5 Health Fads That Fooled People, Till The Bodies Started Piling Up
Many years ago, humans discovered that fire is capable of wonderful things. It made the cave wall visible at night. It made the nearby air pleasant to touch. It made the flesh of animals much tastier. “Come now,” said one enterprising medical guru. “Let us plunge ourselves into this fire, so that we too will be transformed and will live forever!”
Those who obeyed all died horribly. That is the fate that awaits you when jump on mystical remedies that are too good to be true. Remedies like...
The Coconut Diet from a Nudist Cult Leader
Whenever you find yourself surrounded by people following the same health regimen, you must ask yourself one question: “Am I in a cult?” If you’re doing CrossFit or hot yoga, we’ll joke that the answer’s yes, but the answer really was yes if you were one of the followers of August Engelhardt, a German living on a South Pacific island in the first decades of the 20th century. His cult was called Sonnenorden, the Order of the Sun. They worshiped the Sun, and they ate one food: the coconut. “The coconut is the Philosopher's Stone,” said Engelhardt.
Today, people assign the coconut all kinds of healing properties, none of which are backed up by science. Coconuts really are remarkably bad for you, as fruits go. The oil is like lard, only with much more saturated fat, which means eating coconut offers many of the downsides of eating meat without any of the benefits. Engelhardt’s cult went further than any coconut proponent today as well, by eating coconuts and absolutely nothing else.
Coconuts grow high on the tree, noted Engelhardt, which means it’s close to the holy Sun, and close to God. It’s also shaped like a human head, which makes it naturally a part of us all. Eat a coconut, and you were eating the flesh of God, said he. His island, in what’s today Papua New Guinea, was rife with malarial mosquitos, but Engelhardt said coconut oil stops malaria far better than the standard preventative drug people took. He certainly didn’t behave as though he feared mosquitos. He walked the island completely naked.
Coconuts offered no protection against any disease, and malaria killed several cult members. The rest suffered from malnutrition or even starvation. The German governor of the island banned the cult, and Engelhardt himself dropped down to just 66 pounds at the end of his life. We don’t have records of exactly how he died, but we like to imagine that afterward, his remaining disciples chopped him up and placed his remains in Mounds bars, as he would have wanted.
Vitamin E Injections Killed So Many Babies
Many people think that vitamins supercharge your body, and a multivitamin on top of a healthy diet gives you magic powers, or at least marginally improves your health. This misunderstands how vitamins work, and indeed how all nutrients work. Vitamins are essential, true. If you lack enough vitamins, you’ll get sick. Extra vitamins beyond your regular needs, however, confer no benefits. If anyone shows up at your place of work offering to hook up the staff with some primo vitamin IV packs, we recommend you turn them down and just eat a good meal.
In 1984, however, vitamin IVs served a different customer: newborn babies. These infants couldn’t get their vitamins from food because they couldn’t eat. They couldn’t even absorb doses sent into their stomachs via liquid down a tube. Injections into muscles weren’t an option either, since these premature babies had no deltoids to speak of. But they did have veins, and so, hospitals turned to E-Ferol, a preparation of Vitamin E to be administered intravenously.
The FDA had not approved E-Ferol. They didn’t need to, as vitamins aren’t really food or drugs (the agency regulates dietary supplements but doesn’t approve or reject them). Since E-Ferol was not a federally approved drug, it was also apparently immune from the usual requirements whereby drugmakers have to disclose when their product kills people. E-Ferol started killing dozens of babies, by messing with their kidneys and livers. Again: You have to perform clinical tests to prove a drug is safe and effective before hospitals can use it like this, but this was not a drug.
By the time E-Ferol went off the market, it had killed some 80 infants. The government fined the company, and a couple executives did go to prison. Decades later, long after the company had folded, their insurers were still paying out another $110 million in a class-action lawsuit to E-Ferol babies who hadn’t died but who’d grown into adults — adults who now need annual checkups to see if their insides haven’t been ravaged by dormant vitamin tonics.
Sometimes, it just feels more medical to pour something into your body through unusual means. It’s why an IV feels more medical than drinking, and other routes can feel more medical still. For example, we all know it would be silly to inject yourself with bleach. That would surely risk killing you. But what if — bear with us here — you instead insert the bleach right through your anus?
