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. UPDATE: Sadly, this fine scholarship is no longer available on the internet.)

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.

(UPDATE, 2019: Since writing this article, more newspapers and historic documents have become available digitally revealing a deeper story for the 1910s and 1920s. See: “THE ANTI-VAXXERS OF 1920“)


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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He showered Fourth street in silver coins and 3,000 attended his debut, equivalent to every third person in town in 1909. He was a showman famous throughout the West: The Great Fer-Don, lecturer, traveler and philanthropist. He was also a monster, and if there’s such a thing as a criminal genius, he was probably that, too.

(This is Part II of an article about the “Great Fer-Don.” Have you read Part I?)

Santa Rosa had never seen a scam artist like James M. Ferdon, who introduced a new kind of confidence game wrapped inside something old and familiar. He combined features of the traditional medicine show – a ballyhoo and parade, leading to a free evening stage show with entertainers to draw an audience and a pitch to buy an elixir for what-ails-you – but all that was now just the warmup. Waiting at a nearby hotel, Ferdon told the crowds, were European doctors who were experts in the ultra-modern technique of “bloodless surgery.” They could cure the most serious medical problems: Complete blindness and deafness. Paralysis. Gallstones. Appendicitis. Tumors. Cancer. All without a scalpel or the loss of a single drop of blood.

(RIGHT: James Ferdon portrait in the Salem, Oregon Daily Capital Journal, June 15, 1910)

It was such a brazen collection of lies that it apparently had the effect of shock and awe, even fooling people who thought they were the sort who never could be fooled. According to Ferdon, his European Medical Experts were so esteemed that local physicians flocked to them to be healed themselves of serious diseases. “Each day hundreds of people are cured by my doctor’s method,” Ferdon was quoted in an article that appeared in the Press Democrat. “Many local physicians come to us in diffent cities we have visited. We removed a cancer from a prominent physician in Dallas, Texas.” Claiming to perform such miraculous cures “bloodlessly” was the cake icing. What exactly that meant was never made clear, but some of the procedures described in the ads sound remarkably like “psychic surgery,” where tumors and such are pretended to be removed without breaking the skin – the “surgeon” uses basic sleight-of-hand techniques to palm animal organs and other gory bits that could be flourished in front of the patient as diseased tissue. If so, this apparently would be the earliest example of psychic surgery fraud in the United States.

Ferdon was also fuzzy on how much treatment would cost. In one instance his “Medical Expert” asked for $175 to remove gallstones, and demanded a $300 advance from someone else for the same “surgery.” (In Santa Rosa at that time the annual household income was about $500.) Ferdon was not only duping people into believing life-threatening illnesses could be cured by mysterious and unbloody means, he was stealing every cent they had, which probably denied them the hope of seeking real expert medical attention after they wised up. This made him a monster twice over.

As much as Ferdon was a villain, it’s hard not to stand agape at his salesmanship skills; this was a man who could sucker you into buying an interest in his new breed of racing horses that had wheels for legs and were powered by gasoline engines. His audiences simply didn’t see there was something discordant about world-class physicians teaming up with a man running a cornball show crafted to appeal to yokels. At one Santa Rosa performance he had a “ladies’ woodsawing” contest; the next night a live pig was given away (“the person winning it will be obliged to carry it out in their arms”). Ferdon had a particular affection for showing off tapeworms preserved in jars; no matter where he went, to hear him tell it, there was always someone ready to shower him with gratitude for having rid them of a gargantuan 50, 70, 90-foot parasite (which they measured how?) after all other treatments failed.

Another factor in his success was the manner in which he shamelessly bought off local newspapers, including both the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican. Yes, he placed big ads announcing his shows, and nothing wrong with that. Yes, he also made claims that his European Experts could perform impossible cures, and there was nothing wrong with that, either, at the time; as discussed here earlier, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 enforced truth in labeling but didn’t even mention truth in advertising – the newspapers here (particularly the PD) routinely published ads for miraculous potions, including drugs that were supposed to prevent tuberculosis or repair heart disease. But Ferdon and the newspaper editors crossed an ethical line because his ads didn’t look at all like ads: They looked like regular news stories. They appeared above the fold in line with other articles (ads were usually at the bottom of the page or grouped together in the back section) and except for the headline font and layout being slightly different from the rest of the paper (Ferdon apparently provided his own headline typeset block as part of the deal), it was impossible to tell at first glance that it was fake news.

