Quack Nation: Magical but Modern

THE NEW AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY EMPHASIZED not just the ancient miracles but miracles right now, feeling the supernatural by believing in it strongly enough. We had become a country where millions of evangelical Christians were rising up breathlessly from the sinners’ “anxious bench” to channel the Holy Spirit and be born again instantly. We were a practical country, so along with moral lessons and promises of an eternal afterlife, churches in the early 1800s were providing instant solutions, miracle cures for feelings of meaninglessness and emptiness.

The revived belief in magic appeared simultaneously with astounding new technology—high-speed travel and nearly instant mechanical pictures and communication. Only four years after Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first electric telegram (quoting an Old Testament verse: “What hath God wrought?”) in 1844, the United States had two thousand miles of sparking, glowing wires carrying messages from Maine to Missouri, Chicago to Savannah. “On the first of January, 1848, of the Christian era,” The New York Heralddeclared, “the new age of miracles began.” Which was among the greatest illustrations of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in this book Clarke’s aphorism has a converse meaning as well: technology that seems magical and miraculous can encourage and confirm credulous people’s belief in make-believe magic and miracles.

A few months after the Herald announced this new age of miracles, Americans were therefore inclined to believe when a pair of sisters, twelve and fifteen, announced they had communicated with a ghost haunting their house by means of a kind of knock-knocking Morse code. (Like so many of my nineteenth-century characters, they were in western New York State, the next town over from where Joseph Smith first spoke to God.) The Fox sisters became famous mediums and helped launch a national movement of “spiritualists” communicating with the dead. Respectable Americans attended séances. Horace Greeley, the great journalist of the era, defended and promoted the girls. (Fortunately for him, he wasn’t alive forty years later when they admitted it had all been a fraud.) The Shakers chronicled in detail their intercourse with spirits and ghosts, and one of their religion’s books breathlessly reported that electrical transatlantic communication was “proof of a telegraphic communication established between the two worlds” of the living and the dead. On the other hand, Reverend Darby, the end-time evangelist and rapture inventor, considered the telegraph a “harbinger of Armageddon.”

In America during the First Great Delirium, the marvels of science and technology didn’t just reinforce supernatural belief by analogy or as omens—they inspired sham science and sham marvels. Especially when it came to medicine. Many nostrums were the products of knowing charlatans, but many of the most successful inventors and promoters were undoubtedly sincere believers themselves. If the patients also had faith in the miraculous treatments, they could even seem to work. The term placebo had just come into use as a medical term.

Looking back from the present, stories of forgotten pseudoscientific medical fads—there are dozens, hundreds—reassure us that the authentic eventually drives out the wishful and fake. In the 1800s America had hundreds of water-cure facilities, for instance. But then we lost faith in hydropathy and stopped wrapping people in sheets drenched in cold water in order to cure rheumatoid arthritis, heart and kidney and liver disorders, smallpox, gonorrhea, and dysentery. Yet from this nineteenth-century miasma emerged one school of quackery that became huge in America and never faded away.

Homeopathy was the original “alternative medicine.” Quinine, a bona-fide treatment for malaria, led to its inventor’s eureka moment: ingesting it made him feel as if he had malaria, so he extrapolated—deciding that “that which can produce a set of symptoms in a healthy individual, can treat a sick individual who is manifesting a similar set of symptoms.” Again, so nice and simple—and he made his theory even simpler: “Like cures like.” As with many newly constructed fantasies in the new age of reason and science, homeopathy employed a travesty of science, analogy with a superficial sheen of logic, to make its argument: like-cures-like was imagined as a universalized version of vaccination, the new technique by which a bit of cowpox virus successfully immunized people against smallpox.

Dozens of different substances were mixed up into batches of homeopathic medicine—flowers, barks, metals, arsenic. The inventor disparaged nonhomeopathic fellow fantasists: “superstition, impure observations, and credulous assumptions,” he warned, “have been the source of innumerable falsely ascribed remedial virtues of medicines.”

