Skepticism

Adventures of the mind

The last half of 2010 proved to be quite an interesting time in my life. I left a nearly ten year marriage and have spent much of the past 3 months having various adventures on the road with Giles (my Mini Cooper) and various friends around the country. I bought the car in late July, and we’ve since clocked over 16,000 miles. It’s been crazy fun.

I’m currently journeying homeward, and for the first time in months, feeling ready to stop drifting and dig my heels into some solid work at making progress in my life, rather than just allowing circumstance to bring me what it brings me. There are plans in the works to return to school and finally finish my bachelor’s degree, and I’m excited to get started.

I’m feeling unstuck, and productive, and I’m finding my sense of curiosity reawakened in a way that overcomes the intellectual laziness I’ve been mired in for too long. Last night, on the road from Oakland to Las Vegas, I passed something called Zzyzx Road. I thought, “Hmm. That’s a weird name. I should look that up when I get on my computer,” a sentiment I’ve had frequently enough in my life, but one that has too often been forgotten or ignored or lost in the blur of Twitter streams and Facebook updates and other tides of distraction.

But this time, I made a point to follow through. I looked up Zzyzx and stumbled onto an epic story of fraud, quackery, and evangelism.

Zzyzx is the name of a “health resort” built in the middle of the desert in 1944 by a guy called Curtis Howe Springer. Actually, if you want to get technical, it was built by bums and hobos that Springer recruited from skid row in L.A. to work for him in exchange for food and lodging. He called it “Zzyzx” so he could have the last word in health. Get it? Last word? No? Never mind.

This guy was a fraud of epic proportions. He spent the 1930s traveling the country peddling expensive patent medicines made from cheap ingredients at his free health and wellness seminars, claiming authority in the form of affiliations or degrees from a number of fictitious educational institutions. He was clearly a very savvy man. In 1933, he reported earnings of $76,000. How much would that be today? About $1.3 mil, according to this handy little website. For selling baking soda, glorified vegetable juice, and herbal tea. Sad how little things have changed, really.

In 1934, he started broadcasting an evangelical radio show* in Chicago, which he used as a platform to cultivate a populist persona. He advocated strongly for FDR and the New Deal, and infamously defamed businesses that were perceived as anti-labor. Alongside preaching temperance and religion, he used the program to peddle his “medicines”, and he continued to rake in the dough.

Probably my favorite item discovered on this little internet adventure was this denouncement of Springer, published by the AMA’s Bureau of Investigation in JAMA in 1935. Read it. In full. It’s scathing, hilarious, and deeply satisfying.

How did Zzyzx come about? Well, after unsuccessfully setting up health spas in various locations East of the Mississippi, Springer made up a story about finding some long lost mineral springs in the Mojave Desert and put in a mining claim on the land. You already know the part about the hobos. Because there weren’t any actual mineral springs on the site, he faked them by piping water to tubs from a hidden boiler.

The site became home to many permanent residents, as well as vacationers and visitors seeking relief from various maladies. Here’s a rather fun, uncritical, newspaper article from 1970, profiling Springer and his resort.

The Zzyzx Mineral Springs operated in peace for a solid 3 decades, until Springer apparently got a bit too comfortable and started selling off lots for his more generous donors to build houses at the site. In the mid 1970s, the government got wind of this, started investigating, and found that Springer had never made good on his mining claim, meaning he had no legal right to the land. He was declared a squatter and evicted.

The land and facilities have since been used by California State University as their Desert Studies Center. Score one for science!

And hooray for randomly initiated research and learning! So the next time you have an inkling to explore something, do it, and share what you find out.

*I tried and failed to find any audio from the radio show. I’d really love to hear some of it. If anyone has ideas of where to look or knows of the existence of an archive, please let me know.

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10 Comments

  1. This is one of my favorite places in the Mojave – I was lucky enough to spend spring break a few years ago at the Desert Studies Center doing research and learning about the geology and biology of the Mojave desert a few years ago. It’s a great story!! (I also came away with a sweet t-shirt)

  2. Steven V. Roberts, the political pundit and husband of Cokie Roberts, was employed by the New York Times as a research assistant to James Reston (according to Wikipedia) at the time the laudatory article about Springer was written by Steven V. Roberts of the New York Times News Service… Same dude?

  3. http://www.weirdus.com/states/california/fabled_people_and_places/zzyyxxzz/index.php
    mentions some of Springer’s broadcasted words.

    http://cases.justia.com/us-court-of-appeals/F2/264/24/261784/
    is a legal document about some of Springer’s “loans”.

    and, well, http://berkshirearts.berkshirereview.net/2010/12/another-cadillac-the-rev-curtis-springers-at-zzyzx/

    the following description complements nicely yours:
    http://catlin.casinocitytimes.com/article/zzyzx-14271

    And good luck with your new self!

  4. “Springer is but one more example of what to the thoughtful citizen must appear as one of the most dangerous social phenomena of American city life: the person with an ignorance of the human body that is wide and deep, who by virtue of an unblushing effrontery combined with a with a flair for garrulity dupes an ignorant public. Loquacious fakers, fadders and quacks have for some years past made an easy living from their wits through the facility with which they could hire halls and announce so-called free lectures on subjects on which the ignorance of the audience was only exceeded by that of the speaker. The advent of the radio has multiplied the opportunities for dispensing misinformation at the public’s expense.”
    Brilliantly written and as appropriate today as it was then.

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