“We can cure Cancer and other tumors without the use of knife. By our methods Cancers are removed without leaving a scar and they never return.”
- The Bauserman Cancer Cure Sanitarium, Excelsior Springs, 1900
“It is neither scientific nor attractive to medical men to advertise a water as ‘curative of stomach diseases; of kidney diseases; of blood diseases.’… if a water Is advertised to cure ‘stomach diseases,’ it should cure all pathological conditions of the stomach, including cancer of the stomach, etc. Just what we are to understand by ‘blood diseases’ I am by no means certain.”
- A letter filed by the Chicago Clinic and Pure Water Journal to Charles Fish, manager of the Excelsior Springs Bottling Company, 1906
The question wasn’t whether or not the mineral waters of Excelsior Springs could cure a person of illness but whether or not the town could afford a negative answer. There were costs involved. Infrastructure & advertisements, reputations & investments. The population was growing. The spas were turning into clinics were turning into admittance sanitariums. The bottling company won gold at the 1893 & 1904 World’s Fair for their Regent Spring water as well as their Soterian Ginger Ale. The question isn’t whether or not the town’s business interests had any warning that the end was coming but whether or not they could afford to heed it.
You could close your well or your spa, but someone else would replace you. Like when Relief Spring was closed down & the folks who re-opened it a few years later—investors from Kansas City, a reverend, a professor, and a doctor—built the Salax Spring and Relief Spring Pavilion. There was too much money in the waters. That’s the thing about stories in the Midwest: you sink your whole life into the fiction to make a foundation for it. So to compete with the well down the street you start claiming that the water on your site can cure an increasing number of medical vagaries. You start printing ads that position your water as a cure for terminal illnesses and chronic pain. And when folks outside the bubble warn you, you put that letter in a drawer and you carry on.
Excelsior Springs attracted more and more visitors at the same time that the “clean living movement” was appealing itself to American whiteness. Cleanliness being a moral state. Some of the same doctors and scientists extolling the moral and physical virtues of vegetarianism or water treatments or abstinence from masturbation (John Harvey Kellogg, the Carnegie Institution, etc.) were also crafting new forms of race science, like phrenology, to justify white supremacy. There’s no separating the clean living movement from the eugenics movement. They are springs that share the same aquifer: purity.
All commercial waters in Excelsior Springs began to not only be categorized by mineral composition, but tested for mineral purity. How many milligrams of each mineral. How many ounces of the virginal spring. How many bottles to buy before you’re clean. How much to drink to keep yourself white.
These waters are ancient treatments, and they are effective. This town could have been a place of healing, just as it once was a place of healing long before it was a town. White settlers sunk their whole lives into the fiction that they discovered these waters. And in their genocide of the Sac and Fox Nation and the Missouria and the Osage that their fiction required, they never learned how to use the waters. They learned these springs as sites of extraction, not renewal. They really just learned how to turn water into coin; a parlor trick with an inevitable expiration.
In 1963, journalist Ralph Lee Smith wrote a story for the Saturday Evening Post titled “The Hucksters of Pain.” It was an expose of the fraudulent health claims and practices at the Ball Clinic. The article made no comment about the waters. What did Ball Clinic in was its diagnoses of “fibrositis” and its radio wave treatments and alkaline diets and spinal adjustments—pointless treatment techniques discredited by the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation—and Ball Clinic closed down within a year of the story’s publication, soon to be followed by nearly every single greedy spa and sanitarium in town.
I wonder if the town was able to breathe then. Just for a moment, did Excelsior truly take a deep, relaxed breath? The lie was found out. There was no more money to protect. Nobody had to pretend anymore. When I stopped pretending to be a man my body moved in the ways it was always supposed to. Years of new possibility stretched before me and I walked forward, light of foot. Excelsior Springs had this chance too. The Midwest has the opportunity each and every day to correct itself, and chooses not to. Excelsior’s tourism is reliant upon nostalgia. The town puts on an annual festival called Gatsby Days, in which residents and visitors are encouraged to unironically dress in their Roaring Twenties best & celebrate the days of flourish. Many kids graduating from Excelsior Springs High School have wondered if the town leadership has ever actually read The Great Gatsby.
Excelsior Springs has an award-winning, forward-thinking public high school now (if not quite so when I was attending). Excelsior Springs has shops opening up downtown again. Excelsior Springs has a new craft brewery. Excelsior Springs has its own coffee roaster and The Elms Hotel has new ownership and The Excelsior Springs Standard is a superb newspaper and the town has some engaged residents working on revitalization and community involvement. But I’m still uneasy when I come back to visit my dad or come back for a funeral or a wedding. The town’s economy might be moving forward but its exclusionary cultural and political values—the rank bigotry—are thriving. And there’s a growing sense that Excelsior’s particular history of settler colonialism, racism, fiction, and fraud are, well, funny. A joke to profit from. The new craft brewery is named “Dubious Claims Brewing Company.”
Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, and now Philadelphia. They are the author of Hall of Waters (The Operating System). Their essays and poems appear in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Barrelhouse, and The Wanderer, among other publications. They are a 2019 nominee for the Krause Essay Prize. When they aren't reading submissions as Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.