The old Santa Rosa newspapers loved writing about con artists – except, of course, when the crook was an advertiser. Compare and contrast the treatments given these two stories from 1909.
There was much excitement in town when it was announced a large ranch in Glen Ellen was to be purchased and turned into the world’s only Emmanuel Sanitarium. At the time the Emmanuel Movement was much in the news because it had developed an alcoholism treatment program (the forerunner of Alcoholics Anonymous) and it appeared the organization planned to spend lavishly here to create a luxe facility. The agent, Dr. F. Harry Williams of Chicago, made deals with contractors in Santa Rosa and Berkeley to build the place, including stables for Kentucky thoroughbreds. Williams said that a $1 million bond was in the works to pay for it all.
Come three months later, the contractors had plans ready and the purchase option was about to expire – but Williams was nowhere to be found. Both the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican printed “Where is Williams?” articles, revealing that the man had been fêted by locals and the property owner even advanced him some money. It turned out to be exactly the same con game that was played in Santa Rosa just a year before, when “Baron Von Senden” fooled local real estate agents into believing he planned to buy a huge spread, generously allowing them to pamper him with fine living and the loan of a little cash. (In a wonderful believe-it-or-not twist, the Baron turned out to be an impoverished immigrant whose last job was as a San Francisco rat catcher.)
The Santa Rosa papers denounced Williams as a swindler, even though there were no legal actions taken against him. And for all the fuss, there really wasn’t all that much harm done, except for the waste of several contractor’s time and the loss of (apparently) a small sum loaned by the property owner. This is in sharp contrast to how both newspapers treated James M. Ferdon, a huckster who called himself “The Great Fer-Don.” He conned people out of fairly large amounts of money, probably shortened the lives of a few, and was pursued by the law in at least three states. Yet readers of the Santa Rosa papers knew none of this, perhaps because this con man spent lots of money on ads.
The tale of Jim Ferdon is introduced here and continues in the following essay; it’s an amazing story that has never been completely told anywhere. He started out as a medicine show man, much like The Great McGonigle character played by W. C. Fields in his 1934 comedy “The Old Fashioned Way.” In the years around the turn of the century, local newspapers would first announce a famed expert was coming to town. There would be a free show of some kind and afterwards the audience would have the opportunity to purchase a miraculous nostrum that promised to cure what-ails-you. “Blood purifiers” were popular, and Ferdon’s specialty was the elimination of tapeworms; he would flourish a glass jar with a leviathan floating inside and say it was a gift thrust into his hands by a grateful customer from the next town over.
Selling colored water (or in Ferdon’s case, probably a laxative) as “medicine” is dishonest, but it isn’t what made Ferdon a monster. He crossed that line when he stopped peddling one-dollar bottles of ineffective-but-harmless remedies and began claiming he knew how to painlessly cure cancer and other serious diseases, at fees that probably cost some people everything they had – and not least of it, left victims believing they were cured and didn’t need to seek actual medical help.
Part of the story is also about the role newspapers played in Ferdon’s potentially deadly con game. In some papers, his advertisements didn’t look like ads; they appeared to be regular news articles, although the text was boilerplate provided by Ferdon with a few local details sprinkled in. Other publishers read his outrageous claims and refused to participate in a scam intended to defraud – and maybe, kill – the paper’s readers; most happily took his blood money, and he apparently paid quite, quite well.
Jim Ferdon was probably crooked from the first moment after his birth in 1870. His earliest career is documented in “Snake Oil, Hustlers And Hambones” by Ann Anderson, which is the definitive reference work on the medicine shows. Ferdon was apparently still in his teens when he began working for one of the most well-known medicine showmen, Nevada Ned, who made a popular cold remedy using sweetened milk and cocaine. He also worked in another troupe as the “Boy Wonder,” then struck out on his own and came up with the idea of pretending to be a trustworthy Quaker by the name of “Brother Paul.” Ferdon probably lifted the idea from another medicine show fake Quaker called “Brother John,” who toured under the professional name “The Great Kamama” and always made his entrance in a chariot pulled by four horses. (I am gobsmacked that anyone once walked on this earth who actually had the thought, “I will fool more people into believing I am a Quaker by calling myself ‘The Great Kamama’ and driving a horse-drawn chariot.”)
Ferdon created the Quaker Medicine Company with a failed doctor named J. I. Berry, the two of them wearing wide-brimmed hats and clothes that looked Quaker-ish. Writes Anderson:
Soon they were “theeing and thou-ing” all over the continental United States. Ferdon usually botched the Quaker language, saying things like, “Where’s thou’s baggage?” When questioned. he’d say. “I have lived so long among the world’s people that I have had much of my orthodoxy wore off of me.” Ferdon’s pious act kept the city leaders at bay. He often got away without having to pay a license fee. Timing his appearance just after the harvest, Ferdon caught farmers in a relatively unhurried and introspective mood. They were in a frame of mind to consider their aches and pains, real or imaginary, and spring for a liniment or tonic.