The articles that appeared in the Santa Rosa papers were written in general newspaper style, clearly adapted by someone using copy provided by Ferdon – phrases, even whole paragraphs, can be found in similar articles published in other towns. While some of the prose is rather purple (“the great Fer-Don [has] caused the whole of Europe and America to talk about his wonderful medical discoveries and the citizens have been patiently waiting for his arrival in our city”) much of it could pass for a real article of the day. The trusted local papers had become willing accomplices to fraud.

It may have come as a surprise to editors Ernest Finley and Allen Lemmon, but not all newspapers were eager to sell out their readership to hucksters; some investigated his claims and exposed him as a fraud, warning subscribers to stay away.

In the first in a series of front page muckraking stories, the Seattle Star in January 1910 described what happened when a reporter sought treatment under the guise of being a workman. Ferdon’s medical expert diagnosed “a heart affection” and a “bad case of the ‘nerves'” which could be cured by a two month treatment. As for the price, the doctor said, “I will let you down light. You say that you are an electrician and have a good job with the Seattle Electric company. Well, I’ll make it $50 for the entire treatment. This includes your prescriptions for the first month. After that you will be charged extra.”

When Ferdon entered the room to collect the money, the reporter confronted  him on operating a “fake medical bureau.” Ferdon denied the charge and tried to change the subject. “In California, mothers and invalids worship me. Every week I visit the orphan asylums and scatter gifts among the waifs. The newsies I remember on Christmas with huge Christmas trees. I intend to do the same thing in Seattle.” As the reporter continued pressing, Ferdon threw out another red herring: “There is not a business or profession that is free from faking…the grocer will advertise milk as the best, but in reality it is half water. The ethical physician tell you a man is hopeless, but at the same time he will treble his visits until the victim passes away. The politician is a faker–we’re all fakers, if you put it that way.”

Ferdon told the reporter “My treatments consist of massage, vibrators, medicines and the violet rays.” The medicine, he claimed, was formulated by his doctors in a “laboratory”  elsewhere in the hotel building. The reporter checked and found the so-called lab just another hotel room.

Most of all, Ferdon seemed irate that the newspaper didn’t play along. “The Star is doing wrong in trying to drive me out. I bring lots of money to this city. Why in hell don’t you and your editor quit and leave me alone. The P. I. and the Times are not molesting me.” In its introduction, the editor commented, “If The Star had chosen to accept the advertising instead of exposing these fakers it would have been richer by probably $3,500.” The Seattle Star also found that in 1907 the Portland Daily News had similarly investigated him rather than accept the fraudulent ads. The Star summed up Ferdon’s advertising strategy: “Their scheme, highly successful in most cases, is to buy up venal newspapers with large advertising contracts at hush money rates, and then take advantage of the credence the public puts in these prostituted journals.”

The Seattle Star continued its front page exposé, even printing an interesting letter from a woman, Mrs. E. J. Eakin, who lived in Napa just before Ferdon came to Santa Rosa that revealed his other activities in this area (which were never mentioned in the PD or Republican):

I was residing in Napa, Cal. two years ago when Fer-Don and his band of ‘fakers’ came to town…For the first two weeks he did not make a cent. Then one Saturday night he managed to sell $4 worth of medicines to the ranchers. That gave him his opportunity. Ascending the stage steps, he said that he did not sell the medicine for money — but to cure the sick. Then he threw the $4 among the audience and a general scramble occurred. When it was noised about that Fer-Don was throwing money away the audiences increased rapidly…gradually every home in Napa had his medicines…

…The last week he was there, Fer-Don gave away coupons with every sale. The coupons entitled the holder to an examination by one of his “European Experts.” The simple people were made to believe that they had awful diseases, and the agony that they would suffer was pictured to them by the experts. Then a ‘treatment’ was advised, and it usually ended with the victim depositing from $10 to $500 with the fakers…[T]he victims began to awaken to the fact that Fer-Don and his experts were fakers and the medicines nothing but colored water. When Fer-Don found that the people were wise, he skipped out to Petaluma. He stayed there for several weeks, then returned to Napa. Then the town authorities took up the matter and raised his license so high that he had to leave town.