In the 1910s, a Florida family founded what they called the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, which was sometimes referred to as the Church of Bleach. They were peddling a Miracle Mineral Supplement (MMS), a solution of the industrial bleaching agent chlorine dioxide. MMS, they said, was a sacramental drink, but for quicker results, you should take it as an enema. The Grenon family claimed it could cure Alzheimer’s and cancer and could also cure autism, by killing the intestinal parasites they believed caused the disease.
The previous paragraph contained one lie, sorry. This didn’t happen in the 1910s. It happened in the 2010s. The leader of this church was arrested last year, and people continue to believe in the healing power of ass bleach even today.
Caring mothers describe on Facebook the process of funneling bleach into their kids. “Here's a tip: use lots of oil,” posted one mom concerned about lube while giving her son enemas every day. As proof of the process’ efficacy, these parents point to what comes out of their children a while after the treatment. These are strings of organic material that they call “rope worms.” These are the autism parasites, observe the parents.
No, they’re not autism parasites. But they may be their children’s intestinal lining, which the corrosive bleach ripped out.
The Starvation Diet
Clearly, lots of things you put into your body can harm you. Maybe the answer then is to put nothing into your body at all. That was the word preached by Linda Hazzard, a self-proclaimed doctor from the 1910s (really the 1910s this time, we promise). Hazzard said anything bad that can happen to the body ultimately results from food. To spread this doctrine, she received a license from the state of Washington as a “fasting specialist,” a position that did not exist other than through her.
If you checked in to Hazzard’s sanitarium, you would eat nothing for weeks — other than vegetable broth, which is even less capable of sustaining a human being than coconuts. You would receive scalding baths. You would receive violent enemas, a perennial favorite for people with a shitty understanding of human health. You would waste away, and if you did not leave, you would die. The lack of food did not kill you, Hazzard would insist. Some other defect killed you. Perhaps you were previously sick, or perhaps your parents gave you drugs when you were young. If you died, it meant you were so damaged already that even the powerful fasting cure could not save you.
Some quack remedies are slung by true believers (August Engelhardt followed his own scriptures till they killed him). Some are slung by con artists (the Grenons made over $1 million selling bleach). Dr. Hazzard was a con artist. Not only did she let people die in her care, she benefited greatly from these deaths. Over and over, she’d get people to sign over their fortunes to her and her husband, then she’d kill them slowly, under the guise of treating them. The very grounds of the sanitarium had belonged to one of her victims before she killed him. One time, Hazzard delivered a report on a patient to a relative while wearing clothes taken from the patient’s sister, who’d already starved to death.
At least 15 people died thanks to Hazzard’s ministrations. One of these deaths (the patient whose clothes she’d appropriated) earned her a manslaughter conviction. She served just a couple years and went on to open a second fasting sanitarium, and once she reached her 70s, Hazzard finally gave fasting a try herself. The attempt quickly killed her.
Hey, looks like someone can be a con artist and a true believer.
Eel in the Rectum
The time has come again for us to discuss people putting stuff in their butts. The item we're looking at now is among the worst things anyone could put up their butts, as it has sharp teeth.
In 2017, a man entered a Chinese hospital and revealed he had inserted a live eel into his rectum and needed help extracting it. He had been suffering from constipation, he said, and he’d turned to this folk remedy in hopes of loosening those obstinate bowels. You have every reason to be skeptical of the explanation he offered. Normally, when a patient shows up in the hospital with something up their butt, anything they say is just a cover story for their sexual experimentation.
However, we in fact have multiple cases of men going to Chinese hospitals suffering from colon eels and saying they’d aimed to cure their constipation. Here's one from 2021, and here’s one from 2020. The 2020 one has photos, which we’ll avoid sharing here. These patients all offer the same excuse, which doesn’t necessarily prove they’re telling the truth about their motives but does suggest that the idea of a live eel constipation cure is now an established concept.
Rectal eels have a long history. Literature from the 16th century all the way to the 19th century talks about the practice of putting live eels in the rectums of horses, to perk them up and make them more attractive to buyers. A lively horse was said to “carry its tail well,” and when a horse was too old or sick to do so naturally, a little eel crawling through touchy regions did the trick. The process was called feaguing.
At some point, it seemed logical that if butt eels inspired such reactions from horses, they may well provide some notable sensations in humans, too. Experiments to test this rarely end well. In 2010, when a man in China got drunk at a party, his friends guided into him an eel measuring almost two feet long. It bit its way through his intestines and killed him. The death was unfortunate, but everyone still agreed that was one hell of a party.