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Harmon’s Histories: Today’s quack cures harken to ‘snake oil purveyors’ of flu pandemic

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Remember Stan Jones? Probably not. He was a third party candidate for Montana governor back in 2000. I couldn’t think of his name for the life of me. I had to look it up.

What I did remember clearly was a man whose skin turned blue – not a minor thing – in fact, a very obvious blue or blue-gray.

For some reason, he had apparently been taking a therapy of some form of colloidal silver, which has the effect of turning human skin that color. By the way, he didn’t win the gubernatorial race; Judy Martz did.

Now I see that very same colloidal silver being hyped by some as a therapy, if not a cure, for COVID-19. Thankfully, both the FTC and the FDA are quickly cracking down on the hucksters, as well as others hyping everything from bleach to vitamins as “cures.”

But what did we expect? Actually, I’m surprised it took this long for the snake oil purveyors to appear. One hundred years ago, during the flu pandemic, they were everywhere.

In the bottom section of the Great Falls Tribune’s editorial page of March 23, 1919 was a small story with the headline: “Powerful Light Is Called Flu Cure.” It showed a photo of a Swedish physician using “powerful electric light and heat” on a patient. The therapy was said to produce, “excellent results in influenza cases.”

The Stanford World, the local paper in Stanford (located in roughly the center of Montana), carried an ad in late 1918 for “Tanlac.” The laxative, carried locally by Harvey’s Drug Store, would help those who were “weak and rundown (who) become easy victims to widespread epidemic.”

An ad for “Scott’s Emulsion,” carried in the Dillon Tribune in November 1918, was a little less specific, but conveyed roughly the same message: “When strength is well-nigh exhausted and the resistive powers are reduced, then is the time disease germs are the most potent and when Scott’s Emulsion affords splendid and effectual means of offsetting the tendency toward weakness and protecting strength.”

Then there was the “Chinese Cure.” The story, out of Butte, carried by the Roundup Record in December 1918, told of a local Chinese man named Lee dispensing the following advice to Butte railroad workers.

“When the first symptoms of the disease appear, dissolve salt in a bowl of water until the point of saturation is reached. Then dip your fingers in the bowl and place the damp fingers on the joints of your arms and legs.

“Repeat this process, either with your fingers or a small rag, until the skin is nearly saturated with salt water.

“The influenza is in the blood and the germs or dark blood will gather about the joints which have been saturated with salt water.

“Dark blotches will appear in those places similar in appearance to a thick bruise. Insert a needle under the skin and squeeze out the black blood. Repeat this daily until black spots fail to appear. Then you are cured.”

As proof, he declared “not a single member of the Butte Chinese community has died of the disease.”

Now and then a huckster was arrested.

The Butte Daily Bulletin reported in January 1919 that “Deputy United States Marshal Rickman arrested Harry Kelly at Miles City yesterday on a charge of falsely representing himself as a special agent of the United States health department for sale of what he declared to be a ‘sure cure for the flu.’ ”

Surgeon General Rupert Blue

The U.S. Surgeon General at the time of the Spanish Flu, Rupert Blue, did all he could to warn people that there was “no cure” for the disease – that they must be patient while work to develop a vaccine continued.

In fact, the Public Health Service warned that “many of the alleged ‘cures’ and remedies being recommended by neighbors, nostrum vendors and others do more harm than good.”

Blue said, “It must be remembered that several vaccines are being tried (but) the reports received do not permit any conclusion whatsoever regarding the efficacy of these vaccines or their relative merits.”

Sounds very familiar – 100-plus years later.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.