Normally Ferdon would milk a large metro area like Seattle for weeks or months, but the heat generated by the Star series drove him out after a few days. He made brief stops in Everett, Washington and Medford, Oregon, where his fake news stories boasted of his great cures (epic tapeworms mentioned, as always) but also included a new claim of being persecuted by busybodies: “[E]nmity always follows success, and there is always a certain class of humanity ready to cry ‘humbug,’ ‘fake,’ and ‘quack,’ but such howlers and defamers of honest characters are very seldom successful in any line of business because they do not attend to their own. They are too busy sticking their noses into the affairs of others.”

Two weeks later he was in Spokane, where the Spokane Press followed the Seattle Star in exposing his fraud in front page stories. “The ‘marvelous cures’ that he is alleged to have performed by his ‘psychic,’ ‘magnetic’ or ‘mesmeric’ process of ‘bloodless surgery’ have been heralded in large double column display ads in some of the papers, and the ‘wonderful’ Fer-Don has been preparing to rake in the shekels, as he has in the past, where exposure has not been present to lay bare his game. The Press was offered his advertising and refused it.”

The Spokane paper also offered an interesting tidbit about what happened after Ferdon left Santa Rosa: He tried to setup operations in Sacramento, but the City Council there moved quickly to get rid of him, passing a special ordinance requiring a $100/day license for any “medical minstrel shows.”

Even though Ferdon wasn’t in Spokane long, the muckraking newspaper kept the story alive. They found a woman from Pomona, California who had been diagnosed with “nervous trouble” by one of his “Experts” and her husband had raised the money for Ferdon’s treatment. Later the couple consulted a real physician who discovered she had an incurable tumor (which might have been breast cancer, judging from the newspaper’s description): “It was just too late then to effect a cure and leave her a whole woman, though had your Mr. Dunning been a physician he would have discovered the trouble in time to have given her a chance.”

That March, 1910 item in the Spokane Press was the paper’s last exclusive about Ferdon’s misdeeds; by April, the Great Fer-Don and his band of fraudsters were fugitives and drawing the attention of more newspapers.

Ferdon’s downfall began with a warrant from Everett, WA charging him with practicing medicine without a license; also wanted on a criminal charge was one of his staff, William Ramsey. By the end of April, the Sacramento grand jury indicted Ferdon and H. Thayer Thornberg, another associate, for obtaining money under false pretenses. And sometime around this period, Dr. Seth Wells, Ferdon’s main accomplice (see Part I) lost his Utah medical license after a conviction for assault.

Thornberg went to trial in June, where the prosecution presented evidence that Ferdon’s “medicine” for gallstone cure was 98 percent water with the rest being alcohol and coloring. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, “Where is Fer-Don?” articles began popping up in Utah, California and Washington papers. The Los Angeles Police Department was keeping a close eye on his home. Ferdon and crew, however, were hiding in plain sight; in June and July they were up to their usual business in Salem, Oregon. To accompany his fake news articles there, the Daily Capital Journal even ran two pictures of “Fer-Don,” the only time known his photograph appeared in a newspaper.

By the summer of 1910, there can be no doubt that the publishers of the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican knew Ferdon was running a con game, and a potentially deadly one at that. Items about the police pursuit and the Thornberg trial had appeared in the San Francisco and Oakland papers, as well as in other well-read dailies from Sacramento and Los Angeles. The criminal charge against his associate, William Ramsey, even had been filed by someone in Santa Rosa. And, at the risk of projecting modern ethics onto the past, the editors had to realize that Ferdon had committed wrongs far worse than the objectives of usual medicine advertising, which was selling harmless, inexpensive snake oil to rubes – and he had done these bad things with their collaboration. At the very least, one might hope that editors Finley and Lemmon also recalled all the serious diseases that Ferdon’s “Experts” claimed to cure in the news-advertisements that appeared in their papers, and wanted to alert subscribers that any diagnosis and treatment was probably bogus. But not one word, as far as I can determine, ever appeared in either Santa Rosa newspaper to discredit him in any way. No mention of warrants or other legal woes, not even the complaint made against Ferdon’s accomplice came from someone right here in town. Once his show left Santa Rosa, he was never written of again. It was a second, and fundamentally worse, betrayal of their public trust.

