Fool our readers once, shame on us, but try it again and it’s perfectly okay if you’re a paid advertiser.
In 1912, both Santa Rosa newspapers ran ads for a medicine show quack who called himself “Brother Benjamin.” Nothing unusual about that; every issue of every paper offered ads for nostrums promising to soothe what-ails-you. Unlike other ads, however, the ones from Brother Benjamin were almost indistinguishable from news articles – they were typeset in the same fonts as regular stories and were featured high up on the page, not buried beneath the fold with all the other patent medicines. But while Brother Benjamin did sell a cure-all potion, in Santa Rosa he was advertising the services of his “Marvelous Medical Specialists” who could cure anything – including cancer – thanks to their skills in “bloodless surgery.”
If this scam sounds painfully familiar to longtime readers, it was almost an exact replay of the 1909 visit by the “Great Fer-Don”. As explained earlier, James M. Ferdon toured the Western states with his step-right-up medicine show – and was supposedly accompanied by some of the world’s leading doctors. (Amazingly, many people apparently did not think it was a bit incongruous that such experts would be working with a huckster whose show included stunts like catching a live pig.) Ferdon’s downfall came after he encountered newspapers elsewhere that refused his lucrative ads and instead sent investigative reporters to expose his operation as a fraud and even a public danger, as victims were lulled into believing they were receiving life-saving (and extremely expensive) treatments. Indictments followed in several states and Ferdon became a fugitive, with two of his accomplices sent to prison; yet despite these developments being widely reported in Bay Area papers and elsewhere, there was not a peep in the Santa Rosa press about the woes of their former advertiser. It was a shameful episode in the history of our local newspapers – and here they were, three years later, helping another con man do exactly the same thing.
One of the few differences between the Great Fer-Don and Brother Benjamin was the latter claimed to be a Quaker offering Quaker medicines created by “Old Brother Benjamin” (who coincidentally had the same name, apparently). The Quaker image was even part of his trademark, as seen in the ad shown to right. But before Ferdon reinvented himself as the Great Fer-Don he had also pretended to be a trustworthy Quaker and called himself “Brother Paul,” so even that part of Benjamin’s shtick was stolen.
Both of them emphasized in their fake news-ads they had removed really disgusting things from the bodies of clients, and everyone in town could come over and take a good close look at bottled collections of them. In the case of the Great Fer-Don it was jars of tapeworms of epic lengths; Benjamin showed hundreds of gallstones supposedly removed from a single patient. Give them credit for being the Don Drapers of their day – they knew precisely how to use turn-of-the-century morbid curiosity to draw in the rubes.
Every night in 1909 the Great Fer-Don peddled his patent medicines at an old-fashioned medicine show and in 1912 Brother Benjamin likewise drew crowds in the early autumn to his temporary stage at the big vacant lot at Third and B streets (think the current location of Luther Burbank Savings). A man from Red Bluff recalled these shows in a “good ol’ days” section of the Oakland Tribune in 1941:
|There were always two or more black face performers who put on skits and sang songs, as well as musical numbers. Between intermissions, attendants would pass through the crowd selling different kinds of medicine products that were guaranteed to cure everything from a corn to appendicitis and warts on the back of the neck. One products that stands out in my memory was Brother Benjamin’s Herbalo, which sold for $1.00 per bottle, and every time the hawker made a sale he would yell out, Sold out again, Doctor. Some times a so-called doctor with the show would establish a local office temporarily to treat the sick, much to the annoyance of local reputable practicing physicians…|
Technically, they were selling Bro. Benjamin’s “Herbalo Blood Purifier Stomach-Liver & Kidney Renovator” plus other custom liniments and whatnot, but the real money came from steering seriously ill members of the audience to his phony doctors set up in a Fourth street office across from the courthouse.
Like the Great Fer-Don previously claimed his “European Medical Experts” could handle the most serious medical problems, Bro. Benjamin boasted his team would “positively cure” a long list of ailments from asthma to diabetes to tumors. “Wednesday a large monster parasite over 100 feet long was removed from a leading lady of this vicinity,” one of his Press Democrat ads announced, and “Thursday a cancer was removed and is on exhibition at the concert ground every night.” Undoubtedly the “doctors” were using sleight-of-hand (better known today as “psychic surgery”) where the practitioner’s fingers magically appear to enter the body and pull out bloody diseased bits, all without breaking the skin. “No knife, and no pain,” promised Benjamin’s advert.
We don’t know what Benjamin charged for these “cures,” but Ferdon was caught sometimes bilking the sick for the equivalent of an average worker’s entire annual wage. One ad of Benjamin’s listed the names of several local people who supposedly had been treated by his “Medical Specialists;” of those who can be identified, all had lower-income jobs, such as laborer, waitress, and candy salesman.
Brother Benjamin apparently did not get into serious legal trouble – or at least, nothing can be found in the newspapers. Perhaps that was because he kept a lower profile; Ferdon’s downfall came after he tried his con in larger towns such as Sacramento and Seattle. It looks like Benjamin kept to the backwaters of California.
