Want an example of how different our ancestors were a century ago? Try this: Imagine dentistry as a spectator sport.

On a summer evening in 1913 Santa Rosa, an audience gathered on the corner of Courthouse Square to watch fifty people have a tooth pulled – or maybe it was just two people having all their teeth yanked. The local paper was not clear on the details except that it “attracted a large crowd who were interested in seeing the operations performed.”

The article in the Santa Rosa Republican is a rare description of the traveling exhibition by the “Painless Parker” dentist’s office in San Francisco. Using a large Locomobile touring car – probably similar to this one – everything behind the front seat was custom rigged with “a platform on the rear large enough to accommodate a miniature dental office, with operating chair, instrument table, lights, etc.”

(RIGHT: Dentist ad from the October 31, 1913 Santa Rosa Republican)

This was demonstration auto #6 (out of eight) prowling the state, and although “Painless Parker” himself was not in Santa Rosa that evening he was a real person and actually a dentist, although his profession disowned him. By 1913 Edgar Rudolph Randolph Parker (1872-1952) was a multimillionaire running a chain of dental offices on the West Coast but he began as a Brooklyn street dentist, drawing crowds with dancing girls and a brass band that played on cue whenever he “painlessly” ripped out some poor devil’s tooth.

When he came to California around 1908 he teamed with “Wizard Walton the Wonder Worker” and developed a traveling medicine show, complete with a parade where coins were tossed into the crowd, all leading up to an evening vaudeville performance that ended with a extravaganza of teeth pulling. Walton was a snake-oil huckster of the type that regularly visited Santa Rosa in that era, promising miracle cures in a bottle. A 1908 blurb promised, “gall stones are removed by the use of three doses of medicine in 24 hours without knife, blood or pain. Cancers cured permanently. No knife, blood or pain.”

Parker’s secret to painless dentistry was “hydrocaine,” a local anesthetic he claimed to have developed himself (a man in Chicago had trademarked that name as an anesthetic in 1899). Some of his ads specified it was not cocaine but “a purely vegetable product, harmless yet powerful enough to remove all fear of the dental chair.” In a 1915 suit, two former employees demanded danages for alleged injuries to their “eyes, nerves, muscles and tissues” from administering the “poisonous drug.” Whatever that stuff was, it certainly had no connection whatsoever to the fine medical product available with the same name today and whose manufacturers, distributors, and customers are noble people kind to their children and small pets. Please don’t sue me.

His New York Times obit noted he “often had his license revoked but for no great duration.” Parker was the bane of the dental community, his fame coming just as they were scrabbling for legitimacy – medical doctors usually offered a dignified two-line ad in a newspaper’s “professional” classifieds, yet dentists often ran large and garish display ads, promising to fix your bum teeth for less than the price of a cheap wool suit.

Parker fought back in the press, arguing the “Dental Trust” was opposed to affordable dentistry. His display ads were often op/eds and he offered papers a serial, “Painless Parker, Outlaw: His Confessions” that ran to at least 87 (!) parts. He tried to get the state Board of Dental Examiners disbanded in California and Oregon, and in 1935 he sued a doctor for slander because of a speech to the California Dental Association saying the state needed a law “to control the advertising of charlatans, quacks and painless parkers.”

Most often he was hassled for using the word “painless” in his ads, forcing him to sometimes retreat and promote the “E. R. Parker System” instead. In 1915, his foes in California thought they finally had him beaten via passage of a state law requiring dentists to use their real name in ads. But in a true Believe-it-or-not! manner, he won by going to court that September and having his first name legally changed to “Painless.”

Auto Fitted With Modern Appliances

Many Santa Rosans were entertained last evening at the corner of Fourth street and Exchange Avenue by a demonstration of painless dentistry made by the Painless Parker demonstration car, number six, from San Francisco. A short lecture was given on the care of the teeth and then about fifty teeth were extracted free of charge. The car will be at the same corner again tonight and it is announced that all teeth will be taken out free of charge.

The car is a large Locomobile, and one of the eight that the Painless Parker institution has. It is splendily [sic] equipped for the work, having two seats in front and a platform on the rear large enough to accommodate a miniature dental office, with operating chair, instrument table, lights, etc., and attracted a large crowd who were interested in seeing the operations performed. Those who had teeth taken out stated that they felt no pain and several were extracted for people said that they had been broken off by other dentists in unsuccessful attempts to extract them.

The Painless Parker institution is the largest dental concern in the world, having offices in several large cities stretching from Brooklyn, N.Y. to San Francisco. There are five offices in California: Los Angeles, San Diego, Bakersfield, Oakland and San Francisco. The San Francisco office is one of the three largest dental offices in the world, having twenty-two chairs. All of the operations by this concern are performed by a local anaesthetic [sic] originated nearly 25 years ago by Dr. Parker. The doctor makes his home in San Francisco where the general offices of the concern are located. He has a summer home in Marin county about ten miles from Fairfax on the Bolinas road. He is in New York now but his family is at the summer home. The car is in the charge of Drs. FitzGerald and Baird.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 17, 1913

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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.