Thornberg’s conviction marked the end of “The Great Fer-Don,” but there was a footnote of sorts: In December his wife, Mrs. Alpha Ferdon, made a plea deal in Sacramento to pay a $1,000 fine for “conspiracy to commit a felony through fake cures.” Her husband received the same offer but did not appear in court. Alpha paid another $1,000 for his bail, which was forfeited.

Fer-Don the “European Medical Expert” agent might be dead, but long live “The Great Lavita.” Through a 1912 Illinois medical newsletter and a Tacoma newspaper we find Ferdon and Seth Wells were still partners, this time Wells posing as Dr. A. E. Williams who treated the sick using the “marvelous Lavita method.” Except for the lack of the medicine show angle, it was identical to the Fer-Don scam; placement of fake news articles, bloodless surgery, wonderful cures, and as always, descriptions of a lady thrusting into the doctor’s hands a jar containing a monstrous tapeworm.

By at least 1914, Ferdon had changed persona yet again and emerged as “The Great Pizaro” (sometimes Pizarro). While the Fer-Don scam undoubtedly made him rich, being Pizaro kept him more-or-less out of trouble with the law, and it was something he enjoyed doing: Pitch man for an old-fashioned traveling medicine show, with musical and comic acts. There is available a wonderful first-hand account of the show from someone who worked for it as a child: “We basked in the lurid flames of the gasoline torches for the big evening performance. We helped to hand out free samples and pass along the bottles containing tapeworms purged from local citizens now able to live full and happy lives again for the first time in seven years….”

(RIGHT: Worker setting up the stage for the Pizaro Cactus Juice Show, c. 1920. Photo courtesy Durham County, North Carolina library collection)

This time he sold homemade nostrums such as “Cactus Juice Compound,” mineral salts, and his “Great Catarrh Remedy” (which the Cleveland Board of Health had analyzed and found to contain just soda, borax, and salt) but what he was really selling was nostalgia for the old-timey form of entertainment. Through that means he also gained a kind of respectability. He appeared in the 1920 census as a “manufacture of medicine” living in a very nice house in Hollywood, just off Sunset Boulevard. Billboard magazine reported on his comings and goings as they did all legit traveling performers: “Jim Ferdon (Great Pizarro) was wintering in Galveston, Texas” (1938) … “Mr. and Mrs. James Ferdon have opened their med show in Reading Pa., after spending a profitable and pleasant winter in the Sunny South. Mrs. Ferdon reveals that Sunshine Sal and Her Little Pal, of radio fame in the South, are none other than herself and daughter, Barbara Ann. They will be with the Piazaro med opera this summer” (1942).

Until his death in 1944, Ferdon toured the country with his Pizaro show, except for the three years he served in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. The Great Paul/Fer-Don/Lavita/Pizaro had yet another alias: inmate #23328. In 1924 he and four others – including Seth Wells – were convicted of “oil promotion fraud.” No other details of the scam can be found, but if Ferdon was behind it, you just know that a jar filled with tapeworms was involved somehow.

Dr. Goyer Has Large Tumor Removed to Test Bloodless Surgery–No Knife Was Used

“As we grow older we grow wiser,” is a saying that has followed humanity down the corridors of the centuries. True in every department of life, it is especially true with reference to the science of medicine and surgery. Never since the world began has medicine and surgery been reduced to such an exact science as at present and never have there been so many improvements and discoveries as within the past few years. All of the great discoveries in medicine and surgery have been by European doctors. Prof. Koch of Berlin, Germany, discovered the germ of consumption and other death dealing germs. Dr. Lorenz of Vienna, Austria, discovered bloodless surgery, whereby cripples, paralytics, hip joint disease, tumors, gallstones and appendicitis and diseases of women could be cured without the use of the knife. American physicians who for years have resorted to the knife and still keep in the same old rut today with their foggy ideas, are slow to recognized the new methods of the European Experts. It was left to Dr. Lorenz and the Great Fer-Don to bring into America the new method. To see is to believe and there are thousands who have seen and do believe; thousands who have been drawn from the yawning mouth of the sepulchre and restored to perfect health and happiness.

Eureka Physician Tests Method.

