Proper snake oil salesmen are a dying breed. Time was, travelling grifters with lotions and tonics to cure what ails you were as commonplace as deaths from diseases they claimed to cure. Depictions in pop culture of Victorian-era or Wild-Western vendors of elixirs and tinctures with exotic and wonderous names – and even more glorious claims – are now ubiquitous to the point of cliché. They even show their face in the Cher song ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves‘ (interestingly enough, in combination with evangelicism: ‘Papa would do whatever he could / Preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good’ – more of which later).
However, you might say they don’t make them like they used to – while bullshit inevitably still bobs to the surface and the desperate and willing are still taken for their money by sham products, the claims have tended towards a more reserved, vague, wishy-washy and intangible nature. No longer will a smiling charlatan claim to cure you, instead they’ll ‘boost your immune system’ or ‘increase your energy’ or something equally weasel-worded, to avoid making solid and testable claims, and mitigate the potential for angry customers – after all, while the hucksters of yore could back up their medicine cabinet and hop on the first stage coach out of town before their victims smelt a rat, in today’s world it’s far harder to disappear without a trace, and far more lucrative not to have to. Quackery got marketing savvy, you might say. As such, snake oil – with it’s extravagant names and bold claims – has fallen to the wayside.
Or so I thought. However, I was given cause to reassess this line of rationale – if not nostalgia for a time when pseudoscience was so potentially transparent – when I first encountered Jim Humble, and his ‘Miracle Mineral Solution‘. With a name most Wild-Western-novelists would shun for being somewhat lazily ironic, and a product whose miraculous monicker is matched only by it’s catalogue of cures, it seemed to me like we had a genuine snake oil salesman on our hands. Initial reports of MMS and Jim’s activities did nothing to dissuade me – while we’re now well-acquainted with the experiences of Rhys Morgan when highlighting the dangers of the solution in ‘treating’ Crohn’s disease, it was reports from Martin Robbins (not least in the Guardian) and the blogger Noodlemaz which most solidified my preconception of our Humble salesman.
It’s also what convinced me I had to try and get an interview with him.
For readers who don’t know, and I can perfectly understand that there may be plenty, I co-host the Righteous Indignation podcast. On the show, we’ve often had guests who are themselves proponents of a belief traditionally considered pseudoscientific, and we give them the space and open forum to put across their case, which we debate in polite but often firm tones. It was this offer I emailed to Jim – a friendly-yet-firm forum, and the chance to put forward the case for MMS. I must admit, I submitted the interview request half in jest, so it was an enormous surprise to me when he agreed to speak to us.
Up until this point, my knowledge of Jim was reasonably superficial, so I set about getting to know more about him and my research turned up nothing to disavow me of the belief that Jim may well be a knowing conman. Aside from having claimed to treat hundreds of thousands, with notable claims to cure cancer in a matter of weeks, reverse and eradicate AIDS in hours, and to protect from malaria so efficiently as to render mosquito nets and repellent useless.
Other areas of Jim’s beliefs stood out to me just as much – like the clichéd conman in Cher’s song, Jim too was not averse to ‘preaching a little Gospel’: earlier this year, Jim set up the Genesis II church, with himself as head. Explaining the church in April, Jim was clear as to the purpose:
“Another purpose of this church is to protect our members from vaccinations and other governmental oppression such as forced insurance.”
Using the Church to primarily train practitioners and administers of MMS, Jim clarified the value of this new religion:
“Completed Students (Ministers of Health) can add MH to the end of their names and if they join the Church they can also put Rev in front of their names. The two additions to your name may not mean much now, but someday it will command a great deal of respect… If you become a member you will have the protection of a world wide church. Governments will be a great deal less prone to bother you as a Minister of Health. When you finish our MMS course (one week of intense training) you can legally call yourself a Reverend and use Rev. in front of your name. I guarantee that within a couple of years Ministers of Health from our Church will be the most respected ministers in the world.”
Not content with implications that his church exists primarily to side-step tricky governmental interference, Jim explains a second role of the establishment:
“The next important thing we will do is to immediately start a protection fund in the church foundation in such a way that no agency can get to it. That has already been done. For the time being until we can get a better setup, the money will come in from sales, or from healing people, or just donations into my PayPal account and I will deposit it where no one knows and where it is and it will be divided out among a number of banks across the world where there is no way to trace it. This protection fund is meant for one purpose, to stand between our church members and those who would suppress them. This fund is to hire super lawyers, and marchers when needed, other experts to bring suits against those who would suppress our members. This fund will be use to bring suits and class action suits against anyone who is doing things that might impact the health of the people of earth in a negative manner or anyone who is interfering with our pastors.”
