How Electricity was Used to Scam People in the Past

Back in 1781, a man named Luigi Galvani made a dead frog jump by applying an electric current to its muscles. Dissatisfied young housewives heard about this feat and immediately dreamed of using this technique on their aging husbands. Physicians on the other hand envisioned a greater benefit, i.e., to their bank accounts.

Operating under the broad assumption that hefty doses of electricity had a stimulating and therapeutic effect on people, patients everywhere were soon dishing out the cash to be zapped by various devices. Most of these devices impressed patients with their noise and the tingling sensations and pain they produced, but the scientific community eventually realized they had no real medical value.

While the use of properly controlled electricity can be of enormous medical value today (for instance, the “paddles” used to get a heart beating again), the early “medical batteries” can be elevated no higher than to the level of amusing parlor tricks. However, if a study of medicine has proven anything, it is that some people never give up.

Charles Willie Kent

Meet Charles Willie Kent. This dude rose to fame in 1918 due to his product – the Electreat Mechanical Heart, which, was neither mechanical nor any type of pumping apparatus. The Electreat was, in fact, a throwback to the old electric devices of the previous century, with a rather disturbing twist — it had thin metal rods which could be inserted into the orifice of your choice. Besides providing nasty electric shocks in places you shouldn’t be sticking objects in, Kent promised that the Electreat would be able to stop pains of all sorts, and cure everything from appendicitis to dandruff. Kent even claimed that his device had the power to enlarge women’s breasts. All this for the low retail price of $15, and at $7 wholesale, the 229,273 units Kent sold made him a tidy little fortune.

electreatThere was only one small problem. The only thing the Electreat helped was Kent’s cash flow. In 1941, the FDA finally brought Kent to court to answer to his wild claims of the device’s miraculous powers. The government paraded an impressive line of experts who systematically demolished Kent’s assertions. For example, the primary benefit of the Electreat was supposed to be increased blood circulation. A biologist from the University of Kansas explained in detail how the device actually caused the opposite reaction, effectively stopping the flow of blood in the unfortunate muscle to which the Electreat’s current was being applied (information which no doubt brought great disappointment to those dissatisfied housewives).

After a blitzing testimony for the prosecution, Kent decided to take the stand against the better judgment of his lawyer. He repeatedly embarrassed himself with his medical and electrical ignorance with his crowning blunder coming when asked if he used the Electreat on his own body. “Yes, sir,” Mr. Kent boldly replied, “For menopause!” With the court’s blessing, Kent’s stock of Electreat Mechanical Hearts was rounded up and destroyed.

Kent, defeated but undaunted, was determined to resume production of his prized merchandise. Shortages due to World War II kept him from his goal until 1946, when Electreats once again appeared on the market, but with greatly subdued claims unlike before. Once again, Kent and the experts met in court, and once again the government ably proved its point. This time, Kent could have gone to prison for endangering and duping a gullible populace, but due to his advanced age, he was fined a mere $1,000. With his dreams and business shattered, perhaps he was able to find some little comfort in his twilight years with his fortune, and a well placed metal rod.

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