Episode 43 - Brazilian Samba Dancing Nurses with Incredible Moustaches (Charlatans Week)
Updated: Apr 17
Sam's Episode Notes: The Fascinating tale of Dr Adolf Fritz, a man healing (or not) from beyond the grave.
I have a habit of doing this, and basically starting a week where we left off – so this week, Tom, I'm doing a ghost again. And a medium. But this is a rather different and rather odd story of a Brazilian urban legend which has resulted in hundreds of deaths and still does to this day - most by medical negligence and some, seemingly, by a curse.
This is the story of Dr Fritz – the fallen of WW1 who probably didn't exist, and CERTAINLY doesn't grant surgical powers to Brazilian con men.
Although lets be honest, it's not the first time a supposedly dead German has wound up in South America.
So, it's the late 1800s, and we are in Munich. What a happy day! Little baby Adolf is born. Is a phrase that will get you put on a list. But this is a different Adolf. Adolf Fritz. The most Germanic name in the world.
According to Fritz, his father suffered from asthma, and on the advice of his doctor, at a young age the family moved to Poland for the climate. Again, not the first time an Adolf has moved to Poland.
Fritz was forced to work to support the family and studied medicine in his spare time. The story goes that shortly before WW1 and just as he was about to graduate, a German General came into his office with his ill daughter, who very quickly died despite Fritz' efforts to save her. The General blamed him for her death and had him tried for murder – in jail he was allegedly tortured and so escaped and fled to Estonia, where he died in 1918. In another interview, Fritz said that bit didn't happen and he died as a German army medic in the trenches.
Why the different stories? Well, Tom, that's because these interviews with Fritz were conducted from beyond the grave, by Brazilian surgeons with no actual medical qualifications, claiming to be inhabited by the body of Dr Adolf Fritz.
The thing is, he never actually existed – there is no Dr Adolf Fritz of Munich or Warsaw on the German Army roll or electoral register from that period. In fact there's no evidence that anyone like this ever existed.
And yet, he's currently inhabiting the body of four or five faith healers in Brazil – where he's one of their most beloved and believed urban legends.
So is Dr Fritz the figment of overactive conmans imagination, or – as his supporters have claimed – a pseudonym created to protect the identity of the real surgeon? Who knows, Tom. Who knows. It's a fucking mystery I can tell you.
What is known is that Fritz waited a while between dying and taking up medicine again, because the first man he inhabited as far as we know is Zé Arigó, a faith healer active in the 1950s. Quite why there'd be a demand for German military surgeons in Brazil a few years after WW2 I've no idea.
But here he was – A great surgeon inhabiting the body of a former child-labouring miner who had only stayed in school until the age of eight or nine and could barely read or write. And this is a bit grim, Tom. Being very poor and not being able to afford specialised medical kits like scalpels, but also having a WW1 understanding of infection and medical treatments, Arigo would perform surgery during a supposed trance in which the doctor was inhabiting him... with rusty kitchen implements.
Now you might think people would steer clear of a guy with black lung and a breadknife, but you'd be wrong – he became famous throughout Brazil in the 1950s after apparently removing a tumour from a well-known senator. And thousands, THOUSASNDS of people who had lost their trust in traditional medicine flocked to see him at his clinic in the small city of Conghonas. He would write up nonsense prescriptions for unknown medicines that happened to only be available at one pharmacy – the one run by his brother nearby. He would also rarely actually perform operations – usually using a slight of hand to draw on cuts and stitches, or simply touching the problem area to make it better.
He was convicted of illegally practicing medicine in 1956 and jailed, but was quickly pardoned by the president of Brazil himself, and allowed to continue practising medicine. Presumably as a quick way of getting rid of political opposition.
Again, in 1962 he was arrested and jailed for seven months for unlicensed medicine, but was allowed to continue to treat inmates as a prison doctor. DESPITE BEING JAILED FOR NOT HAVING A LICENCE.
But it seems that 19th Century Germans aren't familiar with Brazilian driving laws, because in 1971, Arigo was killed in a car accident, as were the two men who claimed to be his successors as the spirits of Dr Fritz, Oscar and Edivaldo Wilde.