Of course, swallowing arsenic or other poisons could harm patients, but homeopathy had that figured out. The medicines were made by diluting the ingredients in water or alcohol, shaking the mixture (that is, “potentizing” and “dynamizing” their “immaterial and spiritual powers”), then diluting it again, shaking, diluting some more, on and on. The dilution ratios were (and are still today) so extreme—billions and trillions to one—that the finished elixirs are just water or alcohol, containing essentially none of the named ingredient. A typical recommended dilution is literally equivalent to a pinch of salt tossed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Homeopathy, its fake medicines prescribed to cure every disease, is a product of magical thinking in the extreme. After it was exported from Germany to America during the so-called Era of Good Feelings, it swept the country and continued booming for the rest of the 1800s. In 1848 the Homeopathic Medical College was founded in Philadelphia, eventually becoming the Drexel University College of Medicine. Homeopathic M.D. degrees were issued by schools across the country to many thousands of homeopathic physicians.

The upside was that homeopathy inherently fulfills the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Homeopathic medicines contain negligible active ingredients. If thousands of homeopaths and millions of patients, as Mark Twain said, wanted to “bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away,” that was their problem.

The other two most important pseudoscientific medical protocols that excited and entranced Americans in the mid-1800s were mesmerism and phrenology. Both attracted masses of celebrated and respectable American believers. In fact, although phrenology and mesmerism were, like homeopathy, imported from Europe, their popularity and impact were larger and longer-lasting in the United States than anywhere else. And a century later, starting in the 1960s and ’70s (see Chapter 22), homeopathy would have its all-American comeback.

Mesmerism, also called magnetic healing and electrical psychology, attributed all disease and illness to a single cause—in the words of one of its most successful American practitioners, “the electricity of the system [is] thrown out of balance.” (He addressed the U.S. Senate on the subject.) By using magnetized rods or their mysteriously “energized” hands, mesmerists convinced people they could clear the blockages in patients’ internal electrical flows. Some claimed to heal fractures, make the lame walk, and cure insanity. Many Christians considered it witchcraft, but the “electro-psychological” theorist and practitioner who addressed the Senate said that Jesus had used mesmerism to accomplish His miraculous blindness cures. Around the same time mesmerism was dreamed up, a Yale-educated physician had enormous success with his own version of the same basic pseudoscience and his own apparatus to “draw off the noxious electrical fluid that lay at the root of suffering.” He and other practitioners stroked patients with his three-inch metal rods—which received the first U.S. patent ever granted to a medical device. Despite but also because of opposition by the elite—the inventor was expelled from the Connecticut Medical Society—people believed his “tractors” worked to relieve their pain. Because he figured they could cure all sorts of diseases, he volunteered to treat yellow fever patients during an epidemic in New York City; there he contracted yellow fever and died.

The craze for cure-all mesmerism qua mesmerism peaked during the 1800s. However, one mesmerist school was all about inducing trances, which around 1880 came to be known as hypnosis, a genuine neurological phenomenon in which the subjective distinctions between imaginary and real are muddled. A century later it would become a powerful mischief-maker—a means by which many Americans, for instance, become convinced they’ve been enslaved by satanists (see Chapter 37). But even the magic-wand and magic-hand versions of mesmerism were just the supersuccessful trial run for the various mystical healing practices involving “energies” that would become central to the alternative medical establishment of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries (see Chapter 34).

Like so much pseudoscience, mesmerism was faulty science fiction, a fantasy inspired by a misunderstood bit of reality—scientists had recently demonstrated that muscles are indeed activated by electrical signals. A similar sci-fi leap produced phrenology, which madly extrapolated from the actual fact that the mind is all in the brain and the brain, in the words of its founder, “an aggregate of mental organs with specific functions.” According to phrenologists’ imaginary diagnostic scheme, however, each psychological trait corresponded to a particular bit of the brain and—the totally bogus extrapolation—could be “read” by scrutinizing and feeling the topographical details of a person’s skull through the scalp. Phrenology got its American foothold in Boston in the early 1830s, then quickly became a highly respectable national craze. Phrenologists were the American mental health professionals for most of the nineteenth century, with multiple societies and journals. Every city and many towns had practitioners. One of the best-known phrenologists supposedly examined the heads of three hundred thousand people during his career—a number equal to more than one percent of all Americans in 1850.

