Old school scammers and the king of quacksJun 23, 2023 01:22PM ● By Randal C. Hill
Phones, the internet and other technology have perpetrated fraud and scams, but scammers existed long before the digital age.
Motorists zooming between Los Angeles and Las Vegas today will pass a highway sign announcing a turnoff at Zzyzx (pronounced zy-zix) Road. Most drivers shoot past the isolated exit in their mad dash to Sin City. But those who take the road end up at the Desert Studies Center, part of the California State University system.
At one time, though, this place was a con artist’s personal paradise. Originally named Soda Springs, it was a long-deserted army fort deteriorating on the shore of a vast salt flat.
In 1944, Curtis Howe Springer, who claimed to be a minister and psychiatrist but was neither, convinced government officials to rubber-stamp his request for a 12,000-acre mining claim. He had explained that refining the salts there could provide possible health benefits. He also changed the name of the town to Zzyzx, a nonsense word he created in order to become the last listing in any phone book or dictionary.
To fulfill a utopian vision he had, Springer recruited homeless men from Los Angeles’ skid row, offering free round-trip bus rides, food and shelter in tents, in exchange for their labor. Eventually, the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort grew to include a 60-room hotel, recording studio, private airstrip, a cross-shaped swimming pool and a man-made lake. (Springer was able to tap the Mojave River, which flowed underground nearby.)
Much of his income came from donations generated by his popular evangelical radio broadcasts that aired on 221 stations in America and 102 overseas. On his taped half-hour shows, the charlatan merged a homespun philosophy, gospel recordings, “the facts about life and how to live it,” and the marketing of various health foods and cures.
And what cures they claimed to be! Miraculous powers were said to be had from a concoction of celery, carrots, turnips, parsley and brown sugar. A mixture of laxative herbs was sold as antediluvian tea. There were also curatives for everything from baldness to sore toes to cancer.
People were told to rub the area’s salts vigorously over their scalps, then bend over and hold their breath for as long as possible. The resulting flush on the cheeks and scalp proved the salts’ beneficial action—or so the quack claimed.
Some visitors, usually the elderly and handicapped, became full-timers after making “appropriate” donations to the Springer Foundation. Zzyzx residents soaked in mineral water and/or mud, basked in the sun and pursued a diet that included rabbit meat (rabbits were abundant in the area), fruit and ice cream. Twice a day, bombastic Springer sermons boomed over loudspeakers on the grounds.
In the late 1960s, officials learned that the fraud was marking building sites that he didn’t own and allowing people who donated large sums of money to erect houses there.
By 1974, Springer was kicked off the premises. He died in Las Vegas at age 88 in 1985, his name and misdeeds probably still bringing a scowl to a few elderly faces.