Yes, Oscar Wilde the famous Brazilian faith healer and medium.
So they both died in seperate car crashes.
Next came Edson Quieroz, actually a qualified gynecologist who clearly saw more money in fake medicine than the real stuff. From first being posessed in 1979, he treated hundreds of thousands people whilst masquerading as Adolf Fritz, whilst also claiming to be improving the surgical techniques by adding modern medicinal practice. He was so popular he had a staff of 80 working under him, and frequently performed surgery on up to 100 people at once, or over the phone. Unfortunately for the Gyneacologist slash faith healer, this incredible melding of cervical smears and trench medicine was tragically cut short with Quieroz was murdered in his home in the late 1980s.
further advancing the techniques of Arigó. He, too, met a violent death at the hand of a knife-wielding assailant – giving rise to the idea that not only is Dr Fritz a remarkable surgeon, his spirit is also cursed to lead to the deaths of those he inhabits. Which means they are sacrificing everything to help him heal, including their lives.
Which means they'd better put the prices up, eh?
And finally, we come to the big one: Rubens Farias Jr, who from 1986 has been practising as Dr Fritz out of a nightclub in the suburbs of Rio. Yes, by weekday it's a doctors' surgery, at the weekends, not so much. Although consultations with a foam cannon and tequila shots would certainly liven things up.
The former software developer apparently began to practice and allowed Fritz to inhabit his body in order to save his sick daughter, despite dire warnings from Fritz that it would lead to his own death.
He was incredibly popular, though, with over 800 people visiting him every day, including superman actor Christopher Reeve, and a claimed success rate of over 60%.
He would apparently adopt a corny German accent and yell at the line to schnell, schell when they moved too fast. Imagine badly impersonating a German, eh?
And it was going incredibly well for Farias, with millions in the bank, yachts, cars, and Miami penthouses, until his divorce in the late 90s in which his ex-wife started throwing around awful, horrible allegations, like... He's a tax evading conman. I mean my god, tax evasion sure, but not actually a healer? Have these people no gratitude?
When his surgery was raided, the security guard claimed that three people had died at the clinic and been transported to a local hospital in secret.
His wife's brother, who had been acting as his assistant, claimed he used a slight of hand to pretend to be injecting patients and doing surgery whilst never actually touching them, hence the fact they seemingly never – or very rarely - had any scar tissue or pain.
But oddly, more damaging for his reputation as a faith healer was that he was found to be in possession of over 1000 cases of actual medicine – antibiotics and the like. And so, shock horror, had actually been performing real medicine on some of his patients. People were actually furious at that!
Although it's believed he didn't always use the good stuff – most people who were given any form of actual injection were stuffed full of a mixture of iodine, alcohol and turpentine. Lovely.
So he ended up on trial for a mixture of murder, tax evasion, charlatanism and money laundering.
And yet, still, people believe in Dr Fritz. Even the investigating officer in the case was completely smitten with the story, telling the press: 'In my opinion I think that Dr Fritz does exist, but that Rubens Faria is doing things that he shouldn't'.
This was in 1999.
And do you want to know the good news? He was acquitted and still practices today – often in the USA though still from Brazil as well. And Brazilian health authorities are STILL trying to shut him down.
Although apparently his time may be up, Fritz told him he would be shot dead in the year 2000. So maybe he's broken the curse. Or maybe he's a lying charlatan prick, who knows?
Oh, and there are several other people who more recently claim to be Dr Fritz as well, claiming that, being dead and all, he's on a different spectral plain and can inhabit more than one body. For fucks sake.
Tom's Episode Nnotes:
The Piss Prophet, or Certain Piss-Pot Lectures
· Published 1637 by Thomas Brian
o It does very much sound like a Rock Band
§ Slash on lead guitar
§ Jimmy Riddle as manager
§ Bruce Tinklesteen
§ David Poowee
§ Tom Wetty?
o In this book he also refers to Piss Prophets as Piss Mongers (what a lovely term!)
Uroscopy; the practice of examining someone’s urine to establish the cause of sickness.
