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Albany’s E.F. Lee was Oregon’s first fake-viagra  scammer

Local swindler's anti-impotence scam brought him and his company to national attention; but it wasn't until he added a quack birth-control remedy to his line that he was busted and jailed for his fraud.

This hefty advertisement ran in the Sumpter Miner in 1900, offering “weak men” (a euphemism for “impotent men”) a chance to try restoring their virility with Sanden Electric Belt. These devices tried to tap the same market Edward F. Lee’s scam was working. (Image: University of Oregon libraries)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article, about a 1910s scammer hawking a patent remedy for erectile dysfunction, quotes directly from some of the scammer’s advertising  materials. These quotes contain anatomical references which, while by no means obscene, make for rather awkward reading.

Not much is known about Edward F. Lee, the Albany-based swindler sent up the river for mail fraud in 1919. In fact, Edward F. Lee may not even have been his real name; he may have assumed it as an alias to encourage people to confuse him with a highly respected and trusted Seattle-area businessman and shipbuilder of the same name.

Lee’s career as a huckster started out relatively mildly. In the early 1910s, his small classified ads frequently appeared in the Portland Morning Oregonian’s business section, and their content was only slightly scammy. “$8 EVERY DAY selling ORANGEADE POWDER, the new drink,” reads one from May 1915. “It’s the craze; everybody buys; sample package 10 cents; makes a gallon; send today: EDWARD F. LEE, Kennewick, Wash.”

Of course, 10 cents was a lot of money to pay in 1915 for a packet of Kool-Aid powder, but it’s not against the law to charge high prices.

This carefully coded advertisement appeared in the first issue of “Weird Tales,” a pulp-fiction magazine, in 1923. It uses “delay” as a code word for “possible pregnancy.” (Image: Weird Tales Magazine)

That can’t have been all he was doing, though, because in 1916 Spokane County authorities arrested him for committing fraud through the mails. His advertisements in the Oregonian stopped for a time, and the next time they reappeared in the Oregonian, they were slightly different:

“VALUABLE FORMULAS and trade secrets. List free. EDWARD F. LEE, Albany, Oregon.”

These formulas, such as they were, included recipes for home production of liquor, which had been outlawed in Oregon several years previously. But that wasn’t what got Lee in trouble with the law – that would come from the other ads he was running at the same time, in publications far distant from Lee’s new home city of Albany. Ads like this one, quoted without attribution in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s report on his case:

“MEN OF ALL AGES—STOP GROWING OLD. You can recover and retain your youthful vigor and vitality without dangerous drugs and appliances. OUR NEW METHOD tells how. Send for free letter. The P. Presto Company, Albany, Oregon.”

This ad was, as you have likely guessed, a carefully coded appeal to men suffering from erectile dysfunction. At the time, ministering to this cohort of men was an extremely profitable and popular line for scammers of all types. For many men of that era, impotence was almost a fate worse than death; it was a severe blow to their masculine pride. They were desperate enough to try nearly anything in quest for a cure. And, even better, erectile dysfunction was a disease that most commonly struck affluent men in their 50s and 60s – meaning they’d have plenty of money to throw around to find that cure.

The hucksters rose to the occasion, peddling everything from fake folk remedies to the “electric belts” that were supposed to jolt men’s reproductive apparatus back to life. There was even a quack surgeon in Little Rock, Arkansas, who offered to surgically implant a piece of a goat’s testicle in patients.

Patients who had suffered from ingesting dangerous drugs or blasting their most sensitive parts with electrical current read Lee’s advertisement with considerable interest. And better yet, the price was right; so many of them took the time to write a letter to Lee requesting more information.

In response, he would send them a form letter. In this letter, Lee described the benefits of his remedy in much blunter language:

“Safe and sane and scientific, it is what every young, middle-aged or old man should know, as our system will enlarge, lengthen and strengthen the organs, making the weak strong and the strong stronger, and bring back the firmness of youth unlike any other method.”

The letter then announced that the price of the treatment was $2, but the patient need only send half the money up front. Upon receipt of the first dollar, Lee would mail the “copyrighted new method” to the patient with a bill for the remaining dollar, to be paid only if the patient was 100 percent satisfied.

In point of fact, Lee never expected to see that second dollar from his patients. When they took his bait, here’s what they received in the mail from him:

“To build up, to strengthen and increase the blood and nerve supply to the testicles, they should be stretched by placing one hand on each side of the scrotum above the testicles, and stretch them (the testicles) away from the body, moving the hands from side to side in a swaying motion while pulling. The above treatment frees the circulation in the many feet of arteries, veins, etc., and causes a strong flow of blood and nerve force to the parts. Stretch the penis the same way. Also stretch the skin of the scrotum strongly with the tips of the fingers. Above treatment should also be used for variococele, but should be given quite gently at first.”

It gets worse:

“Should the impotency have been caused by prostate gland enlargement,” Lee’s letter continues, “anoint the first (index) finger in Vaseline or mild oil and, inserting the finger in the rectum, manipulate well the prostate gland, which lies right in front of the rectum and behind the lower portion of the bladder.”

Lee might as well have saved himself some ink and simply written, “Thanks for the dough, sucker. Better luck next time.” And, in fact, he probably could have done exactly that, in perfect safety. No man who sent away for a patent cure for impotence would ever dare to say a word about it.

But Lee’s downfall seems to have come from a different product: a compound he called “Vivian,” which he was selling as a birth-control product. Birth control of any kind was, in 1919, against the law; but it was widely practiced, and there wasn’t nearly as much social stigma associated with it as there was with impotence. Women who were swindled with a sugar-pill birth control formula could not be depended upon to keep their mouths shut about it.

And so it was that Edward F. Lee found himself, on August 4, 1919, facing a federal judge after having been found guilty of misuse of the mails.

Lee’s attorney, of course, tried his best to get his client a decent deal – but the prosecution had an ace up its sleeve: The prosecutor had found out about Lee’s conviction for mail fraud up in Spokane County.

Now knowing he was dealing with a repeat offender, Judge Wolverton threw the book at him, sending Lee to serve an 18-month sentence in federal prison.

What became of him after his release I have been unable to learn.

(Sources: Cramp, Arthur J. Nostrums and Quackery. Chicago: Press of American Medical Assoc., 1921; Portland Morning Oregonian, 5/09/1915, 7/15/1917, 3/02/1919, 7/29/1919 and 8/05/1919)