Ferdon and Berry claimed that their special mineral water was discovered by prospectors in the Panamint mountains in Death Valley. One swig was the recommended dose for indigestion caused by a diet of sourdough and pork. A spoonful of the desert salts mixed with a gallon of spring water would replicate the water from their secret spring. Their so-called Quaker remedies were supposedly produced by a genius botanist in either Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or Cincinnati. depending on what came into Ferdon’s head while he was lecturing. Quaker Botanical Herbs were to be mixed with eight ounces of whiskey or gin and a quart of water. The resulting mixture tasted awful, but never failed to clean out the user’s intestinal tract in a frightening hurry.
The Quaker ruse may have lent some credibility to sell snake oil to rubes but Ferdon was often in trouble with the law, with a 1906 medical journal noting he had been arrested some fifty times for failing to obtain a license or illegally practicing medicine. That year was also the beginning of the end for all medicine shows, as passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act required ingredients be shown on the label; no more selling ethanol dressed up with a few flavorings as “medicine.” Ferdon’s Quaker show also had numerous imitators – including one with an actual Quaker. It was time to invent a new scam. Inspiration apparently tumbled from the pages of a newspaper.
That summer, newspapers across America carried news that Lolita Armour had been miraculously cured by a European specialist. The young daughter of meatpacking tycoon Philip Armour was born with a dislocated hip and Dr. Adolf Lorenz, known as “the bloodless surgeon of Vienna,” was called upon to treat her. Lorenz was a pioneer in non-surgical orthopedics, where congenital bone deformities and other problems are fixed by using plaster casts or traction. The idea fired the popular imagination; a story soon followed claiming Lorenz was also treating the little daughter of Andrew Carnegie for the exact same condition, which wasn’t at all true – the child was observed limping from a sprained ankle – but shows the public wanted to hear more about the miracle cure (and just maybe, some gratification that ultra-rich families had private sufferings). Inspired, Ferdon grasped that all the public seemed to remember was that there were European experts who could perform surgery without cutting, somehow. And thus a new field of quackery was invented.
A year later in the summer of 1907, we pick up his trail through the Salt Lake City newspapers. Ferdon had met a Dr. Seth M. Wells and enlisted him into the scheme, dubbing him “Boy Phenomenal.” (His “Boy Phenomenal” was not to be confused with better-known “Boy Phenomenon,” who ran a magnetic healing con in the Midwest at the same time.) His new show included the “Diamond Cluster” band which would toodle lively tunes before Ferdon promised miracle cures to be had from the “Fer-Don Medical Experts” now seeing patients at rooms in a nearby hotel. “Bloodless surgery” was prominently mentioned in the advertisements, as was the claim that Boy Phenomenal could even cure cancer.
Business must have been great. Another member of the troupe was “The Marvelous Lopez,” a 26 year-old osteopath named Earl S. Beers. After only a month Ferdon sent him to Ogden, Utah, to open a Boy Phenomenal franchise there. Alas, this satellite office did not long endure; Dr. Beers was beaten to death that September by a husband who discovered the good doctor having an affair with his wife.
Faced with headlines describing Boy Phenomenal being both a cad and dead, a lesser man might have tossed in the towel and sought an honest line of work. Not Jim Ferdon. In a large photo ad in the Salt Lake City Tribune shown at right, it was confusingly (un)clarified that “Dr. Wells was until recently the Boy Phenomenal. He dropped that name because of the disgrace which was brought upon it by the Dr. Beers murder in Ogden.”
It was likely the big advertisement that caused more trouble; Wells was recognized as a fugitive. In 1902, he was arrested for performing an illegal operation (read: abortion) on a woman in Logan, Utah and skipped bail. Now arrested again, he appealed for a new trial and freed on a $1,000 bond as Wells and Ferdon headed to California. Farewell, Boy Phenomenal; Wells was henceforth “the European Medical Expert.”
It’s pretty easy to track The Great Fer-Don over the year that followed. In even the fragmented digital newspapers archives currently available he can be found all over the state, although he mainly stuck around Los Angeles. There’s even a photo of the band from this period taken in Eureka. It was inevitable that eventually his troupe would descend on Santa Rosa, and in the early weeks of 1909, so they did.
WILL BUILD A BIG SANITARIUMCompany Purchases the Dr. C. C. O’Donnell Ranch at Glen Ellen–Extensive Plans
Arrangements were completed yesterday whereby the United States Sanitarium Company purchased Dr. C. C. O’Donnell’s 170-acre ranch at Glen Ellen. Dr. O’Donnell and F. H. Williams, of San Francisco, the latter representing the company were in Santa Rosa yesterday on business connected with the deal, which involves a large sum of money.
The company proposes to erect a large sanitarium on the place in addition to other large buildings. The deal includes the buildings at present on the ranch, with the exception of the O’Donnell residence which the well known physician reserved.
