No Cure for Greed

Based on his training and background, Dr. Albert Abrams was a really good turn-of-the-century doctor. As a young man, he studied at the Medical College of the Pacific, then in Germany at the University of Heidelberg in 1882, and was awarded an MD at Cooper College in San Francisco, where he later taught for more than a decade. He published a number of articles, including one on the danger of medical fakers, writing “A physician is only allowed to think he knows it all, but a quack. . . is permitted to know he knows it all.” So when did he decide to become what he warned about?


Dr. Albert Abrams, before becoming a fraudster

In 1917, Abrams proposed that diseases had vibrations, which he called Electronic Reactions of Abrams, that these diseases can be cured with the same vibrations. The next year he conveniently created the Dynomizer, a machine that can diagnose any disease with a single drop of blood and later with only a patient’s signature, and the Oscillaclast, a machine that produces the necessary vibrations to destroy any disease. Abrams then licensed Oscillaclasts to technicians he trained, making them sign a contract they would never open the machine. He claimed opening it would upset its delicate balance but in truth he didn’t want anyone to see what was inside his machines. By 1921, there were more than 3000 technicians, many charging patients to cure diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and syphilis, and sometimes all three at once. Abrams, meanwhile, was making millions.


Abrams “curing” diseases in 1923

Gradually, people who weren’t actually cured started filing complaints against Abrams, including a high-profile case where a man who had stomach cancer died. In 1923, a case was brought against Abrams in court. For the court Robert Millikan, who had that year won the Nobel Prize in physics, examined the Oscillaclast machine and wrote “It’s a contraption which might have been thrown together by a ten-year-old boy who knows a little about electricity to mystify an eight-year-old boy who knows nothing about it.”


Abrams escaped prosecution by contracting pneumonia and, unable to cure his own disease, dying in 1924.



Posted in American History Kids, disease, medical quackery

Blackbeard’s Headless Ghost

In May 1718, Blackbeard’s large fleet of pirate ships boldly blocked the port of Charleston, South Carolina. He robbed approaching ships and captured rich Charleston citizens, who he held for ransom.

Afterwards, Blackbeard retreated to his base on Ocracoke Island, where he and his crew threw raucous parties. Fed up, the governor of Virginia hired Lieutenant Robert Maynard to arrest Blackbeard. As Maynard approached the island, Blackbeard responded with cannon fire. Maynard’s crew took a lot of casualties. The rest hid below deck. When Blackbeard boarded the ship, Maynard’s crew attacked. The fearsome pirate was shot five times and stabbed 20 times before finally dying.


Maynard cut off the pirate’s head and hung it on the front of his ship and dumped Blackbeard’s body into the cove. His crew claimed the body swam three times around the ship before finally sinking into the water. His ghost has been supposedly seen searching the empty beaches for his head.


Posted in American History Kids, ghosts, pirates

The Terrible Cherry Hill Mine Disaster

Due to an electrical outage, the nearly 500 workers in the coal mine in Cherry, Illinois on November 13, 1909 had to light kerosene lanterns and torches. One caught fire to a cart full of hay for the mules, which quickly spread when workers used a large fan to try to blow it out. Two shafts were closed off to stop the fire, which also suffocated many of the surviving miners. When they were finally able to reach the shaft, rescuers found “a group of some ten bodies, one in the center in the attitude of prayer. From there on the sights were horrifying. . . and the stench as such as to tax the strength of the rescuers.”




Deep in the shaft, twenty-one men built a wall to protect themselves from the fire and poisonous gasses. Certain of death, they wrote farewell notes to their loved ones. George Eddy wrote his wife and children, ‘I write these few lines to you and I think it will be for the last time. I have tried to get out twice, but was driven back. . . Lizzie, if I am found dead take me to bury me in Streator and move back. Keep Esther and Jenny and Clarence together as much as you can. I hope they will not forget their father, so I will bid you all good-by, and. God bless you all.”  They managed to survive eight days drinking from water than leaked from a coal seam until they were miraculously rescued. In total, 259 men and boys as young as 10 died, making is the third most deadly mining disaster in history.



Posted in disasters, fire

The Criminal Cop

Charles Becker’s life changed in July 1911. Before then, the New York City policeman had worked a few cases that brought him some renown. But then he was assigned to head up one of three Special Squads, which a newspaper described as groups of tough cops whose job it was to “travel about the City and hand out generous doses of strong-arm medicine to any and all who show unmistakable signs of being in need of it.”

The squad’s exploits, and Becker’s in particular, became a favorite topic of newspapers like the New York Times, which described Becker as “standing over six feet in his socks, tipping the scale at over 200 pounds, broad-shouldered, with the eyes, jaw, and fists of a fighter.” He reveled in the limelight, hiring a press agent to help get his story told.


Charles Becker, center

Becker also found that his position enabled him to make piles of money offering “protection” to illegal businesses in the shady section of the City known as Satan’s Circus. Although Becker only earned a salary of only $2,000 a year, it’s estimated he pocketed close to $10,000 a month in bribes. In his dirty dealings, he ended up in business with gambler Herman Rosenthal. When Rosenthal’s illegal casino was raided after he had paid protection, he went to the newspapers with tales of Becker and his associates criminal activity. Two days later, on July 16, 1912, Rosenthal was gunned down in the street.


Baldy Jack Rose, who testified against Becker

While Becker was nowhere near the site of the murder, the men charged with the shooting claimed that Becker had arranged to have Rosenthal killed. Becker was arrested and tried by District Attorney Charles Whitman. One of the criminals who testified against Becker, Jack Rose,  was granted immunity and his testimony helped convict Becker. After two trials and countless appeals, Becker was found guilty, sentenced to die, and sent to Sing Sing prison. Becker, who admitted to being corrupt, told a reporter for the Sun, “They have convicted an innocent man. . . There is not the slightest question that those men who testified against me were all liars, the worst of perjurers.”


Trial spectators outside the Tombs prison, hoping for a sight of Becker


On July 30, 1915, Becker became the first police officer in America executed for a crime. Due to a malfunction in the electric chair, it took him almost 9 terrible minutes to die.



Posted in executions, gangsters, murder, New York

The World’s Greatest Con Man

By the time Victor Lustig settled in America, he had already pulled off one of the greatest cons in history. Posing as a government official, Lustig had sold the Eiffel Tower for 7, 000 tons of scrap to a metal dealer. The Eiffel Tower.

The suave, dapper Lustig had also somehow become a Count, learned five languages fluently, acquired more than 47 aliases, a trunk of disguises, and dozens of passports. His cons included every card game imaginable, as well as something he called the Romanian money box, a device which supposedly printed hundred dollar bills. He was so good that he sold one to a Texas sheriff for $123,000.


What brought him to the attention of the Secret Service was the counterfeiting of $100 bills, which were so well done that they passed scrutiny by bank tellers. In 1935, he was caught with a key to a locker that contained $51,000 in fake bills and the plates from which they were printed.

This con finally sent to prison in Federal Detention Center in New York, from which he promptly escaped. He used a rope made out of sheets to lower himself out of the widow and down the side of the prison, in full view of dozens of witnesses. He pretended to wash the windows. He was caught in Pittsburg a few weeks later. The counterfeiting and escape caused him to sent to the inescapable Alcatraz, where, after more than 1,000 medical complaints, he died of pneumonia in 1947.

Posted in Uncategorized