 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


 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

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Want to start an argument in 1910? Surefire ways to pick a fight included expressing strong views in favor of socialism, women’s suffrage or school vaccinations.

By that year the anti-vaccine movement had been smoldering in the U.S. for a decade, fueled in equal measure by fears about the safety of vaccination and opposition to the principle of the government requiring perfectly healthy children to get the shot. In California, it was a significant political issue; twice the state legislature passed bills repealing the vaccination law and specifying vaccination “shall be practiced only when smallpox exists” but the governors at the time declined to sign it. Even when the state Supreme Court upheld the law in 1904 and the U.S. Supreme Court said the same thing the following year, the naysayers kept forming local chapters of the Anti-Vaccination League, signing petitions to have the laws repealed, and writing letters to the editor, often claiming that vaccines were “superstition” or “fanatic faith” that didn’t prevent smallpox. Oh, and this was part of a conspiracy by doctors trying to bamboozle people by using “cooked-up statistics,” all in order to perform a large scale experiment on the public and/or make themselves rich on fees from giving injections. (For more on this history, see this excellent study of the anti-vaccination movement.)

The press fanned the flames of distrust by printing all sorts of nonsense; an article in the 1904 San Francisco Call claimed, “Any person who eats a small quantity of lettuce twice a day, morning and evening, is as well protected against smallpox as it is possible for any one to be.” Also, the newspaper noted, it would be smart to “avoid contact with people who have smallpox.”

The papers were  irresponsible in printing stories concerning the most popular conspiracy theory – that the smallpox vaccine could (somehow) cause fatal lockjaw. A vaccinated child who steps on a rusty nail can contract tetanus just as anyone else, but rarely did the papers suggest the cause of dying could be something other than contaminated vaccine. A hallmark of these articles is also to claim doctors were “puzzled” by the death or were insisting they could not be blamed for it, making them sound villainous. In a particularly egregious bit of yellow journalism, the San Francisco Call reported the 1904 lockjaw death of little Myrtle Conklin with a lengthy quote from the doctor who gave her the shot, including “My duty ends after I have applied the virus…I fail to see just how I was responsible for this death.” The article was accompanied with a picture of beautiful baby Myrtle – who was actually eight years old when she died.

Some Santa Rosa parents were among those protesting the compulsory vaccinations, as described in the earlier item from 1907. But it was Berkeley that was at the vanguard of the “anti-vaccinationist” movement in the Bay Area, with some type of showdown nearly every year in that decade. One year 249 children were ousted from school for failing to have proof of vaccination when classes began in September, and their parents vowed to raise money for an injunction to force the school board to admit them. Another year they obtained a six month waiver from the district because they insisted the state would repeal the vaccination law by then. Another time the Berkeley parents swore they were gonna start their own private school for all their little special snowflakes to attend, as the law only mentioned vaccinations for public school students.

Whether it was an unintentional loophole or a carve-out in the law, the “private school” exemption made big news in 1910, when a Superior Court judge in Santa Cruz ruled it made the vaccination law unconstitutional because it was discriminatory – and besides, there was no need for enforcement as there was no epidemic at the time, revealing his bias for the anti-vaccinationists.

The judge’s decision caused excitement statewide; the Press Democrat printed the story below at the top of the front page, directly below the paper’s nameplate. Other papers added local color by interviewing their Superintendent of Schools, which as a group disliked the law because it forced them into the awkward role of being the vaccination police. “Parents have said to me frequently that they would take their children out of the public schools and send them to private schools rather than have them vaccinated,” the San Francisco Superintendent told the papers.

Vaccine foes redoubled their efforts, forming new Anti-Vaccination League chapters and collecting thousands of signatures on repeal petitions. There was further buzz when the Alameda County Deputy District Attorney sent a letter to the school board stating vaccinations should be suspended until the state Supreme Court heard the appeal (the board ignored him and ordered vaccinations to proceed).

Nothing came of it all, but the fuss made 1910 the last hurrah of the anti-vaccine movement. There were no further reports in the papers of parental mutinies against the state school systems, nor lurid reports of children dying of vaccine-linked lockjaw. The issue remained settled until chiropractors revived it as a cause about a decade later, as  discussed earlier.

Class Legislation, Which Favors the Wealthy Over the Poor, Declares Judge Smith of Santa Cruz Superior Court in Refusing Mandate

Santa Cruz, March 22 — Judge L. S. Smith rendered a decision against the State Board of Health here today in an action brought to compel the pupils of the Watsonville schools to be vaccinated. The Watsonville trustees had refused to enforce the law on vaccination and a petition for a writ of mandate to compel them to bar from the schools all children who had not been vaccinated was applied for by the State Board of Health. The action affected about 250 children.

The Court held the law was unconstitutional in that it exempted children attending private schools making it class legislation. The law as framed, he held, particularly favored those who were able to send their children to private schools, while the great majority were unable to do this and would have to suffer the consequence if the law was sound. He declared every one would favor the enforcement of the law if there was a demand for it, but as there was no epidemic there was no reason for its enforcement.”

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1910

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