Among the many who came to test the healing power of these European Medical Experts and Bloodless surgeons who are now demonstrating upon the sick, crippled, and afflicted every day, there came one of Eureka’s most prominent physicians, who for years has enjoyed a successful practice. His reputation as a physician and surgeon has spread throughout the Sate of California and extended into other States. Broad minded, good natured, liberal in thoughts and deeds, he has won for himself many friends in Eureka. Dr. Goyer is his name. “For years I could have removed it myself with a knife if I could have got at it. I have heard whereby that tumors could be removed without the knife by the European Expert’s methods. I went and saw for myself. I am always willing to yield to science, and made up my mind to have my tumor removed by the Bloodless method. I am over 70 years old and I had confidence in Fer-Don and his experts. Well, it took about six minutes for Fer-Don’s European doctors to remove my tumor. No knife was used and no blood. I am perfectly satisfied. I am a practicing physician here in Eureka and have lived here for years.”

Fer-Don in speaking of the case said: “Each day hundreds of people are cured by my doctor’s method and many local physicians come to us in different cities we have visited. We removed a cancer from a prominent physician in Dallas, Texas. “You see,” said Fer-Don, “my office is crowded with sick. We will be in Santa Rosa at the Rex hotel for some time yet, then we go back to our main headquarters at 933 Market street, San Francisco.”

– Press Democrat, January 8, 1909


The Great Fer-Don, lecturer, traveler and philanthropist, the man, who, with his brother, has caused more comment than any other man who has [illegible microfilm] Oakland and San Francisco, is a man of many parts. During his stay many things have brought his name and his deeds to public notice. Last night on Fourth street he added yet to the entertainment by throwing broadcast into the crowd, money in handfuls until the air seemed filled with a shower of silver. To an observer it looked as if more than a hundred dollars must have been scattered in this way. It has also been whispered about that Fer-Don has assisted, in his own way in relieving a great deal of distress among the poor and sick of Santa Rosa. Presents of food, money and medicines have gladdened the hearts of many of the poor and many over whom the darkness of poverty and despair had settled found Fer-Don always ready to shed the sunshine of real help across their path.

Some people insist that Fer-Don is a spendthrift in throwing away money and in disposing of it so indiscriminately among those who need it, while others, wiser perhaps, say that all this is but bread cast upon the waters, to return in two ways; first, in the consciousness that he is doing real good; second, in the golden stream which flows into his coffers from the sale of his remedies, and which has made him the millionaire he is reputed to be.

At any rate the sales of these remedies all over the country are so great that Fer-Don is enabled to have the European Medical Expert, who accompanies him, treat all who come to their offices at the Rex Hotel, 533½ Fourth street, just for the cost of the medicines alone during the week. And here probably in making the cost of treatment so low, as these experts do is the most good done, for many who are sufferers from chronic diseases who would probably not be able to pay the price asked by most specialists are taking advantage of these low rates.

The Great Fer-Don will hold another entertainment tonight. Fer-Don does not lecture of sell medicine on Sunday  [illegible microfilm] troupe that accompany give an entertainment on that evening.

– Press Democrat, January 10, 1909
The Great Fer-Don Greeted by Crowds of People Saturday Night–A prominent Lady Relieved on Monster Tape Worm.

The newspapers have been making announcements daily of the arrival of the great Fer-Don, the man who had caused the whole of Europe and America  to talk about his wonderful medical discoveries and the citizens have been patiently waiting for his arrival in our city.

There were thousands of people out Saturday night to see and greet this great man, who is noted for his charitable deeds to the poor and afflicted, and they say that he has given away hundreds of dollars to the poor and destitute of Los Angeles and Oakland.

His name there is a household word. All men, women and children know him by his kindness and deeds, and they say he has won a warm spot in the hearts of many of the people of Los Angeles and vicinity.

Fer-Don will be long remembered here in our city, especially by the young people, for Saturday night, just about 7 o’clock, Ferdon was escorted to the Pavillion Rink by his band.

Fer-Don amused himself by throwing handful after handful of money to the vast crowd that followed the parade. The amount Fer-Don threw away nobody knows, but a banker who saw the silver shower estimated the sum at one to two hundred dollars.

When Fer-Don arrived at the show he was greeted by 3000 people, and when he appeared upon the stage he held his audience spell bound by his magnetic manner and eloquent flow of speech. The audience was interested and pleased, as we could tell by the expressions on their faces.