Such pseudoscientific practices harmed healthy people no more frequently than they cured sick people, but their popularity derived from and fed the big American idea that opinions and feelings are the same as facts. “The phrenological cult,” Gilbert Seldes wrote in The Stammering Century in 1928, not so long after it faded away,

had a profound effect on the development of American character. First it favored the cult of the individual. Or it would be equally accurate to say that phrenology drew from the American atmosphere certain tendencies to individualism and adapted itself to the American character….Phrenology and mesmerism both made man more interesting to himself, as psychology and psychoanalysis did half a century later….Had phrenology come to America before Methodism began its fermentation, it would have been persecuted as a heresy and possibly rejected entirely.

In other words, the various fantasies, religious and pseudoscientific, cross-fertilized. Methodism’s cofounder Wesley published a bestselling self-help compendium of remedies, subtitled An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases—onions and honey cure baldness, apples prevent insanity. A Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham (of the eponymous cracker) led a movement based on his conviction that meat and spices were unhealthy and, maybe worse, sexual stimulants. The cofounder of the new Seventh-day Adventist denomination, who’d had visions of the end of the world, also had a vision of a hospital devoted to water cures and hired an Adventist physician named Dr. John Kellogg (of the eponymous corn flakes) to run it.*

Out of this cross-fertilization of pseudoscience and spirituality came new sects and eventually one whole new American religion. In the 1830s in Maine, a clockmaker and inventor with the irresistible name Phineas P. Quimby found out about mesmerism. He became a practitioner, hypnotizing sick and unhappy people and persuading them to feel better. Quimby’s work and philosophy were a wellspring of the New Thought movement, a nineteenth-century American precursor to both Scientology and the New Age movement of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. New Thought believers figured that belief conquers all, that misery and bliss are all in your head. Some disciples were specifically Christian, some weren’t, but they all pitched themselves as scientific as well as mystical, providers of practical tools for individual perfection.

In 1862, a few years before he died, Quimby took on a patient named Mary Patterson, a sickly fellow New Englander who’d tried homeopathy and water cures (and communicating with the dead) before the mesmerism seemed to work. Around the time Quimby died and her husband abandoned her, Mrs. Patterson hurt her back in an accident. After reading the Bible’s account of Jesus curing a paralytic, she found her own injury cured. She set about inventing her own quasi-Christian pseudoscientific belief system, which she presented in a book called Science and Health. There’s only “belief in pain.” “We say man suffers from the effects of cold, heat, fatigue. This is human belief, not the truth of being, for matter cannot suffer,” and “what is termed disease does not exist.” And not just pain, not just illness, but dying and matter itself—none of it is real. What’s more, “evil is an illusion, and it has no real basis. Evil is a false belief” that “has no reality.” Over the next few years, she married for a third time and retook her maiden name, becoming Mary Baker Eddy, and founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. Her followers, forming more than a thousand Christian Science churches in America within thirty years, were called not believers but scientists.

An individual mesmerist or phrenologist or hydropathist could make a decent living, but selling professional services was not really scalable as a national business. Inventing a religion, as Mary Baker Eddy did, was one way to scale. Manufacturing and selling miraculous products was another, as American wheeler-dealers figured out in the 1830s and ’40s, when branded miracle cures became an industry. Small and large businesses started selling all sorts of elixirs, tonics, salves, oils, powders, and pills. The principal ingredient of many so-called patent medicines was sugar or alcohol; some contained opium or cocaine. (Dr. Thomas’ Electric Oil contained alcohol, opium, and cocaine, although it probably did not, as claimed, cure “deafness in 2 days.”) But they were mostly sold as secret potions of exotic ingredients collected from nature—literally root of hemlock and slips of yew, if not eye of newt and toe of frog.

“There is no sore it will not heal,” the sellers of Hamlin’s Wizard Oil promised, “no pain it will not subdue. Pleasant to take, magical in its effects.” There was Swaim’s Celebrated Panacea, Dr. Dix Tonic Tablets (“Make Sick People Well”), and Dr. Worden’s Female Pills for Weak Women, prescribed to cure “hunchbacks,” “acquired deformities,” and “early decay” as well as menstrual cramps. To cure “asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer,” patients were to wear the Electro-Chemical Ring on a finger.

