By Mark Gutglueck
Known as a charlatan and quack whose claimed medical license was absolutely bogus and his representation that he was a Methodist minister only slightly less dubious, Curtis Howe Springer nonetheless boasted a number of accomplishments, including an inadvertent contribution to San Bernardino County ichthyology and the creation of one of the county’s more obscure getaway spots.
A clever conman, Springer was a number of things throughout his 88 years of life. In the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s he was a prohibition crusader, radio evangelist, a Methodist minister, self-proclaimed physician and lecturer. Later he would be a homesteader and a developer. Along the way he made claims to being several other things in his past, such as a boxing instructor for the U.S. Army. It is difficult to verify some of those claims, at least a few of which are as potentially dubitable as his assertion that he held a medical license.
Springer was born on December 2, 1896, with most sources citing his birthplace as Wheeling, West Virginia.
Springer in his youth appears to have been filled with religious zeal, attaching himself to two of the leading Christian lights of the day. He worked as an advance man for William Jennings Bryan, drumming up crowds for Bryan’s speeches attacking “demon rum.” He signed on with Billy Sunday’s evangelical tours, selling sheet music before and during Sunday’s exhortations to the crowd that combined an “old doctrine of damnation” with oftentimes graphic warnings against engaging in sexual sin.
Springer claimed that he was a private in the United States Army, further recounting that in this capacity he taught boxing to his fellow inductees.
After World War I, Springer worked as a teacher in Florida. He married Mary Louise Berkebile, and in the 1920s, moved to Chicago where he was engaged with promoting an automotive technical school called Greer College. Springer was fired by 1930, and the school was forced into bankruptcy shortly afterward. Mary encouraged him to transition into the operation of health spas. In 1931, he founded the Haven of Rest health resort in Fort Hill, Pennsylvania.
Springer did not feel himself tied to the Fort Hill operation, however, and in the early 1930s, affixing variously M.D., N.D., D.O. or Ph.D. after his name, gave lectures throughout the midwestern United States, claiming at times to be the “Dean of Greer College,” or that he represented/attended the fictional institutions of the National Academy, The Springer School of Humanism, the American College of Doctors and Surgeons, Westlake College of West Virginia, and two non-existent osteopathy schools in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. These lectures began as “free” seminars, but part-way through his speech Springer would ask for donations, while further seeking to interest the attendees in $25 per session private psychoanalysis courses.
In the early 1930s, Chicago was essentially Springer’s home base. In the summer of 1934, upon his applying for airtime on WGN radio from which forum he intended to broadcast his lectures, his misrepresentations about himself were given their first major exposure. WGN contacted the American Medical Association’s Bureau of Investigations for background information regarding Springer, whereupon it was told that Springer was not a licensed physician. The American Medical Association, thereafter apprised of Springer’s falsified education record, notified the Better Business Bureau. Within weeks, Springer was being labeled as a notorious fraud and doctor-impersonator by the medical community. In the September 14, 1936 edition of Journal of the American Medical Association, an extensive article titled “Curtis Howe Springer: A Quack and His Nostrums” ran, cataloging in varying detail his ruses and schemes, together with his lack of education. “A most thorough search fails to show that Springer was ever graduated by any reputable college or university, medical or otherwise,” the article stated.
WGN refused to allow him on the air, but he nevertheless offered himself up as an evangelist and was able to broadcast twice daily from Chicago’s WCFL, beginning in 1934. He was a passionate supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and The New Deal, and he used his radio program to sell so-called medicine and medicinal remedies, most notably the antacid Re-Hib and Antediluvian Tea. Analyses done by the American Medical Association revealed the former to be little more than baking soda and the latter to be “a crude mixture of laxative herbs.”
In late 1935, Springer left Chicago and relocated to Pennsylvania, preaching on KDKA in Pittsburgh and setting up other health spas in Wilkes-Barre, Johnstown, and Mount Davis in Pennsylvania, as well as in Cumberland, Maryland and Davenport, Iowa.
In 1936 he lost the Haven of Rest spa in Fort Hill due to a tax lien.
At some point in the late 1930s or early 1940s, he separated from his first wife. By 1944, he had taken up with Helen Springer, whom he eventually married quite possibly without having first divorced Mary Louise. He and Helen had several children, including Curtis Jr., who later became a judge in Montgomery, Alabama, and a daughter, Marilou.
