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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 23.4 > Quackery in America

Quackery in America

An Inglorious and Ongoing History

THE HISTORY OF QUACKERY IN THE U.S. IS LONG AND colorful and extends all the way back to the nation’s founding.1, 2 It’s a system that preys on the unwary and unfortunate and is basically designed to separate people from their money. Despite efforts to control unfounded medical claims, quackery continues to prosper, primarily because of ineffective efforts by our government to curb it.3

Quackery began, Voltaire famously asserted, when the first knave met the first fool. Such encounters may be presumed to have continued in all times and in all places. Certainly colonial America played host to knaves who cheated gullible fools. A surge in the promotion of useless patent medicines and other types of pseudomedical deception occurred during the mid-19th century, when burgeoning quackery combined with an increase in newspapers written to appeal to a populace acquiring the rudiments of literacy, thus providing a fertile ground for villainous patent medicine promoters. Inexpensive U.S. mail service also enabled nostrum vendors to spread their circulars throughout the republic.4

With increasing feelings of freedom, the new citizens felt empowered to form their own conclusions and to think for themselves rather than trusting authorities— an attitude which quackery still encourages today as it is one of its most powerful sales tools. Given this attitude, a horde of tricksters appeared, and victimization ran rampant. Amidst this fierce competition, citizens made their own purchasing choices, and the sale of patent medicines escalated enormously.

P. T. Barnum, the great showman, who also was remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes, expressed the belief that “If we could have a full exposure of ‘the tricks of trade’ of all sorts, of humbugs and deceivers of past times, …quackish and so forth, we might perhaps look for a somewhat wiser generation to follow us.”5,6 Regrettably, this hope has never fully materialized.

Yet, Barnum believed that not all patent medicine men deserved the harsh designation of quack. For example, Benjamin Brandreth promoted his Universal Vegetable Pills with perhaps the largest advertising sign seen in New York, blaming all disease upon the impure state of the blood, a condition which, he boasted, could be both prevented and cured by his pills. This beguiling message lured countless customers—among them Barnum himself. Indeed, the showman remembered, the multiple symptoms listed in Brandreth’s advertising so coincided with “every symptom that I experienced,” that “extensive consumption” of the pills seemed to Barnum “absolutely necessary to preserve my life.” Touring the South at the time, Barnum bought a box of Brandreth’s pills. “I took them morning, noon, and night,” wrote Barnum. After returning to New York, he hurried to Brandreth’s office so as “to congratulate him on being the greatest public benefactor of the age.” Brandreth seemed pleased until he learned that Barnum had made his purchases in the South, where the pills were not yet distributed!

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About Skeptic

WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Health Freedom, Right to Try, and Informed Consent, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Do You Have Traits or Are You a Type? by Carol Tavris • SPECIAL SECTION ON TACTICS FOR DISCUSSING CONTENTIOUS ISSUES Personhood and Abortion Rights: How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue, by Gary Whittenberger • How to Teach Evolution to Religious Students, by Surat Parvatam • The Arguments for Creationism and the Arguments for Evolution: A Study in Contrasts, by Ralph M. Barnes • Meeting Our “Enemies” Where They Are: The Advantage of Understanding Your Adversary’s Arguments, by Andrew Cooper-Sansone ARTICLES The Grandest of Questions Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? by Michael Shermer • Reports of Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Diplomats Continue: Separating Fact from Fiction by Robert E. Bartholomew • The God Damners: The Now Not-so-New Atheism by Michael Cohen • Quackery in America: An Inglorious and Ongoing History, by Morton Tavel, M.D. • What Is It like to Be a Human? by Colin McGinn REVIEWS Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress • The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution • The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will • SCAM: So-Called Alternative Medicine • Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life • The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are JUNIOR SKEPTIC Secrets of the Ouija Board, by Daniel Loxton