Benjamin J. Bruns – his real name – seems to have stopped touring in 1914, although he kept manufacturing Herbalo at least through the end of the decade from his hometown of Cincinnati. After he left Santa Rosa the Hahman drugstore advertised Benjamin’s tonics were for sale there, and similar newspaper ads can be found from pharmacies elsewhere. It was probably harmless stuff – at least, harmless compared to that “Marvelous Specialist” scam our newspapers helped promote. Again.
IT IS TO LAUGH, SAYS BENJAMIN
Bro. Benjamin, who has been herewith with the Marvelous Medical Specialists for the fast four weeks, meets with many laughable and peculiar experiences in his travels–notably arguments his detractors and envious competitors put up to try and stay his onward victorious career.
Benjamin and the Marvelous Specialists represent all that is new and late in the discoveries of medicine and surgery, hence those who are back numbers and cannot make the wonderful cures these Scientists are famous for, stoop to some ridiculous depths to try and decry the good work done by the Medical Specialists.
Some physicians claim that it is impossible for more than two or three gall stones to be in the gall gladder. Now such a statement is absurd and any physician who claims to be such knows better, and when he makes such a statement, he simply holds himself up to ridicule to all intelligent people.
Benjamin laughed when the statement was repeated to him and said he was for a physician that said that, as he himself had seen over 400 gall stones cut out of the gall bladder of a subject at a post mortem at the Cincinnati hospital, one of the largest and best hospitals in the United States and owned by the city of Cincinnati. It only goes to show that even envious physicians do not hesitate to make the most absurd statements to try and harm the good work done here by these wonderful specialists.
They have scores of friends here, made by their marvelous cures. They have done their work in the most stubborn case.
What is remarkable about the Medical Specialists is the marvelous results they bring about in such a short time.
From Mr. J. M. Lucas, 734 Third street, Santa Rosa, traveling salesman, these specialists removed over 200 gall stones with their secret medicines–and no operation. He has been ailing over three years and is loud in his praise of the good work done in his case in such a short time.
Mr. M. H. Inman, Route 6, box 607, well known in Santa Rosa, is emphatic in his testimony of the good results obtained in his case, removing 182 gall stones without an operation.
From Mr. P. A. Lawson, Route 4, box 10, ailing over four years, these specialists removed over 200 gall stones with their secret remedies.
When we can give testimonials in your own city from such well known and prominent people as …[ten names, with J. M. Lucas repeated]…all prominent and well known in Santa Rosa; Mrs. Josephine McCrone of Lodi, who was cured of a complication of diseases, and scores of others from people here and in other places, even the most skeptical must concede that we are as we claim and can perform the cures we advertise.
It is the same story wherever these Marvelous Experts go. Seemingly impossible cures and wonderful work. Space forbids giving the many hundreds and thousands of testimonials they have, and they are still pouring in every day.
Many other names might be mentioned to show what work the Specialists are doing in our city, names of people who have tried other doctors and other medicines without avail but who are now being cured. Hundreds are taking advantage of the presence of these Medical Marvels at their office.
Our office hours at 609A Fourth St. upstairs, are from 10 to 12 mornings, 2 to 4 afternoons, only a few days more. The big free show continues every night at 7:45, at Third and B street, opposite the Columbia theater, another week.
The Bro. Benjamin Medical Specialists have their own private waiting rooms and offices and everything is absolutely confidential. They positively cure asthma, dropsy, epilepsy, St. Vitus dance and nervous disorders, lung trouble, incipient consumption, diseases of women and children successfully treated and cured without operation, old chronic diseases of the stomach, blood, liver and kidneys, diabetes, gravel, piles, hemorrhoids, incipient Bright’s disease, rheumatism (acute, chronic, muscular and sciatic), hip joint disease, rupture, hernia, goitre, diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat–in fact, what has puzzled you and your doctors gives way to the wonderful medicines of these specialists. Cancer, tape worms, tumors and gall stones removed; no knife, and no pain. These specialists speak all languages.– Santa Rosa Republican, October 1, 1912
MARVELOUS CURES BY THE BRO. BENJAMIN SPECIALISTSTHEY REMAIN IN SANTA ROSA ONE MORE WEEKOVER 150 GALL STONES REMOVED FROM MR. W. E. COOK, PROMINENT IN SANTA ROSA
Bro. Benjamin and the Marvelous Specialists remain in Santa Rosa another week owing to the insistent demand of people from far and wide.
They are greeted every night by large and enthusiastic crowds of our best citizens at the show grounds… the free show at Third and B sts., attracts the largest crowds every night and under the blaze of electricity, a really novel and clever program is presented which abounds in mirth, melody and music and causes enjoyment to young and old, and will be talked of for months after Bro. Benjamin leaves…– Press Democrat, October 6, 1912