In 1944, Springer and Helen filed a 12,800-acre mining claim on federal land in the Mojave Desert at the remnants of an 1860s Army post and a railroad station on the defunct Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. He named the settlement, built on the shore of a dry salt flat, Zzyzx, asserting it was to be “the last word” in health. Originally consisting of 20 tents, Zzyzx was offered as haven to the denizens of Los Angeles’ skid row, whom Springer assured would be provided with meals, living quarters, hot showers and medical care in exchange for assistance in erecting the Zzyzx structures.
Inevitably, some of the more curious, or hungry, or down-and out, would allow themselves to be coaxed aboard Springer’s crusading bus, to be driven the 170 miles to their destination, where a no-alcohol policy was in force and where, indeed, no alcohol was available. That proved too much for many if not most of the volunteers, who then returned to Los Angeles when the bus departed three days later. Some, however, remained, completing the work begun on the concrete buildings and then became Springer acolytes and part of the Zzyzx staff, leading lives of sobriety and espousing the restorative grace of faith and the curative powers of mineral waters.
The main draw to Zzyzx was its hot springs and mineral baths, which in fact were artificial rather than natural, consisting of pools that Springer had built and supplied with water drawn from nearby Soda Springs that was first run through a boiler.
Using a succession of “guests” recruited from skid row and elsewhere, Springer was able to establish a sixty-room hotel, a church, a cross-shaped health spa with mineral baths, a radio broadcast studio, a private airstrip dubbed “Zyport” and several other buildings which included a castle. The entire development was riddled with loudspeakers, from which Springer’s sermons were bullhorned.
The “Boulevard of Dreams,” a divided parkway that ran through the middle of the project, lead to a real oasis in the area that Springer augmented with water from Soda Springs to create an artificial pond that was called Lake Tuendae, which was stocked with the Mohave chub, an endangered fish originally found only in the Mojave River.
During the building of the Zzyzx retreat, Springer spent a portion of his week in Los Angeles, where he would record his radio program, and rounding up workers to build his desert resort, which eventually was completed with the construction of an administrative building and chapel.
Once Zzyzx was completed, Springer and Helen took up residence there, from where he would broadcast his syndicated radio program, which at one point was carried by 221 stations in the United States and 102 more abroad. His program was a mixture of religious music and his own radio evangelism, which was heavy on admonitions against the use of alcohol and his expounding on the destructive energy of engaging in argument. The commercial breaks consisted of Springer’s appeals to this listening audience that they provide him with “donations,” in return for which he offered to send them his elixirs and special cures to treat all order of maladies, from halitosis, to hair loss to cancer. Springer’s potions were actually little more than a blend of celery, carrot and parsley juices.
Those who sojourned to Zzyzx Springs were provided with a diet that included goat milk; his old stand-by, Antedeluvian Tea; and a $25, self-administered hemorrhoid cure. But because man does not live by bread alone, visitors also were provided spiritual guidance from Springer’s twice-daily sermons heard by all in the resort by means of the omnipresent loudspeakers.
Lauding the curative powers of mineral water, Springer used Soda Springs to bottle water and soft drinks he sold to desert travelers passing near his paradise.
Springer did alright for himself and while the world was not, exactly, beating a path to the door of the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort, it attracted more than enough people – true believers, those convinced that the mineral baths and mineral waters offered bona fide pathways to a healthier life, those merely curious and the adventuresome – to keep it as a going concern.
In 1969, however, Springer again caught the attention of the American Medical Association, which anew took up the cause of exposing him, labeling him the “King of Quacks.”
In 1974, the federal government had reached the conclusion that the mining claim Springer and his wife had made in 1944 based on an 1872 mining law was bogus, and he was ordered off the Zzyzx property. When he didn’t budge, he was arrested by the United States Marshals Office for squatting and falsely advertising products like Mo-Hair, which he claimed was a cure for baldness. Springer was convicted of selling junk cures, but miraculously, perhaps because he was then 78 years old, spent only 49 days in jail. Springer and his followers were evicted from Zzyzx, and the property was reclaimed by the government.
Springer made his way to “Sin City,” Las Vegas, a curious choice for a man of the cloth, where he died on August 19, 1985, at the age of 88.
Zzyzx today is managed by the California State University System as a desert studies center where arid-climate, biological and archaeological research is conducted. Most of the concrete buildings still stand, repurposed as a research facility. Artificial Lake Tuendae, created by Springer and stocked with the Mohave tui chub, is now one of the few remaining habitats of that endangered species, perhaps Springer’s most important and beneficent legacy.
By Mark Gutglueck