Cincinnati’s Phenomenal Phraud

Among Cincinnati’s old-time medical charlatans, Max Kraus was the worst (or the best).


This magazine publishes its annual Top Doctors issue in January. Our editors tell me it’s usually the year’s best-seller, which is why I’m going to do them a favor and unpack this story now, in June—a nice, safe six months away.

The Very Bottom Doctor of Cincinnati—he scraped the bottom and then dug even deeper—began “serving” our community in 1909. He had been running his con in other towns and then upped his game by employing the word that made him famous: phenomenal. Phenomenal Kraus! Definitely a name with more punch than dull, ordinary Max Kraus—and punch was what he wanted.

The marketing stunt worked, too, as that name would later appear in Cincinnati’s many newspapers almost every day. Read all about it! The blind can see, the lame can walk! Phenomenal Kraus introduces his revolutionary Electrogenics! Suffering patients wept with gratitude after their diseases were instantly cured onstage. The glows and sparks from amazing electrical devices closed the sale. Devices such as—I’m not making these up—the Kraus Obsono-Radio Magnetic Force Solenoid, the Kraus Diagraphoscope, the Spygmomanometer, and the Paro Radio Trans Luminant! Let’s call it electro-shtick therapy.

Worshipful stories about Phenomenal Kraus ran nonstop in the papers. We should note that Dr. Kraus was simultaneously purchasing dozens of enormous ads in the same papers, so perhaps the uniformly fawning reports may have been less than journalistically objective. Maybe it was also just a coincidence that his visit duplicated many earlier stays in other cities: the same carpet-bombing of newspaper ads, the same “reports” that matched almost word for word.

Phenomenal Kraus had some History in Cincinnati. Back in 1895, when he was just Max, he came here and married a girl from Mt. Auburn named Reta Daley. Max was already calling himself a “physician” then, but his new persona wasn’t complete. Researching his next decade in the news, I couldn’t find any stories about him getting arrested.

The fully formed Phenomenal Kraus would die of embarrassment if he weren’t arrested. It was essential to his image that he declare victimhood at the hands of Big Doctor—those fat-cat medical associations that feared his revolutionary inventions. Kraus was put in handcuffs almost everywhere he went, and he loved it. Reta, both wife and accomplice, stood by him. She excelled at luring a crowd by performing songs and comedy sketches during the free entertainment that preceded her husband’s medical song and dance.

Kraus achieved his first media martyrdom in July 1904, getting busted in Michigan for practicing medicine without a license. While he hadn’t yet perfected the doctor’s bag of bullshit that would make him infamous throughout nine states, his legal strategy was solid from the start: Always have one or more real licensed physicians by your side. It is they who perform the actual treatments, your honor, while I merely diagnose patients with my wondrous electrical devices. I therefore require no medical license.

This defense worked. At worst, Kraus might have to pay court costs and promise to never come back. Despite dozens of arrests, he rarely spent more than one night in jail. His real crimes—skipping out on massive bills, bilking gullible suckers, and probably killing some of them with his X-rays and worthless potions—went unpunished as he and Reta vanished to the next targeted town.

Soon after the 1904 acquittal came his official name change to Phenomenal Kraus, and the show shifted into high gear. Eventually he could afford to introduce himself to a town by just riding in and tossing money out into the street. Does your doctor do that?

Phenomenal Kraus tore through cities in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and more. The troupe performed vaudeville, and the doctor performed miracles—that’s why America called these things “medicine shows.” After five years of rolling through the Midwest, Phenomenal and Reta were at the top of their game, and in 1909 they decided to bring their scam to her hometown.

They arrived in Cincinnati in mid-autumn. The Reds had just finished the season in fourth place. Local boy William Howard Taft was in first place: President of the United States.

On October 24, Phenomenal Kraus launched his operation, which by now was flawless. First, throw money at all the local newspapers a few days before the first show and make sure they understand that the ad dollars will instantly stop if any complaints get printed. Second, stage free music and comedy that attracts crowds, who will then gasp at your amazing medical prowess. Third, promise long-term miracles from your various bottles and boxes of medicines, for sale right over there, folks! Fourth, declare your sudden arrest to be proof that those so-called medical experts—the real crooks!—want to keep ordinary people from knowing the truth about your revolutionary methods.

Cincinnati police arrested Phenomenal Kraus a few days before Christmas. He issued his standard defiant statement and continued the shows while delaying his court case. But then something went wrong. Reta was seen running up Elm Street screaming for help and jumped into someone’s car; Kraus drove up and accused Reta of making off with his money; a chase ensued, and Reta escaped. At this point I advise you to strap yourself in, because the story now splatters into numerous droplets of total insanity.

Reta runs off to Kansas City and files for divorce. It is granted, but an hour later the judge realizes Reta hasn’t lived there long enough and revokes it. Back in Cincinnati, two Kraus doctors have their licenses revoked. Kraus disappears. He later reappears with Reta, apparently reconciled, running their usual scam in Streator, Illinois.

Kraus then slinks to nearby Joliet and marries Violet, a young girl from his music troupe (possibly too young). She has a son exactly eight months later. Kraus abandons them. Destitute Violet gives her baby to a Cleveland couple and, when in court trying to get him back, is refused because she’s overdressed. She later wins custody. Phenomenal Kraus, meanwhile, seems to have peaked in Cincinnati; the Streator show fades quickly, and then nothing. The whereabouts of Just Plain Max Kraus Again are spotty from here on.

In Los Angeles, Kraus is arrested for stalking a young woman. He’s declared legally insane and sent to an asylum, with all expenses covered by his brother. Sorry, have I forgotten to mention Max’s brother? I hope you’re still strapped in. Abe Kraus is a different kind of phenomenal—so wealthy that the San Francisco Stock Exchange closes in his honor when he dies. Many mourners gather at the funeral, silently hoping to get a piece of Abe’s formidable estate, but then his wife arrives. They all exclaim, “Wait, Abe had a wife?”

The marriage apparently has been a secret for 38 years, and Lucy Kraus has the paperwork to prove it. At the reading of Abe’s will (insert lyric from that Taylor Swift song here), the formerly Phenomenal Max Kraus—who might have been released from the asylum but, what the hell, maybe he escaped—shows up and demands a phenomenal piece of Abe’s pie. He is physically ejected from the proceedings.

You may now unstrap. A few months later, the death certificate for Max Julius Kraus listed his occupation as “X-Ray demonstrator.” Considering that he stood onstage next to that thing for decades, it’s no surprise that cancer killed him. Reta became a beauty consultant in San Francisco, selling cosmetics and conducting beauty counseling based on her (fabricated) background as assistant to a famous cosmetologist.

One final thing: Remember Violet and her son, whom Klaus abandoned? While researching this story, I unexpectedly connected with the son’s granddaughter. She had done some DNA research and is pretty sure Klaus did not father that son. It looks like Violet snagged a moneyed husband by working her own con job on the great and magnificent Phenomenal Kraus. You just can’t trust some people.

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