D. M. Bye Combination Oil Cure Company of Indianapolis. What kind of a ‘doctor’ ‘Dr.’ Bye is, I do not know, but he is not an M.D. Perhaps he is a D.D. He has founded a little church in Indianapolis with the money extracted from his dupes….

His ‘remedy’ consists of a sort of paste of clay, glycerin, salicylic acid and oil of wintergreen; a mixture of cathartics for internal use; a vaseline preparation; and the oil itself, which is ordinary commercial cottonseed oil with an infusion of vegetable matter….

And with this combination he proposes to remove cancer and cure the condition that causes it! His treatment wouldn't remove a wart or cure a mosquito bite. “  (pp. 75, 77).

Adams did not write about Mme Ruppert’s face bleach, but did comment on Lustorone Face Bleach, marketed to African Americans with the promise to whiten “the darkest skin" and bring the skin “to any desired shade or color”:

 “Nothing, he wrote, “could better illustrate to what ridiculous lengths the nostrum fraud will go. Of course, the Lustorone business is fraudulent.

Some time since a Virginia concern, which advertised to turn negroes white, was suppressed by the Postoffice Department, which might well turn its attention to Lustorone Face Bleach” (p. 54).
Rupperts Face Bleach ad
Swift specific


“Recently a prominent Chicago physician was dining en famille with a friend who is the publisher of a rather important paper in a Western city. The publisher was boasting that he had so established the editorial and news policy of his paper that every line of it could be read without shame in the presence of any adult gathering.
‘Never anything gets in," he declared, "that I couldn't read at this table before my wife, son and daughter.’

The visitor, a militant member of his profession, sniffed battle from afar. ‘Have the morning's issue brought,’ he said. Turning to the second page he began on Swift's Sure Specific, which was headed in large black type with the engaging caption, "Vile, Contagious Blood Poison” [a reference to venereal disease].

Before he had gone far the 19-year-old daughter of the family, obedient to a glance from the mother, had gone to answer the opportune ring at the telephone, and the publisher had grown very red in the face.

‘I didn't mean the advertisements,’ he said.”

                                                                                                                                                                                            p. 67

Adams didn’t comment on “Bile Beans,” a product which took advantage of a flu scare in 1899 to claim it could cure flu. A leaflet enclosed with the Beans claimed they could also cure cirrhosis of the liver, blackheads, and female complaints.

Bile Beans ad
Dr Bye's Herald of Health magazine



The Kansas City Byes’ “Herald of Health” magazine, “Dedicated to the Interests of Suffering Humanity.”

 “Dr. B. F. Bye's correspondence is replete with unconscious humor; vide this sample from his "hurry-up" form-letter: "When I pause and consider the amount of quackery and humbuggery practiced all over the country, it is not difficult to understand why the afflicted hesitate to accept new treatment, no matter how logical it may be."

 He belongs to most of the fake medical organizations in the country, whose diplomas (purchased) he proudly displays on his walls. The remaining two members of this estimable clan do a "soothing, balmy oil" business, under the title "The Dr. Bye Company, Kansas City."

They make the same ridiculous claims, and, from the bulk of their advertising, would seem to be prospering beyond the other branches at present.” 

(p. 77)

Pond's extract



“Pond's Extract, one would naturally suppose, could afford to restrict itself to decent methods, but in the recent epidemic scare in New York it traded on the public alarm by putting forth "display" advertisements headed, in heavy black type, "Meningitis," a disease in which witch-hazel is about as effective as molasses.” (p. 3)

Duffy's Malt Whiskey



"Duffy's Malt Whiskey is a fraud, for it pretends to be a medicine and to cure all kinds of lung and throat diseases. It is especially favored by temperance folk. "A dessertspoonful four to six times a day in water and a tablespoonful on going to bed” (personal prescription for consumptive), makes a fair grog allowance for an abstainer.

“You must not forget,” writes the doctor in charge, by way of allaying the supposed scruples of the patient, “that taking Duffy’s Malt Whiskey in small or medicinal doses is not like taking liquor in large quantities, or as it usually taken. Taking it a considerable time in medicinal doses, as we direct, leads to health and happiness, while taken the other way it often leads to ruin and decay. If you follow our advice about taking it you will always be in the temperance fold, without qualm of conscience.”

It has testimonials ranging from consumption to malaria, and indorsement showing the ‘portraits’ of three ‘clergymen’ who consider Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey a gift of God…. Of these three ‘distinguished divines and temperance workers,’ the Rev. Dunham runs a Get-Married Quick Matrimonial Bureau, while the ‘Rev.’ Houghton derives his income from his salary as Deputy Internal Revenue Collector….”  (pp. 18-19)

Syrup of Figs ad


“Only "ethical" preparations are permitted in the representative medical press, that is, articles not advertised in the lay press.

Yet this distinction is not strictly adhered to. "Syrup of Figs," for instance, which makes widespread pretense in the dailies to be an extract of the fig, advertises in the medical journals for what it is, a preparation of senna.”

(p. 8)

[1] Full text of the "Great American Fraud": http://archive.org/stream/greatamericanfra00adamiala/greatamericanfra00adamiala_djvu.txt

June 28, 2012