One typical small-time nineteenth-century medicine-seller was a man from upstate New York who traveled the country selling nostrums. “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, the Celebrated Cancer Specialist,” his sign announced. “Here for One Day Only. All cases of cancer cured unless too far gone and then can be greatly benefited.” (His sons John D. and William Jr. became businessmen of a different kind, founding the Standard Oil Company.) Another of the elder Rockefeller’s medicines, dried berries picked from a bush in his mother’s yard, was prescribed to women; the berries’ important contraindication—not to be taken during pregnancy—appears to be a perfect con man’s way to market fake abortifacients.

Rockefeller was a typical small-time grifter. On the other hand, Microbe Killer, a mass-marketed pink elixir, which came in large jugs and consisted almost entirely of water, sounded plausibly scientific, the way mesmerism and phrenology and homeopathy had science-y backstories: germ theory was new science, and microbe a new coinage. Microbe Killer’s claims were extreme, simple, ridiculous: “Cures All Diseases.” The inventor built Microbe Killer factories around the world and became rich.

Benjamin Brandreth got even richer. At twenty-five, as soon as he’d inherited his English family’s patent medicine business, he moved it and his family—of course—to America. Brandreth’s Vegetable Universal Pills were supposed to eliminate “blood impurities” and were advertised as a cure for practically everything: colds, coughs, fevers, flu, pleurisy, “and especially sudden attacks of severe sickness, often resulting in death.” One ad describes “a young lady” who’d been ill for years, “her beauty departed,” but after two weeks of swallowing Brandreth’s Pills, “her health and good looks recovered.” Brandreth advertised extensively and constantly in America’s new cheap newspapers. A few years after his arrival, a contemporary wrote that “Dr. Brandreth figures larger in the scale of quackery, and hoists a more presuming flag, than all the rest of the fraternity combined.” A decade later Brandreth was elected to the New York Senate, founded a bank, and had his pills mentioned in Moby-Dick.

Fortunately, American skepticism was still exceptionally robust and correctly focused. In fact, it was as if the First Great Delirium and its outbreaks of wishful fantasy triggered antibodies. In a single generation, Americans came up with the terms holy roller, double-cross, confidence man, bunkum, and sucker. In 1838 a prominent physician and public health innovator published Humbugs of New York, savaging “the fashion of delusion, the reign of humbug,” “those who seek to make proselytes to any creed, however absurd, or to find believers in any pretensions, however incredible, or miraculous. They have taken the pills of foreign and domestic quacks by the thousands….They have swallowed…homeopathia; and are now equally busy in bolting down Phrenology and Animal Magnetism.” The good doctor also rolled his eyes at anticoffee and antiliquor fanatics and saw that what he called “ultraism” extended beyond his field—he ragged on ultra-Protestants, anti-Catholics, these nutty new Mormons, and newspaper hoaxes. And he understood that in America, criticism and debunking were unfortunately fuel for the madness. “Persecution only serves to propagate new theories, whether of philosophy or religion,” he wrote. “Indeed, some of the popular follies of the times are indebted only to the real or alleged persecutions they have suffered…even for their present existence.”

The author of another book of the era, Quackery Unmasked, nailed patent medicines as that industry headed toward its peak:

The American people are great lovers of nostrums. They devour whatever in that line is new, with insatiable voracity. Staid Englishmen look on in astonishment. They call us pill-eaters and syrup-drinkers, and wonder at our fickleness and easy credulity; so that we have almost become a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world.

Brandreth could never have succeeded in his own country, but he saw that the people of the United States, like young birds in their nest, were holding their mouths wide open for something new. He embraced the opportunity and presented himself here, ready to supply their cravings.

In its demand for life-changing miracles, America’s exceptionalism was undeniably real.

* One of the patients at Kellogg’s Seventh-day Adventist sanitarium was C. W. Post, who got the idea there for Grape Nuts, which made him rich. Among Grape Nuts’ advertised health benefits was curing appendicitis. As it happened, Post later had an apparent appendicitis attack, and when surgery didn’t end his distress, he shot and killed himself.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!