· Commonplace throughout history
· During this period, advancements in medicine were accelerating
o 1637 is at the end of the Renaissance and shortly before the Enlightenment
§ So a significant period in Western Europe’s intellectual development established ideas were being challenged in an increasingly rational and scientific way
o So during this period there were clashes between old superstitious nonsense and sceptical , science-based reasoning
§ As we explored last week, this battle between reason and bullshit was fought during the Victorian period and is still being fought today (ahem, apple cider vinegar, ahem, anti-vaxxers, ahem Netflix Veganism documentaries).
o During the first half of the 17th Century, uroscopy basically became alternative medicine and the subject of much satire
§ Including numerous references in Shakespeare
§ And including this tongue and cheek document from Thomas Brian
§ The very fact that it is the subject of satire hints at the popularity and prevalence of piss prophets at the time.
o Incidentally, uroscopy has been practiced for a long time; it was big in Ancient Greece.
§ At a simple level this makes sense; it’s something that comes out of your body and thus might possibly give an indication of what is going on inside. It’s also far easier to gather than farts and burps, and less smelly than turds.
· “Come on Grandad, you really need to fill that balloon for the doctor to be able to analyse your sickness” Phhffffffft.
o You know what old people are like around Doctors; very respecting; dressed smart, can’t be late, must produce plenty of gas on demand.
· If you let go of a balloon full of fart, would it make a double fart noise as it whizzed around the room?
§ Anyway, yes, so it’s been around for a long time. But remember people; just because something has been around for a long time, doesn’t make it automatically good; think Mel Gibson, Nickelback and the slab of cheese I ate for lunch. In fact, that’s a common trick used to give credibility to bullshit.
· Here, I’ve got some examples:
o Apple cider vinegar; Hippocrates
o Soranus of Ephesus; sneeze and squat after sex as a form of contraception
o Leeching; very old and not good
o Uroscopoligists actually had a wheel of urine to use when assessing
§ Like The Wheel of Fortune but nobody wins
§ And when you spin it’s like a wet Catherine wheel
· Wooooo! Ahhhh! Look Dad! A golden shower!
o It’s probably worth noting that in modern medicine, urine is still assessed for a few things.
§ Namely diabetes (I was told this example by a surgeon this week)
· In 1674, an English doctor named Thomas Willis described diabetic urine as “wonderfully sweet as if it were imbued with honey or sugar.”
· In fact, the term medical term diabetes mellitus, translates to something like ‘sweet pass through’
· Whereas the term diabetes insipidus translates as something like ‘pass through that is lacking zesty taste”
Right, I’ve given the background too much time. Let’s get to the source. I found the original document online, so written in Early Modern English, some 40,000 words in total.
· Now I put quite a bit of effort into this podcast Sam, but reading 40,000 words of Early Modern English was a bit much for me this week. My dedication has its limits. So I’ve chopped it back to the books preface and a few select chapters.
· Here’s Thomas Brian’s summary of the book (1)
· Brian states in the preface that he has used tricks in the past to make money. He uses the example of how he conned people into thinking that he can tell if a lady is pregnant based on her urine. In fact, he was simply using common-sense and cold-reading to make a prediction.
o His motive? To shed light on this charlatanism to hopefully stop people fooling for it.
· Cold-reading is key here. If someone comes to the piss-prophet with a sick person’s piss, the prophet tries to find out as much as possible before, subtly, before making a prediction.
o Here’s an example, the prophet establishes that the sick individual is very sick. He says that the piss is quite red, so the sick individual must be having a fever. Well that’s highly likely because most very sick people have a fever right?
§ The prophet will then describe, with apparent miraculous insightfulness, the common symptoms of fever
· Here’s a great sentence incidentally;
o “and that the stitch was nothing else but a flatuous and windie humour proceeding from thence”
· Once the prophet has got up a head of steam with the bullshit, the person who brought the piss will then start dropping hints regarding the sick individual
o This information is then used to predict, age, sex etc.
· To finish, the prophet makes a pessimistic prognosis and prescribes some medicine, this way, if the individual gets better, the prophet seems like a genius, if they die, he was right! Win win!
· Brian finished by giving you tips on who to visit if you are looking after someone who is sick: 1, 2, 3.