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Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Quack is Quack, and Cure is Cure, and never the Twain shall meet"

Everyone knows quackery when they see it, right? So why is there so much confusion about it, even today? Well, I think a quack or quack medicine is a lot like art in a gallery. You can stare at something and blurt out, "Isn't that hideous?" and your friend immediately agrees, but then you both realize you're looking in opposite directions at different pieces in the room.

Quackery, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You may think that TV evangelist healer is a quack - a pretentious fraud - but your spouse is moved to tears by the miracle they just witnessed. Every time I take Waldryl (the Walgreen knock-off of Benadryl) my runny nose seems to dry up right away, but my son is equally convinced that those little pink pills are a rip-off because they never seem to do anything for him.

In the days ahead, I will be sharing how others have defined quackery, so get prepared for a bumpy ride. For today, I am going to share with you what Mark Twain thought of one healer whom he decided was a quack. I read about this three years ago, not in a great history book or on some detailed television documentary, but on eBay. Somebody was offering for sale an authentic letter from Mark Twain, America's greatest humorist. The starting bid was $9,900 and, call me wimpy, but recognizing that was more than my net worth, I didn't even bid. But I drooled a lot. And now I can tell you I am the proud owner of the actual photocopy of the virtual image of the authentic letter of Mark Twain. Close enough.

In 1905 a West Coast medicine seller named J. H. Todd wrote to Twain, offering to sell him T. Duffy's Solution, The Elixir of Life - a Blood Purifier, Antisceptic, Disease Destroyer, and "Giver of Life Everlasting." A four-page brochure for the medicine explained that the elixir was "A THOUSAND TIMES MORE PURER than the Water and MATTER," and that this marvelous fluid absorbed "all Unsanitary, Foul and Diseased Matters, as foul water, foul air, diseased and putrid flesh or blood, and foul gases of Malarious Nature," purifying them "by its PURITY of PURIFIEDNESS ... ." The elixir cured dandruff, appendicitis, blood poison, 8 diseases starting with the letter "C," diabetes, diarrhea, female diseases, hemorrhaging, poison oak, tape worm, cat, dog, and horse mange, and as you would guess, a whole lot more. I assure you, there were people that bought The Elixir of Life - but Mark Twain was not one of them.

In his $9,900 letter, Mark Twain ripped up this medicine seller as only Mark Twain could. I'm going to let Mark do his own talking:

The person who wrote the [brochure] is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, & scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. ... A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed & I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, & enter swiftly into the damnation which you & all the other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned & do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

Ummm, I think Mr. Twain was calling Mr. Todd a quack.

Let's see what you think in the days ahead.


  1. The Twain letter is really great. I would be a nice touch--assuming that you did not promise otherwise--to post a copy of the letter on your blog.

  2. ROFL! That's hilarious!!! I especially love Twain's censure of T. Duffy when he called him "an idiot of the 33rd degree, & scion of an ancestral procession of idoits stretching back to the Missing Link..."

    And, how could I not love T. Duffy's advertisement that exclaims it purifies "by its PURITY of PURIFIEDNESS..." I think I might have to start using that. :o)

  3. I may have had to look up what "Cogitate" meant...but I didn't have to think carefully about how much I enjoy your Blog.

    Very well written and laid out. Informative, interesting & funny. I look forward to reading more :)


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