In what is a surprising move, Jim makes his reasoning for starting the Genesis II church even more transparent:
“Consider the power of the Catholic Church. They haven’t given their power up. They pay no taxes. Their priests have been molesting women and children for hundreds of years and the governments have never been able to stop it. That’s raw power! Don’t you agree?” (a claim Jim repeated in his monthly newsletter in April)
From my research before speaking to Jim, nothing had served to shake my preconceived view of Humble the snake oil salesman – I went into the interview prepared to dual with a slick, catchphrase-spouting snake-oil salesman with a polished and perfected sales pitch and a razor-sharp defence.
In reality, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
From his first few words to me, it was clear that Jim was a frail-sounding, almost sweet and slightly confused old man. Alternatively struggling for breath to speak and struggling to explain himself, pretty much everything Jim says in the interview – and I won’t spoil too much of it because I think it’s worth listening to Jim in full for this very reason – is either misleading, muddled or just plain wrong. Jim’s explanation of treating burns with MMS was a case in point – while, I’m no expert on burn injuries, it strikes me as beyond unlikely that the majority of the pain encountered is caused primarily by acid leaking from the wound (rather than the wound itself, the exposed flesh, and the involvement of nerves in the burn). It seems more unlikely still that the Sodium Chlorite of MMS would neutralise this acid completely, removing all pain, in just two applications over a 10 minute window. When I pointed out the edges of these doubts in the interview, Jim’s response was to suggest that there are things we’re not told about burn injuries – presumably a nod to a conspiracy, but a conspiracy I couldn’t begin to see the motivation behind.
What’s more, statements (some not included in this section of the interview) Jim makes about antiretrovirals, malaria prophylaxis, aspirin, the pharmaceutical industry, the FDA and other public health issues are downright dangerous. He spoke of diarrhoea – one of the common side-effects of extended use of MMS, and yet one of the biggest killers of children according to the World Health Organisation – as something MMS can be used to cure, claiming a 100% success rate, even in areas of the world where infant diarrhoea is a severe problem. Further, Jim told me he was able to cure HIV in just 3 weeks of hourly MMS use, and he’d personally treated around 800 people in Malawi alone. Follow-up sessions to ensure ongoing health of those treated were, of course, too expensive for Jim to maintain.
As amiable and friendly as Jim seemed to me, at a personal level, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if even a fraction of Jim’s numbers were correct, he could be responsible for a lot of suffering, and potentially a lot of deaths.
However, in speaking to Jim, I got the impression that he genuinely believes in what he sells. His tone throughout the interview isn’t the angry, offended, self-righteous voice of the knowing swindler (like, for example, Glenn Beck). Instead it was the frustration of the overlooked, the genuine inability to understand why his help was being thwarted and his cures ignored. In short, he’s wrong, but doesn’t know it.
Once the interview was finished, I sent the tape to Martin Robbins, and he was genuinely shocked by the way Jim came across – to his surprise, this nemesis figure, this dangerous quack spoke not with a bang, but with a whimper. Martin’s reaction, and my own confused feelings towards Jim, made me wonder – how often do we leap to the conclusion that someone is knowingly fraudulent, a genuine huckster, when in fact it’s perfectly possible that they’re utterly misguided and wrong, but honestly and well-meaningly so? When the figures of the potentially-harmed – not to mention the possibly-killed – could be so incredibly high, we tend to first assume that the man in the middle is a criminal mastermind or emotionless fraud. In a way, I think I almost would have preferred Jim to have been slick, unscrupulous, and hateful. It’s so much more comfortable when the bad things are being done by bad people. For one thing, it stops us having to ask the uneasy question – does intent REALLY matter? If Humble’s MMS has led to the premature deaths of 100 cancer patients, 1000 malaria sufferers, or even 10,000 AIDS victims, does the benevolence of his motivation change anything?
I’d argue it does – but the change is within us: if Humble was out simply to make money, we’d feel much more comfortable with painting him as the hate figure. Bad things by bad people. As it is, I’m merely left a little saddened.