The more things change...
I have a collection of old Reader's Digest magazines that I found in my grandmother's basement years ago. Though it's not a complete collection by any means, the issues, which range from 1937 to 1967, provide some fascinating insights into the things that preoccupied America and the rest of the world in decades past. Magazines can do this in a way that books can't. That's why I am hopelessly hooked on old magazines, even the musty ones that make me sneeze and wonder if I am in danger of getting some gawd-awful ailment from ancient mold spores. It's a risk that we diligent researchers have to take sometimes.
Today while I was in the...um...reading room, I was flipping through a copy of the October 1967 Digest, and came across an article condensed from Today's Health, a general-readership magazine from bygone days (it was published by the American Medical Association). The article was titled, "The Menace of Mail-Order Medicine," penned by one Ralph Lee Smith. I would imagine that this is the same Ralph Lee Smith who wrote the 1960 book, The Health Hucksters: The Shocking Story of How Food and Drug Advertising Exploits Your Health. He also authored a 1969 book called At Your Own Risk: The Case Against Chiropractic, which several Amazon reader-reviewers said was biased and outdated. (Wrote one indignant reviewer: "The author was paid by the AMA to right [sic] this Third Reich dribble. Enough said.")
But this post isn't about chiropractic (and by the way, if you want one contemporary MD's view on chiropractic (among other "alternative" practices), click here). Nor is this about whether or not Ralph Lee Smith was paid off by those Nazis at the AMA. This is about an enterprising fellow who went by the name of Sri Dr. (or Dr. Sri) Abn Donahnji. You won't find much about him by Googling, but a few decades ago he was doing quite a brisk business helping people find health and happiness.
The good Sri Doctor placed a lot of ads, such as the one you see above, in the back pages of magazines. One of these ads caught the attention of a deaf-mute Georgia couple. For those who are offended, I'm sorry, but that's the way they were described in the article. Back in 1967 it wasn't politically incorrect to refer to people as "deaf" or "mute" or even "dumb." The copy that attracted the hearing-and-speech-impaired couple read, in part:
Dr. Abn Donahji, Yogi Healer and Clairvoyant Reader, will solve your problems.Full of hope, the two wrote to Donahji, explaining that the wife was suffering from cancer and asking if Donahji could help. Well, of course he could! Donahji told the couple that he had cured many people of cancer through his psychic powers; for a $5 weekly "donation" he would cure the ailing wife.
And so the couple promptly began sending him their weekly payments of five bucks, the equivalent of thirtysomething bucks a week in today's dollars. In return, they would periodically receive letters from Donahji assuring them that "the vibrations are building up favorably."
Alas, within a year the woman died of cancer anyway.
Though the Digest article isn't clear about whether the subsequent investigation into Donahji's affairs was in direct response to a complaint by the grieving widower, the fact remains that postal inspectors did at some point begin investigating the mysterious "healer." They discovered that "Sri Dr. Abn Donahji, Ph.D., D.D.N.S."* had actually been born Donald Van Dyke Wilson in Des Moines, Iowa. At one time he had been an assembly-line worker in Detroit, but then he moved to El Lay, where he hit upon the idea of becoming a healer. Changing his name and donning a turban, he studied a bit of esoterica and picked up enough of an "occult vocabulary" to fool Californians. Now, we know that Californians are harder to fool than just about anyone anywhere, so this guy must have been really, really, really good.
The new Sri-Doc set up shop in a house that he renamed "Brmhayati Temple," and hung out his shingle as a spiritual healer, prophet, and marriage counselor. Before long he had acquired a local following, and ads placed in various occult and astrological publications brought him a nationwide clientele. As author Smith put it, "The swami from Des Moines was soon living in a fine house and cruising around in a gold Cadillac."
After an exhaustive investigation, which revealed the extent of his mail-order "medical" practice, Donahji/Wilson was indicted for mail fraud. His files were impounded by postal inspectors and US marshals, who uncovered correspondence with 4,000 people from coast to coast. These folks had been paying Wilson for services such as treatment of cancer, heart disease and multiple sclerosis – treatments that consisted essentially of "setting up vibrations." In addition, he sold his "patients" copper bracelets with "health-giving properties" for prices ranging from $18 to $76 each. (The wholesale cost of the bracelets was a mere 37 and a half cents.) In all, he had brought in about $400,000, which, in 1967 dollars, was equivalent to more than $2,500,000.00.
He was convicted and sent to jail, and, as far as I can Google, never heard from again.
All I can say is, thank goodness we're all far more sophisticated today, and a phony "healer" like Sri-Doc Donahji/Wilson would never be able to fool so many people for such a long time. And if by some odd chance he did manage to get away with it for a while (and he was working in the US), the Federal Trade Commission or some other government agency would come down hard on him and throw him in the slammer, especially since we have much more stringent consumer protection laws now than we did back in the prehistoric 1960s. And once he'd been to prison, the scammer's reputation would be forever ruined, and he would never be able to scam people again.
I'm truly grateful to be living in more enlightened times.
* Presumably Sri Doc's "degrees" were phony. Thank Goddess people can't get away with THAT these days either.