It is announced that the sanitarium will be known as the “Emmanuel Sanitarium,” and it is proposed to follow out the plan of the “Emmanuel Movement,” which is at present attracting so much attention throughout the country and abroad.
On the O’Donnell place are a number of springs famed for their curative agencies, and the number has lately been increased by the discovery of other springs. It is proposed to spend a large sum of money in the ornamentation of the grounds about that sanitarium, which will be located amid the rural scenery that makes the beautiful Sonoma Valley famous. There are many plans that will be developed along this line. The United States Sanitarium Company is now floating bonds in the east for the carrying out of its extensive project on the O’Donnell place. In company with Attorney Alexander Bruce of this city, Dr. O’Donnell and Mr. Williams drove to Glen Ellen yesterday afternoon.– Press Democrat, March 20, 1909HOT-AIR FOUNDATION FOR ‘EMMANUEL SANITARIUM’Now Where is ‘Dr.’ F. Harry Williams Hiding Himself?
Where is F. Harry Williams. doctor of laws and doctor of medicine? He claimed to be both lawyer and doctor when one day five months ago he came to Santa Rosa. Shortly before he departed it was he who gave out the wonderful story that he represented the United States Sanitarium Company, an organization of capitalists, almost as wealthy as old John D. himself, which had purchased Dr. C. C. O’Donnell’s ranch and other property at Glen Ellen for $75,000 for the purpose of erecting an Emmanuel Sanitarium thereon. It was to be a princely institution and the only one of its kind in the country.
Williams told how it was the intention of his company to float a million dollars in bonds at once for the purpose of making the O’Donnell ranch like unto a paradise, and while not exactly paving the streets with gold, to have them paved with asphaltum; and all that beauty and that wealth o’er gave would be found, he said, at the Emmanuel Sanitarium and its park grounds. As to the price paid for the ranch–or rather what Williams said he was willing to pay–the bombastic fellow said $75,000 was a mere bagatelle.
The proposition and price looked good to Dr. O’Donnell, and it is said that it did not take much coaxing on the part of Williams to get an option and a contract to purchase for that figure out of the doctor, who knows a good thing when he sees it. Williams and Dr. O’Donnell drew up the agreement in the office of Alexander Bruce the erstwhile Santa Rosa attorney now sought elsewhere. Bruce assisted Williams in describing all the glories of the wonderland that was to be made out of the partially-barren O’Donnell ranch. He claimed to have made a nice pile out of the sale of the premises.
But so much for this immense institution and the immense capital back of it. Where is F. Harry Williams? Dr. O’Donnell would like to know. So would Contractor Frank A. Sullivan of Santa Rosa, who got a thirty thousand dollar contract from Williams to erect the sanitarium building and whose time and brainwork in drawing a splendid set of plans are still unpaid for. An abstract concern in Santa Rosa has a little bill for an abstract amounting to $250 which it would like settled; then there is a man here from whom Williams secured $250, who is just as anxious for its return; and still further there is Contractor Armstrong in Berkeley, to whom Williams awarded a contract to construct a bridge across Sonoma Creek to make the sanitarium easy of access, he wants to see Williams very much.
Contractor Sullivan stated Monday night that he did not hesitate in branding Williams a “fakir,” and said further that he ought to be arrested. Dr. O’Donnell said he has been buncoed and that they all think likewise is common report.
When Williams first called on Dr. O’Donnell at Glen Ellen he brought letters of recommendation from prominent San Francisco lawyers and doctors. When the bargain was struck Williams made frequent trips to Glen Ellen. Just as frequently Dr. O’Donnell met him at the depot and hurried him to his residence in an automobile, where he was wined and dined, the man with the ranch for sale sparing no expense with a $75,000 largess in sight.
In addition to the sanitarium buildings, Williams wanted first-class stables erected for the thoroughbred stock that was coming from Kentucky. Then, as detailed, the contracts for the sanitarium buildings and the bridge and other improvements were let.
The option on the place expired on June 6. A day or two before its expiration Williams sent Dr. O’Donnell a polite note telling him to have the deeds and abstract and everything ready by the following Saturday, as he was coming to Glen Ellen with the coin.
“Let me know by return, doctor,” he wrote, “as to whether you would like the %75,000 all in cash or part in cash and certificate of deposit. Possibly you may not like to have all that money about with you in the country.” Since then the doctor has not heard anything from him.
They say, too, that Williams got a little advance in coin from Dr. O’Donnell. The doctor admits that he advanced something, but how much deponent sayeth not. He agrees that he was “held up.” He has also investigated the glowing testimonials that Williams presented to him when he first came to see him regarding the buying of the ranch, and discovered, it is reported, that in each instance the names had been used without consent. He is in a quandry as to what to do. He has posted notices on his place to the effect that no material must be dumped theron, and if it is, he will not be responsible for it. Sullivan says “fakir.” Dr. O’Donnell says “bunco.” Glen Ellen has its biggest sensation and the Emmanuel Sanitarium is not even founded upon the sand, rather on “hot air.”– Press Democrat, June 29, 1909