Fer-Don told of his great success in San Francisco and Los Angeles, gave one testimonial after another with the names and addresses of people cured of rheumatism, stomach trouble, tumors, gall stones, tape worms and cancers and then he asked for people to come upon the platform to test the methods of his wonderful treatment.

Crowds Eager to Buy

When Fer-Don offered his remedies for sale, everybody wanted to try the remedies and secure a card to consult the European Medical Expert about his method of healing the sick.

Office at 533½ Fourth street Crowded

Saturday was a busy day for the European doctor. Over sixty people called to see the doctor, some on canes, others on crutches. One old lady was carried on a cot. Some were cured then and there, others were much benefited. One prominent lady came and asked to see the European doctor and was told she must wait her turn. She replied, “I must see him at once, as I have something here in this glass jar for him.” When admitted to the doctor’s office she explained that she had been suffering stomach trouble for a long time; appetite was irregular, stomach would bloat and swell after eating, was very dizzy at times, also hot and cold flashes would come over her. She tried different medicines, but none seemed to do her any good. “My husband attended the show one night last week and brought home a bottle of Fer-Don’s Medical Compound. I have taken only four doses of the medicine and to my surprise I was delivered of a monster parasite which measured 30 feet in length.” The lady is well known here and left the worm with the doctor here for exhibition.

The great Fer-Don will deliver another lecture tonight and every night this week at the Pavillion Rink.

Ladies’ Woodsawing Contest Tonight

Fer-Don will give the best lady woodsawer a prize of five dollars in gold tonight at the show. A number of prominent ladies have entered the contest.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 11, 1909
Crowds of People Saw Fer-Don Each Evening in Spite of the Rain

Local people claimed Fer-Don was a passing fad, and would soon wear out. The facts are that Fer-Don and the European Medical Experts are growing more and more interesting each day; many cures are added to the list  and it is almost impossible to find a man or woman or child in Santa Rosa who is not a staunch and true friend of the Great Fer-Don. Fer-Don, by his charitable deeds and liberal way to the public, has gained for him a warm spot in the heart of the many citizens.

Takes Children to Theater

Today Fer-Don entertained over 500 children, taking them to the Richter theater and picture shows. Fer-Don’s love and fondness for children has been the talk of all the large cities he has visited.

A thousand people saw Fer-Don last night. The music and entertainment was highly appreciated.

Fer-Don Headquarters Crowded Daily

At the office in the Rex Hotel Fer-Don’s European Medical Expert is kept busy. It is estimated that three hundred persons called at his office Saturday to take treatment with the expert.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 16, 1909

The successful man is always the mark for imitators and impostors, who hope to build up a business through the great popularity and success of the one imitated. That is one of the penalties of greatness, and the public is warned against those who have recently established themselves in the vicinity of Oakland and San Francisco, claiming to be practitioners of bloodless surgery. The Great Fer-Don, at the cost of thousands of dollars, has alone bought these secrets and has engaged the only bloodless surgeons now practicing in America.

No one in need of the services of Fer-Don’s European Experts or Bloodless Surgeons can afford to trifle with imposters. Health is too valuable an asset to lose by dealing with imitators who have no knowledge of what they claim and hope to succeed only by false allegations in diverting the people away from the real and only specialists of this character, who are now located at 533½ Fourth street.

For two years or more the Great Fer-Don and his large staff of eminent experts have engaged in the practice of bloodless surgery through California. In Los Angeles, where they were most successful for one year, rank imitators sprang up in various parts of the city. Like the mushroom, they came and died in a day.

No real merit to their claims, no basis for their existence, they faded away like the mist before the noonday sun. Imitations may be the sincerest flattery, but not at all times, and the Great Fer-Don is doing a real service to mankind when he sends out warnings to beware of the “imitators.”


Get at the bottom. See and judge for yourself. Call on Mr. W. H. Harvey of 264 Eureka street, San Francisco, whom Fer-Don relieved of over 200 gall stones after one treatment.


These are facts–these testimonials can be verified–these are no mythical persons. They are stories of the phenomenal success of the Great Fer-Don, a marvelous record of a marvelous man, and in the face of these statements you cannot afford to take chances on the wile and unfounded claims of others who fraudulently claim to be what they are not.


The show at the rink had a good crowd, in spite of the bad weather. Tonight the pig will be given away. The person winning it will be obliged to carry it out in their arms.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 22, 1909

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